U.S. ethnic minorities on film: From ‘The Negro Soldier’ to ‘El Mariachi’
(See previous post: “Controversial Black Musical Selected: Porgy and Bess.”) Inevitably, the National Film Registry made quite a bit of room for films that in some or way other focus on ethnic minorities in the United States. Besides Porgy and Bess, added to the roster were The Negro Soldier, the Nicholas Brothers’ home movies, Hester Street, Stand and Deliver, and El Mariachi. Below is a bit more info about each film.
- The Frank Capra-produced, pro-racial tolerance, “support the war effort and enlist,” World War II documentary The Negro Soldier (1944) is of interest partly because several of Capra’s movies featured black stereotypes. The Negro Soldier was directed by Stuart Heisler, perhaps best known for the 1942 Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake crime drama The Glass Key.
- The Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s–1940s) features dancers Fayard and Harold Nicholas (Down Argentine Way, The Pirate).
- Joan Micklin Silver’s low-budget Hester Street (1975) earned Carol Kane a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a Central European Jewish immigrant.
- Ramón Menéndez’s Stand and Deliver (1988) earned Edward James Olmos a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as a real-life-based, East Los Angeles high-school math teacher. Also in the cast: Lou Diamond Phillips and Andy Garcia.
- Set on the U.S.-Mexican border, Robert Rodriguez’s student film El Mariachi (1992) was purportedly made for $7,000.
Women on film
Besides the aforementioned Hester Street and Norma Rae, women are also at the forefront of the following National Film Registry selections:
- Julia Reichert and Jim Klein’s documentary Growing Up Female (1971), in which six women discuss their lives and the women’s lib movement.
- The recently deceased George Kuchar’s experimental short I, an Actress (1977), which is available on YouTube.
- Chick Strand’s documentary Fake Fruit Factory (1986), about Mexican women who create ornamental papier-mâché fruits and vegetables.
Gays & lesbians ignored
It seems that no titles focusing on gay, lesbian, bisexual, multisexual, etc., or transgender characters – whether male or female – were included on this year’s National Film Registry roster.
As usual, political correctness will only go so far.
Anyhow, more interesting than p.c. choices was the inclusion of the 1953 crime thriller The Big Heat and the 1912 silent short comedy A Cure for Pokeritis.
‘The Big Heat’: Sensational Gloria Grahame
Directed by Fritz Lang from a screenplay by Sydney Boehm (based on former Philadelphia crime reporter William P. McGivern’s Saturday Evening Post serial, published in novel form in 1953), The Big Heat is likely the best – and most disturbing – crime drama of the decade.
In top form, Glenn Ford stars as a homicide police detective in the fictional city of Kenport, while Gloria Grahame is sensational as a “gun moll.” Also in the cast: Marlon Brando’s sister Jocelyn Brando as Ford’s wife, Jeanette Nolan as a cop’s widow, Dorothy Green as the same cop’s mistress, and Alexander Scourby as a mob boss.
It’s truly a crime (bad pun intended) that Gloria Grahame wasn’t at the very least nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, especially in a year topped by a fluffy Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
Early John Bunny & Flora Finch comedy
Toplining John Bunny and Flora Finch, A Cure for Pokeritis shows how a man’s gambling habit is “cured” after his wife, with the assistance of members of a Bible study group, stages a fake police raid on his weekly poker game.
The chubby Bunny and the skinny Finch were an odd and widely popular movie couple in the years before World War I. Their movie partnership – and Bunny’s film career – came to an abrupt end in 1914. Bunny, who had previously been a minor stage comic, died of a kidney ailment at age 51 in April of the following year.
The New York Times’ brief obit paid homage to Bunny’s screen persona, asserting, “Thousands who had never heard him speak, in numberless towns he had never visited, recognized him as the living symbol of wholesome merriment.”
National Film Registry: Last batch
Here are the remaining National Film Registry 2011 titles:
- George Nichols’ socially conscious melodrama The Cry of the Children (1912), from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem and featuring future filmmaker James Cruze (of the 1920s blockbuster The Covered Wagon).
- Jordan Belson’s five-minute 1961 short Allures, “inspired by Eastern spiritual thought.”
- Robert Drew’s Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), about Governor George Wallace’s attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling in the University of Alabama.
- Future Pixar visual effects artist Ed Catmull’s one-minute short A Computer Animated Hand (1972).
‘Hopes and dreams’
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who selected the 25 movies out of 2,228 titles submitted by the public, stated that “our film heritage must be protected because these cinematic treasures document our history and culture and reflect our hopes and dreams.”
It all sounds very, very nice. But in spite of my film lover credentials, it’s hard to get excited about the National Film Registry choices. After all, who in their right mind is afraid that Paramount and Disney won’t be “protecting” Forrest Gump and Bambi in the decades to come?
Meanwhile, hundreds of lesser-known but no less “culturally significant” American motion pictures – many of them feature films, which would be much more costly to preserve than one- or five-minute shorts – lie in vaults, some already rotting away for lack of preservation funds.
Additionally, no matter how lofty it sounds, the National Film Registry’s mission to protect “our film heritage” for future generations doesn’t necessarily mean the movies in question will be made available for viewing on DVD or VOD or cable TV or online.
Studios still own the rights to most post-1923 releases. If the vast majority of them are lying in a vault somewhere, the all-powerful suits couldn’t care less.
But hey, one can always hope and dream that one day our hopes and dreams, etc.
The Negro Soldier poster: War Activities Committee of the Motion Pictures Industry.
Gloria Grahame The Big Heat image: Columbia Pictures.
“The Negro Soldier & El Mariachi Added to NFR But Gays & Lesbians Bypassed” last updated in January 2019.