Wednesday, December 17, 2014

National Film Registry Class of 2014

The Library of Congress aims for diversity when selecting 25 films each December for addition to its National Film Registry of artistically or historically significant movies for permanent preservation. How on earth, then, does this year's list include two Carmen Miranda movies? The lady in the tutti-frutti hat is featured in Down Argentine Way (1940), her Hollywood debut, and The Gang's All Here (1943), a landmark of Busby Berkeley's technicolor garishness that counts as surrealism or camp depending on the audience. This arguable sin of commission aside, the list is the typical mix of art and artifact, the latter category covering everything from actuality footage of the burial of Holocaust victims to the surviving footage of an aborted 1913 feature starring legendary black comedian Bert Williams. I'm actually surprised that Orson Welles's Too Much Johnson didn't make it in its first year of eligibility, so to speak. While one would think that older films should have a priority on preservation the Registry includes relatively recent Hollywood fare partly to avoid charges of elitism and partly to acknowledge how quickly cinema becomes folklore. Best illustrating the latter trend are new inductees Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and The Big Lebowski (1998), while Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) show how Hollywood transmutes literature into folklore, in each case making itself rather than the source novel the definitive version of the story for most people. Lebowski is almost the most recent Hollywood film on the list, having preceded Saving Private Ryan into theaters by a few months, but it's probably the best of the Hollywood inductees, while I'd flip a coin to choose between Pvt. Ryan and Rio Bravo (1959) as the runner-up. If any Registry inductee may be deemed overrated, I'd say it's William K. Howard's The Power and the Glory (1933), which doesn't live up, once you see it, to its reputation as a rough draft for Citizen Kane. Speaking for myself, I've never been a fan of Bueller but I suppose the Registry is right to acknowledge its significance for one generation of moviegoers. In any event, here's the complete list so you can make your own judgments. Meanwhile, the Registry maintains a chronological list of films presumably worthy of consideration for future inductions.  I notice that for 1914 the key introductory films for Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille are still unregistred. Going only 75 years back to 1938, you'd think Angels With Dirty Faces would be in the registry by now. From 50 years ago, in 1964, a strong case can be made for Fail-Safe; it really ought to have gone in the same year Dr. Strangelove did. It's all too easy to play the "Why isn't this old classic in the Registry while some recent thing is?" game if you don't acknowledge that the Registry is as much a history of changing movie audiences as it is a history of cinema itself. It's fun to gripe, though, so feel free to do so at this time every year.

For now, this is your American film heritage: "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hate" from The Gang's All Here, as uploaded to YouTube by Gregory May.

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