Preserving Exemplary American Films

Keeping culturally influential films in good shape is no easy task. It is costly, and can require huge efforts just to track down films that may have become damaged, or have become hard to find – in whole or in bits and pieces.

In a project designed to assure preservation of the highest caliber to a select group of films, 25 American films are admitted each year to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

A still from one of the selected films, the Westinghouse proto-infomercial "The Middleton Family Goes to the New York World's Fair" made in 1939. Image: Photo: Library of Congress
In December 2012, the Library named the latest batch of motion pictures to be added to the collection. That ensured high-quality, long-term preservation of prints of each film in safe, atmospherically stable archives – or, at least, concerted efforts to track down elements of films to collate into a full copy for secure storage.

With passage of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988, Congress established the collection to highlight the importance of preserving America’s film heritage.

The Act was passed in response to the rising trend of colorization of classic films, which was gathering pace. Its chief practitioner, and proponent, was media mogul Ted Turner, who announced plans to subject hundreds of MGM, RKO, and Warner Bros. films to the process after buying them to air on his television network. Turner claimed that his project was in response to audience demand – the audience being, presumably, viewers of his cable-television network. Although not the first person to colorize films, he was the first to announce plans to do it en masse.

A Library of Congress Program Ensures the Survival of Exemplary American Films from the Whole History of Motion Pictures

The Writers Guild of America West denounced his project – calculated to make heaps of money – as “cultural vandalism.” Film makers, film workers from directors to grips, and movie aficionados – in fact, anyone who cared about preserving America’s cultural heritage – agreed.

Members of Congress, apparently convinced that majority opinion opposed colorization, passed a bill that “prohibits any person from knowingly distributing or exhibiting to the public a film that has been materially altered, or a black and white film that has been colorized and is included in the Registry, unless such films are labeled disclosing specified information.”

The rationale behind the registry is emphasized each year at the time of the announcement of new additions, and James M. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, did so in December: “These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring importance to American culture. They reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.”

Judy Holliday plays the not-so-dumb "dumb blonde" Billie Dawn in In George Cukor’s 1950 comedy, "Born Yesterday," based on Garson Kanin’s play.
The now-600 films in the registry span the years 1897 to 1999. Among them are Hollywood classics, documentaries, early films, and independent and experimental motion pictures. Under the terms of the enabling legislation, the Librarian of Congress names up to 25 films to it. They must be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant, and at least 10 years old.

The Librarian makes the annual selections to the registry based on recommendations from the National Film Preservation Board. The Board offers its recommendations after reviewing thousands of titles nominated by the public and Library staff. The NFPB was created as a result of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 and serves as an advisory body to the Librarian of Congress. In 1996, a reauthorization of the Act established the National Film Preservation Foundation, an independent, non-profit charity affiliated with the NFPB which raises private funds to help American archives preserve films and make them publicly available.

Good prints or “elements” (parts) of prints do not exist for every film in the registry, although the chances are better for more recent films. Why should the registry include more recent films, like this year’s selection of the 1999 blockbuster hit, The Matrix?  Disasters, such as fires or floods, are always possible, putting even modern films at risk. Master printing elements can become worn or damaged. Tastes may change over time. Business models may change. A blockbuster in 1999 may be fodder for the trash heap in 2099. The likelihood of audiences being able to see today’s films a century from now increases considerable when preserved prints reside within secure archives of the national library.

Hope Hampton in Kodachrome Color Motion Picture Tests (1922). Image: Library of Congress
The philosophy and mandate of the registry is, then, to ensure that a film’s indefinite survival even if the original source does not survive. l. Among the benefits of selection is that the Library of Congress’s state-of-the-art Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation preserves the films, or collaborates with other archives, motion picture studios, and independent filmmakers equipped to do that work. The Packard Campus, home to 6 million collection items, supports the Library of Congress’s film-preservation activities, as well as its recorded-sound preservation. The Packard Campus also serves the NFPB and registry’s audio counterpart, the National Recording Preservation Board and National Recording Registry.

Generally, films donated by the movie studios arrive in new or little-used state, sometimes recently preserved by their owners. But many selected films survive only as poor prints. In those cases, the Library may seek out a number of printing elements to use before undertaking preservation, although such restoration is not the norm. Standard procedure is to locate the best material available, and work with the owners to have the material donated to the Library’s registry collection. “These elements are not touched; they are not circulated or loaned,” generally not even to other archives to duplicate, says Donna Ross, the boards assistant for the NFPB. “They are meant to be masters. They are stored in the best possible conditions, in the best possible cans, and checked regularly for signs of deterioration. Or if they were mastered and donated in digital formats, they are backed up and migrated regularly.”

Child actors in one of several instalments of "The Kidnappers Foil" series. Image: Library of Congress
In some cases, only part of a selected film is known to exist, but that does not deter the Library. “Lost films are always being found,” Ross explains, “so that doesn’t deter us from putting a ‘lost’ film on the list.” Registry staff will do what they can to find elements of any chosen film. “At times it’s tough,” Ross allows. But whatever the outcome, “our goal is to preserve the films, even if it takes many years or we are eventually unsuccessful.”

By general agreement, at the time the registry was set up, before the popularity of home video, film studios did not universally do a good job of protecting their assets. They did not always store their material in adequate environmental conditions or keep detailed records of their holdings.

Glenn Ford – as the baddie? In "3:10 to Yuma," one of this year's additions to the registry
That situation has improved, but of course that does not mean that innumerable films, including some of those that the registry desires, are not at risk of being lost forever. “We will do whatever is in our power, and the power Congress gives us, through appropriations, to safeguard those films,” says Ross. “Sometimes registry designation will help films get preserved. It may allow the owners to go to a funding source and get support there.” A few years ago, for example, the Librarian named to the registry a Red Cross film, Heroes All, from 1920, which depicted World War I veterans receiving treatment at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington DC, and visiting Arlington National Cemetery. While not particularly professionally made, says Ross, the historic aspects of the film warrant its preservation. “Having it named to the registry gives it a certain cachet which may help the owner go to a potential funder and say this is important to Red Cross history, and we need help to have it preserved,” Ross says. To support such efforts, the National Film Preservation Foundation, the granting organization affiliated with the NFPB, can provide money for restorations.

Scott Nixon, director of "The Augustas," at the Grand Canyon
Because films’ rights holders are under no obligation to donate film elements to the registry collection, Library staff must ultimately rely on the largesse of owners and the reputation of the library, and on owners’ belief in the registry as a resource for the common good. In most cases films’ owners cooperate but some, for example makers of small independent films, are financially constrained. “We will do our best to work with them,” says Ross. “We may not be able to give them money outright, but we may be able to steer them towards a grant to get a copy made, or connect them to a private donor to fund that. It’s definitely a collaborative process.”

Frequently at risk are “orphan films” – those no longer copyright protected or having commercial value. Also often in jeopardy are independent and avant-garde films – those made by producers other than major studios. They’re often held at smaller institutions whose funding may be less than secure. The Library of Congress works with such holders, too, and sometimes with living filmmakers or surviving family members.

Prints of selected films aren’t much use if no machinery exists to view them. So the Library also keeps a large store of tape decks, flatbed viewers, film printers, projectors, and other machinery that it can cannibalize when parts are needed to repair rare or obsolete equipment used in the preservation process. Technicians who can operate and repair such machinery are also becoming obsolete creating yet another preservation challenge.

Difficulties will only increase with film that is “born digital,” or that is experimental in format as well as content. Born-digital film might appear to be easy to maintain – all you’d need is a computer, surely? No – files and the programs and equipment they were made with must constantly be checked for operability; or, files must constantly be migrated to emerging software and hardware platforms.

An early advertising poster for one of this year's selections, "Sons of the Desert," a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy
Computer programs and equipment rapidly become obsolete. That is one of the banes of film preservation in the era of digitization.

As more and more “films” are made in multi-genre formats that may include elements of installation and even performance, not only will “film” becomes harder to define, but preservation will become more and more challenging.

The registry aims to reflect the geography, ethnography, and cultural variety of the United States. This year for example, as the summaries of selections below illustrates. “We can’t always cover every genre or sub-genre, or demographic group, but we try to make balanced selections,” says Ross.

The registry has plenty of work ahead of it, and worthy titles to collect, says Ross. “We see fantastic collections that are languishing in bad facilities, or are tied up with rights holders. It can be really heartbreaking.”

[Believe a film is worthy of being placed in the registry? Nominate it at the NFPF’s website You can check by year and title whether a film has already been added online, and you can also see a list of some films not yet nominated and to which countless films might be added).

– Peter Monaghan

2012 selection includes classics, documentaries, and independent and experimental films

The baddies hover; a still from "3:10 to Yuma"
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Delmer Daves’ innovative 1950s western, based on an Elmore Leonard story, starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in roles cast against type. It now looks progressive for its insights into the minds of its two protagonists under pressure. Frankie Laine sang the popular, eponymous theme song.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Otto Preminger’s crime-and-trial film, starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, and Lee Remick and shot on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, frankly addressed adult themes and deployed blunt language. Its drama, suspense, and insights into the legal system endure. It boasts a score by Duke Ellington and a memorable Saul Bass opening title sequence.

The Augustas (1930s-1950s)
A 16-minute silent in which Scott Nixon records his travels as a Augusta, Ga.-based salesman. The avid member of the Amateur Cinema League documented streets, storefronts, and cities named Augusta from Montana to Maine. He arranged his images, shot in black and white on 8mm and 16mm, and drawn from 26,000 feet of film now held at the University of South Carolina, to contrast their august name and the unspectacular nature of small-town, everyday Americana.

Scenes from Scott Lucas's "The Augustas," from footage collected between the 1930 and 1950s from cities and towns of Augusta, around the United States.Scott Nixon visited these Augustas, and many others. Images: University of South Carolina, Moving Image Research Collections


Born Yesterday (1950)
In George Cukor’s enduring comedy classic, based on Garson Kanin’s play, Judy Holliday (in photo to left) is not-so-dumb “dumb blonde” Billie Dawn. A satire on Washington DC corruption, it charmingly and wittily addresses class, gender, social standing, and American politics. It brought Holliday an Academy Award for Best Actress. This trailer tells some of the tale.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
To get a film made of Truman Capote’s acclaimed bitter novella of self-invented Manhattan call girl Holly Golightly, screenwriter George Axelrod and director Blake Edwards stripped away risqué dialogue, an unhappy ending, and explicit references to Holly’s livelihood. They added romance to create what Capote called “a mawkish valentine to New York City” starring Audrey Hepburn – “just wrong for the part” – rather than his preferred Marilyn Monroe. Audiences have disagreed, including feminist critics who value Hepburn’s compelling intelligence, curiosity, and impetuosity as it belied a knowingly false facade and served as an alternative to the 1950s sultry siren. Acclaimed have been Edwards’ visual gags and skillful navigation of abrupt tone changes, Henry Mancini’s classic “Moon River” featuring Johnny Mercer lyrics – Mancini applauded Hepburn’s wistful guitar rendition.

A Christmas Story (1983)
Humorist Jean Shepherd narrates a film based on his 1966 short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash which originated on his radio and television programs and relates growing up in 1940s Indiana hoping, for example, for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Writer-director Bob Clark capped his long-held desire to make a movie of the stories with astute understanding of human nature and expertly realized recreation of nostalgic detail and period flavor. A grinning, cherub-cheeked, oversize-spectacled Peter Billingsley portrays Shepherd as a boy with Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon as his harried-yet-lovable parents. This trailer gives you a sense of why the fellow on the right looks so exercised.

The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Title Fight (1897)
Footage of championship boxing matches, the most popular American sport of the era even though banned in many states, sparked the commercial success of late 19th century movies. This film records a title fight staged in Carson City just after Nevada legalized boxing in 1897. The 100-minute film – the longest of its day – shows introductions of famous personalities and all 14 three-minute rounds and one-minute breaks. Because the fight lasted longer than others on film, it generated $750,000 for the producers and fighters during its several-year distribution. As boxing0film producers commonly did, Corbett-Fitzsimmons’ producers protected against piracy by engineering a film printer and projector of an unusual, proprietary size – in this case, 63mm that had to run on a “Veriscope” projector.

Dirty Harry (1971)
Don Siegel directed rogue cop Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in an action-packed paean to vigilante justice marked. A model for 1970s gritty cop dramas, it made Eastwood’s career and was a top-10 hit. For championing the era’s outcry against suspects’ rights, some critics called it “fascistic”; Eastwood countered that the procedure-disregarding Callahan was “a fantasy character” who “does all the things people would like to do in real life but can’t” and thus put the “rights of the victim” above those of the accused.

"Hours for Jerome." Image: Nathaniel Dorsky
Hours for Jerome: Parts 1 and 2 (1980-82)
The title of Nathaniel Dorsky’s silent tone poem evokes the medieval devotional “Book of Hours.” The 45-minute film loosely records the day-to-day life of the filmmaker and his partner as an arrangement of images, energies, and illuminations. Dorsky, whom Film Comment named in 2010 as filmmaker of the decade, specified projection at silent speed (17-20 frames per second instead of the usual 24 for sound film). That, he wrote, “is to strip them of their ability to open the heart and speak properly to their audience. Not only is the specific use of time violated, but the flickering threshold of cinema’s illusion—a major player in these works—is obscured.”

Child actors in one of several version of "The Kidnappers Foil" series. Image: Library of Congress
The Kidnappers Foil (1930s-1950s)
Dallas native Melton Barker spent three decades traveling through southern and central U.S. making two-reel films in which children acted, sang, and danced in variants of his “The Kidnappers Foil.” He offered cheap acting lessons to children and then had mobs of them – ages 3 to 12 – act in his melodrama about a girl kidnapped from her birthday party and rescued by kids whom townsfolk rewarded with a party where the kids showcased their musical talents. Barker then cashed in on screenings of each 15- to 20-minute film. Most prints have disappeared, but some have turned up in vintage movie houses or local historical societies. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image has a collection and hosts Internet resources for their long-ago actors.

Kodachrome Color Motion Picture Tests (1922)
Under the direction of Kodak scientist John Capstaff, Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, produced this green-blue and red demonstration reel to showcase the complex Kodachrome color process. It featured leading actresses posing and miming in colorful high fashion. One wore costumes from The Light in the Dark, the first commercial feature to incorporate Kodachrome takes.

Mae Murray, in the Kodachrome tests. Image: Library of Congress
Until then, color was generally added to 35mm prints filmed on black-and-white film stock through complicated, costly methods – separate colors were either hand-painted on individual frames, or they were added by applying colors via overlaid, mechanically produced stencils. By the early 1900s, however, chemists in several countries experimented with film coloration and film stocks. Technicolor from 1912 and Eastman Kodak from 1914 led the way in the U.S. Many major-studio features incorporated two-color sequences using Kodachrome and Technicolor film stocks until three-strip Technicolor became the standard in the late 1930s.

A League of Their Own (1992)
Director Penny Marshall used the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954) as a backdrop for her heartfelt comedy-drama, whose ensemble cast includes Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell. Through an little known episode in American sports history, the film examines women’s changing roles during wartime.

The Matrix (1999)
The complex science-fiction, man-against-machine blockbuster boasted advanced special effects, production design, and computer-generated animation as it told a story steeped in mythological, literary, and philosophical allusions. In depicting a revolt against a conspiratorial regime, it drew on the visual style of Hong Kong action films and Japanese anime films. Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and visual effects supervisor John Gaeta (whose efforts won him an Academy Award) altered sci-fi filmmaking practices with innovative digital techniques that turbo-boosted action sequences. They exploited a digitally enhanced simulation of variable-speed cinematography to control time and movement within images.

The fair to which the Middletons went. Image: Library of Congress
The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939)
Produced by Westinghouse for the 1939 World’s Fair, industrial film is a striking, moralistic hour-long time capsule of that historic event. The Technicolor film follows a fictional Indiana family that ventures from grandma’s quaint Long Island home to the fair’s popular pavilions. As the family enjoys the futuristic technologies in the Westinghouse Pavilion (including newfangled “television”), daughter Babs (a young Marjorie Lord) sours on her foreign-born, anti-capitalistic boyfriend in favor of a hometown electrical engineer fair-worker.

One Survivor Remembers (1995)
In Kary Antholis’s Academy Award-winning documentary short, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein recounts the six-year ordeal that began when, at 16, Nazi troops invaded Poland. Her whole family were sent to concentration and slave labor camps; only she survived. Antholis mixed film of key locations of Klein’s story with interviews and personal photographs, and considers how her experience shaped the rest of her life. Its simple, powerful eloquence “approaches poetry,” said the Chicago Tribune.

Parable (1964)
Little remarked by film history, 1930s Protestant groups made non-theatrical films that offered gospel-inspired alternatives to sinful Hollywood. Parable, one of the most acclaimed, debuted at the Protestant and Orthodox Center at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Without dialogue or subtitles, it relied on music and allegory to represent the “Circus as the World,” in the words of Rolf Forsberg, who wrote and directed with Tom Rook. Their film depicts Jesus as an enigmatic, chalk-white, skull-capped circus clown who takes on the sufferings of oppressed workers, women, and minorities. Fair president Robert Moses tried to exclude it; some fair organizers resigned; one minister threatened to blast screenings with a shotgun. But viewers overwhelmingly voted to keep the Fellini- and Bergman-inspired film running as one of the fair’s most popular attractions. Newsweek proclaimed it “very probably the best film at the fair.” It received the 1966 Religious Film Award of the National Catholic Theatre Conference, and honors at Cannes, Venice, and Edinburgh film festivals before becoming popular in both liberal and conservative churches.

Director Rolf Forsberg discusses the controversy that met his film:


Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia (1990)
International relief worker Ellen Bruno’s Stanford University master’s thesis documents Cambodians’ struggle to rebuild their shattered society after Pol Pot’s killing fields. “Samsara,” a Sanskrit term meaning “circle” or “wheel,” is commonly translated as “cycle of existence.” Bruno used ancient Buddhist teachings and folklore in his poetic, heartbreaking film, which brought a humanistic perspective to the political chaos of Southeast Asia. He intertwined mundane and spiritual Khmer life. One reviewer reflected: “The meditative pacing, the rhythm of bells and chimes, the luxuriant green landscape, the otherworldly response to horrific recent history—I was transported.”

Slacker (1991)
A touchstone in the blossoming of American independent cinema during the 1990s, this free-floating narrative film follows an engaging assortment of characters in Austin, Texas, through a single day of rumination on UFOs, Scooby Doo, Leon Czolgosz, and much else. Shot on 16mm film with a budget of $23,000, director Richard Linklater dispensed with a structured plot in favor of interconnected vignettes and created a charmingly quirky film that has influenced a generation of independent filmmakers.

Sons of the Desert (1933)
Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Charley Chase star in this riotous Hal Roach Studios comedy of fraternity and marital mishaps. Veteran comedy director William A. Seiter incorporated many Laurel & Hardy short-subject comedic effects into the feature-length film, the duo’s finest, which rose to the box-office top 10.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
When restored for DVD in 2004, the New York Times called this film “a story of black insurrection too strong for 1973.” Based on Sam Greenlee’s controversial 1969 best-seller and with a subtle jazz score by Herbie Hancock, it depicts a black man who, after being hired to integrate the CIA, turns his counter-revolutionary training to black-nationalist revolution on American streets. Responding to criticism that it sanctioned violence, United Artists pulled it after a successful three-week theater run. But the Washington Post’s Adrienne Manns, a black-student-movement veteran, said it “lends humanity to persons who are usually portrayed as vicious, savage, sub-humans” for terrorizing their own communities. Director Ivan Dixon, known for roles in “Hogan’s Heroes” and as the lead in Nothing But a Man (1964), believed it offered no “real solution” to racial injustice, but projected “a fantasy that everybody felt, every black male particularly.”



They Call It Pro Football (1966)
This “Citizen Kane of sports movies” surpassed the highlight-reel, oom-pah-marching-band football films that had preceded it. In 1964, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, with his public-relation background, agreed to the formation of NFL Films as a medium for boosting the league through TV mystique. They Call It Pro Football, NFL Films’ first feature, cast the game in dramaturgical terms – as struggle, not merely outcome. Writer-producer Steve Sabol and director John Hentz, with commanding narrator John Facenda and composer Sam Spence, deployed telephoto lenses, slow motion, and sweeping ground-to-sky shots to cast players as heroic and the games as surprisingly intricate and graceful. They miked coaches and players to let their audience in on strategy and emotion. An NFL Films article about They Call It Pro Football includes a video about the making of the film.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Harvey Milk, in a still from "The Times of Harvey Milk"
With news clips and archival footage interspersed with personal reminiscences, Rob Epstein’s film recounts the life of San Francisco’s first openly gay city official. The film, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, traces Milk’s ascent from Bay Area businessman to political prominence as city supervisor and his 1978 assassination. It documents the nascent gay rights movement of the 1970s and the role in it of Harvey Milk’s indomitable spirit.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
After the success of 1960s youth-oriented films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and especially Easy Rider, Hollywood executives threw money at a spate of innovative low-budget films by “New Hollywood” innovators who embraced the visions of playwright Samuel Beckett and European filmmakers Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette, and Michelangelo Antonioni. The minimalist classic Two-Lane Blacktop follows two obsessed but laconic young drivers of a souped-up 1955 Chevy (singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) as they cross-country race a 1970 Pontiac GTO driven by a loquacious, middle-aged, self-reinventing driver (Warren Oates). A 17-year-old drifter (Laurie Bird) joins them and disrupts their masculine world of speed, mastery, and competition. Director Monte Hellman and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer unfold spare landscapes, car-culture rituals, and existential encounters to reflect on the myth of road-life freedom.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914)
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel was adapted for the stage in 1853 and continuously performed in the U.S. well into the 20th century. It was often adapted to movies after 1900, but always with white lead actors until this version, believed to be the first American feature film with a black lead. Actor, musician, singer, and songwriter Sam Lucas had won fame for vaudeville and minstrel shows produced by Charles Frohman whose breakthrough 1878 stage version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin featured Lucas as lead; 36 years later, the World Producing Corp lured Lucas out of retirement to recreate the role on film and to set an important milestone in American movie history.

Image: World Film Company
The Wishing Ring; An Idyll of Old England (1914)
Director Maurice Tourneur – “one of the men who introduced visual beauty to the American screen,” according to film historian Kevin Brownlow – arrived in America in 1914 after working as an assistant to sculptor Auguste Rodin and painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes), and winning notice as an actor and innovative director in French theater and cinema. The Wishing Ring, his third American film, was admired for its lighting, cross-class romantic story, and “Old England” settings shot in New Jersey. Silent-cinema historians have lionized it for the sophistication of its camerawork, lighting, and editing. One, Richard Koszarski, called it “probably the high point of American cinema up to that time.” It was believed lost until Brownlow located a 16mm print in northern England. The Library of Congress copied it to 35mm with a National Endowment for the Arts film-preservation grant.


– Article by Peter Monaghan; film descriptions adapted from Library of Congress National Film Registry release

Categories: FeaturesOf Special Interest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Moving Image Archive News