Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (top); Ted Donaldson, Joan Blondell, Peggy Ann Garner, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (middle); Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, All the President’s Men (bottom)
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973, right, with Linda Blair), John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977), Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) are five of the 25 films — both features and shorts; narrative and documentaries — selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
Library of Congress’ James H. Billington chose each of the films on this year’s list after receiving suggestions from the National Film Preservation Board and the public at large. According to one report, more than 2,100 films were nominated by the public in 2010.
Films are selected into the Registry according to their "artistic, cultural and/or historical significance," which often translates into avant-garde works, one- or two-minute shorts shot at the end of l9th century or at the beginning of the 20th century, and films made by and/or about ethnic minorities in the United States.
This year, it helped to get your film included in the Registry if you died — and your death was widely publicized. Blake Edwards is there with The Pink Panther (1964); Irvin Kershner with The Empire Strikes Back (1980); Leslie Nielsen, Barbara Billingsley, and Peter Graves with Airplane! (1980).
Silent-film actress Dorothy Janis died this year as well, but her death was hardly mentioned anywhere. That’s too bad, for the delightful The Pagan (1929) could use some restoration as Turner Classic Movies’ print is out of synch. Oh, well.
Others included in the list are Paul Fejos‘ Lonesome (1928), Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1936), Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (1931), and the W.C. Fields comedy It’s a Gift (1934).
Also, Mary Ellen Bute’s five-minute avant-garde short Tarantella (1940), Peter B. Hutton’s documentary Study of a River (1996), John Huston’s controversial World War II documentary Let There Be Light (1945), George Lucas‘ student film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 113B 4EB (1967), and the two-minute documentary Preservation of the Sign Language (1913).
Curiously, the William S. Hart silent Western The Bargain (1914) was also added to the Registry. I say "curiously" because unlike the vast majority of, say, Norma Talmadge’s or John Gilbert’s or Corinne Griffith’s or Richard Barthelmess‘ silents — or William S. Hart’s, for that matter — The Bargain is readily available on DVD for $11.99.
In all honesty, I always have a mostly negative reaction whenever I read the National Film Registry lists. They’re interesting as historical curiosities — what (some) people at the beginning of the 21st century find culturally and/or historically significant — but not much else.
How many people believe that The Empire Strikes Back, All the President’s Men, or Saturday Night Fever are at risk of decomposing and/or becoming unavailable for future generations? The Front Page and Make Way for Tomorrow are available on cable television, and even Lonesome is screened regularly (though it’s not available on DVD, as far as I know).
Meanwhile, hundreds of long-forgotten films lie in rotting cans — many of those in the vaults of the Library of Congress itself — waiting to be salvaged. Films you can’t watch anywhere. Not in museums, revival houses, Turner Classic Movies, Netflix, or DVD.
Since they’re worth shit to the studios that produced them in decades past — especially those made during the silent era — and don’t have any sort of influential cinematic godfather or godmother to have them included in the NFR list, there’s no salvation in sight.