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WASHINGTON — As Rocky Balboa makes his big-screen comeback, the movie that launched the franchise 30 years ago and made Sylvester Stallone a household name was among 25 films named to the National Film Registry by the Librarian of Congress on Wednesday.
“Rocky,” the Oscar winner for best picture of 1976, joined Mel Brooks’ outrageous comedy “Blazing Saddles” (1974), John Carpenter’s slasher classic “Halloween” (1978), the Coen brothers’ black comedy “Fargo” (1996) and Steven Soderbergh’s groundbreaking “sex, lies, and videotape” (1989) on this year’s selection of treasures that are guaranteed to be preserved forever.
The 2006 entrants span the years 1913-96 and feature performances by Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Bill Murray, Ingrid Bergman, John Wayne and late soul great James Brown and directors Alfred Hitchcock, Rouben Mamoulian and Raoul Walsh.
The National Film Registry list, begun in 1989, now numbers 450.
While the choices by Librarian of Congress James Billington spotlights some well-known films, it also features many lesser-known lights of the filmmakers’ art, including the only film recording of pioneering blues artist Bessie Smith, a 1913 exploitation film about the white slave trade, one of the first rock concert movies and even a home movie.
“The annual selection of films to the National Film Registry involves far more than the simple naming of cherished and important films to a prestigious list,” Billington said. “The registry should not be seen as the Kennedy Center Honors, the Academy Awards or even America’s most beloved films. Rather, it is an invaluable means to advance public awareness of the richness, creativity and variety of American film heritage and to dramatize the need for its preservation.”
Billington made his selections from more than 1,000 titles nominated by the public after lengthy discussions with the library’s motion picture division staff and members of the National Film Preservation Board.
Congress created the registry in 1989 to preserve films of cultural, historical and artistic significance. Selection in the National Film Registry singles out films for preservation either in the Library of Congress’ own archive or facilities elsewhere.
Big studio releases usually are cared for by their own archives or other variants of public and private film archives. Entry in the registry often puts a priority on the films named; if they aren’t being preserved, their inclusion often moves them up on the list.
“Rocky” also won Oscars for best director (John Avildsen) and film editing and received 10 nominations. Stallone was nominated as best actor and for his original screenplay. “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth film in the franchise, opened last week.
” ‘Rocky’ is an important film,” said Steve Leggett, staff coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board. “And it’s a great story (in real life): An out-of-work actor watches a fight on TV and whips out a screenplay, and there you go.”
While Billington already has picked a pair of Brooks films, “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein,” for the list, he said the registry wouldn’t be complete without “Blazing Saddles.”
“It’s an iconic film,” Leggett said. “(Brooks is) an equal opportunity basher. He bashes everyone, and there are a lot of very funny scenes. It’s over-the-top comedy with a civil rights theme. It would be very difficult movie to make today. Just look at what’s happened with the Kazaks (and ‘Borat’). Mel Brooks had a small window of opportunity.”
“Halloween” might not have the artistic chops of two other films on this year’s list — “The Last Command,” director Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 story that starred Emil Jannings in an Oscar-winning performance, or 1946’s “Notorious,” arguably Hitchcock’s best black-and-white American film — but it launched a genre, Leggett noted.
” ‘Halloween’ launched Carpenter’s career and started the slasher genre,” he said. “Some people may say that’s good or bad, but it’s really a good film.”
Von Sternberg’s silent drama, about an exiled Russian general who is reduced to working as a Hollywood extra, is seen by film critic Leonard Maltin as another genre-making film.
“It shows that even in the ’20s, people were interested in the inner workings of Hollywood and (seeing) Hollywood mythicize itself,” said Maltin, a member of the library’s film preservation board. “Eventually, (Jannings’ character) finds himself in a battle scene wearing his old uniform. It sounds contrived, but it works out.”
The bulk of the choices are obscure films such as “St. Louis Blues,” the 1929 RKO sound experiment that captured Smith singing in a two-reeler; “Think of Me First as a Person,” a home movie about a child with Down syndrome that was put together over 15 years; and the avant-garde “Early Abstractions #1-5, 7, 10,” Harry Smith’s compilation of seven of his films from 1939-56.
Billington noted that films like these, as well as documentaries and silent movies, are disappearing at an alarming rate as nitrate deterioration, color fading and the recently discovered “vinegar syndrome” (which threatens the acetate-based “safety film” stock) take their toll.
“This key component of American cultural history is an endangered species,” he said.
This early sound-era masterpiece was the first film for stage director Rouben Mamoulian and cabaret star Helen Morgan. Many have compared Mamoulian’s debut to that of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” because of their flamboyant use of cinematic innovation to test technical boundaries. The tear-jerking plot boasts top performances from Morgan as the fading burlesque queen, Fuller Mellish Jr. as her slimy paramour and Joan Peers as her cultured daughter. However, the film is remembered today chiefly for Mamoulian’s audacious style. While most films of the era were static and stage-bound, Mamoulian’s camera reinvigorated the melodramatic plot by prowling relentlessly through sordid backstage life.
The Big Trail (1930)
The story goes that director Raoul Walsh was seeking a male lead for his new Western and asked his friend John Ford. He recommended an unknown actor named John Wayne because he “liked the looks of this new kid with a funny walk, like he owned the world.” When Wayne professed inexperience, Walsh told him to just “sit good on a horse and point.” The plot of a trek along the Oregon Trail is aided immensely by the majestic sweep provided by the experimental Grandeur widescreen process used in filming. However, Wayne’s starring role in the movie did not lead to stardom. He languished in low-budget pictures until Ford cast him in the 1939 classic “Stagecoach.”
Blazing Saddles (1974)
This riotously funny, raunchy, no-holds-barred Western spoof by Mel Brooks is universally considered one of the funniest American films of all time. The movie features a civil-rights theme (the hero in the white hat turns out to be a black man who has to defend a bigoted town), and its furiously paced gags and rapid-fire dialogue were scripted by Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg and Alan Unger. It was the highest grossing Western of all-time until 1990’s “Dances With Wolves.”
The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916-17)
Long thought lost, this is the earliest known Chinese-American feature and one of the first films directed by a woman, and it recently was restored by the Academy Film Archive. The two surviving reels were brought to the attention of filmmaker Arthur Dong while researching his “Hollywood Chinese” documentary. Its timely rediscovery shows us that the history of ethnic filmmaking in the U.S. goes back much further than earlier thought.
Daughter of Shanghai (1937)
B-films during the studio era often resonate decades later because they explore issues and themes not found in higher-budget pictures. Robert Florey, widely acclaimed as the best director working in major studio B-films during this period, crafted an intriguing, taut thriller. Anna May Wong overcame Hollywood’s practice at the time of casting white actors to play Asian roles and became its first, and a leading, Asian-American movie star in the 1920s through the late ’30s. This film was more truly Wong’s personal vehicle than any of her other films. In the story she uncovers the smuggling of illegal aliens through San Francisco’s Chinatown, cooperating with co-star Philip Ahn as the first Asian G-man of the American cinema.
Drums of Winter (Uksuum Cauyai) (1988)
Winner of numerous international awards, this beautiful documentary explores the rare dance language and culture of the Yup’ik Eskimo people in Emmonak, Alaska (part of the Yukon River delta on the Bering Sea). At the heart of their culture are complex potlatch gift-giving ceremonies featuring ceremonial story/dances serving as a bridge between the human and unseen spiritual worlds. At the center of the dance was the drum, serving as the cadence of the universe. The fabric of the community is woven together through giving: “Our spirits live by giving, things we give will return in larger amounts, because the wilderness has enough for all.”
Early Abstractions #1-5, 7, 10 (1939-56)
Harry Smith made his mark in many fields. He was a painter, archivist and compiler of the landmark “Anthology of American Music” (which helped stimulate a folk and blues revival). Smith also was a groundbreaking avant-garde filmmaker whose revolutionary animation challenged traditional concepts of cinema. His films used batik, collage and optical printing to create a tumult of shapes and images that integrates chaos with control. Consisting of seven films made over a 17-year span, this compilation is a lovely, ever-moving collage of abstraction, color and imagery.
This film is the Coen Brothers’ original black comic spin on murder, propelled by Frances McDormand’s “you-betcha,” pregnant police chief and William H. Macy’s clammy loser. The droll deadpan humor delights in frame after frame.
Flesh and the Devil (1927)
One of the last silent film classics, it is the first on-screen pairing of silent superstars John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. The film is a masterpiece of American romanticism from director Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo in seven classic films, and Garbo’s favorite cinematographer, William Daniels. Garbo plays a seductress who sacrifices love for comfort and material luxury. The blistering chemistry between Garbo and Gilbert reflected their torrid, real-life affair at the time.
Groundhog Day (1993)
“Groundhog Day” is a clever comedy with a philosophical edge to boot. Bill Murray plays a smug, arrogant weatherman caught in a personal time warp, who is continuously forced to relive the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Penn. At first Murray revels at being able to act dishonorably without consequences, but he soon grows weary of having to wake up every morning to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and facing the same day again and again. The deft, innovative script creatively keeps rearranging and building on each day’s events, while at the same time moving Murray’s character into self-growth, redemption and personal rebirth. Andie MacDowell’s character tells him: “I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind. It’s inspiring in a way.” Murray’s character knowingly replies, “My years are not advancing as fast as you might think.”
John Carpenter’s first commercially successful film not only became his most famous work, but it also ushered in the dawn of the slasher film. But unlike many later films of that genre, it creates a chilling tension with minimal blood and gore. The setting is Halloween night, and homicidal maniac Michael Myers has escaped from his mental institution and is hunting teenagers in his hometown of Haddonfield, Ill. Although the numerous imitations and elements of the genre are now considered cliche, Carpenter’s style of point-of-view shots, tense editing and haunting piano score make the film uniquely artistic, frightening and a horror keystone.
In the Street (1948)
This lyrical, slice-of-life documentary (by Helen Levitt, James Agee and Janice Loeb) about East Harlem is one of several outstanding children’s documentaries (“The Quiet One” and “Louisiana Story,” among others) produced immediately after World War II. The filmmakers captured the energy-filled streets as part theater, part battleground and part playground. In their everyday lives and actions, people project an image of human existence against the turmoil of the street.
The Last Command (1928)
This film is Josef von Sternberg’s powerful drama of exiled Russian general Emil Jannings, who is reduced to the scraps of “extra” roles in Hollywood. Jannings’ Academy Award-winning performance towers over the screen, showcasing emotions ranging from his forceful leadership as a tsarist general to incredulous dismay at the loss of his beloved country and his lover who helped him escape. Shaken out of his stupor when cast in a film about the Russian Revolution, Jannings summons his thunderous charisma in one final bid to somehow win the war for Mother Russia. The ending, considered one of cinema’s most memorable, remains heart-wrenching.
Arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s best black-and-white American film, this is an excellent example of woman’s gothic. In the film, a woman (played by Ingrid Bergman) marries a Nazi killer (played by Claude Rains), though she is in love with an American spy (played by Cary Grant) who recruits her for the assignment. Rife with classic Hitchcock brilliance, featuring the crane shot and cross-cutting during the party sequence, the film also is a resonant cultural document of romantic alienation. Grant is at his most attractive, letting his dark side fuel his bitter cynicism.
Red Dust (1932)
This steamy pre-Production Code melodrama stars virile, tough guy Clark Gable as a Far East plantation owner who proves no match for Jean Harlow’s saucy incandescence. Her earthy, breathless dialogue (“You can check the wings and halo at the desk”) serves to turn up the heat. The movie’s well-remembered humor, star chemistry and atmosphere owe much to underrated director Victor Fleming, who managed to inspire a superior performance from Harlow, who was coping with the suicide of her husband during the filming.
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971-72)
Jonas Mekas’ film is an elegiac diary of a trip that he took back to his birthplace of Semeniskiai, Lithuania. In addition to his own exceptional body of avant-garde films, Mekas also is a legendary member of that community through his work as spokesman, archivist and theoretician of the avant-garde movement. Often called the godfather of American experimental cinema, his writings in Film Culture and the Village Voice helped spur public interest. His founding of the Film-Makers Cooperative and the Anthology Film Archives also made avant-garde films more accessible and aided their preservation.
This stirring tale of a million-to-one-shot underdog has become part of the American psyche. According to legend, Sylvester Stallone, then a down-on-his-luck actor, hurriedly wrote a brilliant script after watching the Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner fight in May 1975. Stallone shopped the script to studios, who loved the plot but not Stallone’s take-it-or-leave-it demand that he star in the film. Eventually, Stallone and United Artists crafted a deal, and the film became a top-grossing cultural sensation in 1976. One of the truly iconic moments in American cinema is when Stallone runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the strains of Bill Conti’s pulsating score.
sex, lies and videotape (1989)
Steven Soderbergh explores the messy personal relationships of four friends with an insinuatingly low-key style that creates a super-precise psychoanalysis of human impulses and inhibitions. This landmark film launched the independent film renaissance of the past two decades.
In his career, Julien Bryan, founder of the International Film Foundation, managed to amass a historical treasure trove of footage from foreign lands. On his way back from filming in Europe in 1939, Bryan became stranded in Warsaw during the German bombardment and blitzkrieg, where he managed to shoot and smuggle out an astonishing record of events in Warsaw. As the only neutral-country cameraman left in Warsaw when the Germans arrived, Bryan’s footage is a unique, horrifying record of the dreadful brutality of war. One such scene shows German planes strafing Polish women as they dug potatoes for their hungry families.
St. Louis Blues (1929)
A two-reeler made both for “race theater” distribution and RKO’s experiments with early recording of musical shorts in its theater chains, it features the only film recording of Bessie Smith, “Queen of the Blues,” backed by an outstanding cast of black artists. According to film historian Donald Bogle, the film “was marred by its white director’s overstatement, but it was distinguished by Bessie Smith’s extraordinary ability to express black pain. … Haughty, husky, hungry, earthy, confident and supremely committed to her music, Bessie Smith is magnificently larger than life here, a true dark diva, who lives up to her legend as one of America’s great original artists.”
The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)
This legendary film (the initials stand for “Teen Age Music International”) is quite possibly the greatest rock and R&B concert on film. Considered wildly campy with screaming girls and “Shindig”-style go-go dancers, the film captures all the live immediacy of an astonishing lineup in an era when films commonly matched records to lip-syncing. A who’s who of musicians creates magic onstage, from the Rolling Stones running onstage and plugging in their guitars to the show-stopping cape routine of James Brown.
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
This is the feature film that made Canadian-born Mary Pickford Hollywood’s first movie superstar, a national icon and an international celebrity. The film often is credited with launching what was known as the “cult of Mary Pickford” in the early 20th century and was essential in shaping the actress’ onscreen persona as a working-class heroine. The picture was so successful that it spawned a number of knockoffs and several remakes, including one by Pickford herself in 1922. The movie’s director, Edwin S. Porter, was a former cameraman of Thomas Edison who worked with Pickford on five of her earliest features. He is best known for two innovative silent shorts from 1903, “The Life of an American Fireman” and “The Great Train Robbery.”
Think of Me First as a Person (1960-75)
This is an astonishing discovery from the Center for Home Movies and its annual Home Movie Day, where once a year people in cities across the nation bring their home movies to screen. This loving portrait by a father of his son with Down syndrome represents the creativity and craftsmanship of the American amateur filmmaker.
A Time Out of War (1954)
Easily in the pantheon of best student films ever produced, this managed to beat the odds and win the Oscar for best short film. Two Union soldiers and one Confederate soldier declare a temporary truce in this sensitive, elegantly unhurried film that helped put student filmmaking on the cultural map.
Traffic in Souls (1913)
This sensational expose of “white slavery” (forced prostitution) captivated the country upon its 1913 release and presaged the Hollywood narrative film. At six reels, its length was nearly unheard of at the time, save for a few biblical epics. Although arguably an exploitation film, the film’s riveting sociology is gripping in its portrayals of methods used to entrap working women and immigrants. It holds up well today because of its verve and location shooting.
Source: Library of Congress
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