Brow Beat

Art From 1923 Is About to Enter the Public Domain. According to Critics From 1923, Here’s the Worst of It.

A couple looking in dismay as a giant sword descends from the heavens, rending them asunder.
The poster for Divorce, a 1923 movie that one critic described as “the worst film New York [had] seen in a long time.”
FBO/Otis Lithograph

In 1998, Congress extended the terms of copyright for works published before 1978 from 75 years to 95 years. In practical terms, this meant that works of art first published in the United States in 1923—which would otherwise have entered the public domain in 1999—got an extra 20 years of copyright protection. On Tuesday, those twenty years will finally be over, and a large number of movies, books, songs, paintings, and at least one work of choreography (Ellen Tels’ Persisches Ballett) will be entering the public domain for the first time. That means anyone will be able to adapt them, perform them, remake them, or publish them, and we can expect a wave of new editions and free digital versions of a wide variety of Jazz Age art in the new year. There are some real treasures in the mix, particularly in film: work from Buster Keaton (Three Ages, Our Hospitality), Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments), and Harold Lloyd (Safety Last) will belong to all of us in just a few days. In publishing, new editions of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and Robert Frost’s New Hampshire are already on the way, and work from Agatha Christie, Joseph Conrad, e.e. cummings, and P.G. Wodehouse will probably be close behind. Many things published in 1923 have already entered the public domain—if the copyright wasn’t renewed in the 1950s, it’s already lapsed—but it can be difficult to determine what was renewed and what wasn’t, and after Tuesday, that research will no longer be necessary. Republish, remix, reboot at will.

But just because you can publish a new edition, remake a film, perform a play, or record a song without asking anyone’s permission doesn’t mean you should. The vast majority of art created in 1923 was terrible, just like any other year, and some of it should probably be left right where it is. To find out which newly-public-domain works from 1923 will benefit the public the least, we consulted with the people who know the art of 1923 best: Critics from 1923. Here’s a brief selection of works from 1923 that at least one critic described as “the worst,” that year, with excerpts from their reviews. They range from the completely-forgotten (Hutcheson Boyd’s play The Talking Parrot, which closed in a week) to the still-in-print (Ben Hecht’s early novel The Florentine Dagger), and one is a mystery (though we have a pretty good guess). Some of them are probably already public domain, but on Tuesday, they’re unquestionably yours to do whatever you want with. But maybe don’t.

The Dice of the Gods, by Lillian Barrett

We esteem Mrs. Fiske the greatest living American actress, but to speak candidly, “The Dice of the Gods” perpetrated by Lillian Barrett, evidently with no idea in mind other than creating a part for Mrs. Fiske, impressed us as positively the worst play we sat through this season. Possibly it might have left a little better impression had our hearing been better, but Mrs. Fiske has never overcome her habit of rapid, indistinct enunciation, and, besides that, whenever she starts to say anything that is not obviously very grave her admirers begin to giggle audibly, apparently concluding in advance that it is bound to be something excruciatingly witty … Mrs. Fiske plays the all-embracing role of a drug addict whose moral character has been completely undermined by the habit … The play impressed us as so amateurish and jejune in conception, and slipshod in construction that it might have been written by a girl just out of high school. … By the way, we find it difficult to perceive any very obvious connection between becoming a victim of drugs and the habit of dice-playing among the Gods.

“Plays Reviewed,” G.H.H., Brooklyn Life, Apr. 14, 1923

Divorce, directed by Chester Bennett

The worst film that New York has seen in a long time is Divorce, starring Jane Novak and—let the blame rest where it probably deserves—produced by Chester Bennett. Concident with frightful reviews came a dispatch from Los Angeles that Sid Grauman had booked this picture in one of his theaters for an eight weeks’ run. It doesn’t seem possible.

“ ‘Divorce’ Shows,” Helen Klumph, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1923

The Talking Parrot, by Hutcheson Boyd

The task of picking the worst play this year is easy. The honor falls to “The Talking Parrot.” No play could be worse in structure or in staging. Here would be a splendid opportunity for a reviewer to display his powers of invective, but what’s the use? “The Talking Parrot” will have breathed its last before these words hit print.

“New York Talks of Censorship,” James W. Dean, The Bee (Danville, Virginia) Dec. 10, 1923

Love’s Legend, by H. Fielding Hall

Unquestionably the world’s worst book. Hero as pompous as the father in “Swiss Family Robinson,” and heroine as forceful and modern as what’s-her-name in “The Wide, Wide World” go honeymooning down a river in Burmah on a raft. Marriage nearly ended by maiden’s Victorian prudery. … when the shipwrecked pair are rescued, the prudish one’s hair is down, her legs are bare, and this primitive experience, we are given to understand, has fully opened her eyes to the glories of the married state. … By the way, her name is Lesbia and his is Gallio.

“How Love Isn’t,” B.C.P., Baltimore Evening Sun, Dec. 10, 1923

The Florentine Dagger, by Ben Hecht

Hecht’s style keeps getting worse with the passage of time. It is the only evidence supporting his preposterous claim that he wrote the book in 10 hours. But even that will have no weight with those who are acquainted with his generosity in the use of words, a generosity that waves aside any inquiry into their meaning. … [Hecht] is too veteran a writer to present such mutton stew to the public in good faith. If he is amusing himself at the popular expense, however, he has chosen a most profitable enterprise, for undoubtedly the book will have an excellent sale. 

“Many Horrors: Make Your Spine Bristle in Ben’s Latest and Very Worst Book,” John Dawson, Detroit Free Press, Nov. 4, 1923

The Barb, by William J. McNally

A purported narrative of student life in a state university … The intended contrast between the fraternity and nonfraternity men is lost in a general welter of meanness and vulgarity. … The author seems to have made a conscientious effort to write the worst book of the season.

“News of New Books,” Otto Heller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 9, 1923

The White Flag, by Gene Stratton Porter

If we were awarding a prize for the season’s worst book we should ask Mrs. Gene Stratton Porter to call tomorrow … and receive a limp-leather hand-tooled copy of Edgar Guest as a reward. … The White Flag is an unbelievable book—a startling book. We didn’t know authors were doing it any more.

“Let’s Wave the White Flag,” A. N. Ahlgren, Des Moines Sunday Register, Sept. 16, 1923

“Yes! We Have No Bananas,” by Frank Silver & Irving Cohn (Presumably)

Mr. Ernest Newman regards “The Rosary” as the world’s worst song. This is a nasty blow for the authors of *** ** **** ** *******.

“Slander!,” The Billings Gazette, Dec. 9, 1923 (First published in Punch)

See you next year, when—barring a new copyright extension law—we’ll all be able to record our own versions of “Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight.” If for some reason we want to.