Movie buffs push the good, bad and ugly Classics: This year's selection of 25 movies to be anointed national treasures will be made tomorrow. Fans are quick to lobby for their favorites.


WASHINGTON -- At age 76, Lillian Loyd is still in love with 1930s movie heartthrob Nelson Eddy. She likes his looks, she likes his singing voice, and, most of all, she likes the way he kisses on screen. He isn't a simp, she says, but he knows how to behave himself.

Loyd is in fact so devoted to Eddy that she recently took out a sheet of her best rosebud stationery and wrote the federal government -- specifically, the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress -- to get the actor the respect she believes he deserves.

While begging the government on behalf of a dead movie star might seem unusual, the board gets urgent pleas like this every year. As it debated which films to protect for posterity on its national preservation list, the panel weeded through 1,100 such requests this year.

From those ideas and the suggestions of a 40-member panel of film experts, Librarian of Congress James Billington will announce the selection of 25 films for the 1997 National Film Registry tomorrow, elevating an elite corps of movies as national treasures.

To make the list, a motion picture must be at least 10 years old, created largely with U.S. financing and determined to have significant artistic, historic or cultural value. But in the case of Loyd, of course, all it really needs is to contain Nelson Eddy.

Loyd, a retired nurse from Milbrook, N.Y., recommended the 1937 romantic drama "Maytime," in which Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald play singers in a doomed but passionate romance.

"Back in those days, Nelson Eddy knew how to kiss a young lady," said Loyd, who remembers flying into a rage as a teen-ager when she heard Eddy got married. "Now the first thing in movies, they're ripping each other's shirts off. Nelson Eddy deserves some recognition."

Since 1989, the board has singled out for preservation everything from blockbusters to art films to home movies. The 1997 suggestions include newsreel footage of the Hindenberg disaster, an avant garde film about geometric shapes dancing to classical music, the 1934 serial-starter "The Thin Man" and the 1953 drama "From Here to Eternity," starring Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster and the Hawaiian surf.

The announcement of this year's list underscores the growing attention this country is giving to its decimated film stock. Half the originals of all American movies made before 1950 are lost or destroyed, archivists say, as are 80 percent of all movies made before 1930.

As film conservation experts hold their largest-ever conference in Washington this week, the cause has clearly become chic. Film archivists at studios, universities and museums are eager to bring public awareness to the problem -- something the registry does very well.

Listed movies get bumped ahead of other films awaiting preservation and restoration at the library and private archives. But even films that do not make the list will be conserved by the Library of Congress in its 150,000-movie collection -- the country's largest.

Many films -- and not always the oldest ones -- are in desperate shape. "Star Wars," for example, was nearly destroyed because so many copies were duplicated from the 1977 original. This year's re-release required massive restoration to revive the colors on the screen.

"If you see something on videotape, you assume it's preserved, but the movie is far from being safe," said Allen Daviau, the cinematographer for "E.T." and one of this year's board members. "We don't consider a film safe until the original negative is preserved."

So far, the registry lists 200 titles but does not try to be the federal government's Oscar show. The board represents instead more populist approach to movies, seeking out the broadest possible selection of pictures that illustrates the American film experience.

One year, a Capitol Hill movie enthusiast launched a letter-writing campaign to preserve the star-studded 1963 comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." The campaign failed. But Eric Federing, an aide to Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, got so wrapped up in the preservation effort he has recently written a book about it.

Recently, several modern-art critics pushed the panel to accept "Empire," an eight-hour movie by Andy Warhol featuring the front of the Empire State Building doing nothing but standing there from dawn to dusk. Movie buffs of a different ilk promoted "Rhapsody in Rivets," a World War II cartoon in which Technicolor dogs build the "Umpire State Building" to stirring music.

The Library of Congress expects an annual letter from Edward Cunningham, a 29-year-old Silver Spring book clerk. Included in his 20-page plea for additions to the 1998 register: "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which he views as a cultural icon, and "Plan 9 From Outer Space," a 1958 movie by director Edward D. Wood Jr. that is considered one of the worst films ever made.

In the past, the board has named experimental films like "Dog Star Man," a 1964 movie about a man climbing (and climbing and climbing) a mountain as the seasons change. The panel also picked "Where Are My Children?", a 1916 movie about abortion made by a female director without any help from the Hollywood studios. And it selected modern movies such as "Star Wars," in part for starting the revolution in special effects and movie merchandising.

"I don't feel like there's anything on the list that doesn't belong there -- more often, I feel like this list could just go on and on," said Leonard Maltin, a film critic who advises the board. "I looked at the list and said, 'Gee, "Dumbo" isn't here,' so I recommended it. I don't think it will ever be easy to choose 25 titles a year."

Films made out of nitrate -- before 1950 -- are particularly hard to preserve. Highly flammable, they have spontaneously combusted under extremely hot temperatures. When they don't burn, these films can erode into a fine brown dust with a dirty, sweat-sock smell. The sensitive prints must be stored in vaults with fine-tuned temperature and humidity controls.

Once the films are restored and preserved, a selection is sent to theaters in every state. Actor Jack Palance was so excited about the preservation effort, he recently rode a snowmobile through a wild Denver storm to make sure he could still emcee the evening.

This year, the board is expected to focus heavily on "orphan films" -- works made outside the studio system without a rich parent looking after them. Among the recommendations was the newly rediscovered film "The Life and Death of Richard III," a 1912 silent movie brought to national attention last year by a 78-year-old projectionist in Portland, Ore.

The selection process gets emotional. The panelists -- from director Martin Scorsese to film lobbyist Jack Valenti -- submit their picks. The final decision rests with Billington -- who as head of the Library of Congress is part amateur film buff, part professional bureaucrat.

"These meetings get pretty heated -- you get personalities in here, and then people think someone has no talent or lots of talent, and the discussions get intense," says Steve Leggett, the board's coordinator at the Library of Congress. "The guidelines are so broad, people even argue that a bad movie has cultural value."

No one could agree with that sentiment more than Cunningham, the dutiful writer who makes suggestions to the board every year from his Silver Spring home. With this year's recommendation of "Plan 9 From Outer Space," in which actor Bela Lugosi died during filming and a caped stand-in completed the role, Cunningham hopes to show just how low films can go.

"It's all about aliens who are raising people from the dead," he said of the picture, which substituted pie pans for flying saucers. "It's kind of hard to explain the plot. But I know it's part of American culture. That's for sure."

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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