Thursday, December 31, 2015

50 films for the Registry

To end the year I'll fulfill a promise made earlier this month to scan the Library of Congress's list of films not yet enshrined in the National Film Registry and find fifty films to nominate in chronological order. Readers may recall that I complained about the inclusion in the Class of 2015 of such recent films as The Shawshank Redemption and L.A. Confidential, without passing judgment on their quality, while older films languished that could benefit in the future from a government commitment to their preservation. My feeling was that the Registry tried too hard to be chronologically diverse in order to get the attention of younger people and the news media, and that their justification of "cultural significance" isn't justification enough to reduce the quota of older, historically significant films Registered. I'm now looking at the list of eligible films on the Registry website, starting from 1890. I don't intend to pick the first 50 films because age doesn't automatically confer significance. Instead, I'll choose titles I've seen or know something about beyond their age. So here we go:

1. Serpentine Dance by Annabelle (1896) - If I recall right, this was part of the 100 years of movies montage that used to run on TCM all the time. Before that, it was often mentioned in film history books as an early example of hand-tinting, sexy dancing, and slow motion.

2. Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) - Possibly the original of the long-popular joke about hick audiences not realizing what they saw on the screen was fake.

3. Life of an American Fireman (1903) - One of Edwin S. Porter's pioneer narrative films from the same year as his better-known Great Train Robbery.

4. The Adventures of Dollie (1908). D. W. Griffith's debut as a director has to count for something.

5. The Curtain Pole (1909). Here I've cheated, since the Registry doesn't have this on their list for some reason, but it's an early slapstick comedy with Griffith directing Mack Sennett, and after more than a century the action is still fairly funny.

6. Frankenstein (1910). Landmark American horror film. Far more people have seen Charles Ogle's makeup in history books than have seen the film, though it came out from under tight wraps fairly recently.

7. Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Another canonical Griffith short, this time focusing on urban crime.

8. Suspense (1913). Co-directed by Lois Weber with innovative threeway split-screen effects.

9. Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). The first time most people saw Charlie Chaplin in his Tramp costume.

10. The Squaw Man (1914). Cecil B. DeMille's debut and a milestone for filming in Hollywood.

11. The Lamb (1915). Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s starring debut.

12. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916). Fairbanks as detective Coke Ennyday in an absurd Tod Browning story.

13. The Butcher Boy (1917). Buster Keaton's debut under the tutelage of Fatty Arbuckle.

14. Shoulder Arms (1918). Chaplin's pioneer service comedy, defying fears that comedy about war was tasteless.

15. Blind Husbands (1919). Erich von Stroheim's directorial debut.

16. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). John Barrymore in iconic makeup in another pioneer horror film.

17. The Playhouse (1921) Keaton does multiple takes on the same strip of film, with the help of some tape, to create a seamless illusion of multiple selves in the same frame.

18. The Sheik (1921). Talk about cultural significance: after Rudolph Valentino's definitive star vehicle sexy (and wannabe sexy) men were called "shieks" for the rest of the Twenties.

19. Toll of the Sea (1922). First full-length Technicolor film and Anna Mae Wong's debut.

20. The Covered Wagon (1923). Pioneer (no pun intended) western epic.

21. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Lon Chaney becomes a superstar in the indirect foundation film for the Universal horror genre.

22. The Ten Commandments (1923). The bible stuff is only a small part of DeMille's modern morality tale but it pointed toward his remaking into an epic filmmaker.

23. A Woman of Paris (1923). Chaplin's serious film, in which he gave himself a cameo, set a new standard for cinematic sophistication and made Adolphe Menjou a character star.

24. Don Juan (1926). Barrymore swashbuckler is first feature with Vitaphone soundtrack.

25. Chang; A Drama of the Wilderness (1927). Documentary filmed in Thailand by Cooper & Schoedsack of King Kong fame, complete with elephant stampede.

26. The King of Kings (1927). DeMille's taboo-breaking Jesus film; two years earlier Ben-Hur refused to show His face or even His body in some scenes.

27. The Battle of the Century (1927) - Epic pie fight highlights recently-restored early Laurel & Hardy short.

28. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Keaton's disaster comedy with budget-busting special effects and his signature stunt with the collapsing building facade.

29. The Broadway Melody (1929). Winner of second Oscar for Best Picture.

30. In Old Arizona (1929). Early sound location shooting with Warner Baxter in his Oscar-winning turn as the Cisco Kid.

31. The Skeleton Dance (1929). Walt Disney's macabre launch of his Silly Symphony series.

32. The Bat Whispers (1930). Roland West's dynamic early widescreen picture.

33. Hell's Angels (1930). Howard Hughes's epic vanity project about the air war in Europe.

34. Anna Christie (1930). Garbo talks and Marie Dressler takes a big step toward her phenomenal late-career stardom.

35. Cimarron (1931) It's pretty bad once you get past the early Oklahoma land rush sequence but it's the fourth Best Picture Oscar winner.

36.Flowers and Trees (1932). Disney's first Silly Symphony in improved Technicolor.

37. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Reshaped (and distorted) the popular image of the jungle lord and a textbook collection of stereotypes and Pre-Code horrors.

38. Flying Down to Rio (1933). First team-up of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, plus iconic flying scenes.

39. Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Relic of the American imagination's flirtation with dictatorship at the trough of the Depression and attendant crime wave.

40. California Election News No. 1 (1934). M-G-M produced fake newsreel used as propaganda against Upton Sinclair's left-wing campaign for governor of California.

41. Becky Sharp (1935). First feature in improved "three strip" or "three color" Technicolor.

42. The Spanish Earth (1937). Pro-government documentary about Spanish Civil War narrated by Ernest Hemingway.

43. Son of Frankenstein (1939). The first two Universal Frankenstein pictures with Boris Karloff are already in, so let's make it a trilogy as Bela Lugosi's Ygor nearly steals the thing from the Monster.

44. Meet John Doe (1941). On general principles; this Capra picture about a political impostor who turns against his master is one of my favorite all-time movies, and arguably the only 1941 picture consciously rivaling Citizen Kane.

45.  High Sierra (1941). It might have been Humprhey Bogart's breakthrough itself if Maltese Falcon hadn't happened. Key proto-noir about a doomed, sympathetic criminal.

46. I Wake Up Screaming (1941). Another key proto-noir picture dominated by Laird Cregar's dirty cop.

47. Superman (1941). The Fleischer brothers bring the new comic-book superhero genre to film.

48. The Battle of Midway (1942). John Ford films the actual action in Technicolor and donates stock footage to generations of Hollywood warmongers.

49. I Walked With A Zombie (1943). In my view this one by Jacques Tourneur is the  best of Val Lewton's classic RKO horror films.

50. Victory Through Air Power (1943). Disney's ambitious feature-length animated propaganda documentary book adaptation.

And there you have it. We'll see how many make it in a year from now. But whatever happens to these films, may all Mondo 70 readers enjoy a happy new year.

No comments: