Sonny Bono was one half of the folk duo Sonny & Cher, a Republican Congressman from California and the wearer of a notable mustache. He’s less well-known for his connection to copyright law.
In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, sponsored and named by his widow, Congresswoman Mary Bono, who took her late husband’s seat in the House that year, prolonged the copyright protection for works made before 1978 from 75 to 95 years. (Disney lobbied for the bill; and critics nicknamed it the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, believing the legislation’s real goal was to save the studio’s avatar from the pincers of the public domain for an extra two decades.) Because the law took effect in 1999, 2019 marks the first year that work given this extension will enter the public domain, available for the masses to adapt, publish, display or reinterpret. The inaugural entries come to us from the year 1923.
1923 was not so monumental a year as the one that preceded it, which brought us the modernist classics “Ulysses,” “Jacob’s Room” and “The Waste Land,” but it does have its share of treasures. Here’s a small sampling of what the trove, available for public tinkering as of midnight January 1, 2019, has to offer.
Cecil B. Demille’s silent epic “The 10 Commandments” is now enshrined in our creative commons, as is Frank Borzage’s film “The Nth Commandment.” German-born Jewish director Ernst Lubitsch’s first Hollywood film, “Rosita” has also been released along with “The Little Napoleon,” a comedy that marks the screen debut of Marlene Dietrich.
“The Dangerous Age,” a drama by Jewish filmmaker John M. Stahl — whose 1945 film “Leave Her to Heaven” entered the Library of Congress late last year — is also free under the expired copyright. Unfortunately, we’ll be left wanting Stahl’s “The Wanters” his other film from 1923, as all its prints are believed to be lost.
The song “Who’s Sorry Now?” with music by Ted Snyder and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Rubin, featured in the Marx Brothers’ 1946 flick “A Night in Casablanca,” is also newly copyright-free, as is “That Old Gang of Mine” with music by Ray Henderson and lyrics by famed theater impresario Billy Rose and Mort Dixon. In their company is “I Cried for You” a hit by Gus Arheim and Abe Lyman with lyrics by a young Arthur Freed, the soon-to-be king of MGM’s Golden Age musicals. Unfortunately, Frank Silver and Irving Cohen’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” an eminently awful novelty song that appears in a baffling number of celebrated films, has also been unleashed on a public likely already tired of it.
In literature, Sigmund Freud’s “The Ego and the Id” is tempting; alas, only the original German text is covered under the Bono-fied legislation. “Bambi, A Life in the Woods” by Felix Salten, the subject of its own copyright dispute with Disney, is also available in the original German, as is Joseph Roth’s novel “Das Spinnennetz” (“The Spider’s Web”), which presciently assessed the violent anti-Semitism experienced by German Jews. And Man Ray’s metronome sculpture “Object to Be Destroyed” is part of the hoard, too — or what’s left of it, seeing as in 1957 a group of Parisian students took the artwork’s title as a directive.
The bounty of 1923 also brings into the public domain a number of significant works by artists just beginning to refine their craft. Virginia Woolf’s short story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” which anticipates her 1925 masterpiece “Mrs. Dalloway,” is now free to all, as is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” required reading of every American middle schooler.
Meanwhile, “Our Hospitality” and “Three Ages” by Buster Keaton and “The Pilgrim” and “A Woman of Paris” by Charlie Chaplin show the early promise of the directors, whose best films were yet to come. “Cameo Kirby” by Western legend John Ford is also free for reference and pastiche; unfortunately, the four other films Ford made in 1923 have been lost or partially lost. Ford’s first major movie, “The Iron Horse,” would come out the following year. Don’t worry, we’ll get our hands on that one shortly: 2020 will see the release of 1924’s cultural gems, including the aforementioned Joseph Roth’s “Hotel Savoy,” Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” Ernst Lubitsch’s “Forbidden Paradise” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
As for Mickey Mouse? His time will come in 2024 — unless Congress intervenes.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at email@example.com