National Film Registry: Lesbian Western & Asian-American Musical Among Entries

by Andre Soares
Johnny Guitar Joan Crawford. National Film Registry adds vengeful lesbian Mercedes McCambridgeJohnny Guitar with Joan Crawford. One of the December 2008 additions to the U.S. Library of Congress' National Film Registry is Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar. The 1954 psychological Western stars Joan Crawford, by then a three-decade film veteran, as Arizona cattle town saloon keeper Vienna; Sterling Hayden as the strong and laconic title character; and Mercedes McCambridge as a rifle-toting type whose hatred for Vienna can only be explained one way: unbridled, unbounded, and unrequited passion.

National Film Registry adds 'Johnny Guitar' & 'Sergeant York'

The United States' Library of Congress has selected another 25 American movies for inclusion in its National Film Registry, which under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act is supposed to protect “for all time” short and feature films considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.

Whether or not the National Film Registry actually fulfills its purpose, among the handpicked films in December 2008 are the following:

  • Nicholas Ray's campfest Johnny Guitar (1954), a Trucolor Western starring Joan Crawford as a saloon owner, Sterling Hayden as the title character, and Mercedes McCambridge as a butch lesbian with an unrequited-love complex. Based on a novel by Roy Chanslor, Johnny Guitar was written by blacklistee Ben Maddow; Philip Yordan was his credited front.
  • Howard Hawks' flag-waving, real-life-inspired World War I drama Sergeant York (1941), a blockbuster that earned Gary Cooper his first Best Actor Academy Award and director Hawks his one and only Oscar nomination. Also in the cast: Joan Leslie as Cooper's very, very youthful romantic interest, and Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominees Margaret Wycherly and Walter Brennan.
  • John Huston's film noir The Asphalt Jungle (1950), toplining Johnny Guitar himself, Sterling Hayden, plus Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Louis Calhern, Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Sam Jaffe, and a pre-stardom Marilyn Monroe in a brief role.
  • John Boorman's Oscar-nominated sociopsychological thriller Deliverance (1972), with Jon Voight, newcomers Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, and a surprisingly effective Burt Reynolds as four urbanites (out of Atlanta) who get to experience Rural America's underbelly while on a canoeing trip. Deliverance is based on 1970 novel by James Dickey, who also wrote the screen adaptation.
Foolish Wives Erich von Stroheim Maude George: National Film Registry risqué additionFoolish Wives with Erich von Stroheim and Maude George (?). Best remembered as a director for his 1924 masterpiece Greed, and as an actor for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Gloria Swanson's “servant” in Sunset Blvd., the Vienna-born Erich von Stroheim doubled as actor/director in a few silents. Case in point was the risqué 1922 drama and 2008 National Film Registry entry Foolish Wives, in which The Von plays a “continental” seducer and extortionist. One of his accomplices is the now largely forgotten Maude George (looks like her in the photo), who also worked with/for von Stroheim in The Devil's Passkey, Merry-Go-Round, and The Wedding March.

From Miss DuPont to Mr. Olympia

Here are a few more National Film Registry additions, spanning seven decades, from 1914 to 1984:

  • The wildly popular adventure serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), with early silent era superstar Pearl White.
  • Erich von Stroheim's extravagant, Monte Carlo-set Foolish Wives (1922), featuring the aristocratic- and untrustworthy-looking European director, the fancily billed Miss DuPont as his all-American target, and The Von's two partners in crime: Mae Busch (later of Laurel and Hardy shorts fame) and Maude George.
  • King Vidor's all-black musical Hallelujah! (1929), an unusual Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release featuring Daniel L. Haynes and Nina Mae McKinney as the leads. Vidor was shortlisted for the 1929–1930 Best Director Academy Award.
  • Elia Kazan's ever pertinent sociopolitical drama A Face in the Crowd (1957), starring Andy Griffith as a drunken drifter turned folksy sensation and Patricia Neal as a radio producer. Budd Schulberg, who had previously collaborated with Kazan on the multiple Oscar winner On the Waterfront, adapted his own short story, “Your Arkansas Traveler.”
  • James Cameron's futuristic thriller The Terminator (1984), starring former Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger as a heavily armed, one-track-mind robot, plus Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn as two of his targets.
  • Henry Koster's musical Flower Drum Song (1961), based on Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's 1958 Broadway hit, and, somewhat curiously, described in the National Film Registry's press release as “the first Hollywood studio film featuring performances by a mostly Asian cast, a break from past practice of casting white actors made up to appear Asian.”
“Chinese-American” Juanita Hall sings “Chop Suey” in Flower Drum Song in one of the latest National Film Registry additions.

'Flower Drum Song': East Asians in Hollywood

Flower Drum Song stars Japanese-born Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Myoshi Umeki (Sayonara, 1957), reprising her Tony-nominated Broadway performance as a, ahem, Chinese picture bride recently arrived in San Francisco's Chinatown.

The film's – at least part- – East Asian/Asian-American cast also includes Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Benson Fong, Jack Soo, Reiko Sato, Patrick Adiarte, and Victor Sen Yung. But not, unfortunately, veteran Anna May Wong (Daughter of the Dragon, Shanghai Express), who died in February 1961.

And let's not forget Juanita Hall – about as “Asian American” as Sidney Poitier – who has one of the leading roles in the musical, getting to belt out a dreadful song titled “Chop Suey.” This, three years after playing the “Bali Ha'i”-singing (with Muriel Smith's voice) Southeast Asian Bloody Mary in Joshua Logan's big-screen blockbuster South Pacific.

But then again, there doesn't seem to be any white actors made up to look East Asian in Flower Drum Song.

'Asian-American' Nancy Kwan + Sessue Hayakawa

Something else: Nancy Kwan, described in the Library of Congress' release as an “Asian-American,” was actually born in Hong Kong to British-Chinese parents.

And finally, it's worth remembering that decades before the “groundbreaking” Flower Drum Song came out, Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki were toplining dozens of silent movies. Hayakawa, in fact, was a bona fide Hollywood star, among whose vehicles were well-known titles such as O Mimi San, The Typhoon, and, perhaps most famous of all, Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat – which happens to be a past National Film Registry entry.

Deteriorating ocean

Now in its twentieth year, the National Film Registry includes a total of 500 shorts and features. Sounds like a whole lot, no?

Well, to put things in perspective: in a single year in the 1920s, they produced hundreds of features – up to 700–800, according to some reports.

There's an ocean of film (i.e., cultural) deterioration out there that the National Film Registry does next to nothing to prevent from continuing.

And really, how endangered are studio-owned, DVD/cable-available releases such as Deliverance, Sergeant York, Flower Drum Song, and The Terminator?

Meanwhile, lesser-known cultural gems either lie unseen or are rotting away as you read this.

Beyond the National Film Registry's 1910–1989 cut-off date

Initially, this National Film Registry post included the following statement: “Only films made between 1910–1989 are eligible to be added to the Registry (tough luck for those D.W. Griffith, Edwin S. Porter, Mary Pickford, or Florence Lawrence shorts made in the first decade of the 20th century).”

The above paragraph was removed because the pre-1910/post-1989 limitation was the result of a misreading of the Library of Congress' press release.

In addition to a dozen pre-1910 titles, the National Film Registry also includes 11 post-1989 titles.

A partial list of National Film Registry movies is found in the follow-up post.

Sergeant York Gary Cooper. Howard Hawks 1941 blockbuster added to National Film RegistrySergeant York with Gary Cooper. Starring Best Actor Oscar winner Gary Cooper as a thoroughly Hollywoodized version of Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Alvin York, Howard Hawks' flag-waving 1941 blockbuster Sergeant York, featuring the up-and-coming Joan Leslie as the hero's much younger-looking romantic interest, was one of the 25 National Film Registry additions this year. Eleven years after his Sergeant York win, Cooper would take home his second Best Actor Oscar, for High Noon. His much younger-looking romantic interest in Fred Zinnemann's classic 1952 Western was the up-and-coming Grace Kelly.

National Film Registry additions

The film information below is an abridged version of the info found in the National Film Registry's press release.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950). John Huston's brilliant crime drama contains the recipe for a meticulously planned robbery, but the cast of criminal characters features one too many bad apples.

Deliverance (1972). Four Atlanta professionals (Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, and Jon Voight) head for a weekend canoe trip – and instead meet up with two of the more memorable villains in film history (Billy McKinney and Herbert Coward) in this gripping Appalachian Heart of Darkness.

Disneyland Dream (1956). The Barstow family films a memorable home movie of their trip to Disneyland.

A Face in the Crowd (1957). Before Andy Griffith became a television legend playing a likable small-town sheriff, he portrayed a completely different type of celebrity in this dark look at the way sudden fame and power can corrupt.

Flower Drum Song (1961). Starring prominent Asian-American actors Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta, this milestone film presented an enduring three-dimensional portrait of Asian America as well as a welcomed, non-cliched portrait of Chinatown beyond the usual exotic tourist façades.

Foolish Wives (1922). Director Erich von Stroheim's third feature, staged with costly and elaborate sets of Monte Carlo, tells the story of a criminal who passes himself off as a Russian count in order to seduce women of society and steal their money.

Free Radicals (1979). For his four-minute work Free Radicals (begun in 1958 and completed in 1979), [Len Lye] made scratches directly into the film stock. These scratches became “figures of motion” that appear in the finished film as horizontal and vertical lines and shapes dancing to the music of the Bagirmi tribe in Africa.

Hallelujah (1929). Around themes of religion, sensuality and family stability, [King Vidor] molded a tale of a cotton sharecropper that begins with him losing his year's earnings, his brother and his freedom and follows him through the temptations of a dance hall girl (Nina Mae McKinney).

In Cold Blood (1967). With an unsparing neorealism, director Richard Brooks adapted [Truman Capote]'s novel, focusing on the motivations, backgrounds, and relationship of the killers, society's failure to spot potential murderers, and their eventual execution on death row.

The Invisible Man (1933). In the film, after discovering a drug which provides the secret to invisibility, [Claude Rains] becomes an insane maniac and goes on a power-hungry murder spree.

Johnny Guitar (1954). Often described as the one of the stranger, kinkier Westerns of all time, Nicholas Ray's film-noiresque Johnny Guitar possesses enough symbolism to keep a psychiatrist occupied for years and was a favorite film of French New Wave directors.

The Killers (1946). Director Robert Siodmak took the original Ernest Hemingway short story as the film's opening point and developed it with an elaborate series of flashbacks, creating a classic example of film noir.

The March (1964). Examining the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington from the ground-level and focusing on the idealistic passion, joy and synergy of the crowds, [James] Blue's documentary lets us see the event take shape from the planning stage – with sound checks and worries about whether people will attend – to the arrival of enormous crowds on parades of trains and buses.

No Lies (1973). One of the first films to deal with the way rape victims are treated when they seek professional help for sexual assault, No Lies still possesses a searing resonance and has been widely viewed by nurses, therapists and police officers.

On the Bowery (1957). The film focuses on three of its alcoholic skid row denizens and their marginal existence amid the gin mills, missions and flop houses.

One Week (1920). One of [Buster Keaton]'s finest films and one of the greatest short comedies produced during the 1920s.

The Pawnbroker (1965). The Pawnbroker was the first Hollywood film to depict in a realistic, psychologically probing manner the trauma of a Holocaust survivor, a subject previously taboo because of the fear of poor box office or offending delicate sensitivities.

The Perils of Pauline (1914). Produced in 20 episodes … the series starred Pearl White as a young and wealthy heiress whose ingenuity, self-reliance and pluck enable her to regularly outwit a guardian intent on stealing her fortune.

Sergeant York (1941). Gary Cooper, in one of his favorite roles, … [as] Tennessee pacifist Sgt. Alvin York, who in an Argonne Forest World War I battle single-handedly captured over 130 German soldiers.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Special-effects master Ray Harryhausen provides the hero with fantastic antagonists, including a giant cyclops, fire-breathing dragons, and a sword-wielding animated skeleton, all in glorious Technicolor.

So's Your Old Man (1926). In [Gregory La Cava's] film, [W.C. Fields] plays inventor Samuel Bisbee, who is considered a vulgarian by the town's elite.

George Stevens World War II Footage (1943–1946). [George Stevens] shot many hours of footage chronicling D-Day, including rare extant color film of the European war front; the liberation of Paris; … and the Dachau concentration camp.

The Terminator (1984). The Terminator became one of the sleeper hits of 1984, blending an ingenious, thoughtful script – clearly influenced by the works of sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison – and relentless, non-stop action moved along by an outstanding synthesizer and early techno soundtrack.

Water and Power (1989). In this “city symphony,” [Pat O'Neill] juxtaposes images of downtown Los Angeles with scenes from the Owens Valley, Los Angeles' source of water.

White Fawn's Devotion (1910). Frequently in collaboration with his wife, actress Princess Red Wing (a.k.a.: Lillian St. Cyr), also of Winnebago ancestry, [James Young Deer] is believed to have written and directed more than 100 movies for Pathé from 1910–1913.

 

National Film Registry/Library of Congress website.

Image of Joan Crawford in the National Film Registry addition Johnny Guitar: Republic Pictures.

Image of Gary Cooper in the National Film Registry addition Sergeant York: Warner Bros.

Image of Maude George and Erich von Stroheim in the National Film Registry addition Foolish Wives: Universal Pictures.

Clip of Juanita Hall singing “Chop Suey” in Flower Drum Song: Universal Pictures.

“National Film Registry: Lesbian Western & Asian-American Musical Among Entries” last updated in March 2018.

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