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He Went Out In a Blaze!

In the film “White Heat” (1949), James Cagney plays a gangster who trusts no one but the woman with whom he is obsessed – his mother. This psychological crime thriller predates many other films of the genre that take a close look at the mind of a criminal.

Film still from “White Heat” (1949) Film still from “National Velvet (1944)

In December 2003, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington named “White Heat” as one of 25 films added to the National Film Registry, which now lists 375 films deemed to have sufficient cultural, historical or aesthetical significance to be worthy of preservation. The list is designed to reflect the full breadth and diversity of America's film heritage, thus increasing public awareness of the richness of American cinema and the need for its preservation. In making the announcement, the Librarian said, “Our film heritage is America's living past. It celebrates the creativity and inventiveness of diverse communities and our nation as a whole. By preserving American films, we safeguard a significant element of our cultural history.”

Rather than being a list of the “best” films (though many on the list are worthy of that designation), the National Film Registry aims to call attention to the critical need to preserve America’s film heritage by naming films that have made important contributions to film history.

The complete list of films for 2003 is at The Library of Congress has one of the largest collections of moving images in the world. The Library of Congress began collecting motion pictures in 1893, when Thomas Edison and his brilliant assistant W.K.L. Dickson deposited the Edison Kinetoscopic Records for copyright. However, because of the difficulty of safely storing the flammable nitrate film used at the time, the Library retained only the descriptive material relating to motion pictures. In 1942, recognizing the importance of motion pictures and the need to preserve them as a historical record, the Library began the collection of the films themselves. From 1949 on, these included films made for television. Today the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division has responsibility for the acquisition, cataloging and preservation of the motion picture and television collections. The division operates the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room to provide access and information services to an international community of film and television professionals, archivists, scholars and researchers.

You can learn more about film conservation at This page contains links to an article by the former chief of the division, David Francis, as well as a list of the previous films on the National Film Registry.

The Library is a leader in the field of film preservation. The new National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) in Culpeper, Va., is scheduled to open in two phases in 2004 and 2005. It will enable the Library for the first time to consolidate its existing moving image and recorded sound collections in a single, centralized facility. Currently these collections are housed in four states and the District of Columbia.

Many of the earliest films are online in the American Memory Web site of more than 120 thematic collections. By going to the Collection Finder page you can access all the presentations in American Memory that contain motion pictures. To do this, go to the “Original Format” box on the right side of the page and click on “Motion Pictures.” From 19th century films of Thomas Edison to 20th century television advertisements for Coca-Cola – these and more are viewable at the click of your mouse.

A. Film still from “White Heat” (1949). Reproduction information: May not be reproduced.

B. Film still from “National Velvet (1944). Reproduction information: May not be reproduced.

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