The fact of the United States being a relatively young country may well have something to do with the contiguous fact that the country is often a bit slow to recognize and preserve key artifacts from its history such as buildings, documents,artworks and other things which provide of record of how and why the country came to be as it is.
In light of this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the the U. S took awhile to realize that one of the younger art forms, film, needed also to be protected and preserved, especially since such a high percentage of older films have already been lost (an estimated 50 percent of all films before 1950 and as high as 90 percent of films from the silent era).
Happily, with the backing of the Federal government, the Library of Congress inaugurated a program in 1988 entitled the National Film Registry. Every year since that time twenty five cinematic works have been inducted into the Registry.
What this means is that, by law, these films are to be preserved from the best available elements (a mandatory obligation of the property owner, if any), are to be accessible within reasonable limits, and can not be altered in any way, shape or form (no colorization or editing for commercial television showings).
The entries in the registry include feature films and documentaries, short films, non-professional films, and ephemeral films (yes, some expertly made home movies and such items as the classic movie theater refreshment promo “Let’s Go Out to the Lobby” are treasures).
Unlike the various lists produced by The American Film Institute, which often has a commercial angle attached, the films in the Registry are not put forth as “the best”, “the most”, “the ultimate”, or “the biggest” among other superlatives. They are simply worthy of preservation by virtue of being good U.S made work or which say something pertinent about an aspect of American life.The chosen films must also be at least ten years of age.
There are many films in the Registry which are regularly put on lists with superlatives in the title but many are not. The films in this later group, limited to feature length fiction and nonfiction for the purposes of this article, are the focus of this review.
1. The Thin Blue Line (1986)
Documentaries are rarely high grossing items at the box office, yet what form preserves moments of U.S history better? Television has subsumed a lot of whatever clout feature length documentaries may have had but there have been and still are some notable creative cinematic artists working in the theatrical documentary field.
In recent times, one of the very best is the inventive and skillful Errol Morris. Eventually an Oscar winner, Morris had a devoted coterie of fans among viewers and critics long before the little golden man entered his life (in fact, those fans were enraged a few times before Oscar came around to their way of thinking).
One of Morris’ most striking was The Thin Blue Line, which examined a 1976 murder case in which Randall Dale Adams was accused and convicted of killing a police officer. Due to the sensitive nature of the case, the district attorney’s office had felt that a speedy judgement was in order and pushed through the case ending with a death sentence for Adams. Something about the case disturbed Morris, a one time P.I. then lately turned film maker.
Through the use of incisive interviews and imaginative re-creations (which do not employ actors), Morris demonstrated that Adams could not have committed the murder and also uncovered the fact that five witnesses had perjured themselves at the office of the D.A’s behest. Within a year, Adams was freed.
Sadly, the story does not have a Hollywood ending. Due to legal loopholes, Adams received no compensation from the state for his wrongful imprisonment (nor from the film) and died years later in complete obscurity.
The young man, at the time a juvenile, who most likely did commit the murder was eventually executed for an unrelated heinous crime which could have been prevented had justice been pursued in the Adams case. As for Morris, the film was disqualified from Oscar consideration simply because it was marketed as “nonfiction”.
2. The Docks of New York (1928)
For several generations of film fans and cinema scholars the name Josef von Sternberg was inexorably linked to the actress he discovered and helped turn into a great international star: Marlene Dietrich.
The pair made a legendary cycle of seven films marked by a sophisticated, cynical, amoral tone and the fact that Sternberg knowingly bathed them in remarkable arrays of light and shadows. Thankfully, film historians kept digging and found that Sternberg had made some extraordinary films even before journeying to Berlin in 1930 in order to make The Blue Angel and discover Miss Dietrich.
One of the very best of those films was his last silent, The Docks of New York. Like the vast majority of the end period silents, the film was completely swept aside in favor of the mostly crude and clumsy talkies which replaced them.
The film, set in the roughest part of the New York City waterfront district, centers of a steamship coal stoker (George O’Brien) every bit as rough as the district. One night during time off from his duties, he stumbles upon a distraught woman (Betty Compson) who is trying to drown herself. He saves her and, in order to prevent her going to jail, enters into a legal but otherwise sham marriage.
Though not made implicit, the woman is likely involved in prostitution. Out of this unsentimental situation Sternberg rings one of the most poignant love stories of the silent era, dressed in stunning pictorial images. This is a true treasure.
3. Sherman’s March (1987)
Sherman’s March, which is a documentary, sounds as though it would be an examination of Civil War era events. The film starts off looking to be just that but takes a sharp right turn and keeps on going. The producer-director Ross McElwee (who plays a prominent on screen role in the proceedings) had wanted to create such a historical documentary but his romantic life hit the rocks just as he was getting started.
So, since he couldn’t keep his mind on Sherman’s March to the Sea, he mixed in his Civil War research with portraits of many southern U.S women, all of whom McElwee’s tries to engage in romantic relationships quite unsuccessfully, and also with meditations on the nuclear age. Huh? This sounds so crazy but it ends up deeply personal and the glimpses into the women’s lives vividly illustrates a certain segment of American womanhood.
4. Lonesome (1928)
The unique director-writer Paul Fejos didn’t work in the U.S for many years but he had imagination and visual flair with a wonderful ability to evoke deep emotional involvement in his films.
It is a pity that the prime moment of his career was in the nexus of time when silent films were undone by sound and his films were seen by few and largely forgotten until film historians rediscovered them. One that had figured as a footnote into a number of film histories but has only recently been rediscovered is the part-talkie Lonesome.
Lonesome plays like a happier cousin is the contemporaneous masterpiece The Crowd (1927, King Vidor) in that it examines the lives of two ordinary working class characters. The young man is a laborer and the young woman mans the switchboard at the phone company.
On a blessed non-working Saturday afternoon they both board a special bus advertising a great day at Coney Island. There they meet and fall (rather believably) in love amid many fun little “adventures” until they lose each other in the crowd. It looks to be a sad ending until fate provides a happy twist (anyone familiar with the song “Ring Them Bells” from the musical revue Liza With A Z will know it already).
Lonesome is sweetly life sized and shows a greatly delicate feeling for the lives of average, less than glamorous characters (the leads are played by Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon, who weren’t and never would be stars, but who were appealing).
The film features two facets which might be construed as gimmicks, the use of hand colored stenciling in some scenes (which does serve to heighten the characters’ excitement) and a few talkie sequences (which, honestly, detract a bit). Fejos left Hollywood two years later when the expensive Broadway failed to make a big splash at the box office but he did leave behind this small, found again gem.
5. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
There have been gay people ever since there has been a world, let alone gay Americans since there has been a United States of America. As anyone familiar with the history of those with non-heterosexual preferences knows, however, that did not at all means that such people were treated with respect or dignity or allowed to have the rights that other, ostensibly more mainstream people were allowed to enjoy.
Though there is still a ways to go, the rights which that segment of the population enjoy today were won by those who were brave enough to stand up and fight for them. One of these people was Harvey Milk, a somewhat average gay man who won a place in the San Francisco City Hall as the city’s first openly gay supervisor (shocking in that one of the most gay friendly cities in the U.S wouldn’t have had this event take place until the 1970s). He fought endlessly for gay rights until a disgruntled city employee who had decided to kill the mayor and was also, as it happened, homophobic, killed Milk along with the mayor.
The event set off a wave of mourning in the gay community and this Oscar winning film was the result. In 2008, gay director Gus Van Sant would again tell Milk’s story in his Oscar winning film Milk with Sean Penn giving an excellent award winning performance in the title role.
However, even that film, fine though it is, can’t replicate the feeling engendered by this documentary with shows the real Milk and interviews the real people involved in his story. Milk was an ordinary man in many ways, even in his gayness. However, he was extraordinary in his courage and the way he stood for the things he believed to be right. That is worth preserving.
6. Morocco (1930)
Josef von Sternberg returns, this time with Marlene Dietrich. After The Blue Angel opened to rapturous success in Europe, Paramount, the Hollywood studio which financed the film through its stock in the German company UFA, brought director and star to Hollywood, Their first American film, Morocco, opened before the (clumsily re-edited in English) first film made its U.S debut.
No matter, for Morocco was a smash hit with the film praised for its stunning cinematography and the director’s visual styles which evoke North Africa expertly though neither the crew nor Sternberg ever journeyed even remotely near that location.
Sternberg often told interviewers that content meant nothing to him and this film is proof. The story takes place in a small Moroccan town located near a Foreign Legion post. Among the legionnaires is American Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) who, like all such men in that service (in the movies, anyway) has a past and no future and is making merry with the native women every chance he gets and most arrogantly, too.
Enter French musical artist Amy Jolly (Miss Dietrich), who has a past and no future but can have a pretty posh present depending on whether or not she sells her wares (so to speak) or gives them away. (In fact, she performs the song “What Am I Bid For My Apples?”, which wouldn’t have been in the film if it had been made after the code.).
Enter then La Bessiere (Adolph Menjou), a civilized man who bids for her apples. However, the attitudinal hold of Brown over her (though she maintains one straight face about it) proves strong indeed.
This film is all style and no substance but all the better for it. Somehow Dietrich received an Oscar nomination (as did Sternberg) though she’s used mostly as a camera object. The attitude displayed in the film is also a bit disconcerting with the purple-ish story playing out with the characters addressing each other in the most formal of manners at all times. Then there’s Amy in a tuxedo kissing another woman on the lips during a musical number….. Now, isn’t all that worth preserving?