Today the Library of Congress announced 25 more selections for the National Film Registry. The Registry is designed to highlight the American cinema's broad social-cultural significance as well as mark its key creative leaps. It also underlines the need for film preservation -- to safe-keep our native art and our collective historical memory.
Happily, in doing so, the Library each year manages to honor an eclectic group of entertaining or fascinating movies. Here's my annotation of today's list (in two posts).
"Airplane!" (1980). At the tail-end of the Seventies disaster-film craze, this smash-hit parody of a plane-in-peril movie brought Hellzapoppin' brashness and energy to the burlesque of Hollywood genres. Though it spawned sub-standard sequels and a debased comedy sub-genre of its own (see, for instance, the "Scary Movie" series), it also led to some other disreputable classics -- the "Police Squad!" TV show and "Naked Gun" franchise, also starring Leslie Nielsen.
"All the President's Men" (Pictured above, 1976). This rendering of how Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) exposed the underbelly of the Nixon White House both fed into contemporary political disillusionment and romanticized investigative journalism. (The romance peeked with Jason Robards' debonair depiction of editor Ben Bradlee as a swashbuckling commander in a well-tailored suit.) Screenwriter William Goldman cannily inserted a show-biz saying into the script -- "Follow the money" -- that was widely seen as the most authentic and meaningful line in the whole movie. It was nowhere to be found in Bernstein and Woodward's original book.
"The Bargain" (1914). Cowboy star William S. Hart's debut movie. The Library of Congress says, "the film was selected because of Hart's charisma, the film's authenticity and realistic portrayal of the Western genre and the star's good/bad man role as an outlaw attempting to go straight."
"Cry of Jazz" (1959). African-American independent filmmaker Ed Bland made this 34-minute short subject in Chicago's black neighborhoods with scores of volunteers helping him conduct, film and edit interviews with "interracial artists and intellectuals." Featuring Sun Ra and his Arkestra, this short, according to the Library of Congress, "argues that black life in America shares a structural identity with jazz music" and "demonstrates the unifying tension between rehearsed and improvised jazz."
"Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967)." This is the short film that George Lucas wants you to know about when he discusses returning to "small experimental movies." Made while he was studying film at USC, later expanded into "THX 1138" as part of Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope production slate at Warner Bros., it's a Big-Brother-is-Watching-You dystopia that created a sensation in film circles -- I remember reading about in the basement of the Bleecker Street Cinema when I was working for a defunct magazine called "Film Society Review."
"The Empire Strikes Back (1980)." Lucas invented and sustained the "Star Wars" series, but director Irvin Kershner elevated its artistic standing with this second entry in the series. (For my tribute to Kershner, click here.) Now how about including Kershner's other great movies, like the film that won him this assignment -- a lesser-known but also terrific sequel, "The Return of a Man Called Horse?"
"The Exorcist" (1973). However you feel about William Friedkin's monster hit of a horror movie (I'm among the skeptics), it widened the horror audience, poured new ingredients into the cauldron, and brought other gifted filmmakers into the form -- including John Boorman, who made the visually extravagant "Exorcist II: The Heretic." That's Max von Sydow and Linda Blair in a scene from Friedkin's film, above.
"The Front Page" (1931). This gleeful rejiggering of the crack Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur stage comedy about Chicago newspapers influenced rapid-fire farces like the inside-Hollywood spoof "Bombshell" and spawned the now-more-famous "His Girl Friday." It remains a gas to see and hear Hecht and MacArthur's ink-stained clowns spew purple jokes and argot in Lewis Milestone's gritty, energetic version. Director Milestone ("All Quiet on the Western Front" always worked best in the trenches—the movie's press room has all the testosterone of a gym or a barracks.
"Grey Gardens" (1976). The Albert and David Maysles cinema-verite milestone created a cult for East Hampton, New York's mother-and-daughter eccentrics, "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy. It was the basis for the Broadway show and the HBO movie of the same name.
"I Am Joaquin" (1969). Luis Valdez, who later created the Los Angeles theater sensation "Zoot Suit" as well as its movie version, and the Ritchie Valens biopic "La Bamba," made this 20-minute adaptation of Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales's epic poem. According to the Library, the poem "weaves together the long tangled roots of his Mexican, Spanish, Indian and American parentage and a past mythology of pre-Columbian cultures" and the film "is important to the history and culture of Chicanos in America, spotlighting the challenges they have endured because of discrimination."
"It's a Gift (1934)." It's the third W.C Fields film on the list; we'd be happy if the Library decided to include his entire canon.