Today His Girl Friday is rightly revered as a screwball classic. But the movie didn't make a major splash when it came out in 1940, and even when critics began to take a serious look at director Howard Hawks' career in the '50s and '60s it didn't attract much notice.
Then something important happened. Film scholar David Bordwell explains:
Columbia Pictures failed to renew its copyright, and His Girl Friday fell into the public domain.
Entrepreneurs made dupe copies, in quality ranging from okay to terrible. You could rent one for peanuts and buy one for only a little more. Some of these bleary prints have been telecined and turned into the DVD versions of the film that fill bargain bins today….
Most important of all, TV stations were screening their bootleg prints. HGF didn't become a perennial like that other public domain classic It's a Wonderful Life, but its reputation rose….
Once HGF became famous, the proliferation of shoddy prints became an embarrassment. In 1993 it was inducted into the National Film Registry, which gave it priority for Library of Congress preservation. Columbia managed to copyright a new version of the film. A handsomely restored version was released on DVD, and a few years back I saw a 35mm copy whose sparkling beauty takes your breath away.
The lesson that sticks with me is this. If Columbia had renewed its copyright on schedule, would this film be so widely admired today? Scholars and the public discovered a masterpiece because they had virtually untrammeled access to it, and perhaps its gray-market status supplied an extra thrill.
Something to remember the next time the issue of extended copyright terms comes up. Copyright owners aren't the only people who respond to incentives and opportunities.
[Via Jason Mittell.]