Brief Descriptions and Expanded Essays of National Film Registry Titles
Brief descriptions of each Registry title can be found here, and expanded essays are available for select titles. The authors of these essays are experts in film history, and their works appear in books, newspapers, magazines and online. Some of these essays originated in other publications and are reprinted here by permission of the author. Other essays have been written specifically for this website. The views expressed in these essays are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Library of Congress.
In most cases, the images linked to Registry titles listed below were selected from the Library's Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, however some are drawn from other Library collections.
7th Heaven (1927)
"Seventh Heaven" (also referred to as "7th Heaven"), directed by Frank Borzage and based on the play by Austin Strong, tells the story of Chico (Charles Farrell), the Parisian sewer worker-turned-street cleaner, and his wife Diane (Janet Gaynor), who are separated during World War I, yet whose love manages to keep them connected. "Seventh Heaven" was initially released as a silent film but proved so popular with audiences that it was re-released with a synchronized soundtrack later that same year. The popularity of the film resulted in it becoming one of the most commercially successful silent films as well as one of the first films to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. Janet Gaynor, Frank Borzage, and Benjamin Glazer won Oscars for their work on the film, specifically awards for Best Actress, Best Directing (Dramatic Picture), and Best Writing (Adaptation), respectively. "Seventh Heaven" also marked the first time often-paired stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell worked together.
Expanded essay by Aubrey Solomon (PDF, 694KB)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Special-effects master Ray Harryhausen provides the hero (Kerwin Mathews) with a villanous magician (Torin Thatcher) and fantastic antagonists, including a genie, giant cyclops, fire-breathing dragons, and a sword-wielding animated skeleton, all in glorious Technicolor. And of course no mythological tale would be complete without the rescue of a damsel in distress, here a princess (Kathryn Grant) that the evil magician shrinks down to a mere few inches. Harryhausen's stunning Dynamation process, which blended stop-motion animation and live-actions sequences, and a thrilling score by Bernard Herrmann ("Psycho," "The Day the Earth Stood Still") makes this one of the finest fantasy films of all time.
Expanded essay by Tony Dalton (PDF, 900KB)
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Considered to be one of the best westerns of the 1950s, "3:10 to Yuma" has gained in stature since its original release as audiences have recognized the progressive insight the film provides into the psychology of its two main characters that becomes vividly exposed during scenes of heightened tension. Frankie Laine sang the film's popular theme song, also titled "3:10 to Yuma." Often compared favorably with "High Noon," this innovative western from director Delmer Daves starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in roles cast against type and was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.
12 Angry Men (1957)
In the 1950s, several television dramas acted live over the airways won such critical acclaim that they were also produced as motion pictures; among those already honored by the National Film Registry is "Marty" (1955). Reginald Rose had adapted his original stage play "12 Angry Men" for Studio One in 1954, and Henry Fonda decided to produce a screen version, taking the lead role and hiring director Sidney Lumet, who had been directing for television since 1950. The result is a classic. Filmed in a spare, claustrophobic style—largely set in one jury room—the play relates a single juror's refusal to conform to peer pressure in a murder trial and follows his conversion of one juror after another to his point of view. The story is often viewed as a commentary on McCarthyism, Fascism, or Communism.
Expanded essay by Joanna E. Rapf (PDF, 258KB)
13 Lakes (2004)
James Benning's feature-length film can be seen as a series of moving landscape paintings with artistry and scope that might be compared to Claude Monet's series of water-lily paintings. Embracing the concept of "landscape as a function of time," Benning shot his film at 13 different American lakes in identical 10-minute takes. Each is a static composition: a balance of sky and water in each frame with only the very briefest suggestion of human existence. At each lake, Benning prepared a single shot, selected a single camera position and a specific moment. The climate, the weather and the season deliver a level of variation to the film, a unique play of light, despite its singularity of composition. Curators of the Rotterdam Film Festival noted, "The power of the film is that the filmmaker teaches the viewer to look better and learn to distinguish the great varieties in the landscape alongside him. [The list of lakes] alone is enough to encompass a treatise on America and its history. A treatise the film certainly encourages, but emphatically does not take part in." Benning, who studied mathematics and then film at the University of Wisconsin, currently is on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
Expanded essay by Scott MacDonald (PDF, 316KB)
42nd Street (1933)
At a little less than 90 minutes, "42nd Street" is a fast-moving picture that crackles with great dialogue and snappily plays up Busby Berkeley's dance routines and and the bouncy Al Dubin-Harry Warren ditties that include the irrepressably cheerful "Young and Healthy" (featuring the adorable Toby Wing), "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the title number. A famous Broadway director (Warner Baxter) takes on a new show despite his ill health, then faces disaster at every turn, including the loss of his leading lady on opening night. The film features Bebe Daniels as the star of the show and Berkeley regulars Guy Kibbee, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler, whom Baxter implores, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick's landmark epic pushed the envelope of narrative and special effects to create an introspective look at technology and humanity. Arthur C. Clarke adapted his story "The Sentinel" for the screen version and his odyssey follows two astronauts, played by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, on a voyage to Jupiter accompanied by HAL 9000, an unnervingly humanesque computer running the entire ship. With assistance from special-effects expert Douglas Trumbull, Kubrick spent more than two years creating his vision of outer space. Despite some initial critical misgivings, "2001" became one of the most popular films of 1968. Billed as "the ultimate trip," the film quickly caught on with a counterculture audience that embraced the contemplative experience that many older audiences found tedious and lacking substance.
Expanded essay by James Verniere (PDF, 691KB)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)
Directed by Stuart Paton, the film was touted as "the first submarine photoplay." Universal spent freely on location, shooting in the Bahamas and building life-size props, including the submarine, and taking two years to film. J. E. Williamson's "photosphere," an underwater chamber connected to an iron tube on the surface of the water, enabled Paton to film underwater scenes up to depths of 150 feet. The film is based on Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and to a lesser extent, "The Mysterious Island." The real star of the film is its special effects. Although they may seem primitive by today's standards, 100 years ago they dazzled contemporary audiences. It was the first time the public had an opportunity to see reefs, various types of marine life and men mingling with sharks. It was also World War I, and submarine warfare was very much in the public consciousness, so the life-size submarine gave the film an added dimension of reality. The film was immensely popular with audiences and critics.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Freight handlers Bud Abbott and Lou Costello encounter Dracula and Frankenstein's monster when they arrive from Europe for a house of horrors exhibit. After the monsters outwit the hapless duo and escape, Dracula returns for Costello whose brain he intends to transplant into the monster. Lon Chaney Jr. as the lycanthropic Lawrence Talbot, Bela Lugosi in his final appearance as Dracula and Glenn Strange as the Monster all play their roles perfectly straight as Bud and Lou stumble around them. Throughout the film, Dracula and the Monster cavort in plain view of the quivering Costello who is unable to convince the ever-poised and dubious Abbott that the monsters exist. until the wild climax in Dracula's castle, where the duo are pursued by all three of the film's monstrosities.
Expanded essay by Ron Palumbo (PDF, 424KB)
Ace in the Hole (aka Big Carnival) (1951)
Based on the infamous 1925 case of Kentucky cave explorer Floyd Collins, who became trapped underground and whose gripping saga created a national sensation lasting two weeks before Collins died. A deeply cynical look at journalism, "Ace in the Hole" features Kirk Douglas as a once-famous New York reporter, now a down-and-out has-been in Albuquerque. Douglas plots a return to national prominence by milking the story of a man trapped in a Native American cave dwelling as a riveting human-interest story, complete with a tourist-laden, carnival atmosphere outside the rescue scene. The callously indifferent wife of the stricken miner is no more sympathetic: "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons." Providing a rare moral contrast is Porter Hall, who plays Douglas' ethical editor appalled at his reporter's actions. Such a scathing tale of media manipulation might have helped turn this brilliant film into a critical and commercial failure, which later led Paramount to reissue the film under a new title, "The Big Carnival."
Adam's Rib (1949)
With an Oscar-nominated script by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, "Adam's Rib" pokes fun at the double standard between the sexes. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play husband and wife attorneys, each drawn to the same case of attempted murder. Judy Holliday, defending the sanctity of her marriage and family, intends only to frighten her philandering husband (Tom Ewell) and his mistress (Jean Hagen) but tearfully ends up shooting and injuring the husband. Tracy argues that the case is open and shut, but Hepburn asserts that, if the defendant were a man, he'd be set free on the basis of "the unwritten law." As the trial turns into a media circus, the couple's relationship is put to the test. Holliday's first screen triumph propelled her onto bigger roles, including "Born Yesterday," for which she won an Academy Award. The film is also the debut of Ewell, who would become best known for his role opposite Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch", and Hagen, who would floor audiences as the ditzy blonde movie star with the shrill voice in "Singin' in the Rain."
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
When Richard the Lion-Hearted is captured and held for ransom, evil Prince John (Claude Rains) declares himself ruler of England and makes no attempt to secure Richard's safe return. A lone knight, Robin Hood (Errol Flynn), sets out to raise Richard's ransom by hijacking wealthy caravans traveling through Sherwood Forest. Aided by his lady love, Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), and band of merry men (including Alan Hale and Eugene Pallette) Robin battles the usurper John and wicked Sheriff of Nottingham to return the throne to its rightful owner. Dashing, athletic and witty, Flynn is everything that Robin Hood should be, and his adversaries are memorably villainous, particularly Basil Rathbone with whom Flynn crosses swords in the climactic duel. One of the most spectacular adventure films of all time, and features a terrific performance by the perfectly cast Flynn. Only a spirited and extravagant production could do justice to the Robin Hood legend; this film is more than equal to the task. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score won an Oscar, as did the editing and art direction.
The African Queen (1951)
Adapted from a novel by C.S. Forester, the film stars Humphrey Bogart in an Oscar-winning portrayal of a slovenly, gin-swilling captain of the African Queen, a tramp steamer carrying supplies to small African villages during World War I. Katharine Hepburn plays a prim spinster missionary stranded when the Germans invade her settlement. Bogart agrees to transport Hepburn back to civilization despite their opposite temperaments. Before long, their tense animosity turns to love, and together they navigate treacherous rapids and devise an ingenious way to destroy a German gunboat. The difficulties inherent in filming on location in Africa are documented in numerous books, including one by Hepburn.
"Airplane!" emerged as a sharply perceptive parody of the big-budget disaster films that dominated Hollywood during the 1970s. Written and directed by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the film is characterized by a freewheeling style and skewered Hollywood's tendency to push successful formulaic movie conventions beyond the point of logic. One of the film's most noteworthy achievements was to cast actors best known for their dramatic careers, such as Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, and provide them with opportunities to showcase their comic talents.The central premise is one giant cliche: a pilot (Robert Hays), who's developed a fear of flying, tries to win back his stewardess girlfriend (Julie Hagerty), boarding her flight so he can coax her around. Due to an outbreak of food poisoning, Hays must land the plane, with the help of a glue-sniffing air traffic controller (Bridges) and and his tyranical former captain (Stack). Supporting the stars is a wacky assemblage of stock characters from every disaster movie ever made.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 477 KB)
This film's appeal may lie in its reputation as "a haunted house movie in space." Though not particularly original, "Alien" is distinguished by director Ridley Scott's innovative ability to wring every ounce of suspense out of the B-movie staples he employs within the film's hi-tech setting. Art designer H.R. Giger creates what has become one of cinema's scariest monsters: a nightmarish hybrid of humanoid-insect-machine that Scott makes even more effective by obscuring it from view for much of the film. The cast, including Tom Skerritt and John Hurt, brings an appealing quality to their characters, and one character in particular, Sigourney Weaver's warrant officer Ripley, became the model for the next generation of hardboiled heroines and solidified the prototype in subsequent sequels. Rounding out the cast and crew, cameraman Derek Vanlint and composer Jerry Goldsmith propel the emotions relentlessly from one visual horror to the next.
All About Eve (1950)
Scheming ingénue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) ingratiates herself with aging Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) moving in on her acting roles, her friends and her stage director beau. The dialog is often too bitingly perfect with its sarcastic barbs and clever comebacks, but it's still entertaining and quote-worthy. The film took home Academy Awards for best picture, best director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), best screenplay (Mankiewicz) and costume design (Edith Head and Charles Le Maire). George Sanders won a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as the acid-tongued theater critic Addison DeWitt. Thelma Ritter as Margo's maid, Celeste Holm as Margo's best friend, and Marilyn Monroe, in a small role as an aspiring actress, give memorable performances.
All My Babies (1953)
Written and directed by George Stoney, this landmark educational film was used to educate midwives throughout the South. Produced by the Georgia Department of Public Health, profiles the life and work of "Miss Mary" Coley, an African-American midwife living in rural Georgia. In documenting the preparation for and delivery of healthy babies in rural conditions ranging from decent to deplorable, the filmmakers inadvertently captured a telling snapshot at the socioeconomic conditions of the era that would prove fascinating to future generations.
Expanded essay by Joshua Glick (PDF, 391KB)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
This faithful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's classic pacifist novel is among the greatest antiwar films ever made, remaining powerful more than 80 years later, thanks to Lewis Milestone's inventive direction. Told from the perspective of a sensitive young German soldier (Lew Ayres) during WWI, recruited by a hawkish professor advocating "glory for the fatherland." The young soldier comes under the protective wing of an old veteran (Louis Wolheim) who teaches him how to survive the horrors of war. The film is emotionally draining, and so realistic that it will be forever etched in the mind of any viewer. Milestone's direction is frequently inspired, most notably during the battle scenes. In one such scene, the camera serves as a kind of machine gun, shooting down the oncoming troops as it glides along the trenches. Universal spared no expense during production, converting more than 20 acres of a large California ranch into battlefields occupied by more than 2,000 ex-servicemen extras. After its initial release, some foreign countries refused to run the film. Poland banned it for being pro-German, while the Nazis labeled it anti-German. Joseph Goebbels, later propaganda minister, publicly denounced the film. It received an Academy Award as Best Picture and Milestone was honored as Best Director.
Expanded essay by Garry Wills (PDF, 713KB)
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
The rich visual texture, using glorious Technicolor, and a soaring emotional score lend what is essentially a thin story a kind of epic tension. A movie unheralded by critics and largely ignored by the public at the time of its release, All That Heaven Allows is now considered Douglas Sirk's masterpiece. The story concerns a romance between a middle-aged, middle-class widow (Jane Wyman) and a brawny young gardener (Rock Hudson)—the stuff of a standard weepie, you might think, until Sirk's camera begins to draw a deeply disturbing, deeply compassionate portrait of a woman trapped by stifling moral and social codes. Sirk's meaning is conveyed almost entirely by his mise-en-scene—a world of glistening, treacherous surfaces, of objects that take on a terrifying life of their own; he is one of those rare filmmakers who insist that you read the image.
All That Jazz (1979)
Director/choreographer Bob Fosse takes a Felliniesque look at the life of a driven entertainer. Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, channeling Fosse) is the ultimate work (and pleasure)-aholic, as he knocks back a daily dose of amphetamines to juggle a new Broadway production while editing his new movie, an ex-wife Audrey, girlfriend Kate, young daughter, and various conquests. Reminiscent of Fellini's "8 1/2 ," Fosse moves from realistic dance numbers to extravagant flights of cinematic fancy, as Joe meditates on his life, his women, and his death. Fosse shows the stiff price that entertaining exacts on entertainers (among other things, he intercuts graphic footage of open-heart surgery with a song and dance), mercilessly reversing the feel-good mood of classical movie musicals.
All the King's Men (1949)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren and directed by Robert Rossen, "All the King's Men" was inspired by the career of Louisiana governor Huey Long. Broderick Crawford won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Willie Stark, a backwoods Southern lawyer who wins the hearts of his constituents by bucking the corrupt state government. The thesis is basically that power corrupts, with Stark presented as a man who starts out with a burning sense of purpose and a defiant honesty. Rossen, however, injects a note of ambiguity early on (a scene where Willie impatiently shrugs off his wife's dream of the great and good things he is destined to accomplish); and the doubt as to what he is really after is beautifully orchestrated by being filtered through the eyes of the press agent (Ireland) who serves as the film's narrator, and whose admiration for Stark gradually becomes tempered by understanding. In addition to its Oscars for Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, the film won the Best Picture prize.
All the President's Men (1976)
Based on the memoir by "Washington Post" reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about uncovering the Watergate break-in and cover up, "All the President's Men" is a rare example of a best-selling book transformed into a hit film and a cultural phenomenon in its own right. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, the film stars Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, and features an Oscar-winning performance by Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee. Nominated for numerous awards, it took home an Oscar for best screenplay by William Goldman (known prior to this for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and after for "The Princess Bride"). Pakula's taut directing plays up the emotional roller coaster of exhilaration, paranoia, self-doubt, and courage, without ignoring the tedium and tireless digging, and elevating it to noble determination.
Called the master of "cosmic cinema," Jordan Belson excelled in creating abstract imagery with a spiritual dimension that featured dazzling displays of color, light, and ever-moving patterns and objects. Trained as a painter and influenced by the films of Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren, and Hans Richter, Belson collaborated in the late 1950s with electronic music composer Henry Jacobs to create elaborate sound and light shows in the San Francisco Morrison Planetarium, an experience that informed his subsequent films. The film, Belson has stated, "was probably the space-iest film that had been done until then. It creates a feeling of moving into the void." Inspired by Eastern spiritual thought, "Allures" (which took a year and a half to make) is, Belson suggests, a "mathematically precise" work intended to express the process of becoming that the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin has named "cosmogenesis."
America, America (1963)
"My name is Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, Turk by birth, American because my uncle made a journey." So begins the film directed, produced and written by Elia Kazan, and the one he frequently cited as his personal favorite. Based loosely on Kazan's uncle, Stavros dreams of going to America in the late 1890s. Kazan, who often hired locals as extras, cast in the lead role a complete novice, Stathis Giallelis, whom he discovered sweeping the floor in a Greek producer's office. Shot almost entirely in Greece and Turkey, Haskell Wexler's cinematography evokes scale and authenticity that combines with Gene Callahan's Oscar-winning art direction to give the film a distinctly European feel. Intended as the first chapter of a trilogy, the epically ambitious "America, America" also earned Oscar nominations for best director, best screenplay and best picture.
American Graffiti (1973)
Fresh off the success of "The Godfather," producer Francis Ford Coppola weilded the clout to tackle a project pitched to him by his friend, George Lucas. The film captured the flavor of the 1950s with ironic candor and a latent foreboding that helped spark a nostalgia craze. Despite technical obstacles, and having to shoot at night, cinematographer Haskell Wexler gave the film a neon glare to match its rock-n-roll soundscape. Lucas' period detail, co-writers Willard Huyck's and Gloria Katz's realistic dialogue, and the film's wistfulness for pre-Vietnam simplicity appealed to audiences amidst cultural upheaval. The film also established the reputations of Lucas (whose next film would be "Star Wars") and his young cast, and furthered the onset of soundtrack-driven, youth-oriented movies.
An American in Paris (1951)
Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Georges Guetary, (The film was supposed to make Guetary into "the New Chevalier." It didn't.) The thinnish plot is held together by the superlative production numbers and by the recycling of several vintage George Gershwin tunes, including "I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," and "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Highlights include Guetary's rendition of "Stairway to Paradise"; Oscar Levant's fantasy of conducting and performing Gershwin's "Concerto in F" (Levant also appears as every member of the orchestra). "An American in Paris," directed by Vincente Minnelli, cleaned up at the Academy Awards, with Oscars for best picture, screenplay, score, cinematography, art direction, set design, and even a special award for the choreography of its 18-minute closing ballet in which Kelly and Caron dance before lavish backgrounds resembling French masterpieces.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Director Otto Preminger brought a new cinematic frankness to film with this gripping crime-and-trial movie shot on location in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where the incident on which it was based had occurred. Based on the best-selling novel by Robert Traver, Preminger imbues his film with daring dialogue and edgy pacing. Controversial in its day due to its blunt language and willingness to openly discuss adult themes, "Anatomy" endures today for its first-rate drama and suspense, and its informed perspective on the legal system. Starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick, it also features strong supporting performances by George C. Scott as the prosecuting attorney, and Eve Arden and Arthur O'Connell. The film includes an innovative jazz score by Duke Ellington and one of Saul Bass's most memorable opening title sequences.
Animal House (1978)
(see "National Lampoon's Animal House")
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen's romantic comedy of the Me Decade follows the up and down relationship of two mismatched New York neurotics. "Annie Hall" blended the slapstick and fantasy from such earlier Allen films as "Sleeper" and "Bananas" with the more autobiographical musings of his stand-up and written comedy, using an array of such movie techniques as talking heads, splitscreens, and subtitles. Within these gleeful formal experiments and sight gags, Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman skewered 1970s solipsism, reversing the happy marriage of opposites found in classic screwball comedies. Hailed as Allen's most mature and personal film, "Annie Hall" beat out "Star Wars" for Best Picture and also won Oscars for Allen as director and writer and for Keaton as Best Actress; audiences enthusiastically responded to Allen's take on contemporary love and turned Keaton's rumpled menswear into a fashion trend.
Expanded essay by Jay Carr (PDF, 302KB)
Antonia: Portrait of the Woman (1974)
Directed by Jill Godmillow and Judy Collins, this Oscar-nominated documentary chronicles the life of musician-conductor Antonia Brica and her struggle to become a symphony director despite her gender. Told by many that it was ridiculous for a woman to think of conducting, she admits, "I felt that I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try." And the pain and deprivation which she has known all her life are over-shadowed in this film by her ebullient, forthright warmth. The narrative of her life alternates with glimpses of her at work—rehearsing or teaching. She also reflects on the emotional experience of conducting— including the acute separation pangs that follow a concert.
The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder is purported to have hung a sign in his office that read, "How Would Lubitsch Do It?" Here, that Lubitsch touch seems to hover over each scene, lending a lightness to even the most nefarious of deeds. One of the opening shots in the movie shows Baxter as one of a vast horde of wage slaves, working in a room where the desks line up in parallel rows almost to the vanishing point. This shot is quoted from King Vidor's silent film "The Crowd" (1928), which is also about a faceless employee in a heartless corporation. Cubicles would have come as revolutionary progress in this world. By the time he made this film, Wilder had become a master at a kind of sardonic, satiric comedy that had sadness at its center. Wilder was fresh off the enormous hit "Some Like it Hot," his first collaboration with Lemmon, and with "The Apartment" Lemmon showed that he could move from light comedian to tragic everyman. This movie was the summation of what Wilder had done to date, and the key transition in Lemmon's career. It was also a key film for Shirley MacLaine, who had been around for five years in light comedies, but here emerged as a serious actress who would flower in the 1960s.
Expanded essay by Kyle Westphal (PDF, 428KB)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The chaotic production also experienced shut-downs when a typhoon destroyed the set and star Sheen suffered a heart attack; the budget ballooned and Coppola covered the overages himself. These production headaches, which Coppola characterized as being like the Vietnam War itself, have been superbly captured in the documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Despite the studio's fears and mixed reviews of the film's ending, Apocalypse Now became a substantial hit and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Duvall's psychotic Kilgore, and Best Screenplay. It won Oscars for sound and for Vittorio Storaro's cinematography. This hallucinatory, Wagnerian project has produced admirers and detractors of equal ardor; it resembles no other film ever made, and its nightmarish aura and polarized reception aptly reflect the tensions and confusions of the Vietnam era.
This early sound-era masterpiece was the first film of both stage/director Rouben Mamoulian and cabaret/star Helen Morgan. Many have compared Mamoulian's debut to that of Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" because of his flamboyant use of cinematic innovation to test technical boundaries. The tear-jerking plot boasts top performances from Morgan as the fading burlesque queen, Fuller Mellish Jr. as her slimy paramour and Joan Peters as her cultured daughter. However, the film is remembered today chiefly for Mamoulian's audacious style. While most films of the era were static and stage-bound, Mamoulian's camera reinvigorated the melodramatic plot by prowling relentlessly through sordid backstage life.
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. Sam Jaffe, as the twisted mastermind, uses cash from corrupt attorney Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to assemble a group of skilled thugs to pull off a jewel heist. All goes as planned — until an alert night watchman and a corrupt cop enter the picture. Marilyn Monroe has a memorable bit part as Emmerich's "niece."
Atlantic City (1980)
Aided by a taut script from playwright John Guare, director Louis Malle celebrates his wounded characters even as he mercilessly reveals their dreams for the hopeless illusions they really are. Malle reveals the rich portraits he paints of wasted American lives, through the filter of his European sensibilities. He is exceptionally well served by his cast and his location--a seedy resort town supported, like the principal characters, by memories of glories past. Burt Lancaster, in a masterful performance, plays an aging small-time criminal who hangs around Atlantic City doing odd jobs and taking care of the broken-down moll of the deceased gangster for whom Lou was a gofer. Living in an invented past, Lou identifies with yesteryear's notorious gangsters and gets involved with sexy would-be croupier (Susan Sarandon) and her drug-dealing estranged husband.
The Atomic Café (1982)
Produced and directed by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty, the influential film compilation "The Atomic Cafe" provocatively documents the post-World War II threat of nuclear war as depicted in a wide assortment of archival footage from the period (newsreels, statements from politicians, advertisements, training, civil defense and military films). This vast, yet entertaining, collage of clips serves as a unique document of the 1940s-1960s era and illustrates how these films—some of which today seem propagandistic or even patently absurd ("The House in the Middle")—were used to inform the public on how to cope in the nuclear age.
The Augustas (1930s-1950s)
Scott Nixon, a traveling salesman based in Augusta, Ga., was an avid member of the Amateur Cinema League who enjoyed recording his travels on film. In this 16-minute silent film, Nixon documents some 38 streets, storefronts and cities named Augusta in such far-flung locales as Montana and Maine. Arranged with no apparent rhyme or reason, the film strings together brief snapshots of these Augustas, many of which are indicated at pencil-point on a train timetable or roadmap. Nixon photographed his odyssey using both 8mm and 16mm cameras loaded with black-and-white and color film, amassing 26,000 feet of film that now resides at the University of South Carolina. While Nixon's film does not illuminate the historical or present-day significance of these towns, it binds them together under the umbrella of Americana. Whether intentionally or coincidentally, this amateur auteur seems to juxtapose the name's lofty origin—'august,' meaning great or venerable—with the unspectacular nature of everyday life in small-town America.
View this film at Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina External
The Awful Truth (1937)
Leo McCarey's largely improvised film is one of the funniest of the screwball comedies, and also one of the most serious at heart. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are a pair of world-weary socialites who each believe the other has been unfaithful, and consequently enter into a trial divorce. The story began life as a 1922 stage hit and was filmed twice previously. McCarey maintained the basic premise of the play but improved it greatly, adding sophisticated dialogue and encouraging his actors to improvise around anything they thought funny. "The Awful Truth" was in the can in six weeks, and was such a success that Grant and Dunne were teamed again in another comedy, "My Favorite Wife" and in a touching tearjerker, "Penny Serenade." The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Baby Face (1933)
Smart and sultry Barbara Stanwyck uses her feminine wiles to scale the corporate ladder, amassing male admirers who are only too willing to help a poor working girl. One of the more notorious melodramas of the pre-Code era, a period when the movie industry relaxed its censorship standards, films such as this one led to the imposition of the Production Code in 1934. This relative freedom resulted in a cycle of gritty, audacious films that resonated with Depression-battered audiences.
Expanded essay by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (PDF, 819KB)
Back to the Future (1985)
Writer/director Robert Zemeckis explored the possibilities of special effects with the 1985 box-office smash "Back to the Future." With his writing partner Bob Gale, Zemeckis tells the tale of accidental time-tourist Marty McFly. Stranded in the year 1955, Marty (Michael J. Fox)—with the help of his friend eccentric scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (played masterfully over-the-top by Christopher Lloyd)—must not only find a way home, but also teach his father (Crispin Glover) how to become a man, repair the space/time continuum and save his family from being erased from existence. All this, while fighting off the advances of his then-teenaged mother (Lea Thompson). The film generated a popular soundtrack and two enjoyable sequels.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Vincente Minnelli directed this captivating Hollywood story of an ambitious producer (Kirk Douglas)as told in flashback by those whose lives he's impacted: an actress (Lana Turner), a writer (Dick Powell) and a director (Barry Sullivan). Insightful and liberally sprinkled with characters modeled after various Hollywood royalty from David O. Selznick to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, witty, with one of Turner's best performances. Five Oscars include Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame), Screenplay (Charles Schnee). David Raksin's score is another asset.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Though only 81 minutes in length, "Bad Day" packs a punch. Spencer Tracy stars as Macreedy, a one-armed man who arrives unexpectedly one day at the sleepy desert town of Black Rock. He is just as tight-lipped at first about the reason for his visit as the residents of Black Rock are about the details of their town. However, when Macreedy announces that he is looking for a former Japanese-American Black Rock resident named Komoko, town skeletons suddenly burst into the open. In addition to Tracy, the standout cast includes Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Dean Jagger. Director John Sturges displays the western landscape to great advantage in this CinemaScope production.
Stark, brutal story based on the Charles Starkweather-Carol Fugate murder spree through the Midwest in 1958, with Martin Sheen as the killer lashing out against a society that ignores his existence and Sissy Spacek as his naive teenage consort. Sheen is forceful and properly weird as the mass murderer, strutting around pretending to be James Dean, while Spacek doesn't quite understand what he's all about, but goes along anyway. Director Terrence Malick neither romanticizes nor condemns his subjects, maintaining a low-key approach to the story that results in a fascinating character study. The film did scant box office business, but it remains one of the most impressive of directorial debuts.
Ball of Fire (1941)
In this Howard Hawks-directed screwball comedy, showgirl and gangster's moll Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) hides from the law among a group of scholars compiling an encyclopedia. Cooling her heels until the heat lets up, Sugarpuss charms the elderly academics and bewitches the young professor in charge (Gary Cooper). Hawks deftly shapes an effervescent, innuendo-packed Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett script into a swing-era version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or "squirrely cherubs," as Sugarpuss christens them. Filled with colorful period slang and boogie-woogie tunes and highlighted by an energetic performance from legendary drummer Gene Krupa, the film captures a pre-World War II lightheartedness.
One of Walt Disney's timeless classics (and his own personal favorite), this animated coming-of-age tale of a wide-eyed fawn's life in the forest has enchanted generations since its debut nearly 70 years ago. Filled with iconic characters and moments, the film features beautiful images that were the result of extensive nature studies by Disney's animators. Its realistic characters capture human and animal qualities in the time-honored tradition of folklore and fable, which enhance the movie's resonating, emotional power. Treasured as one of film's most heart-rending stories of parental love, "Bambi" also has come to be recognized for its eloquent message of nature conservation.
Expanded essay by John Wills (PDF, 360KB)
Original drawing of Bambi
The Band Wagon (1953)
Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan star in this sophisticated backstage toe-tapper directed by Vincente Minnelli, widely considered one of the greatest movie musicals of all time. Astaire plays a washed-up movie star (in reality he'd been a succesful performer for nearly 30 years) who tries his luck on Broadway, under the direction of irrepressible mad genius Buchanan. Musical highlights include "Dancing in the Dark" and "That's Entertainment" (written for the film by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz) and Astaire's sexy Mickey Spillane spoof "The Girl Hunt" danced to perfection by Charisse. Fred Astaire would only make three more musicals after "The Band Wagon," before turning to a film and television career that included the occasional turn as a dramatic actor.
The Bank Dick (1940)
Perhaps more than any other film comedian in the early days of movies, W.C. Fields is an acquired taste. His absurdist brand of humor, at once dry and surreal, endures for the simple reason that the movies bear up under repeated viewings; in fact, it's almost a necessity to watch them over and over, if only to figure out why they're so funny. In his second-to-last feature, The Bank Dick (which he wrote under the moniker "Mahatma Kane Jeeves"), Fields as unemployed layabout Egbert Souse -- Soosay, if you don't mind -- replaces drunk movie director A. Pismo Clam on a location shoot in his hometown of Lompoc, California before chance lands him in the job of bank detective -- after which the movie becomes a riff on the comic possibilities of his new-found notoriety. The stellar comic supporting cast includes future Stooge Shemp Howard as the bartender at Fields' regular haunt, The Black Pussy, and Preston Sturges regular Franklin Pangborn as bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington.
Expanded essay by Randy Skretvedt (PDF, 401KB)
The Bargain (1914)
After beginning his career on the stage (where he originated the role of Messala in "Ben-Hur" in 1899), William S. Hart found his greatest fame as the silent screen's most popular cowboy. His 1914 "The Bargain," directed by Reginald Barker, was Hart's first film and made him a star. The second Hart Western to be named to the National Film Registry, the film was selected because of Hart's charisma, the film's authenticity and realistic portrayal of the Western genre and the star's good/bad man role as an outlaw attempting to go straight.
Expanded essay by Brian Taves (PDF, 1692KB)
The Battle of San Pietro (1945)
John Huston's documentary about the WW II Battle of San Pietro Infine was considered too controversial by the U.S. military to be seen in its original form, and was cut from five reels to its released 33 minute-length. powerful viewing, vivid and gritty. Some 1,100 men died in the battle. scenes of grateful Italian peasants serve as a fascinating ethnographic time capsule. Filmed by Jules Buck. Unlike many other military documentaries, Huston's cameramen filmed alongside the Army's 143rd regiment, 36th division infantrymen, placing themselves within feet of mortar and shell fire. The film is unflinching in its realism and was held up from being shown to the public by the United States Army. Huston quickly became unpopular with the Army, not only for the film but also for his response to the accusation that the film was anti-war. Huston responded that if he ever made a pro-war film, he should be shot. Because it showed dead GIs wrapped in mattress covers, some officers tried to prevent troopers in training from seeing it, for fear of morale. General George Marshall came to the film's defense, stating that because of the film's gritty realism, it would make a good training film. The depiction of death would inspire them to take their training seriously. Subsequently the film was used for that purpose. Huston was no longer considered a pariah; he was decorated and made an honorary major.
Expanded essay by Ed Carter (PDF, 423KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
The Beau Brummels (1928)
Al Shaw and Sam Lee were an eccentrically popular vaudeville act of the 1920s. In 1928 they made this eight-minute Vitaphone short for Warner Bros. The duo later appeared in more than a dozen other films, though none possessed the wacky charm of "The Beau Brummels." As Jim Knipfel has observed: "If Samuel Beckett had written a vaudeville routine, he would have created Shaw and Lee." Often considered one of the quintessential vaudeville comedy shorts, the film has a simple set-up—Shaw and Lee stand side by side with deadpan expressions in non-tailored suits and bowler hats as they deliver their comic routine of corny nonsense songs and gags with a bit of soft shoe and their renowned hat-swapping routine. Shaw's and Lee's reputation has enjoyed a recent renaissance and their brand of dry, offbeat humor is seen by some as well ahead of its time. The film has been preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is an animated, musical retelling of the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince du Beaumont. The film follows Belle (voiced by Paige O'Hara), an intelligent and rebellious young French woman, who is forced to live with a hideous monster, the Beast (voiced by Robby Benson), after offering to take her father's place as the Beast's prisoner. Unaware that the Beast is actually an enchanted prince, Belle falls in love with him. "Beauty and the Beast" was the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category. Alan Menken won an Oscar for his original score, and he and lyricist Howard Ashman (posthumously) earned Oscars for the film's theme song "Beauty and the Beast."
Being There (1979)
Chance, a simple-minded gardener (Peter Sellers) whose only contact with the outside world is through television, becomes the toast of the town following a series of misunderstandings. Forced outside his protected environment by the death of his wealthy boss, Chance subsumes his late employer's persona, including the man's cultured walk, talk and even his expensive clothes, and is mistaken as "Chauncey Gardner," whose simple adages are interpreted as profound insights. He becomes the confidant of a dying billionaire industrialist (Melvyn Douglas, in an Academy Award-winning performance) who happens to be a close adviser to the U.S. president (Jack Warden). Chance's gardening advice is interpreted as metaphors for political policy and life in general. Jerzy Kosinski, assisted by award-winning screenwriter Robert C. Jones, adapted his 1971 novel for the screenplay which Hal Ashby directed with an understatement to match the subtlety and precision of Sellers' Academy Award-nominated performance. Shirley MacLaine also stars as Douglas's wife, then widow, who sees Chauncey as a romantic prospect. Film critic Robert Ebert said he admired the film for "having the guts to take this totally weird conceit and push it to its ultimate comic conclusion." That conclusion is a philosophically complex film that has remained fresh and relevant.
Expanded essay by Jerry Dean Roberts (PDF, 118KB)
Adapted from General Lew Wallace's popular novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" published in 1880, this epic featured one of the most exciting spectacles in silent film: the chariot race that was shot with 40 cameras on a Circus Maximus set costing a staggering (for the day) $300,000. In addition to the grandeur of the chariot scene, a number of sequences shot in Technicolor also contributed to the epic status of "Ben-Hur," which was directed by Fred Niblo and starred Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. While the film did not initially recoup its investment, it did help to establish its studio, MGM, as one of the major players in the industry.
Expanded essay by Fritzi Kramer (PDF, 254KB)
This epic blockbuster stars Charlton Heston in the title role of a rebellious Israelite who takes on the Roman Empire during the time of Christ. Featuring one of the most famous action sequences of all time -- the breathtaking chariot race -- the film was a remake of the impressive silent version released in 1925. Co-starring Stephen Boyd as Judah Ben-Hur's onetime best friend and later rival, it also featured notable performances by Hugh Griffith and Jack Hawkins. Directed by Oscar-winner William Wyler, who found success with "Mrs. Miniver" "The Best Years of Our Lives" and others, "Ben-Hur" broke awards records, winning 11 Oscars, including best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, and score. Famed stuntman Yakima Canutt was brought in to coordinate all the chariot race stunt work and train the driver The race scene alone cost is reported to have cost about $4 million, or about a fourth of the entire budget, and took 10 weeks to shoot.
Expanded essay by Gabriel Miller (PDF, 499KB)
Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)
In 1913, a stellar cast of African-American performers gathered in the Bronx, New York, to make a feature-length motion picture. The troupe starred vaudevillian Bert Williams, the first African-American to headline on Broadway and the most popular recording artist prior to 1920. After considerable footage was shot, the film was abandoned. One hundred years later, the seven reels of untitled and unassembled footage were discovered in the film vaults of the Museum of Modern Art, and are now believed to constitute the earliest surviving feature film starring black actors. Modeled after a popular collection of stories known as "Brother Gardener's Lime Kiln Club," the plot features three suitors vying to win the hand of the local beauty, portrayed by Odessa Warren Grey. The production also included members of the Harlem stage show known as J. Leubrie Hill's "Darktown Follies." Providing insight into early silent-film production (Williams can be seen applying his blackface makeup), these outtakes or rushes show white and black cast and crew working together, enjoying themselves in unguarded moments. Even in fragments of footage, Williams proves himself among the most gifted of screen comedians.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
A moving and personal story directed by real-life veteran William Wyler, the film depicts the return to civilian life by three World War II servicemen, portrayed by Dana Andrews, Fredric March and Harold Russell. Adapted by Robert Sherwood from MacKinlay Kantor's novel "Glory for Me," Gregg Toland's deep-focus cinematography is memorable for emotionally evokative long dolly shots. It also starred Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Cathy O'Donnell, and Virginia Mayo. The film won nine Oscars including Best Picture, as well as two awards for Russell, who lost his hands in the war.
Expanded essay by Gabriel Miller (PDF, 319KB)
Big Business (1929)
As gifted in their repartee as they were in their physical antics, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were the perfect team for the transition from silent film comedy to sound. Their legendary career spanned from 1921 to 1951 and included more than 100 films. This two-reeler finds the duo attempting to sell Christmas trees in sunny California. Their run-in with an unsatisfied customer (played by James Finlayson) lays the groundwork for a slapstick melee eventually involving a dismantled car, a wrecked house and an exploding cigar. The film was produced by the team's long-time collaborator, Hal Roach, the king of no-holds-barred comedy.
Expanded essay by Randy Skretvedt (PDF, 308KB)
The Big Heat (1953)
One of the great post-war noir films, "The Big Heat" stars Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame. Set in a fictional American town, the film tells the story of a tough cop (Ford) who takes on a local crime syndicate, exposing tensions within his own corrupt police department as well as insecurities and hypocrisies of domestic life in the 1950s. Filled with atmosphere, fascinating female characters, and a jolting—yet not gratuitous—degree of violence, "The Big Heat," through its subtly expressive technique and resistance to formulaic denouement, manages to be both stylized and brutally realistic, a signature of its director Fritz Lang.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
From the unconventional visionaries Joel and Ethan Coen (the filmmakers behind "Fargo" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") came this 1998 tale of kidnapping, mistaken identity and bowling. As they would again in the 2008 "Burn After Reading," the Coens explore themes of alienation, inequality and class structure via a group of hard-luck, off-beat characters suddenly drawn into each other's orbits. Jeff Bridges, in a career-defining role, stars as "The Dude," an LA-based slacker who shares a last name with a rich man whose arm-candy wife is indebted to shady figures. Joining Bridges are John Goodman, Tara Reid, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi and, in a now-legendary cameo, John Turturro. Stuffed with vignettes—each staged through the Coens' trademark absurdist, innovative visual style—that are alternately funny and disturbing, "Lebowski" was only middling successful at the box office during its initial release. However, television, the Internet, home video and considerable word-of-mouth have made the film a highly quoted cult classic.
Expanded essay by J.M. Tyree & Ben Walters (PDF, 354KB)
The Big Parade (1925)
One of the first films to deglamorize war with its startling realism, "The Big Parade" became the largest grossing film of the silent era. From a story by Laurence Stallings, director King Vidor crafted what "New York Times" critic Mordaunt Hall called "an eloquent pictorial epic." The film, which Hall said displayed "all the artistry of which the camera is capable," depicts a privileged young man (John Gilbert) who goes to war seeking adventure and finds camaraderie, love, humility and maturity amid the horrors of war. Along the way he befriends two amiable doughboys (Karl Dane and Tom O'Brien) and falls for a beautiful French farm girl (Renée Adorée). Vidor tempered the film's serious subject matter with a kind of simple, light humor that flows naturally from new friendships and new loves. A five-time nominee for Best Director, Vidor was eventually recognized by the Academy in 1979 with an honorary lifetime achievement award. Both stars continued to reign until the transition to talking pictures, which neither Gilbert nor Adorée weathered successfully. Their careers plummeted and both died prematurely.
The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks directed this Raymond Chandler story featuring private eye Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart. Appearing opposite him in only her second film was a former model named Lauren Bacall, with whom Bogart had fallen in love (and vice versa) during filming of "To Have and Have Not" earlier that year. Hawks and his writers attempted to untangle the threads of Chandler's complicated plot which caused frequent production delays. More than a month behind schedule and about $50,000 over budget, the film was ready in mid-summer1945, and that version was distributed to servicemen overseas. Shortly thereafter "To Have and Have Not" was released, and audiences loved the Bogart-Bacall chemistry, so the wide release of "The Big Sleep" was further delayed the wide release by rewriting scenes to heighten the chemistry and bring out Bacall's "insolent" quality that audiences found so appealing the pair's earlier film. The pre-release cut is only two minutes longer, but contains 18 minutes of scenes missing from the final picture. The first "draft" was discovered at the UCLA Film and Television Archive where both versions have since been preserved.
The Big Trail (1930)
This taming of the Oregon Trail saga comes alive thanks to the majestic sweep afforded by the experimental Grandeur wide-screen process developed by the Fox Film Corporation. Audiences marveled at the sheer scope of the panoramic scenes before them and delighted in the beauty of the vast landscapes. Hollywood legend has it that director Raoul Walsh was seeking a male lead for a new Western and asked his friend John Ford for advice. Ford recommended an unknown actor named John Wayne because he "liked the looks of this new kid with a funny walk -- like he owned the world." When Wayne professed inexperience, Walsh told him to just "sit good on a horse and point."Wayne's starring role in "The Big Trail" did not catapult him to stardom, and he languished in low-budget pictures until John Ford cast him in the 1939 classic "Stagecoach."
Expanded essay by Marilyn Ann Moss (PDF, 375KB)
The Birds (1963)
"The Birds" was the fourth suspense hit by Alfred Hitchcock—following "Vertigo," "North by Northwest" and "Psycho"—revealing his mastery of his craft. Hitchcock transfixed both critics and mass audiences by deftly moving from anxiety-inducing horror to glossy entertainment and suspense, with bold forays into psychological terrain. Marked by a foreboding sense of an unending terror no one can escape, the film concludes with its famous, final scene, which only adds to the emotional impact of "The Birds."
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
This landmark of American motion pictures is the story of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Director D.W. Griffith's depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes stirred controversy that continues to the present day. But the director's groundbreaking camera technique and narrative style advanced the art of filmmaking by leaps and bounds. Profoundly impacted by the novel "The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan," Griffith hired its author Thomas F. Dixon Jr. to adapt it as a screenplay. At the heart of the story are two pairs of star-crossed lovers on either side of the conflict: Southerner Henry B. Walthall courts Northerner Lillian Gish, and the couple's siblings, played by Elmer Clifton and Miriam Cooper, are also in love. The ravages of war and the chaos of reconstruction take their toll on both families. The racist and simplistic depictions of blacks in the film is difficult to overlook, but underneath the distasteful sentiment lies visual genius.
Expanded essay by Dave Kehr (PDF, 599KB)
Black and Tan (1929)
In one of the first short musical films to showcase African-American jazz musicians, Duke Ellington portrays a struggling musician whose dancer wife (Fredi Washington in her film debut) secures him a gig for his orchestra at the famous Cotton Club where she's been hired to perform, at a risk to her health. Directed by Dudley Murphy, who earned his reputation with "Ballet mécanique," which is considered a masterpiece of early experimental filmmaking, the film reflects the cultural, social and artistic explosion of the 1920s that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Ellington and Washington personify that movement, and Murphy—who also directed registry titles "St. Louis Blues" (1929), another musical short, and the feature "The Emperor Jones" (1933) starring Paul Robeson—cements it in celluloid to inspire future generations. Washington, who appeared with Robeson in "Emperor Jones," is best known as "Peola" in the 1934 version of "Imitation of Life."
The Black Pirate (1926)
This swashbuckling tour-de-force by Douglas Fairbanks, king of silent action adventure pictures, is most significant for having been filmed entirely in two-strip Technicolor, a process still being perfected at the time, and the precursor to Technicolor processes that would become commonplace by the 1950s. Fairbanks plays a nobleman who has vowed to avenge the death of his father at the hands of pirates, and once upon the pirates' vessel, protects a damsel in distress (Bessie Love)taken hostage by the band of thieves. Fairbanks wrote the original story under a pseudonym, and Albert Parker directed.
Expanded essay by Tracey Goessel (PDF, 356 KB)
The Black Stallion (1979)
When a ship carrying young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and a black Arabian stallion sinks off the coast of Africa, Alec and the horse find themselves stranded on a deserted island. Upon their rescue, Alec and horse trainer/former jockey Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney) begin training the horse to become a formidable racer. Directed by Carroll Ballard and based on the Walter Farley novel of the same name, the film was executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola who finally persuaded United Artists to release the film after shelving it for two years. The film's supervising sound editor, Alan Splet, received a Special Achievement Award for his innovations including affixing microphones around the horse's midsection to pick up the sound of its hoof beats and breathing during race sequences. "The Black Stallion" was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Best Supporting Actor for Mickey Rooney and one for Best Film Editing for Robert Dalva.
Expanded essay by Keith Phipps (PDF, 375 KB)
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
In a 1983 interview, writer-director Richard Brooks claimed that hearing Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" in 1954 inspired him to make a rock & roll-themed picture. The result was "Blackboard Jungle," an adaptation of the controversial novel by Evan Hunter about an inner-city schoolteacher (played in the film by Glenn Ford) tackling juvenile delinquency and the lamentable state of public education— common bugaboos of the Eisenhower era. Retaining much of the novel's gritty realism, the film effectively dramatizes the social issues at hand, and features outstanding early performances by Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow. The film, however, packs its biggest wallop even before a word of dialog is spoken. As the opening credits roll, Brooks' original inspiration for the film – the pulsating strains of "Rock Around the Clock" – blasts across theater speakers, bringing the devil's music to Main Street and epitomizing American culture worldwide.
Blacksmith Scene (1893)
Not blacksmiths but employees of the Edison Manufacturing Company, Charles Kayser, John Ott and another unidentified man are likely the first screen actors in history, and "Blacksmith Scene" is thought to be the first film of more than a few feet to be publicly exhibited. The 30-second film was photographed in late April 1893 by Edison's key employee, W.K.L. Dickson, at the new Edison studio in New Jersey. On May 9, audiences lined up single file at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences to peer through a viewing machine called a kinetoscope where glowed images of a blacksmith and two helpers forging a piece of iron, but only after they'd first passed around a bottle of beer. A Brooklyn newspaper reported the next day, "It shows living subjects portrayed in a manner to excite wonderment."
National Film Preservation Foundation - Blacksmithing Scene External
Blade Runner (1982)
A blend of science fiction and film noir, "Blade Runner" was a box office and critical flop when first released, but its unique postmodern production design became hugely influential within the sci-fi genre, and the film gained a significant cult following that increased its stature. Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, a retired cop in Los Angeles circa 2019. L.A. has become a pan-cultural dystopia of corporate advertising, pollution and flying automobiles, as well as replicants, human-like androids with short life spans built for use in dangerous off-world colonization. Deckard, a onetime blade runner – a detective that hunts down rogue replicants – is forced back into active duty to assassinate a band of rogues out to attack earth. Along the way he encounters Sean Young, a replicant who's unaware of her true identity, and faces a violent confrontation atop a skyscraper high above the city.
Expanded essay by David Morgan (PDF, 358 KB)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
This riotously funny, raunchy, no-holds-barred Western spoof by Mel Brooks is universally considered one of the funniest American films of all time. The movie features a civil-rights theme (the man in the white hat (Cleavon Little ) turns out to be an African-American who has to defend a bigoted town), and its furiously paced gags and rapid-fire dialogue were scripted by Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg and Alan Unger. Little as the sheriff and Gene Wilder as his recovering alcoholic deputy have great chemistry, and the delightful supporting cast includes Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, and Madeline Kahn as a chanteuse modelled on Marlene Dietrich. As in "Young Frankenstein," "Silent Movie," and "High Anxiety," director/writer Brooks gives a burlesque spin to a classic Hollywood movie genre.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 662 KB)
Bless Their Little Hearts (1984)
Part of the vibrant New Wave of independent African-American filmmakers to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, Billy Woodberry became a key figure in the movement known as the L.A. Rebellion. Woodberry crafted his UCLA thesis film, "Bless Their Little Hearts," which was theatrically released in 1984. The film features a script and cinematography by Charles Burnett. This spare, emotionally resonant portrait of family life during times of struggle blends grinding, daily-life sadness with scenes of deft humor. Jim Ridley of the "Village Voice" aptly summed up the film's understated-but- real virtues: "Its poetry lies in the exaltation of ordinary detail."
The Blood of Jesus (1941)
Also known as "The Glory Road," this was among the approximately 500 "race movies" produced between 1915 and 1950 for African-American audiences and featuring all-black casts. In this film, a deeply devout woman (Cathryn Caviness) faces a spiritual crossroads after being accidentally shot, and is forced to choose between heaven and hell. Spencer Williams, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, produced the film in response to a need for spiritually-based films that spoke directly to black audiences. Long thought lost, prints were discovered in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas, in the mid-1980s.
Expanded essay by Mark S. Giles (PDF, 256 KB)
View this film at Southern Methodist University Central University Libraries External
The Blue Bird (1918)
Maurice Tourneur's beautiful expressionist adaptation of Maurice Maeterlink's play remains one of the most aesthetically pleasing films. The film is a sumptuously composed pictorial entrance into a fantasy world, which tries to teach us not to overlook the beauty of what is close and familiar.
Expanded essay by Kaveh Askari (PDF, 445 KB)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Setting filmmaking and style trends that linger today, "Bonnie and Clyde" veered from comedy to social commentary to melodrama and caught audiences unaware, especially with its graphic ending. The violence spawned many detractors, but others saw the artistry beyond the blood and it earned not only critical succes which eventually showed at thebox office. Arthur Penn deftly directs David Newman and Robert Benton's script, aided by the film's star and producer Warren Beatty, who was always eager to push the envelope. Faye Dunaway captures the Depression-era yearning for glamour and escape from poverty and hopelessness.
Expanded essay by Richard Schickel (PDF, 530KB)
Born Yesterday (1950)
Judy Holliday's sparkling lead performance as not-so-dumb "dumb blonde" Billie Dawn anchors this comedy classic based on Garson Kanin's play and directed for the screen by George Cukor. Kanin's satire on corruption in Washington, D.C., adapted for the screen by Albert Mannheimer, is full of charm and wit while subtly addressing issues of class, gender, social standing and American politics. Holliday's work in the film (a role she had previously played on Broadway) was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actress and has endured as one of the era's most finely realized comedy performances.
Expanded essay by Ariel Schudson (PDF, 394KB)
Boulevard Nights (1979)
"Boulevard Nights" had its genesis in a screenplay by UCLA student Desmond Nakano about Mexican-American youth and the lowrider culture. Director Michael Pressman and cinematographer John Bailey shot the film in the barrios of East Los Angeles with the active participation of the local community (including car clubs and gang members). This street-level strategy using mostly non-professional actors produced a documentary-style depiction of the tough choices faced by Chicano youth as they come of age and try to escape or navigate gang life ("Two brothers...the street was their playground and their battleground"). In addition to "Boulevard Nights," this era featured several films chronicling youth gangs and rebellion — "The Warriors" (1979), "Over the Edge" (1979), "Walk Proud" (1979) and "The Outsiders" (1983). The film faced protests and criticism from some Latinos who saw outsider filmmakers, albeit well-intentioned, adopting an anthropological perspective with an excessive focus on gangs and violent neighborhoods. Nevertheless, "Boulevard Nights" stands out as a pioneering snapshot of East L.A. and enjoys semi-cult status in the lowrider community.
Boyz N the Hood (1991)
In his film debut, John Singleton wrote and directed this thought-provoking look at South Central L.A.'s black community. A divorced father (Larry Fishburne) struggles to raise his son, Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in a world where violence is a fact of life. Tre is torn by his desire to live up to his father's expectations and pressure from friends pushing him toward the gang culture. Roger Ebert praised the film for its "maturity and emotional depth," calling it "an American film of enormous importance." The lead players are backed by strong supporting performances from Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Tyre Ferrell, Angela Bassett and Nia Long.
Brandy in the Wilderness (1969)
This introspective "contrived diary" film by Stanton Kaye features vignettes from the relationship of a real-life couple, in this case the director and his girlfriend. An evocative 1960s time capsule—reminiscent of Jim McBride's "David Holzman's Diary"—this simulated autobiography, as in many experimental films, often blurs the lines between reality and illusion, moving in non-linear arcs through the ever-evolving and unpredictable interactions of relationships, time and place. As Paul Schrader notes, "it is probably quite impossible (and useless) to make a distinction between the point at which the film reflects their lives, and the point at which their lives reflect the film." "Brandy in the Wilderness" remains a little-known yet key work of American indie filmmaking.
This article by director Paul Schrader originally appeared in the Fall 1971 issue of "Cinema Magazine." (PDF, 1764KB)
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Truman Capote's acclaimed novella—the bitter story of self-invented Manhattan call girl Holly Golightly—arrived on the big screen purged of its risqué dialogue and unhappy ending. George Axelrod's screenplay excised explicit references to Holly's livelihood and added an emotionally moving romance, resulting, in Capote's view, in "a mawkish valentine to New York City." Capote believed that Marilyn Monroe would have been perfect for the film and judged Audrey Hepburn, who landed the lead, "just wrong for the part." Critics and audiences, however, have disagreed. The Los Angeles Times stated, "Miss Hepburn makes the complex Holly a vivid, intriguing figure." Feminist critics in recent times have valued Hepburn's portrayals of the period as providing a welcome alternative female role model to the dominant sultry siren of the 1950s. Hepburn conveyed intelligent curiosity, exuberant impetuosity, delicacy combined with strength, and authenticity that often emerged behind a knowingly false facade. Critics also have lauded the movie's director Blake Edwards for his creative visual gags and facility at navigating the film's abrupt changes in tone. Composer Henry Mancini's classic "Moon River," featuring lyrics by Johnny Mercer, also received critical acclaim. Mancini considered Hepburn's wistful rendition of the song on guitar the best he had heard.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
John Hughes, who had previously given gravitas to the angst of adolescence in his 1984 film, "Sixteen Candles," further explored the social politics of high school in this comedy/character study produced one year later. Set in a day-long Saturday detention hall, the film offers an assortment of American teen-age archetypes such as the "nerd," "jock," and "weirdo." Over the course of the day, labels and default personas slip away as members of this motley group actually talk to each other and learn about each other and themselves. "The Breakfast Club" is a comedy that delivers a message with laughs. Thirty years later, the movie's message is still vivid. Written and directed by Hughes, the film's cast includes Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Director James Whale took his success with "Frankenstein," added humor and thus created a cinematic hybrid that perplexed audiences at first glance but captivated them by picture's end. Joined eventually by a mate (Elsa Lanchester), the Frankenstein monster (Boris Karloff reprising his role and investing the character with emotional subtlety) evolves into a touchingly sympathetic character as he gradually becomes more human. Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious is captivatingly bizarre. Many film historians consider "Bride," with its surreal visuals, superior to the original.
Expanded essay by Richard T. Jameson, (PDF, 672KB) examines "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" in a single entry.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
At the heart of David Lean's antiheroic war epic about a band of British POWs forced to build a bridge in the wilds of Burma is the notion of men clinging to their sanity by clinging to military tradition. The film's cast, which reflects a broad spectrum of acting styles, includes Alec Guinness as the British commanding officer and Sessue Hayakawa as his Japanese counterpart, and William Holden as an American soldier who escapes from the camp and Jack Hawkins as the British major who convinces him to return and help blow up the bridge. Lean elects to keep the musical score to a minimum and instead plays up tension with nature sounds punctuating the action. For many film critics and historians, "Bridge on the River Kwai" signals a shift in Lean's directorial style from simpler storytelling toward the more bloated epics that characterized his later career.
Sessue Hayakawa and Alec Guinness in a scene from "The Bridge On The River Kwai"
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
In this fast-paced screwball comedy from director Howard Hawks, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), an eccentric heiress with a pet leopard named Baby, proves a constant irritant to paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant), who is trying to raise $1 million to complete his dinosaur skeleton reconstruction project. Based on a short story by Hagar Wilde, Hawks worked closely with Wilde and screenwriter Dudley Nichols to perfect the script, in which the role of Susan Vance was written specifically with Hepburn in mind. Although now considered a cinematic classic, "Bringing Up Baby" received mixed critical reviews upon release and performed well in only certain areas of the United States, thus reaffirming the film industry's then-current view of Hepburn as "box office poison." Significantly, "Bringing Up Baby" is possibly the first American film to use the term "gay" as a reference to homosexuality.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 25KB)
Broadcast News (1987)
James L. Brooks wrote, produced and directed this comedy set in the fast-paced, tumultuous world of television news. Shot mostly in dozens of locations around the Washington, D.C. area, the film stars Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks. Brooks makes the most of his everyman persona serving as Holly Hunter's romantic back-up plan while she pursues the handsome but vacuous Hurt. Against the backdrop of broadcast journalism (and various debates about journalist ethics), a grown-up romantic comedy plays out in a smart, savvy and fluff-free story whose humor is matched only by its honesty.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
"Brokeback Mountain," a contemporary Western drama that won the Academy Award for best screenplay (by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) and Golden Globe awards for best drama, director (Ang Lee) and screenplay, depicts a secret and tragic love affair between two closeted gay ranch hands. They furtively pursue a 20-year relationship despite marriages and parenthood until one of them dies violently, reportedly by accident, but possibly, as the surviving lover fears, in a brutal attack. Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the short story upon which the film was based, described it as "a story of destructive rural homophobia." Haunting in its unsentimental depiction of longing, lonesomeness, pretense, sexual repression and ultimately love, "Brokeback Mountain" features Heath Ledger's remarkable performance that conveys a lifetime of self-torment through a pained demeanor, near inarticulate speech and constricted, lugubrious movements. In his review, Newsweek's David Ansen wrotes that the film was "a watershed in mainstream movies, the first gay love story with A-list Hollywood stars." "Brokeback Mountain" has become an enduring classic.
Broken Blossoms (1919)
Most associated with epics such as "Intolerance" and "The Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith also helmed smaller films that struck a chord with silent era audiences. "Broken Blossoms," Griffith's first title for his newly formed United Artists, is one example. Set in the slums of London, it concerns an abused 15-year-old girl, Lucy, portrayed by Lillian Gish and the former missionary turned shopkeeper Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) who rescues her from her brutal father. More than a tender but chaste love story, "Broken Blossoms" entreats audiences to denounce racism and poverty.
Expanded essay by Ed Gonzalez (PDF, 495KB)
A Bronx Morning (1931)
Part documentary and part avant-garde, this renowned city symphony was filmed by Jay Leyda when he was 21. It features sensational and stylish use of European filmmaking styles The images movingly show the resilience of people persevering with style and enthusiasm during the early years of the depression. "A Bronx Morning" won Leyda a scholarship to study with the renowned Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 284KB)
The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man (1975)
This powerful documentary by the Kentucky-based arts and education center Appalshop represents the finest in regional filmmaking, providing important understanding of the environmental and cultural history of the Appalachian region. The 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood Disaster, caused by the failure of a coal waste dam, killed more than 100 people and left thousands in West Virginia homeless. Local citizens invited Appalshop to come to the area and to film a historical record, fearing that the Pittston Coal Co.'s powerful influence in the state would lead to a whitewash investigation and absolve it of any corporate culpability. Newsweek hailed the film as "a devastating expose of the collusion between state officials and coal executives."
Expanded essay by the film's director Mimi Pickering (PDF, 793KB)
The winding streets and stunning vistas of San Francisco, backed by a superb Lalo Schifrin score, play a central role in British director Peter Yates' film renowned for its exhilarating 11-minute car chase, arguably the finest in cinema history. In one of his most famous roles, Steve McQueen stars as tough-guy police detective Frank Bullitt. The story, based on Robert L. Pike's crime novel "Mute Witness," begins with Bullitt assigned to a seemingly routine detail, protecting mafia informant Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), who is scheduled to testify against his cronies before a Senate subcommittee. But when two hitmen ambush their secret location, fatally wounding Ross, things don't add up for Bullitt, so he decides to investigate the case on his own. Unfortunately for him, ambitious senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), the head of the aforementioned subcommittee, wants to shut his investigation down, interfering with Bullitt's plan to bring the killers to justice but discover who's behind the ambush.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Directed by George Roy Hill and written by William Goldman, this highly popular film features critically acclaimed performances by Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross as the real-life outlaws of the American West and their female companion. The music by Burt Bacharach adds to the film's nostalgic appeal as well as its alternatingly melancholy and humorous mood. While the film and director Hill were denied Academy Awards, Goldman and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall did take home trophies, as did Bacharach for his score and for the song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," co-written with Hal David. Having already established a reputation for themselves, Butch and Sundance rob the same train twice, incurring the wrath of the railroad which hires the best trackers in the business to bring them in. Pursued over steep cliffs and rocky gorges, the pair decides it's time to go to Bolivia to try their luck, but it soon runs out as scores of soldiers wait for them to make one last run for it.
Bob Fosse, who earned a Best Director Oscar, translated a highly successful Broadway musical into a film that maintains the vivacity of the stage version while creating an intimacy seldom found in such stage-to-cinema adaptations. Liza Minnelli won an Oscar as Best Actress for her portrayal of the unabashedly amoral, disarmingly mercurial cabaret performer Sally Boles living it up in 1930s Berlin. Her co-star Joel Grey, who played the worldwise Emcee, took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film was also recognized for its score, cinematography and art direction.
Expanded essay by Stephen Tropiano (PDF, 424KB)
The Cameraman (1928)
This film marked the last of Buster Keaton's silent comedy classics. Here Keaton is an aspiring newsreel cameraman out to win the heart of studio secretary Marceline Day. Ostensibly directed by Edward Sedgwick, the film is all Keaton and includes some of the best treatises on the techniques and psychology of shooting motion pictures. Keaton is at his most deft in responding to the most outrageous situations with matter-of-fact naturalism and wearing his great stone face. A seamless, ingenious blend of comedy and pathos, featuring countless creative gags involving fantastical double exposures, swimming pool changing rooms, and an organ grinder's monkey.
Carmen Jones (1954)
In 1943, Oscar Hammerstein Jr. took Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen," rewrote the lyrics, changed the characters from 19th century Spaniards to World War II-era African-Americans, switched the locale to a Southern military base, and the result was "Carmen Jones." Otto Preminger directed this Cinemascope retelling starring Dorothy Dandridge as the temptress Carmen, a worker in a war plant, and Harry Belafonte as her soldier lover. Although both Dandridge and Belafonte were singers, their opera voices were dubbed by Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson. Otto Preminger's realist sensibility often seems contradictory to the whimsical nature of a musical, but some strong elements survive the segregationist context. Exceptionally liberal in its time, Dorothy Dandridge's performance in the lead is a reminder of the kind of African American films that might have emerged if given the chance.
One of the most beloved of American films, this captivating romantic adventure directed by Michael Curtiz is the story of a world-weary ex-freedom fighter (Humphrey Bogart) who runs a nightclub in Casablanca during the early part of WWII. Despite pressure from the local authorities, led by the wily Capt. Renault (Claude Rains), Rick's cafe has become a haven for refugees. One of those refugees is Rick's true love who deserted him when the Nazis invaded Paris (Ingrid Bergman) and her Resistance leader husband (Paul Henreid). How the triangle would resolve itself wasn't known even to cast members until the last days of filming. Though often lacking logical cohesion, the film's dialog and the timeliness of world events swirling around Casablanca made the eventual Best Picture winner a favorite with wartime audiences.
Expanded essay by Jay Carr (PDF, 565KB)
Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) (1966)
This non-narrative 10-minute experimental example of poetic cinema by Bruce Baillie was filmed on the streets of Richmond, California — most notably Castro Street — near the Standard Oil Refinery. Its bright, primary colors and lateral tracking shots illustrate Baillie's fascinaton for opposites, as he described, "that are one, both in conflict and harmony, opposing each other and abiding together and requiring each other." Upon a retrospective of his work, the "New York Times" wrote that Baillie "makes avant-garde films with the gifts of a painter and the objectives of a sign painter."
Expanded essay by Scott MacDonald (PDF, 238KB)
Cat People (1942)
Val Lewton achieved the almost miraculous when he produced "Cat People." He and his team, which included director Jacques Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, editor Mark Robson, and composer Roy Webb among others, created
a spine-tingling horror movie with no monster, no special effects and virtually no budget, yet it netted RKO, almost 20 times its cost. The film's tension outweighs its thin story about a woman (Simone Simon) who believes she's the subject of a curse that will turn her into a panther. Kent Smith and Jane Randolph are the other two sides of the love triangle that forms the plot.
Expanded essay by Chuck Bowen (PDF, 580KB)
Mark Robson, Robert Wise, and Val Lewton in conversation during the production of "Cat People."
Chan Is Missing (1982)
Considered a seminal work of Asian-America cinema, director Wayne Wang's film is a tale of two San Francisco cab drivers hunting down the elusive Chan of the title who has absconded with $4,000 of their money. A wry comedy, the film is also a heart-felt travelogue of San Francisco's Chinatown and an important statement on the Asian-American experience far removed from the "Fu Manchu" and "Charlie Chan" stereotypes of motion pictures past.
The Cheat (1915)
Before he became known as the king of spectacle, Cecil B. DeMille honed his craft on a series of silent melodramas like this story about a woman embezzler (Fannie Ward), her husband (Jack Dean), and the Faustian bargain she enters into with a mysterious Burmese businessman, played by Sessue Hayakawa. Employing some of the silent era's most potent plot twists and elaborate production design, "The Cheat" has endured thanks to Hayakawa's performance, a subtle yet menacing mix which made him a cinema star.
The Chechahcos (1924)
The title of this independent, regional film is Inuit for tenderfoot or newcomer. (Traditionally spelled "Cheechakos" the film's title was changed by Associated Exhibitors only after it was no longer controlled by Alaskans.) The first feature film produced in Alaska, it is renowned for its spectacular location footage of the lonely and unfathomable Alaskan wilderness, frenzied dogsled pursuits and life-and-death struggles on the glaciers.
Expanded essay by Chris Beheim (PDF, 316KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
A compelling whodunit reminiscent of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, "Chinatown" was among the most renowned films of the '70s and holds up impeccably today, thanks to am Oscar-winning script by Robert Towne, flawless direction by the unconventional Roman Polanski, and gorgeous cinematography by John A. Alonzo. A Los Angeles private detective (Jack Nicholson), hired to investigate an adultery case, stumbles onto a labyrinthine plot of a murder involving incest and the privatization of water through government corruption and shady real estate deals that incriminate some of the city's most powerful tycoons. Ultra-glamorous Faye Dunaway is the widow of the murdered water commissioner Nicholson's investigating, and John Huston is her father with more than his share of secrets.
Expanded essay by James Verniere (PDF, 828KB)
A Christmas Story (1983)
Humorist Jean Shepherd narrates this memoir of growing up in Hammond, Ind., during the 1940s when his greatest ambition was to receive a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. The film is based in part on Shepherd's 1966 compilation of short stories titled "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," which originated on his radio and television programs. Writer-director Bob Clark had long dreamed of making a movie based on Shepherd's work and his reverence for the material shows through as detail after nostalgic detail rings true with period flavor. Dozens of small but expertly realized moments reflect an astute understanding of human nature. Peter Billingsley—with his cherubic cheeks, oversized glasses and giddy grin—portrays Shepherd as a boy. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are his harried-yet-lovable parents.
Chulas Fronteras (1976)
Accomplished documentarian Les Blank directed this complex, insightful look at the Chicano experience as mirrored in the lives and music of the most acclaimed Norteño musicians of the Texas-Mexican border, including Flaco Jimenez and Lydia Mendoza. Much of "Chulas Fronteras" features no dialog, and this lack of narration allows for more focus on the sights and sounds of the local music and culture.
Expanded essay by David Wilt (PDF, 425KB)
Cicero March (1966)
During the summer of 1966, the Chicago Freedom Movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., targeted Chicago in a drive to end de facto segregation in northern cities and ensure better housing, education and job opportunities for African Americans. After violent rioting and a month of demonstrations, the city reached an agreement with King, in part to avoid a threatened march for open housing in the neighboring all-white town of Cicero, Ill., the scene of a riot 15 years earlier when a black couple tried to move into an apartment there. King called off further demonstrations, but other activists marched in Cicero on Sept. 4, an event preserved on film in this eight-minute, cinema-vérité-styled documentary. Using lightweight, handheld equipment, the Chicago-based Film Group, Inc. filmmakers situated themselves in the midst of confrontations and captured for posterity the viciousness of northern reactions to civil-rights reforms.
Expanded essay by Nancy Watrous (PDF, 400KB)
This film is online courtesy Chicago Film Archives External
It would take the enchanted magic of Walt Disney and his extraordinary team to revitalize a story as old as Cinderella. Yet, in 1950, Disney and his animators did just that with this version of the classic tale. Sparkling songs, high-production value and bright voice performances have made this film a classic from its premiere. Though often told and repeated across all types of media, Disney's lovely take has become the definitive version of this classic story about a girl, a prince and a single glass slipper. Breathtaking animation fills every scene, including what was reportedly Walt Disney's favorite of all Disney animation sequences: the fairy godmother transforming Cinderella's "rags" into an exquisite gown and glass slippers.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Directed by and starring Orson Welles, this film tells the life story of Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a newspaper tycoon who gains immense wealth at the expense of the ones he loves. The screenplay, written by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles, was inspired by the biography of real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and the film's celebrated visual style featuring stunning black and white cinematography was created by director of photography Gregg Toland. Although "Citizen Kane" received a lukewarm reception from audiences upon its initial release, it was applauded by critics and is today often considered the "greatest film of all time." The film, which also stars Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane Ruth Warrick, was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Expanded essay by Godfrey Cheshire (PDF, 733KB)
The City (1939)
Sponsored by an association of professional planners, "The City" premiered at the 1939 World's Fair in New York where its producers hoped to influence public opinion and public policy. The director-cinematographer team of Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, aided by an Aaron Copland score, presented a montage of scenes depicting various aspects of city life from quaint New England towns to the industrial blight of Pittsburgh to overcrowded, over-commercialized New York streets to idyllic family-friendly planned communities. A mixture of staged and actuality footage illustrated a script by sociologist and literary critic Lewis Mumford from an outline by documentarian Pare Lorentz. World War II initially stalled acceptance of the film's American dream, but by the late 1940s, veterans eager to take advantage of G.I. home loans helped to fuel its popularity.
Expanded essay by Kyle Westphal (PDF, 501KB)
City Lights (1931)
In this story of a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and the tramp who makes sacrifices for her (Charlie Chaplin), Chaplin deftly combines comedy with pathos. Despite the movie industry's embrace of talking pictures, Chaplin held on to the pantomime style that defined his screen persona, and the film earned great critical acclaim and box-office profits.
Expanded essay by Jeffrey Vance (PDF, 331 KB)
Charlie Chaplin and others during filming of "City Lights"
Contemporary audiences know director Thomas Ince not for his body of work, but for his infamously mysterious death in 1924 aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht. Ince was, in fact, an accomplished and prolific producer-director who made more than 150 films in 1913 alone. In his film "Civilization," a once hawkish count betrays his war-mongering king by suddenly embracing pacifism and drowning himself as a sacrifice to peace. Furious, the king orders his scientists to resurrect the count, but is instead met by Christ, who now inhabits the count's body. Christ horrifies the king with graphic visions of war's carnage, and the repentant monarch vows to devote his life to peace. By 1916, most Americans no longer favored isolationism, however, and audiences sentenced the film to death at the box office.
Expanded essay by Brian Taves (PDF, 370KB)
Clash of the Wolves (1925)
In one of the greatest stories in film history, German shepherd Rin-Tin-Tin (Rinty) was rescued from a German trench during World War I by American soldier Lee Duncan, who trained the dog and took him to Hollywood. Rinty quickly became one of the biggest stars of 1920s Hollywood, reportedly saving Warner Bros. studio from bankruptcy. In "Clash of the Wolves" resourceful Rinty ingeniously rescues the good guys while foiling the crooks.
Expanded essay by Susan Orlean (PDF, 778KB)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Steven Spielberg's follow-up to "Jaws" substitutes creatures from the sky for creatures from the sea, but these beings are more mysterious than a killer shark, and the quest is more about discovery than destruction. The quest, as taken up by Everyman Richard Dreyfuss involves extraterrestrial life and a recurring vision of a shape eventually revealed as Devil's Tower National Monument. The five-tone musical motif used for communication with the aliens has become as memorable as any line of movie dialogue.
Expanded essay by Matt Zoller Seitz (PDF, 584KB)
Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther (1939)
This fourteen-minute black-and-white silent documentary salutes the "good natured Germans or Hollanders" of Cologne, Minnesota as photographed by local amateur filmmakers Esther and Raymond Dowidat. Cologne, population 350, is located southwest of Minneapolis in the midst of dairy farms. When "examined more closely, the town is really quaint and picturesque" we're told by Esther's handwritten "diary" which serve as the film's narration. It stands out not because its subject matter is particularly unique, but because it exhibits a cinematic sophistication and artistry not usually found in home movies, while capturing a distinct flavor of time and place.
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 316KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (1940)
This selection of field recordings made by a pioneering ethnographic film team led by anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. This amazing footage is especially worthy of recognition because synchronous sound recordings were made capturing singing, instrumental music, sermons, and religious services among this South Carolina Gullah community. These audio recordings have recently been rediscovered and are being reunited with the film footage.
Expanded essay by Fayth M. Parks (PDF, 433 KB)
A Computer Animated Hand (1972)
Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, renowned for its CGI (computer generated image) animated films, created a program for digitally animating a human hand in 1972 as a graduate student project, one of the earliest examples of 3D computer animation. The one-minute film displays the hand turning, opening and closing, pointing at the viewer, and flexing its fingers, ending with a shot that seemingly travels up inside the hand. In creating the film, which was incorporated into the 1976 film "Futureworld," Catmull worked out concepts that become the foundation for computer graphics that followed.
Expanded essay by Andrew Utterson (PDF, 2525KB)
The Conversation (1974)
Produced in between "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II," and in part an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up," this film represented a return to small-scale art films for director Francis Ford Coppola. Sound surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired to track a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), taping their conversation as they walk through San Francisco's crowded Union Square, but he soon suspects that his client plans to murder the couple. "The Conversation" earned Coppola Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, but lost out in both categories to his own "The Godfather Part II." A critical but not commercial success, "The Conversation" has since earned the reputation as one of the artistic high points of the decade and of Coppola's career. Its atmosphere of paranoia and loner protagonist reflected a movement in the early '70s toward darker movies, and its audiotape storyline reflects an era rocked the Watergate scandal.
Expanded essay by Peter Keough (PDF, 485KB)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Paul Newman, who was nominated for an Oscar, portrays the classic antihero loner Luke: a prisoner on a Southern chain-gang who refuses to give in to the guards' efforts to break his spirit. As Luke becomes a symbol of hope and resilience to the other inmates, prison captain Strother Martin drawls sadistically, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate." George Kennedy received an Oscar as the unofficial leader of the cons who yields first place to Luke.
The Cool World (1963)
In director Shirley Clarke's stark semi-documentary look at life in the Harlem ghetto, a 15-year-old gang member comes of age amidst drugs, violence and daunting racial prejudice. Eager to buy a gun (a "piece"), the teen struggles to establish his manhood in the only way he believes he can. Based on the novel by Warren Miller and the play by Robert Rossen, Clarke infuses her exposé with jazz music by such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, while minimizing any narrative form. "New York Times" reviewer Bosley Crowther noted, "The players, most with little or no previous experience in films, move with the random impulsiveness of characters caught on the run... the pounding vitality blisters the eyes and claws the senses with its vicious and hideous visual truths."
Considered to be one of Buster Keaton's best short films, "Cops" exemplifies the star's popular blending of athleticism and his unique stone-faced comedic style. Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Keaton, the story features underachiever Keaton seeking success in business to win the affections of a girl (Virginia Fox). Along the way he inadvertently causes a riot at a policeman's parade, and the result is a gag-filled chase involving hundreds of cops.
Expanded essay by Randy Haberkamp (PDF, 293KB)
Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897)
Independently produced motion picture recordings of famous boxing contests were a leading factor in establishing the commercial success of movies in the late 19th century. Championship boxing matches were the most widely popular sporting contests in America in that era, even though the sport was banned in many states in the 1890s. Soon after Nevada legalized boxing in 1897, the Corbett-Fitzsimmons title fight was held in that state in Carson City on St. Patrick's Day of that year. The film recorded the introductions of famous personalities in attendance and all 14 of the fight's three-minute rounds, plus the one-minute breaks between rounds. With a running time of approximately 100 minutes, "The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight" was the longest movie produced at that time. Films of championship matches before 1897 had been unsuccessful because they ended too quickly with knockouts, leaving movie audiences unwilling to pay high-ticket prices to see such short films. "Corbett-Fitzsimmons" was a tremendous commercial success for the producers and contestants James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons (the victor), generating an estimated $750,000 in income during the several years that it remained in distribution. This film also is deserving of a footnote in the technical history of motion pictures. Producers of early boxing films protected their films from piracy by engineering film printers and projectors that could only accept film stock of a proprietary size. The film prints of the fight were manufactured in a unique 63mm format that could only be run on a special projector advertised as "The Veriscope."
Photograph of the fight
A Corner in Wheat (1909)
The father of the American narrative film, D.W. Griffith pioneered film techniques that continue to influence filmmakers. Ably assisted by his long-time cameraman G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, Griffith produced this 14-minute film decrying greed and its consequences. Griffith was inspired by the work of Frank Norris, a novelist best known for "McTeague" (1899) — later adapted as "Greed" (1925), another Registry film. Griffith discovered a trilogy Norris was writing at the time of his death in 1902. Its theme was wheat: how it's grown, distributed and consumed. Griffith achieves a surprising sense of movement from a single stationary camera, and by building drama with the the use of intercut images to illustrates comparisons and contrasts.
Expanded essay by Daniel Eagan (PDF, 253KB)
The Court Jester (1956)
In this comical adventure parody written and directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, the mercurial Danny Kaye plays a traveling minstrel who is persuaded by a Robin Hood-like hero and his beautiful lieutenant (Glynis Johns) to impersonate the jester of the evil, unlawful king to aid in their quest to restore the true king to the crown. The film is filled with lilting tunes, tongue twisters about "the vessel with the pestle and the brew that is true" and catch phrases like "Get it? Got it? Good." Basil Rathbone is his reliably swashbuckling self as the wicked king's henchman, and Angela Lansbury is Princess Gwendolyn, who falls for the jester.
Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963)
Robert Drew was a pioneer of American cinema-verite (a style of documentary filmmaking that strives to record unfolding events non-intrusively). In 1963, he gathered together a stellar group of filmmakers, including D. A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, Gregory Shuker, James Lipscomb, and Patricia Powell, to capture on film the dramatic unfolding of an ideological crisis, one that revealed political decision-making at the highest levels. The result, "Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment," focuses on Gov. George Wallace's attempt to prevent two African-American students from enrolling in the University of Alabama—his infamous "stand in the schoolhouse door" confrontation—and the response of President John F. Kennedy. The filmmakers observe the crisis evolve by following a number of participants, including Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Gov. Wallace and the two students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. The film also shows deliberations between the president and his staff that led to a peaceful resolution, a decision by the president to deliver a major address on civil rights and a commitment by Wallace to continue his battle in subsequent national election campaigns. The film has proven to be a uniquely revealing complement to written histories of the period, providing viewers the rare opportunity to witness historical events from an insider's perspective.
The Crowd (1928)
With "The Crowd," King Vidor repeated the artistic success he had achieved a few years earlier with "The Big Parade," but the film's downbeat realism thwarted the commercial success of his earlier effort. It stars Vidor's wife Eleanor Boardman and James Murray, whom the director had discovered, ironically, in a crowd of extras just prior to filming. In this realistic tale of a young couple's struggles, the film's cinematography plays a role as big as those of its two lead actors. Its most memorable interior shot climbs from street level, up columns of skyscrapers through a window into a sea of desks manned by pencil pushers, until the camera finally reveals a close-up of the lead character played by Murray. Cinematographer Henry Sharp mastered inventive and visceral interior shots, and with the help of a hidden camera, his New York exteriors, including scenes at Coney Island, convey excitement and spontaneity. The dynamic visuals of "The Crowd" are alternately in concert and in contrast with the highly emotional screenplay written by John V.A. Weaver and director Vidor and the naturalistic performances of Boardman and Murray as they explore the faceless, soulless nature of the modern city.
The Cry of Jazz (1959)
"The Cry of Jazz" is a 34-minute, black-and-white short subject that is now recognized as an early and influential example of African-American independent filmmaking. Director Ed Bland, with the help of more than 60 volunteer crew members, intercuts scenes of life in Chicago's black neighborhoods with dramatic scenes of dialogue between blacks and whites. With performance clips by the jazz composer, bandleader and pianist Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the film may be seen as a political interpretation of African American cultural expression which, unlike an earlier trend to present African American artistic production as equal to that of white artists, emphasizes that jazz is uniquely African American and should be judged on its own terms.
Expanded essay by Chuck Kleinhans (PDF, 230KB)
The Cry of the Children (1912)
Recognized as a key work that both reflected and contributed to the pre-World War I child labor reform movement, the two-reel silent melodrama "The Cry of the Children" takes its title and fatalistic, uncompromising tone of hopelessness from the 1842 poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It was part of a wave of "social problem" films released during the 1910s on such subjects as drugs and alcohol, white slavery, immigrants and women's suffrage. Some were sensationalist attempts to exploit lurid topics, while others, like this film, were realistic exposés that championed social reform and demanded change. Shot partially in a working textile factory, "The Cry of the Children" was recognized by an influential critic of the time as "The boldest, most timely and most effective appeal for the stamping out of the cruelest of all social abuses."
Expanded essay by Ned Thanhouser (PDF, 737KB)
A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
Largely forgotten today, actor John Bunny merits significant historical importance as the American film industry's earliest comic superstar. A stage actor prior to the start of his film career, Bunny starred in over 150 Vitagraph Company productions from 1910 until his death in 1915. Many of his films (affectionately known as "Bunnygraphs") were gentle "domestic" comedies, in which he portrayed a henpecked husband alongside co-star Flora Finch. "A Cure for Pokeritis" exemplifies the genre, as Finch conspires with similarly displeased wives to break up their husbands' weekly poker game. When Bunny died in 1915, a New York Times editorial noted that "Thousands who had never heard him speak...recognized him as the living symbol of wholesome merriment." The paper presciently commented on the importance of preserving motion pictures and sound recordings for future generations: "His loss will be felt all over the country, and the films, which preserve his humorous personality in action, may in time have a new value. It is a subject worthy of reflection, the value of a perfect record of a departed singer's voice, of the photographic films perpetuating the drolleries of a comedian who developed such extraordinary capacity for acting before the camera."
Expanded essay by Steve Massa (PDF, 625KB)
The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916-17)
Long thought lost, "The Curse of Quon Gwon," is the earliest known Chinese-American feature and one of the first films directed by a woman, and was recently restored by the Academy Film Archive. The two surviving reels were brought to the attention of filmmaker Arthur Dong while researching his "Hollywood Chinese" documentary. Its timely rediscovery shows us that the history of ethnic filmmaking in the United States goes back much further than earlier thought.
Czechoslovakia 1968 (1969)
With film smuggled out of state-operated film studios and filmed by private citizens as events unfolded, the United States Information Agency (USIA) fashioned a film that documented 50 years of history and political turmoil in Czechoslovakia from its inception as a nation in 1918 through the bloody Russian invasion in 1968. Robert Fresco, who produced a series of television documentaries for David Wolper's company, and Denis Sanders, who had been producing documentaries with his brother Terry since the early 1950s, wrote and directed this 13-minute film which won the Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar in 1969.
Expanded essay by Robert M. Fresco (PDF, 302KB)
Told entirely in flashbacks, "D.O.A." is even more cynical than the average film noir, and this cynisism helps distinguish if from other films of the genre. Directed by Rudolph Mate, the film is fast-paced and suspenseful. The use of jazz music, combined with intense close-ups of the musicians, adds to the chaotic, claustrophobic feeling of the film. Edmond O'Brien plays a certified public accountant who awakens after a hard night of drinking feeling worse than the worst hangover. When he goes to the doctor, he learn he's suffering from "iridium" poisoning and has only a few days to live. Determined to find his killer, and aided by his secretary and fiancé Paula (Pamela Britton), he traces a shipment of iridium and kills the men who poisoned him with the lethal chemical. O'Brien is excellent as an ordinary man doomed by circumstance and trapped in a nightmare world.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
Although there were numerous women filmmakers in the early decades of silent cinema, by the 1930s directing in Hollywood had become a male bastion—with one exception. Dorothy Arzner graduated from editing to directing in the late 1920s, often exploring the conflicted roles of women in contemporary society. In "Dance, Girl, Dance," two women (Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara) pursue life in show business from opposite ends of the spectrum: burlesque and ballet. The film is a meditation on the disparity between art and commerce. The dancers strive to preserve their own feminist integrity, while fighting for their place in the spotlight and for the love of male lead Louis Hayward.
Expanded essay by Carrie Rickey (PDF, 697KB)
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Directed by its star Kevin Costner, "Dances with Wolves" disproved the contemporary reputation of Westerns as box office poison, and garnered critical success as well as financial, including nabbing the Best Picture Oscar. The story of the developing relationship between a cavalry soldier and a nearby Sioux tribe is told in epic fashion, with sweeping cinematography and a majestic John Barry score. The film achieved one of the more sympathetic cinema portraits of Native American life by celebrating the richness of Lakota Sioux folklore, traditions and language.
Expanded essay by Angela Aleiss (PDF, 319KB)
Daughter of Dawn (1920)
A fascinating example of the daringly unexpected topics and scope showcased by the best regional, independent filmmaking during the silent era, "Daughter of Dawn" features an all-Native-American cast of Comanches and Kiowas. Although it offers a fictional love-story narrative, the film presents a priceless record of Native-American customs, traditions and artifacts of the time. The Oklahoma Historical Society recently rediscovered and restored this film with a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Daughter of Shanghai (1937)
B-films during the studio era often resonate decades later because they explore issues and themes not found in higher-budget pictures. Robert Florey, widely acclaimed as the best director working in major studio B-films during this period, crafted an intriguing, taut thriller. Anna May Wong overcame Hollywood's practice at the time of casting white actors to play Asian roles and became its first, and a leading, Asian-American movie star in the 1920s through the late 1930s. "Daughter of Shanghai" was more truly Wong's personal vehicle than any of her other films. In the story she uncovers the smuggling of illegal aliens through San Francisco's Chinatown, cooperating with costar Philip Ahn as the first Asian G-man of the American cinema.
Expanded essay by Brian Taves (PDF, 1024KB)
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
This is the first feature-length film by an African-American woman to receive a wide theatrical release. Director Julie Dash eschews traditional forms of film narrative for a poetic, impressionistic collage of gorgeous colors, music and imagery, in telling the story of three generations of African-Americans on the Gullah South Carolina Sea Island in 1902. The mystical matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day) holds true to the beliefs of their ancestors, while Haagar (Kaycee Moore) can't wait to move away. Yellow Mary (Barbara O) returns from a life as a prostitute in Cuba with her girlfriend, and is confronted by a righteous zealot, the reformed Christian Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce). Meanwhile, indifferent Eula (Alva Rogers) is pregnant with a baby that may or may not be the result of a rape. The story's narrator is a spirit called the Unborn Child, who appears sometimes as a rambunctious little girl. A photographer accompanies the group to capture the events on film.
David Holzman's Diary (1968)
A satire on cinema verite, this "fake documentary" was shot in only five days on a $2500 budget. L. M. Kit Carson plays Holzman, a young New York filmmaker who decides to get a handle on his life by putting it all down on celluloid. Written, directed and produced by Jim McBride, later a maintream film and television director, captures the essence of the filmmaker as artist while skewering it with its own devices: grainy black-and-white 16mm film, wobbly handheld camerawork, bizarre angles and lenses. "Diary" led the way to popular mockumentaries like Rob Reiner's "This is Spinal Tap" and Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show."
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Working from Edmund H. North's adaptation of Harry Bates's short story "Farewell to the Master," Robert Wise created a classic science fiction film with a strong pacifist message that many have found to be allegorical in its theme of persecution, death and resurrection. Sent by a federation of planets to warn the people of Earth to stop nuclear testing before the planet is destroyed, federation emissary Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and companion robot Gort land their spacecraft in Washington, D.C. to deliver their warning to the world's leaders, but are forced to take refuge in a boarding house run by (Patricia Neal) and her son (Billy Gray). The film's memorable score by Bernard Herrmann, which features the otherworldly-sounding theremin, was reused in other science fiction productions.
Days of Heaven (1978)
Acknowledging the sublime cinematography of Nÿstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, "Days of Heaven" is often called one of the most beautiful films ever made, an impressionist painting for the screen. The wheat fields and prairies of the Texas Panhandle—filmed in Alberta—shine and undulate in wind currents and storms, framing the tale of a love triangle (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) fated to end badly. The dialogue is spare, punctuating an elegiac score by Ennio Morricone and haunting narration by Linda Manz, who speaks from a child's point of view. Following this film (his second after "Badlands"), director Terrence Malick disappeared from public view for 20 years, returning in 1998 with "The Thin Red Line."
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
"Days of Wine and Roses" marked another in a series of Hollywood classics on the touchy subject of alcoholism. Previous examples on the theme include "The Lost Weekend" and "Come Back, Little Sheba." Though his career prior to "Days" had been noted for a deft touch in light comedy, in this Academy Award-nominated performance, Jack Lemmon plays a hard-drinking San Francisco public-relations man who drags his wife Lee Remick into the horrific descent into alcoholism. Director Blake Edwards pulls no punches in this uncompromisingly bleak film. Henry Mancini composed the moving score, best remembered for the title song he and Johnny Mercer wrote, which won an Academy Award for best original song.
Dead Birds (1964)
One of the most influential ethnographic films of the 1960s, "Dead Birds" is director Robert Gardner's interpretation of life among a group of Dani natives in Papua, New Guinea. The film focuses on two natives in particular, following them through the events of Dani life, contrasting the peaceful: farming sweet potatoes and raising pigs and the warlike: raids and skirmishes. Gardner wrote, "Wars were the best way they knew to keep a terrible harmony in a life which would be, without the strife they invented, mostly hard and dull." He described the meaning of the film's title as "both immediate and allegorical. In the Dani language it refers to the weapons and ornaments recovered in battle. Its other more poetic meaning comes from the Dani belief that people, because they are like birds, must die."
Errol Morris, the director of such highly acclaimed documentary features as "The Thin Blue Line," "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" and "Mr. Death," is noted to have sat drop-jawed watching "Decasia" and stammering, "This may be the greatest movie ever made." Created from scraps of decades-old decomposing "found film," "Decasia" hypnotizes and teases with images that fade and transform themselves right before the viewer's eyes. Culling footage from archives across the country, filmmaker Bill Morrison collected nitrate film stock on the very brink of disappearance and distilled it into a new art form capable of provoking "transports of sublime reverie amid pangs of wistful sorrow," according to New York Times writer Lawrence Weschler. Morrison wedded images to the discordant music of composer Michael Gordon—a founding member of the Bang on a Can Collective—into a fusion of sight and sound that Weschler called "ravishingly, achingly beautiful."
Essay by Daniel Eagan External, author of America's Film Legacy. Also available as PDF (1048KB)
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
Director Penelope Spheeris' controversial documentary about the Los Angeles hard-core punk rock scene circa 1980 was perceived as shocking by some, even prompting the L.A. police chief Daryl Gates to request banning all screenings of the film. Despite the qualms, the work remains a bracing historical and musical record of that culture, mixing outrageous performances and whirling mosh-pits with far more restrained interviews. Featured bands include Black Flag, Fear, X, The Germs and Circle Jerks. Scenes of older club owners making game attempts to describe this new type of music prove comic highlights. Spheeris made two other musical documentaries in this trilogy, chronicling the hair-metal and gutter-punk scenes, and—in a definite change of pace—the 1992 "Wayne's World."
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Michael Cimino's astonishing epic is renowned for its portrayal of the effects of the Vietnam War on working class Americans. The structure of the film contrasts the environments of home and war and how the three main characters are changed by the latter setting. Its gut-wrenching sequences of the use of Russian roulette by Vietnamese soldiers are notorious and gripping despite their historical inaccuracy. However, the heartbreaking performances of Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken are what truly breathe life into this film and the generation that inspired it.
Four Atlanta professionals (Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronnie 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." With dazzling visual flair, director John Boorman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond infuse James Dickey's novel with scenes of genuine terror and frantic struggles for survival battling river rapids — and in the process create a work rich with fascinating ambiguities about "civilized" values, urban-versus-backwoods culture, nature, and man's supposed taming of the environment.
Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre (1901)
This early short film by the Biograph Company shows the demolition of the Star Theatre at the corner of Broadway and 13th Street in New York. Filming at normal speed, photographers shot 15 seconds of footage showing the intact building and then the site once it was cleared. As demolition began, the company set up a camera to capture time exposures every four minutes, eight hours a day. Frederick S. Armitage, who is credited with directing the film, edited the footage into a two-minute film that first shows the intact building crumble "as if struck by a tornado of supernatural strength," courtesy of the time-lapse photography. The film then continues with the normal-speed footage of the bare site, making it appear that passersby are oblivious to the destruction. Biograph suggested to exhibitors of the film, "When this view is shown in the reverse, the effect is very extraordinary."
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Directed by George Marshall and starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, "Destry Rides Again" is set in Bottleneck, a lawless town run by corrupt saloon owner, Kent (Brian Donlevy), who finds himself at odds with the new pacifist deputy sheriff, Tom Destry, Jr. (James Stewart). Inspired by Max Brand's novel of the same name, "Destry Rides Again" was Stewart's first western -- laced with comedy and musical numbers -- and helped revive the career of Marlene Dietrich. The 1939 film was was one in a long line of remakes -- it was a remake of a 1932 Tom Mix-ZaSu Pitts vehicle of the same name and was itself remade in 1954 as "Destry." In addition to portrayals on the big screen, the story also received new life on television and on Broadway.
This ultra-cheap melodrama shot in six days by Edgar G. Ulmer has developed cult status as one of the most stylish B pictures ever produced. Hitchhiker Al Roberts (Tom Neal) gets mixed up with a femme fatale (Ann Savage) who "looked like she'd just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world." The story is told in narration addressed directly to the audience who hears not what happened, but what Al wants us to believe happened. Its hackneyed dialog, quick-and-dirty camera work, and shabby no-budget rear projection combine to create a bleak nightmare existence.
Expanded essay by J. Hoberman (PDF, 525KB)
Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-95)
In one of the first attempts to synchronize film picture and sound, W.K.L. Dickson of the Thomas Edison Company captured this 21-second motion picture by playing a violin into a recording horn attached to a wax cylinder machine while simultaneously filming the scene. The film was not intended for public consumption, but to test the technique employed. Its success prompted Edison to make other films for his "kinetophone," a single-user machine that employed rubber earphones to hear the film's sound. The system proved too expensive for the public, however, though it contributed to the development of future sound on film technology.
Die Hard (1988)
In this now-classic slam-bang thriller, Bruce Willis stars as a New York cop who faces off, alone, against a team of terrorists inside a high-tech, high-rise Los Angeles office tower. Gripping action sequences and well-crafted humor made this film a huge hit and launched Willis as a major box-office star. Alan Rickman, as witty insouciant terrorist and "exceptional thief" Hans Gruber, serves as Willis' memorable foe. Because the film is set during the Christmas season, many people now consider "Die Hard" a necessary part of their annual holiday viewing, a counterpoint to other holiday staples such as "It's a Wonderful Life."
Expanded essay by Eric Lichtenfeld (PDF, 173KB)
Dirty Harry (1971)
Clint Eastwood's role as rogue police officer Harry Callahan in director Don Siegel's action-packed, controversial paean to vigilante justice marked a major turning point in Eastwood's career. A top 10 box-office hit after its release, "Dirty Harry" struck a nerve in the era's politically polarized atmosphere with those who believed that concern over suspects' rights had gone too far. While a number of critics characterized the film as "fascistic," Eastwood countered that Harry, who disregards police procedure and disobeys his superiors, represents "a fantasy character" who "does all the things people would like to do in real life but can't." "Dirty Harry," he stated later, was ahead of its time, putting the "rights of the victim" above those of the accused. The film's kinesthetic direction and editing laid the aesthetic groundwork for many of the 1970s' gritty, realistic police dramas.
Expanded essay by Matt Lohr (PDF, 627KB)
Disneyland Dream (1956)
The Barstow family films a memorable home movie of their trip to Disneyland. Robbins and Meg Barstow, along with their children Mary, David and Daniel were among 25 families who won a free trip to the newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., as part of a "Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape" contest sponsored by 3M. Through vivid color and droll narration ("The landscape was very different from back home in Connecticut"), we see a fantastic historical snapshot of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Catalina Island, Knott's Berry Farm, Universal Studios and Disneyland in mid-1956. Home movies have assumed a rapidly increasing importance in American cultural studies as they provide a priceless and authentic record of time and place.
Expanded essay by Liz Coffey (PDF, 307KB)
Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency (1908)
The original nitrate footage that comprises the 1908 "Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency" was discovered in a Montana antique store in 1982 and subsequently donated to the Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution. It is the only known surviving film footage from the 1908 Rodman Wanamaker-sponsored expedition to record American Indian life in the west, filmed and produced both for an educational screening at Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia and to document what Wanamaker and photographer Joseph K. Dixon considered a "vanishing race." Dixon and his son Roland shot motion picture film as well as thousands of photographs (most of the photographs are archived at Indiana University). This film captures life on Crow Agency, Crow Fair and a recreation of the Battle of Little Big Horn featuring four of Custer's Crow scouts. Films from later Wanamaker expeditions are archived at the National Archives and the American Museum of Natural History. The original film was photochemically preserved at Cinema Arts in 1983.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee's provocative story of one long, hot day in the Bedford-Stuyevesant neighborhood of Brooklyn sparked controversy even before it opened in theaters. A study of race relations that for some in the community seems black and white -- literally -- but more often it's a gray area of mutual tolerance. Writer-director Lee also stars in the film whose cast includes Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Turturo and at least half a dozen other actors who would go on to bigger and better roles.
Expanded essay by David Sterritt (PDF, 630KB)
The Docks of New York (1928)
The "Daily Variety" review from 1928 called "The Docks of New York" a good entertaining picture that misses greatness by a whisker." Masterfully directed by Josef Von Sternberg, complete with a characteristic slow pace and atmospheric scenes, the film's stark beauty is expertly photographed by Harold Rosson. The film tells the tale of a sailor (George Bancroft) who rescues a prostitute (Betty Compson) from suicide, and the relationship that develops between the two.
In this highly acclaimed adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's novel, Walter Huston plays Sam Dodsworth, a good-hearted, middle-aged man who runs an auto manufacturing firm. His wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) is obsessed with the notion that she's growing old, and she eventually persuades Sam to sell his interest in the company and take her to Europe. He agrees for the sake of their marriage, but before long Fran has begun to think of herself as a cosmopolitan sophisticate and thinks of Sam as dull and unadventurous. Craving excitement, Fran begins spending her time with other men and eventually informs Sam that she's leaving him. Sam meets an attractive widow (Mary Astor) who seems to understand Sam in a way his wife does not. When Fran returns to Sam after being rejected by her suitor's family, Sam gives in, but in a short time he comes to his senses and returns to the widow. "Dodsworth" was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Huston), and Best Supporting Actress (Maria Ouspenskaya), though only art director Richard Day walked away with an Oscar.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Director Sidney Lumet balances suspense, violence and humor in Frank Pierson's Oscar-winning adaptation of a true-life bank robbery turned media circus. Al Pacino is the engaging Sonny, a smart yet self-destructive Brooklyn tough guy whose plan to rob the local bank to pay for his lover's sex change goes awry. Lumet artfully conducts his talented cast through machinations that twist and turn from the political to the personal, and inevitably lead to a downward spiral played out before an audience of millions.
Dog Star Man (1961-64)
Considered a masterpiece of experimental filmmaking, Stan Brakhage's "Dog Star Man" is a silent cosmological epic consisting of four short films and a prelude. Shot in 16mm, the film utilized variable exposure times and the physical manipulation of the film stock, including painting directly on the film and scratching its surface, to produce specific visual effects. With its innovative new techniques, it is considered to have ushered in a new age of experimental film. Brakhage later incorporated it into a longer film titled "The Art of Vision" (1965).
Don't Look Back (1967)
This feature-length documentary directed by D.A. Pennebaker ("The War Room") chronicles the days and nights of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan while on a 1965 concert tour of England. Shot in black and white, deliberately paced, and exhibiting a freeform style, "Dont Look Back" has endured because of Pennebaker's engrossing "Direct Cinema" documentary style and because of its fascinating subject. While it does show Dylan performing on stage, the documentary is not a "concert film" in the vein of "Woodstock," but it captures the enigma of Dylan—already considered the musical "voice of his generation"—as eloquent but immature, guileless but surprisingly savvy, in short, as flawed as the average man.
Double Indemnity (1944)
A seductive housewife (Barbara Stanwyck) lures an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray, cast against type) into murder while the salesman's boss (Edward G. Robinson) tries to untangle their web of deception. Told in flashback, the film opens with MacMurray confessing voluntarily the entire setup into a dictaphone for use by the claims agent, from which the narrative then unfolds. Billy Wilder directed, and Raymond Chandler adapted the James M. Cain novel, and the result is snappy dialogue that always suggests far more than the words spoken. Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Robinson give some of their best performances, and Wilder's cynical sensibility finds a perfect match in the story's unsentimental perspective, heightened by John Seitz's hard-edged cinematography.
Expanded essay by Matt Zoller Seitz (PDF, 673KB)
Down Argentine Way (1940)
Betty Grable's first starring role in a Technicolor musical happened only because Alice Faye had an attack of appendicitis, but Grable took advantage of the situation and quickly made herself as important to 20th Century-Fox as Faye. Released just over a year before America entered World War II, this film and others starring Grable established her as the pinup queen. The title explains much, with Grable traveling to South America and falling in love with Don Ameche. Carmen Miranda makes her American film debut, and the Nicolas Brothers' unparalleled dance routines dazzle.
Expanded essay by Carla Arton (PDF, 407KB)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The edgy satire (as written by director Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern) and outrageously funny performances (including three from Peter Sellers) have kept "Dr. Strangelove" fresh and entertaining for decades. A U.S. bomber on a routine flight pattern near the Soviet Union receives orders to drop its nuclear payload on the "Rooskies" and turn the Cold War into a hot one. The orders were given by the highly paranoid Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) to stem a Communist plot in which Americans were being sapped of their precious bodily fluids. Meanwhile, the president (Sellers again) seeks guidance from his top Pentagon advisors, including a war-mongering general (George C. Scott). The plot thickens when the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) informs the Americans of the latest Soviet weapons technology: a "Doomsday Machine" that will destroy the entire world if the Russians are attacked. But the former Nazi Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again) has an ingenious plan for surviving a potential nuclear holocaust. Kubrick, Sellers and the screenwriters were nominated for Oscars, but lost out to "My Fair Lady." The film did bring home several BAFTA Awards in the U.K.
Expanded essay by Wheeler Winston Dixon (PDF, 320KB)
Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula defined the ultimate vampire characterization for decades to follow, and the actor made a career of it, both on screen and on stage. Director Tod Browning referenced Bram Stoker's 1897 novel and subsequent stage plays, including a 1927 Broadway production starring Lugosi, to inform his cinematic approach to the legend. Browning, cinematographer Karl Freund and art director Charles D. Hall created an eerie gothic atmosphere to frame Lugosi's performance. Dwight Frye is memorable as Dracula's uber creepy minion Renfield.
Expanded essay by Gary Rhodes (PDF, 854KB)
Drácula (1931) (Spanish language version)
Before the advent of sound, the only significant difference between films seen by domestic audiences and foreign ones was the language of the subtitles, which could be adapted for each market. When talkies arrived, American studios began shooting foreign-language versions for international and non-English-speaking domestic markets, generally at the same time they filmed the English versions. In one of the most famous examples of this practice, a second crew—including a different director and stars—shot at night on the same sets used during the day for the English version of the Bram Stoker classic starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning. In recent years, the Spanish version of the film, which is 20 minutes longer, has been lauded as superior in many ways to the English one, some theorizing that the Spanish-language crew had the advantage of watching the English dailies and improving on camera angles and making more effective use of lighting. Directed by George Melford (best known for the Valentino sensation "The Sheik"), the Spanish version starred Carlos Villarías (billed as Carlos Villar) as Conde Drácula, Lupita Tovar as Eva Seward, Barry Norton as Juan Harker and Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield.
Expanded essay by András Lénárt (PDF, 664KB)
The Dragon Painter (1919)
After becoming Hollywood's first Asian star, Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa, like many leading film actors of the time, formed his own production company—Haworth Pictures (combining his name with that of director William Worthington)—to gain more control over his films. "The Dragon Painter," one of more than 20 feature films his company produced between 1918 and 1922, teamed Hayakawa and his wife Tsuru Aoki in the story of an obsessed, untutored painter who loses his artistic powers after he finds and marries the supposed "dragon princess." His passion and earlier pursuit of her had consumed him with the urge to create. Reviewers of the time praised the film for its seemingly authentic Japanese atmosphere, including the city of Hakone and its Shinto gates, built in Yosemite Valley, California.
Expanded essay by Daisuke Miyao (PDF, 457KB)
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)
Based on noted illustrator Winsor McCay's popular comic strip that ran in the New York Evening Telegram from 1904 to 1914, this short fantasy comedy by film pioneer Edwin S. Porter employed groundbreaking trick photography, including some of the earliest uses of double exposure in American cinema. Porter used camera sleight-of-hand to create the hallucinatory dreams of a top-hatted swell (Jack Brawn) who, after gorging himself on Welsh rarebit, is beset by dancing, spinning furniture and mischievous imps. To create the dream effects, he used a spinning camera and moveable set pieces, along with multiple exposures. Stop-motion and matte paintings added to the film's whimsical appeal. Porter, who joined Thomas Edison's company in 1899 and advanced the special effects pioneered by Georges Méliès, completed the seven-minute film in nine days at a cost of $350, which is about $10,000 today. The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film has preserved the film.
Expanded essay by Lauren Rabinovitz (PDF, 617KB)
Drums of Winter [Uksuum Cauyai] (1988)
Winner of numerous international awards, this beautiful documentary explores the rare dance language and culture of the Yup'ik Eskimo people in Emmonak, Alaska (part of the Yukon River delta on the Bering Sea). At the heart of their culture are complex potlatch gift-giving ceremonies featuring ceremonial story/dances serving as a bridge between the human and unseen spiritual worlds. At the center of the dance was the drum, serving as the cadence of the universe. The fabric of the community is woven together through giving: "Our spirits live by giving, things we give will return in larger amounts, because the wilderness has enough for all."
Duck Amuck (1953)
One of the defining examples of Chuck Jones' irreverent creativity, "Duck Amuck" (a Warner Bros. "Merrie Melodies" animation) stars Daffy Duck, as brought to life by master voice artist Mel Blanc. Jones' gives the audience a convincingly fleshed-out character with true personality, regardless of plot or setting. Daffy begins the film as a Musketeer before his animators get the best of him by forgetting to draw in his backgrounds or supply him his voice. Extraordinarily self-reflexive, "Duck Amuck" does more than pierce film's fourth wall, it demolishes it, sending Daffy on a series of surreal misadventures.
Expanded essay by Craig Kausen covers the three Registry films directed by Chuck Jones: Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, and What's Opera, Doc?. (PDF, 602KB)
Duck and Cover (1951)
This landmark civil defense film was seen by millions of schoolchildren in the 1950s. As explained by Bert the Turtle, to survive an atomic attack you must "duck and cover."
Expanded essay by Jake Hughes (PDF, 222KB)
Duck Soup (1933)
A combination of musical mayhem and political satire finds the Marx Brothers, under the direction of Leo McCarey, at the center of war between tiny Freedonia and its neighbor Sylvania. The reliably clueless Margaret Dumont is there to bear the brunt of Groucho's wisecracks. Famous for the scene in which Chico and Harpo impersonate an unwitting Groucho in front of a mirror, the film is generally acknowledged as the brothers' masterpiece. Unlike many directors, McCarey, whose credits also include the Registry comedies "Ruggles of Red Gap" and "The Awful Truth," successfully tempered the patented Marx mania without inhibiting it.
Expanded essay by William Wolf (PDF, 688KB)
Disney's charming, trademark animation finds a perfect subject in this timeless tale of a little elephant with oversize ears who lacks a certain confidence until he learns — with the help of a friendly mouse — that his giant lobes enable him to fly. Disney's fourth feature film gained immediate classic status thanks to its lovely drawing, original score (which would go on to win the Oscar that year) and enduring message of always believing in yourself.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Steven Spielberg, this film chronicles the relationship between a young boy (Henry Thomas) and a benevolent alien who is stranded on Earth and trying to find his way back to his home planet. The film's masterful blending of hopeful innocence with excitement and humor made it both a critical and popular success. Grossing more than $600 million worldwide, "E.T" became the highest-grossing film of the 1980s. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the film took home Oscars in several technical categories. In addition to Thomas, the film's cast also includes Dee Wallace, Drew Barrymore and Peter Coyote. Sound designer Ben Burtt created the vocals for the alien by blending the voices of a host of uncredited individuals, principally Pat Welsh and Debra Winger.
Expanded essay by David Gibson (PDF, 390KB)
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1974)
Created over the course of a decade by Thom Andersen, a onetime UCLA film student, this documentary delves into the work of the man whose pioneering studies and concept of persistence of vision led to the development of motion pictures. The film looks at Eadweard Muybridge's personal and professional struggles, and examines the philosophical implications of his sequential photographs, or zoopraxographs, as he called his studies of animal locomotion. Andersen re-animates the images Muybridge originally presented on a zoopraxoscope, a predecessor of the projector. The documentary features cinematography by Morgan Fisher, a script by Fay Andersen, music by Mike Cohen, biographical research by Robert Bartlett Haas and narration by Dean Stockwell. When the PBS affiliate set to broadcast the film declined the completed piece, Andersen ultimately sold his work to New Yorker Films, which recognized Andersen's unique voice as a cultural commentator and helped launch his career. In the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum described the production as "One of the best essay films ever made on a cinematic subject." The UCLA Film & Television Archive, in consultation with Thom Andersen, did the preservation work on the film.
Early Abstractions #1-5, 7, 10 (1939-56)
Harry Smith made his mark in many fields. He was a painter, archivist and compiler of the landmark "Anthology of American Music" (which helped stimulate a folk and blues revival). Smith also was a groundbreaking avant-garde filmmaker whose revolutionary animation challenged traditional concepts of cinema. His films used batik, collage and optical printing to create a tumult of shapes and images that integrates chaos with control. Consisting of seven films made over a 17-year span, "Early Abstractions" is a lovely, ever-moving collage of abstraction, color and imagery.
East of Eden (1955)
Director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Paul Osborn fashioned John Steinbeck's classic Cain-and-Abel allegory into a screen actor's showcase. Though much abbreviated from Steinbeck's sprawling epic, Kazan capitalizes on the teen angst theme popular in the ‘50s and artfully builds tension between the troubled, rebellious Cal (James Dean) vying against "good" brother Aron (Richard Davalos) for the love of their taciturn father (Raymond Massey). In his autobiography, Kazan described how he achieved the familial dynamics: "I didn't conceal from Jimmy or from Ray what they thought of each other. The screen was alive with precisely what I wanted: They detested each other." Dean received a posthumous Oscar nomination for his performance. Jo Van Fleet won an Oscar for her raw portrayal as the boys' estranged mother.
Easy Rider (1969)
This low-budget film of alienated youth struck a game-changing blow to Hollywood when every studio tried to duplicate its success. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda wrote a loose screenplay, improvising large portions as filming progressed, and Hopper directed the story of two bikers trekking from Los Angeles to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in search of "the real America." Occasionally banal and dated, the film's cinematography by László Kovács, pop music score featuring Bob Dylan, Steppenwolf, The Band and The Birds, and breakout performance by Jack Nicholson render it a fascinating time capsule.
Expanded essay by William Wolf (PDF, 591KB)
Eaux d'artifice (1953)
Shot in black-and-white through red filters, Kenneth Anger's short avant-garde work was filmed in the Garden of the Villa D'Este in Tivoli, Italy, a water garden of fountains and classical statuary. A woman dressed in 18th century period costume strolls through the park -- her movements gradually becoming more frenetic until she seems to become one with the water. One of Anger's more elemental though highly stylized films, it focuses on the interplay of water, light and stone.
Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894)
One of the earliest film recordings and the oldest surviving copyrighted motion picture, Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (Jan. 7, 1894) is commonly known as "Fred Ott's Sneeze" or simply "The Sneeze." W. K. L. Dickson, who led Thomas Edison's team of inventors, took the images of fellow engineer Ott enacting a snuff-induced sneeze. In March 1894, Harper's Weekly magazine, which requested the pictures, published a sequence of still images taken from the film. "The Sneeze" became synonymous with the invention of movies although it was not seen as a moving picture until 1953 when 45 frames were re-animated on 16 mm film. The full 81 frames published in Harper's Weekly were never seen as a movie until 2013 when the Library of Congress made a 35 mm film version. In this new complete version, Fred Ott sneezes twice. Video clip from the Library of Congress Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies.
El Mariachi (1992)
Directed, edited, co-produced, and written in two weeks by Robert Rodriguez for $7,000 while a film student at the University of Texas, "El Mariachi" proved a favorite on the film festival circuit. After Columbia Pictures picked it up for distribution, the film helped usher in the independent movie boom of the early 1990s. "El Mariachi" is an energetic, highly entertaining tale of an itinerant musician, portrayed by co-producer and Rodriguez crony Carlos Gallardo, who arrives at a Mexican border town during a drug war and is mistaken for a hit man who recently escaped from prison. The story, as film historian Charles Ramirez Berg has suggested, plays with expectations common to two popular exploitation genres—the narcotraficante film, a Mexican police genre, and the transnational warrior-action film, itself rooted in Hollywood Westerns. Rodriguez's success derived from invigorating these genres with creative variants despite the constraints of a shoestring budget. Rodriguez has gone on to direct films for major studios, becoming, in Berg's estimation, "arguably the most successful Latino director ever to work in Hollywood."
El Norte (1983)
Following a brother and sister (David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) who flee from ethnic and political persecution in Guatemala to the United States, this sweeping story infused with Mayan folklore was written, produced and directed by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas husband and wife team that had studied film at UCLA. Described by Variety as the "first American independent epic," the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Expanded essay by Matthew Holtmeier (PDF, 433KB)
Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967)
This 15-minute film, produced by George Lucas while a student at the University of Southern California, won the 1968 United States National Student Film Festival drama award and inspired Warner Bros. studio to sign Lucas to produce the expanded feature length "THX 1138" under the tutelage of Francis Ford Coppola. This film has evoked comparisons to George Orwell's "1984" and impressed audiences with its technical inventiveness and cautionary view of a future filled with security cameras and omnipresent scrutiny.
Expanded essay by Matthew Holtmeier (PDF, 360KB)
Ella Cinders (1926)
With her trendsetting Dutch bob haircut and short skirts, Colleen Moore brought insouciance and innocence to the flapper image, character and aesthetic. By 1926, however, when she appeared in "Ella Cinders," Moore's interpretation of the flapper had been eclipsed by the more overtly sexual version popularized by Clara Bow or Joan Crawford. In "Ella Cinders," Ella (Colleen Moore) wins a beauty contest sponsored by a movie magazine and is awarded a studio contract. New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall observed that the film was "filled with those wild incidents which are seldom heard of in ordinary society," and noted "Miss Moore is energetic and vivacious." The film is an archetype of 1920s comedy, featuring a star whose air of emancipation inspired her generation.
The Emperor Jones (1933)
Adapted by DuBose Heyward from a Eugene O'Neill play and directed by Dudley Murphy, "The Emperor Jones" is one of Paul Robeson's earliest and most powerful leading roles. Robeson, a railroad porter and notorious swindler, gets into a fight over a crap game and murders his friend Jeff (Frank Wilson). He ends up on a chain gang, but escapes to Haiti where the white trader Smithers (Dudley Digges) buys his freedom. He and Smithers become shady business partners, and Jones becomes rich by tricking the natives into believing he is immortal. Jones declares himself emperor, ruling with an iron fist until the natives revolt and chase him into the jungle where he hears voices and sees visions, eventually leading up to his suicide.
"Empire," created by pioneering pop artist Andy Warhol, consists of a single stationary shot of the Empire State Building filmed from 8:06 p.m. to 2:42 a.m., July 25–26, 1964. The eight-hour, five-minute film lacks a traditional narrative or characters. The passage from daylight to darkness becomes the film's narrative, while the protagonist is the iconic New York City skyscraper. By projecting the film at sixteen frames per second instead of the twenty-four at which it was shot, Warhol makes the progression to darkness almost imperceptible, and a blinking light at the top of a neighboring building marks the passage of time. According to Warhol, the point of this film is to "see time go by." Controversial since its release, "Empire" redefines concepts of perception, action and cinematic time. Perhaps Warhol's most famous and influential cinematic work, it continues to elicit critical analysis.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The much anticipated continuation of the "Star Wars" saga, Irvin Kershner's 1980 sequel sustained the action-adventure and storytelling success of its predecessor and helped lay the foundation for one of the most commercially successful film series in American cinematic history. After a Rebel base is taken over by the Empire, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), with Wookiee Chewbacca and droid C-3PO in tow, flee from the Empire as they speed across the galaxy. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) travels to a remote planet where he begins his training with Jedi master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), and evil Darth Vader pursues him. "Empire" is considered by many to be the best film in the original "Star Wars" trilogy.
The Endless Summer (1966)
Bruce Brown's droll documentary of two surfers and their around-the-world quest for the Perfect Wave that made millions despite unenthusiastic prospective distributors. Brown was repeatedly rejected by Hollywood distributors wary of limited mainstream appeal. In the depths of winter, Brown booked the film for two weeks in Wichita, Kansas where audiences lined up in the snow and sold out multiple screenings. With distributors still not convinced, Brown repeated his experiment in New York City where the film an successfully for a year, and finally earned the respect of a distributor. From a budget of $50,000, the film grossed $20 million in its national debut.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee burst onto the American scene in this martial arts extravaganza with its dazzling "Hall of Mirrors" climax. Film lore has it that during one fight scene, Lee performed a flying kick so fast that the camera operator was unable to capture it at the standard 24 frames a second, forcing him to shoot in slow motion to make sure the stunt looked authentic and not as if it had been faked. Although Lee unexpectedly died shortly before the film was released, "Enter the Dragon" became a huge hit and Lee became a pop culture legend.
Expanded essay by Michael Sragow (PDF, 473KB)
A visually stunning portrayal of a man facing fatherhood in a nightmarish industrial world, this film introduced American audiences to David Lynch's unique, surrealistic style of sparse dialogue, unsettling characters, horrific imagery and a paradoxically abstract narrative. "Eraserhead" secured Lynch's place as a hero for fans craving unorthodox filmmaking.
Expanded essay by David Sterritt (PDF, 786KB)
Eve's Bayou (1997)
Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons and co-produced by co-star Samuel L. Jackson, "Eve's Bayou" proved one of the indie surprises of the 1990s. The film tells a Southern gothic tale about a 10-year-old African-American girl who, during one long, hot Louisiana summer in 1962, discovers some harsh truths beneath her genteel family's fragile façade. The film's standout cast includes Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll, Lisa Nicole Carson, Branford Marsalis and the remarkable Jurnee Smolett, who plays the lead. The tag line of this film was very apropos: "The secrets that hold us together can also tear us apart."
The Evidence of the Film (1913)
From 1910 to 1918, Edwin Thanhouser's New Rochelle, New York-based company was a prolific film studio producing more than 1,000 shorts of various genres. Though few of his movies survive, one that has is this short mystery in which a delivery boy is falsely accused of stealing $20,000. All hope seems lost until the boy's sister, who works as a film editor, uncovers celluloid evidence to free him -- a plot device that anticipates security cameras and eyewitness home videos by decades. Thanhouser, who co-directed with Lawrence Marston, demonstrates a command of visual storytelling that rivals D.W. Griffith's.
Expanded essay by Ned Thanhouser (PDF, 524KB)
The Exiles (1961)
Released nearly 48 years ago, "The Exiles" remains one of the few non-stereotypical films that honestly depict Native Americans. With the perspective of a true outsider, filmmaker Kent MacKenzie captures the raw essence of a group of 20-something Native Americans who left reservation life in the 1950s to live among the decayed Victorian mansions of Los Angeles' Bunker Hill district. MacKenzie's day-in-the-life narrative pieces together interviews that allow the people in his film to tell their own stories without ascribing artificial sentimentality.
Expanded essay by Catherine Russell (PDF, 298KB)
The Exorcist (1973)
"The Exorcist" is one of the most successful and influential horror films of all time. Its influence, both stylistically and in narrative, continues to be seen in many movies of the 21st century. Adapted from the popular novel by William Peter Blatty inspired by an actual case from the 1940s, the film version centers on a young girl (14-year-old Linda Blair) who falls victim to fits and bizarre behavior. The girl's actress-mother (Ellen Burstyn) calls in a young priest (Jason Miller) who becomes convinced that the girl is possessed by the Devil. They summon a veteran exorcist (Max von Sydow) and both the priest and the girl suffer numerous horrors during their struggles with the demon (voiced by Mercedes McCambridge). The sound work earned Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman an Oscar, and the opening piano solo of Mike Oldfield's debut album "Tubular Bells" became forever associated with the film.
The Exploits of Elaine (1914)
This 14-part Pathé serial starring Pearl White as Elaine built on White's phenomenal popularity in "The Perils of Pauline." Considered the superior of the two series, "The Exploits of Elaine" boasts increasingly sophisticated camera work and production values. When Elaine's father (William Riley Hatch) is murdered by a notorious outlaw (Sheldon Lewis), she sets out after him with the help of detective Craig Kennedy (Arnold Daly), whose adventures had been successfully serialized in magazines by mystery writer Arthur B. Reeve. Along the way, Elaine is framed in a blackmail scheme and is almost sacrificed by devil worshippers, but Kennedy and his high-tech gadgetry rescue her time and again.
Expanded essay by Margaret Hennefeld (PDF, 686KB)
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 corruptability of sudden fame and power. In his film debut, Griffith plays a rural drunk, drifter and country singer who becomes an overnight success when a radio station promoter (Patricia Neal) and her assistant Walter Matthau, who put him on the air. Behind the scenes, he turns into a power-hungry monster who must be exposed. Budd Schulberg, who purportedly modeled the lead character on radio and TV personality Arthur Godfrey, adapted his short story "The Arkansas Traveler" for director Elia Kazan. The film also marks the film debut of Lee Remick.
Writer-director John Cassavetes described "Faces," considered by many to be his first mature work, as "a barrage of attack on contemporary middle-class America." The film depicts a married couple, "safe in their suburban home, narrow in their thinking," he wrote, who experience a break up that "releases them from the conformity of their existence, forces them into a different context, when all barriers are down." An example of cinematic excess, "Faces" places its viewers inside intense lengthy scenes to allow them to discover within its relentless confrontations emotions and relations of power between men and women that rarely emerge in more conventionally structured films. In provoking remarkable performances by Lynn Carlin, John Marley and Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes has created a style of independent filmmaking that has inspired filmmakers around the world.
Expanded essay by Ray Carney (PDF, 530KB)
Fake Fruit Factory (1986)
An expressive, sympathetic look at the everyday lives of young Mexican women who create ornamental papier măché fruits and vegetables, "Fake Fruit Factory" exemplifies filmmaker Chick Strand's unique style that deftly blends documentary, avant-garde and ethnographic techniques. After studying anthropology and ethnographic film at the University of California, Strand, who helped noted independent filmmaker Bruce Baillie create the independent film distribution cooperative Canyon Cinema, taught filmmaking for 24 years at Occidental College. She developed a collagist process to create her films, shooting footage of people she encountered over several decades of annual summer stays in Mexico and then editing together individual films. In "Fake Fruit Factory," Strand employs a moving camera at close range to create colorfully vivid images often verging on abstraction, while her soundtrack picks up snatches of conversation to evoke, in her words, "the spirit of the people." "I want to know," Strand wrote, "really what it is like to be a breathing, talking, moving, emotional, relating individual in the society."
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Edgar Allen Poe's classic tale of the macabre serves as the foundation for this 13-minute avant-arde film by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. Startlingly stylized in composition, costume and set design, this version of the horror classic is as much interested in the tale's psychological underpinnings as its haunting story. Filled with innovative editing, lighting and camerawork, "Usher" appears as modern today as when it premiered at the Film Arts Guild in 1929.
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 279KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
Disney studios' most ambitious animated feature, "Fantasia" integrates famous works of classical music with imagery that ranges from dancing hippos to abstract geometrics as it endeavors to combine high art with mass culture. Among the combinations of sight and sound – some kitschy, others more elegant – are an abstract representation of J.S. Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor"; a performance of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" danced by flowers and fairies; and an irreverent treatment of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony." The film's most famous segment, Paul Dukas's "Sorcerer's Apprentice," stars Mickey Mouse (the last time Walt would voice his creation) as a goldbricking assistant undone by a magic hat. A commercial failure initially, the film's popularity has grown steadily over the decades with subsequent re-releases and video sales.
Produced, directed, written, and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen, this film is a dark comedy set in snowy Minnesota that follows a quirky cast of characters, including a pregnant police officer (Frances McDormand), a manager of a car dealership (William H. Macy), and two hired criminals, involved in the committing and investigating of a crime. A critical and popular success, the film was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. "Fargo" received seven Academy Award nominations, and McDormand took home a statuette for Best Actress and the Coen Brothers earned another for Best Original Screenplay. A television series based on the film debuted in 2014.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Among the best teen comedies, this 1980s cultural icon combines a sympathetic treatment of adolescence with hilarious performances. Directed by Amy Heckerling, the film was based on a script by 22-year old Rolling Stone writer (and later film director) Cameron Crowe, who spent nine months undercover as a student at Redondo Beach's Ridgemont High School. The cast contains an appealing mix of soon-to-be-famous young talent (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold) confronting their raging hormones as they hang out at the mall and endure jobs in fast-food restaurants. Most memorable is Sean Penn as the spaced-out surfer dude Jeff Spicoli.
Fatty's Tintype Tangle (1915)
Before his career was derailed by scandal (though his actual guilt remains in dispute), Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was the most popular comedian on the American silent screen, bigger than even Chaplin or Keaton. "Tintype Tangle" showcases Arbuckle at the height of his fame. This short features the likable, nimble Arbuckle in a farce designed around domestic mix-ups and some brilliant silent set-pieces involving slamming doors, hiding under beds, runaway cars and even some Keystone Kops. Popular silent comedienne Louise Fazenda co-stars.
This 13-minute short subject, marketed as an educational film, records a slice of life in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles prior to the rebellions of 1965. Filmmakers Trevor Greenwood, Robert Dickson and Alan Gorg were UCLA film students when they crafted a documentary from the perspective of the unassuming-yet-articulate teenager Felicia Bragg, a high-school student of African-American and Hispanic descent. Felicia's first-person narrative reflects her hopes and frustrations as she annotates footage of her family, school and neighborhood, creating a time capsule that's both historically and culturally significant. Its provenance as an educational film continues today as university courses use "Felicia" to teach documentary filmmaking techniques and cite it as an example of how non-traditional sources, as well as mainstream television news, reflect and influence public opinion.
Expanded essay by Marsha Gordon and Allyson Nadia Field (PDF, 232KB)
Filmmaker Alan Gorg reflects on the making of "Felicia" and his other productions (PDF, 282KB)
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
John Hughes, the king of both 1980s family comedy ("Home Alone") and teen angst ("Sixteen Candles"), achieved a career highpoint with this funny, heartfelt tale of a teenage wiseacre (Matthew Broderick) whose day playing hooky leads not only to a host of comic misadventures but also, ultimately, to self-realization for both him and his friends. Hughes' manner of depicting late-20th-century youth—their outward and inward lives—finds a successful vehicle in the "everyman" appeal of lead Broderick, whose conning of his parents is really an honest and earnest attempt to help his best friend. With the city of Chicago serving as backdrop and a now-iconic street performance of "Twist and Shout" serving as the film's centerpiece, Ferris Bueller emerged as one of film's greatest and most fully realized teen heroes. Alan Ruck, Mia Sara, Jennifer Grey and Jeffrey Jones co-starred in the film. This is Hughes' first film on the registry.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Iowa farmer Kevin Costner one day hears a voice telling him to turn a small corner of his land into a baseball diamond: "If you build it, he will come." "He" appears to be legendary baseball great Shoeless Joe Jackson and his 1919 Black Sox team. Although ostensibly about the great American pastime, baseball here serves as a metaphor for more profound issues. Leonard Maltin lauded "Field of Dreams" as "a story of redemption and faith, in the tradition of the best Hollywood fantasies with moments of pure magic."
Film Portrait (1970)
"Film Porgrait" is a full-length autobiographical work directed by, and about, the life of Minnesota filmmaker and artist Jerome Hill. Throughout his life an avid student and creator of music, Hill began to compose all of the scores for his films in the late '60s. Hill died shortly after the completion of this film, and the work is often described as his memoir.
Film Portrait - Jerome Foundation External
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
In director Bob Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces," gifted pianist and musical prodigy Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) turns his back on his upper-class roots and potential to live the life of an oil rig worker with a pregnant waitress girlfriend (Karen Black). An intense character study, the film exudes the themes of alienation and self-destruction that often appeared in films of the 1970s. The release of "Five Easy Pieces," closely following that of "Easy Rider" (1969), helped solidify Nicholson's position as an A-list star. "Five Easy Pieces" was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Jack Nicholson, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Karen Black, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay.
Flash Gordon Serial (1936)
This science fiction serial, told in 13 episodes, was the first screen adaptation of the comic-strip "Flash Gordon," created in 1934 by Alex Raymond to compete with another sci-fi comic, "Buck Rogers." Buster Crabbe portrayed the title character who journeys to the planet Mongo and encounters the evil emperor Ming the Merciless (Charles B. Middleton). Unusually ambitious in both budget and production values, the Universal serial used recycled sets, costumes and stock music from the studio's famous horror films, and was an immediate smash with audiences.
Expanded essay by Roy Kinnard (PDF, 282KB)
Flesh and the Devil (1927)
One of the last silent film classics, "Flesh and the Devil" is the first on-screen pairing of silent superstars John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. It is a masterpiece of American romanticism from director Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo in seven classic films, and Garbo's favorite cinematographer, William Daniels. In "Flesh and the Devil," Garbo plays a seductress at the middle of a love triangle who sacrifices love for comfort and material luxury. The blistering chemistry between Garbo and Gilbert reflected their torrid, real-life affair at the time. The film proved a huge success for MGM, and the studio paired the lovers in three more pictures.
Flower Drum Song (1961)
This film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical marked 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. 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.
A Fool There Was (1915)
The phenomenal success of "A Fool There Was"—based on a Rudyard Kipling poem and a subsequent play—set off a publicity campaign unparalleled at the time centering on its star, an unknown actress bearing the exotic name of Theda Bara. Bara was promoted as "the woman with the most beautifully wicked face in the world" and became filmdom's quintessential "vamp," enticing male pillars of society to relinquish family, career, respectable society, and even life itself, while yearning to remain under her entrancing spell. With such ego-shattering commands as "Kiss me, my fool," Bara's destructive powers appealed to women as well as men. "Women are my greatest fans," Bara stated, "because they see in my vampire the impersonal vengeance of all their unavenged wrongs." Bara retired from the screen four years later after starring in some 40 films, establishing a new genre, and helping Fox studios become an industry leader. Only one other film from her heyday is known to exist as well as two she made during an attempted comeback in the mid-1920s. The film has been preserved by Museum of Modern Art Department of Film.
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. This brilliant and, at the time, controversial film fully established von Stroheim's reputation within the industry as a challenging and difficult-to-manage creative genius. After six months in the editing room, Erich von Stroheim turned over his cut of the film to Universal Pictures. It was 32 reels (approximately six to eight hours long) which the studio cut down to just under two hours.
Expanded essay by Daniel Eagan (PDF, 784KB)
Footlight Parade (1933)
Directed by Lloyd Bacon, "Footlight Parade" is one of the best of the Warner Brothers showbiz musicals, with James Cagney turning in a dynamite performance as a theatrical producer who finds that talking pictures are cutting into his business. Turning lemons to lemonade, he begins to produce musical preludes for the pictures. Busby Berkeley contributed his signature production numbers, including his first water ballet, "By a Waterfall" as well as "Shanghai Lil" and "Honeymoon Hotel." Joan Blondell is Cagney's gal Friday, and Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are the young stars who croon and tap their way to romance and fame.
Expanded essay by Randy Skretvedt (PDF, 403KB)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox, MGM's "Forbidden Planet" is one of the seminal science-fiction films of the 1950s, a genre that found itself revitalized and empowered after World War II and within America's newly created post-nuclear age. Loosely based upon William Shakespeare's "The Tempest," "Forbidden Planet" is both sci-fi saga and allegory, a timely parable about the dangers of unlimited power and unrestrained technology. Since its production, the movie has proved inspirational to generations of speculative fiction visionaries, including Gene Roddenberry. Along with its literary influence, highly influential special effects and visual style, the film also pushed the boundaries of cinematic science fiction. For the first time, all action happened intergalatically (not on Earth) and humans are depicted as space travelers, regularly jetting off to the far reaches of the cosmos. Additionally, "Forbidden Planet" is remembered for its innovative score—or lack thereof. No music exists on the film's soundtrack; instead, all ambient sounds are "electronic tonalities" created by Louis and Bebe Barren. Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis and, in his debut, Robbie the Robot make up the film's cast.
Expanded essay by Ian Olney (PDF, 301KB)
Force of Evil (1948)
Abraham Polonsky came to prominence with the box-office success of "Body and Soul" in 1947, and made his directorial debut a year later with "Force of Evil." Acclaimed as a masterpiece of postwar American noir, the film critiques the capitalist ethos turned hard-boiled. Polonsky's unflinching portrait of two brothers caught in a downward spiral of corruption suggests comparison to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Its eloquent prose, that some have likened to blank verse, drips with cynicism. John Garfield adds a virile edge as the mob lawyer who tries to save his small-time bookie brother from financial ruin in a numbers racket takeover. As the film plunges deeper into an amoral abyss, the congested New York City of its opening frames gives way to a bleak landscape reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting. Finally, the abyss swallows Garfield "down, down, down... to the bottom of the world."
The Forgotten Frontier (1931)
Mary Breckinridge founded the Frontier Nursing Service in 1925 as a project to demonstrate the delivery of accessible and affordable health care in a rural population of Kentucky. Breckinridge's cousin, Mary Marvin Breckinridge, was an accomplished photographer and used her artistic talents to aid her cousin's mission. Beginning in 1928, Mary Marvin traversed the The service grew and today operates a hospital with one of the few training programs for nurse-midwives in the country. This documentary shows nurse-midwives as they race on horseback through the wooded hills to deliver babies, treat gunshot victims and inoculate schoolchildren. In a 1985 sound version of the film, Marvin Breckinridge said, "I've had a rewarding and useful life."
Forrest Gump (1994)
As "Forrest Gump," Tom Hanks portrays an earnest, guileless "everyman" whose open-heartedness and sense of the unexpected unwittingly draws him into some of the most iconic events of the 1960s and 1970s. A smash hit, it has been honored for its technological innovations (the digital insertion of Gump seamlessly into vintage archival footage), its resonance within the culture that has elevated Gump (and what he represents in terms of American innocence) to the status of folk hero, and its attempt to engage both playfully and seriously with contentious aspects of the era's traumatic history. The film received six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
Directed by Rex Ingram and based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" tells the story of a family at odds during World War I. Starring Rudolph Valentino as Julio Desnoyers, the tango-dancing Casanova grandson of Argentinian patriarch, Madariaga (Pomeroy Cannon), "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" was the film that catapulted Valentino to superstardom. Of particular renown is the film's tango scene, which was included in the film specifically to highlight newcomer Valentino's dancing skills. In addition to launching the career of Valentino, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" was also one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era, earning over $4 million at the box office during its initial theatrical run.
Expanded essay by Randy Haberkamp (PDF, 545KB)
4 Little Girls (1997)
An important documentary concerning America's civil rights struggle, "4 Little Girls" revisits the horrific story of the young children who died in the 1963 firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Director Spike Lee first became interested in the story as a student at NYU when he read a 1983 New York Times Magazine article by Howell Raines. Lee combines his experience in fiction filmmaking with documentary techniques, sensitively rendered interviews, photos and home movies to tell the story. The timing of this production was important due to the ages of the key witnesses and relatives and the need to refresh viewers' memories regarding a dark period in U.S. history.
Fox Movietone News: Jenkins Orphanage Band (1928)
Newsreel footage of the renowned African American touring musical group of Charleston, S.C. The Jenkins Orphanage Band of Charleston has been recognized as one of the country's important jazz "incubators." This Fox Movietone News film is the earliest extant sound recording of the band and shows close ups of the of the youthful musicians comprising the brass and percussion ensemble playing their instruments as they perform on a local sidewalk. Young boys and girls dance in front of the band.
Expanded essay by Julie Hubbert (PDF, 462KB)
University Libraries Moving Image Research Collections - Fox Movietone News Story 1-507: Jenkins Orphanage Band External
Frank Film (1973)
This animated short features two soundtracks: on one, Frank narrates an autobiography, on the other, he reads off a list of words beginning with the letter "f." Tying the two soundtracks together and influencing their subject matter is the animated collage of photos collected from magazines — all arranged by theme and each theme merging into the next. The brainchild of Frank and Caroline Mouris, with soundtrack by Tony Schwartz, the film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1974.
This early sound chiller may be the definitive film of its genre from the studio that became known for the genre: Universal. Superior to "Dracula," made less than a year previously, it illustrates how quickly Hollywood mastered the art of sound. Influenced by German Expressionism, director James Whale applies a unique twist to Mary Shelley's original tragedy of a doctor (Colin Clive) obsessed with restoring life, and the creature (Boris Karloff) he unleashes. Makeup designed by Jack Pierce was revolutionary.
Expanded essay by Richard T. Jameson (PDF, 672KB), examines "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" in a single entry.
Master horror film director Tod Browning assembled a cast of genuine sideshow oddities for this chilling tale of camaraderie, persecution and revenge, with Olga Baclanova as the cruelly manipulative trapeze artist and Harry Earles as the freak she torments. The film's unusual subject matter, its cast of curiosities, and its untraditional moral sympathy combined to create a cult following for this film, which was severely edited in the U.S. at the time of release and banned in the U.K. for 30 years.
Free Radicals (1979)
Born in New Zealand, avant-garde filmmaker Len Lye moved to the United States and became a naturalized citizen in 1950. For his four-minute work "Free Radicals" (begun in 1958 and completed in 1979), 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.
The French Connection (1971)
In this fast-paced police drama directed by William Friedkin, detective Gene Hackman and his partner (Roy Scheider) are New York City cops on narcotics detail who discover a French drug kingpin (Fernando Rey) as the key source of heroin from Europe. The film's high point, a high-speed car chase with Hackman tailing an elevated train, was one of the most viscerally exciting screen moments of its day and set the stage for dozens of action sequences to follow. The film's gritty realism, captured by cinematographer Owen Roizman, and downbeat ending were a clear departure from the glossy heroics of most previous detective stories. It earned five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (by Ernest Tidyman), and Best Actor for Hackman.
The Freshman (1925)
The "collegiate" fad that swept the U.S. during the 1920s testified to popular culture's utter fascination with youth, and Hollywood shrewdly jumped on the bandwagon. The formula was deployed with such regularity that comic Harold Lloyd satirized it to great effect in his enormously popular film, "The Freshman." Lloyd plays the naive collegian who enthusiastically determines to be Big Man on Campus by copying the manners of movie collegians. After donning his letterman sweater, perfecting his "college yell" and rehearsing the ridiculous "jig" that he hopes will be his ticket to popularity, he begins his journey to college. Lamb's arrival at Tate University, billed as a "large football stadium with a college attached," begins a series of comical trials and tribulations that tests his mettle. In addition to providing the perfect showcase for Lloyd's ingenious gags, physical humor and tender pathos, "The Freshman" proved to be one of the most successful films of his career.
Expanded essay by Annette D'Agostino Lloyd (PDF, 295KB)
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Daniel Taradash earned an Oscar for his adaptation of James Jones unadaptable explicitly gritty best-selling novel set in Hawaii just prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Director Fred Zinnemann translated the Taradash script into a lavish, star-studded blockbuster that won him and the picture Academy Awards. The epic featured Montgomery Clift as a soldier who boxes and bugles with equal skill, Donna Reed as a nightclub hostess (a prostitute in Jones's novel) with whom Clift falls in love, and Frank Sinatra, whose faltering career was rejuvenated with an Oscar for his performance as a wisecracking enlisted man at odds with a bullying sergeant played by Ernest Borgnine. At the center of the ensemble is Burt Lancaster as a sergeant involved in a torrid affair with his commander's wife, Deborah Kerr, their romance culminating in the famous lovemaking scene on the beach.
From Stump to Ship (1930)
Alfred Ames, the president of the Machias Lumber Company in Washington County, Maine, purchased a 16mm moving picture camera in 1929 and with the help of a friend, Dr. Howard Kane, meticulously recorded the labor of woodsmen and horses. They created this 30-minute silent film to document his workers in all facets of the lumber industry from sawing down trees to running logs down rivers. Ames not only documented his family business, but he also created a cinematic record of the lumber industry.
Expanded essay by Karan Sheldon (PDF, 466KB)
From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
The film, shot in Egypt and Palestine often in Biblical locations, tells the story of Jesus' life in 10 chapters, with scenes staged as tableaus. Sidney Olcott directed and appears in the film. Actress Gene Gauntier wrote the script – though most inter-titles are direct quotes from the Bible – and portrays the Virgin Mary. Cinematographer George Hollister experimented with wide panning shots as well as innovative camera angles seldom mastered or even used at this point in cinema's evolution. By the time shooting wrapped, the filmed stretched to five reels at a time when three reels were considered extravagant.
Expanded essay by Daniel Eagan (PDF, 352KB)
The Front Page (1931)
This early sound film successfully demonstrates the rapid progress achieved by Hollywood filmmakers in all creative professions after realizing the capabilities of sound technology to invent new film narratives. The film is based on one of the best screenplays of the 1930s by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was directed by Lewis Milestone and features strong performances by Pat O'Brien, Adolphe Menjou, Mary Brian, Edward Everett Horton, Walter Catlett, Mae Clark, Slim Summerville, Matt Moore and Frank McHugh. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently restored this film utilizing materials from their collection, by way of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and from the Library of Congress collection. A short video about this restoration is available here. External
Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection (1920s and 1930s)
Longtime Corpus Christi, Texas, residents Antonio Rodríguez Fuentes (1895-1988) and Josefina Barrera Fuentes (1898-1993) were very active in their local Mexican-American community. Their collection of home movies — mostly from the 1920s and shot on 9.5 mm amateur film format — are among the earliest visual records of the Mexican-American community in Texas and among the first recorded by Mexican-American filmmakers. As with the best home movies, the images provide a priceless snapshot of time and place, including parades, holidays, fashions and the rituals of daily life. The beautiful images also reflect the traditionally fluid nature of the U.S.-Mexico border. The collection is a joint project between the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
After abandoning his studies as an engineer at Stanford, Robert Breer developed a career as artist and animator that spanned 50 years and made him an international figure. He began his artistic pursuits as a painter while living in Paris in the 1950s, and not long after, started tinkering with an old 16mm Bolex camera to create simple stop motion studies based on his abstract paintings. Among several artists invited to exhibit at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, Breer presented "Floats" – large, movable, whimsical sculptures he called "motorised molluscs. While in Japan, he experimented with rotoscoping – tracing live-action movement frame by frame against a projected image, and created "Fuji," a nine-minute stylized depiction of a train journey past Mt. Fuji. Avant-garde film scholar Amos Vogel called the film, "A poetic, rhythmic, riveting achievement in which fragments of landscapes, passengers, and train interiors blend into a magical color dream of a voyage."
Funny Girl (1968)
Reprising her Tony-nominated performance as legendary singer-comedienne Fanny Brice, Barbra Streisand's impressive vocal talent and understated acting, as guided by distinguished veteran director William Wyler, earned her an Academy Award for her screen debut. The film retains most of the stage show's Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical numbers including "People," "I'm the Greatest Star" and "Don't Rain on My Parade." Streisand plays Brice as a plain-looking, fast-talking dynamo who yearns for the stage, and gets her chance when she's hired by impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon) and becomes the toast of Broadway. She meets and marries big-time gambler Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif), but their idyllic romance crumbles as he grows to resent her fame. Produced by Ray Stark, Brice's real-life son-in-law, "Funny Girl" was among the last of the successful big-budget musicals.
In Fritz Lang's taut drama, Spencer Tracy plays an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime. After being attacked by a mob, Joe's girlfriend (Sylvia Sidney) convinces him to take the higher road and let the judicial system take its course. Based on the story "Mob Rule" by Norman Krasna, "Fury" was the first film Lang made in the United States. Although the film's dark, gritty story departed from MGM's usual glamorous fare, the film was a hit with audiences, performed well at the box office, and won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story.
Expanded essay by Raquel Stecher (PDF, 602KB)
The Gang's All Here (1943)
Although not remembered as well today as those put out by MGM, 20th Century-Fox's big Technicolor musicals stand up well in comparison. Showgirl Alice Faye, Fox's No. 1 musical star, is romanced by a soldier who uses an assumed name and then turns out to be a rich playboy. Carmen Miranda is also featured and her outrageous costume is highlighted in the legendary musical number "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat." Busby Berkeley, who had just finished a long stint directing musicals at MGM and an earlier one at Warner Bros., directs and choreographs the film.
Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980)
Les Blank's hilarious and affectionate homage to "The Stinking Rose" delights slightly wacky devotees or alliumophiles. In their mind, garlic is the benevolent dictator of pungent herbs, always enhancing food rather than dominating it. The rallying cry is "Fight Mouthwash, Eat Garlic." Gastronomic, zestful, tasty and memorable, the film often is screened in "AromaRound" with a pot of garlic butter boiling at the back of the theater.
The General (1927)
In what may be his most memorable film, Buster Keaton plays a Southern railway engineer who has "only two loves in his life" -- his locomotive ("The General") and the beautiful Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). One of the most expensive films of its time, including an accurate historical recreation of a true-life Civil War episode in which a train is stolen by the enemy, hundreds of extras, dangerous stunt sequences, which Keaton performed himself, and an actual locomotive falling from a burning bridge into a gorge far below. A commercial failure at the time of release -- audiences felt it lacked the humor of Keaton's other films -- "The General" is now considered a classic of comedic understatement by film historians and audiences.
Portrait of Buster Keaton in "The General"
Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
Winning the 1947 Academy Award for best picture and considered daring at the time, "Gentleman's Agreement" was one of the first films to directly explore the still-timely topic of religious-based discrimination. Philip Green (Gregory Peck), a Gentile, is a renowned magazine writer. In order to obtain firsthand knowledge of anti-Semitism, he decides to pose as a Jew. What he discovers about society, and even his own friends and colleagues, radically alters his perspective and throws his own life into turmoil. Director Elia Kazan masterfully crafts scenes that reveal bigotry both overt and often insidiously subtle. The film was based on a book by Laura Z. Hobson.
George Stevens' World War II Footage (1943-46)
Having already directed classics such as "Swing Time," "Gunga Din" and "Woman of the Year," director George Stevens joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and headed a motion picture unit under Gen. Eisenhower from 1943-46. He shot many hours of footage chronicling D-Day, including rare extant color film of the European war front; the liberation of Paris; American and Soviet forces meeting at the Elbe River; and horrific scenes from the Duben labor camp, thought to be a sub-camp of Buchenwald; and the Dachau concentration camp. The footage has become an essential visual record of World War II and a staple of documentary films.
Gerald McBoing-Boing (1951)
Based on a story by Dr. Seuss, the seven-minute "Gerald McBoing-Boing" is representative of the work and artistry of United Productions of America (UPA), an independent animation house active in the mid-century. Comprised mainly of animators who had defected from Disney, UPA drawing style and story-telling differed greatly from other studios (namely Disney and Warner Bros.) by not copying live-action film techniques. In other words, cartoons were allowed to look like cartoons by incorporation thick outlines and swatches of color, instead of "realistic" sets used for backdrops. "Gerald" tells the story of a misfit little boy who can only communicate via sound effects, mainly the sound "boing!" Though it has changed hands several times over the years, UPA is still in business today.
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
Influenced by stop-motion animation pioneer J. Stuart Blackton, Winsor McCay greatly advanced techniques of movement in animation with his "Gertie the Dinosaur," eclipsing his earlier work, "Little Nemo." But McCay's chief contribution to the field was his ability to imbue animals and inanimate objects with human personalities. Another innovation was his use of "cycling:" creating a repeatable sequence of movement to minimize drawing new material – particularly useful for backgrounds. McCay first introduced his dinosaur to live audiences as part of a stage act, and then later substituted inter-titles for his patter. When the childlike Gertie emerges from a cave at McCay's behest, he coaxes her to perform tricks such as raising her foot and bowing on command. When she gets fed up and nips at him, he scolds her and she cries. Following altercations with a flying lizard and a mammoth, the film ends with Gertie carrying McCay off the stage while he bows to the audience.
Expanded essay by Daniel Eagan (PDF, 456KB)
One of the most popular, quotable films from the past three decades and a touchstone of cultural reference, "Ghostbusters" can also easily be seen as a loving homage to those earlier wacky horror comedies from Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope and others. Three lapsed science academics (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) set up shop to handle the underappreciated (and never-ending) task of ferreting out ghosts, and will not rest until the paranormal becomes New York normal once more. These days, the trio would find a home in reality TV, but, given the era, they must prove their bona fides through clever publicity and satisfied customer word-of-mouth. Leading this Gotham firm in the fight against ever-present slime, is sleazy, yet charming, Bill Murray who brings a breezy air of can-do insouciance to the job of dealing with a rogues gallery of malevolence, including puffed-up existential threats such as the Marshmallow Man. Murray takes regular time outs from spirit-chasing to romance brainy cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), who becomes a channeler of the demon Zuul. The infectious insanity of "Ghostbusters" makes it a favorite film of the ‘80s.
Expanded essay by Adam Bertocci (PDF, 320KB)
This monumental film epitomizes the era of the truly "big" Hollywood picture. George Stevens Jr. and a memorable cast bring Edna Ferber's sprawling novel of the Texas plains to life with panoramic visual style and memorable small touches. Though more than three hours long, it was one of the top films of the 1950s and remains a breathtaking example of the American film as spectacle. Faithful to the novel, the Texans on the screen are presented with penetrating realism in a story that pulls no punches, especially in its indictment of racism, whether blatant or subtle. Stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean deliver performances among the best in their careers, and receive strong support from Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo and Carroll Baker. Stevens won an Oscar as best director, and the film received another eight nominations for its cast and crew.
Produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minnelli, "Gigi" is a lush Technicolor musical from MGM that tells the story of a friendship between a playboy (Louis Jourdan) and a young girl (Leslie Caron) that turns to love. "Gigi" is based on a 1944 novella by Colette and received a treatment on Broadway in 1951, but it was Arthur Freed who envisioned the story as a film musical and ultimately fought to get it made. Frenchwoman Leslie Caron was cast in the title role, and Maurice Chevalier was cast as Honoré Lachaille, a role that was expanded in the film version and which helped revitalize Chevalier's career. "Gigi" won numerous industry awards, including a total of nine Academy Awards, a record at the time, and is often considered to be one of MGM's best musicals.
With the end of World War II came a dark edge in the American psyche and a change in the films it produced. Film noir defined the 1940s and "Gilda" defined the Hollywood glamorization of film noir—long on sex appeal but short on substance. Director Charles Vidor capitalizes on the voyeuristic and sadomasochistic angles of film noir—and who better to fetishize than Rita Hayworth, poured into a strapless black satin evening gown and elbow-length gloves, sashaying to "Put the Blame on Mame." George Macready and Glenn Ford round out the tempestuous triangle, but "Gilda" was and, more than 65 years later, still is all about Hayworth.
Expanded essay by Kimberly Truhler (PDF, 283KB)
The Girl Without a Soul (1917)
George Eastman Museum founding film curator James Card was a passionate devotee of silent film director John H. Collins' work. It is through his influence that the museum is the principal repository of the director's few extant films. As the expert on Collins' legacy, the museum said he is "one of the great 'What if…?' figures of American cinema—a brilliantly creative filmmaker who went from being a costume department assistant to a major director within four short years, before dying at the age of 31 in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Collins' films show both a subtle understanding of human nature and often breathtakingly daring cinematography and editing. The 'Girl Without a Soul' stars Viola Dana (to whom Collins was married) in a dual role as twin sisters, one of whom is a gifted violinist, and the other, a deeply troubled girl jealous of her sister's abilities and the love bestowed upon her by their violinmaker father. This jealousy and the violinist sister's unworldliness lead both into turbulent moral conflict, which takes considerable fortitude from both to overcome." "The Girl Without a Soul" has been preserved by George Eastman Museum.
Glimpse of the Garden (1957)
Marie Menken's surprisingly joyful and simple film rates among the more accessible works of avant-garde filmmakers. The beautifully lyrical "Glimpse of the Garden" is a serendipitous visual tour of a flower garden set to a soundtrack of bird songs and calls.
The Godfather (1972)
Adapted from Mario Puzo's bestselling novel, "The Godfather" became a landmark film of the 1970s and now ranks in the highest echelons of filmmaking. Francis Ford Coppola directed this multi-generational crime saga which is one of the most widely imitated, quoted, and lampooned movies of all time. Marlon Brando and Al Pacino star as Vito Corleone and his youngest son, Michael. It is the late 1940s in New York and Corleone is, in the parlance of organized crime, a "godfather" or "don," the head of a Mafia family, which also includes Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale) and Connie (Talia Shire), with Diane Keaton as Michael's girlfriend then wife and Robert Duvall as the Corleones' consigliere. Coppola instructed cinematographer Gordon Willis to underlight each scene to enhance the dark mood, and the hauntingly melancholy, score by Nino Rota complements that rich visual darkness.
Expanded essay for "The Godfather" and "Godfather Part II" by Michael Sragow (PDF, 528KB)
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Both sequel and prequel to "The Godfather," Part II fleshes out the back story of the Corleone origins in Sicily with Robert De Niro portraying the young Don Vito, then moves forward as Don Michael (Al Pacino) wrestles with the changing identity of organized crime in the second half of the 20th century. As he realizes that allies are trying to kill him, the increasingly paranoid Michael also discovers that his ambition has crippled his marriage and turned his brother, Fredo (John Cazale), against him. Critics and viewers often suggest that "Godfather II" is one of the few examples in American film history where the sequel is as good or better than the original.
Expanded essay for "The Godfather" and "Godfather Part II" by Michael Sragow (PDF, 528KB)
Going My Way (1944)
Bing Crosby won an Academy Award for playing a happy-go-lucky priest assigned to a rundown church heavily in debt. Barry Fitzgerald is the cranky pastor who disapproves of the younger priest's breezy, modern style. Crosby sets about to win the confidence of the local street toughs, organizing them into a church choir that will go out on a fundraising tour to forestall eviction from the church. He also busies himself playing matchmaker and mending family relationships. "Going My Way" is heavy on sentiment, but director Leo McCarey wisely tempers the sugary emotion with comedy and musical interludes.In addition to Crosby, Oscars went to Barry Fitzgerald, Leo McCarey, screenwriters Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, and Burke and Van Heusen's song hit "Swingin' On a Star." Bing Crosby repeated his role in McCarey's 1945 sequel "The Bells of St. Mary's."
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Arguably the definitive Depression-era musical, rife with visually stunning Busby Berkeley productions, ranging from the escapist "We're in the Money," kaleidoscopic, neon-violin-playing chorines of "The Shadow Waltz" to the powerful social statement of "My Forgotten Man," a stirring paean to World War I veterans unemployed by the Depression. The usual backstage drama involves showgirls Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Aline McMahon who search for financial backing for producer Ned Sparks new show. Enter secretly well-heeled songwriter Dick Powell who offers to put up the money for the show, much to his brother's chagrin.
The Gold Rush (1925)
Written, directed, and produced by Charles Chaplin, "The Gold Rush" follows Chaplin's Lone Prospector on his adventures in the Klondike. Often considered one of Chaplin's greatest films, "The Gold Rush" features many now-famous sequences, including Chaplin's "Oceana Roll" dance and the scene in which the Lone Prospector and his fellow prospector, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), are forced to eat a shoe to survive. In 1942, Chaplin rereleased The Gold Rush with music and narrative sound tracks; the rerelease was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Sound Recording and another for Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. Charles Chaplin is known to have said that "The Gold Rush" was the film by which he wanted to be remembered.
Expanded essay by Darren R. Reid and Brett Sanders (PDF, 607KB)
Gone With the Wind (1939)
As one of the most popular and influential American films produced, "Gone With the Wind" remains possibly the definitive example of filmmaking in the Hollywood studio era. More than seven decades after its release, David O. Selznick's production coupled with Margaret Mitchell's best-selling story still has the power to enthrall audiences. A rich score by Max Steiner and top performances from Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel and Clark Gable add to the film's indelibility.
Expanded essay by Molly Haskell (PDF, 649KB)
Early on, Martin Scorsese`s drama shows mob life as upbeat, sometimes even humorous, but it quickly turns dark and ugly in its anti-glorification of organized crime and the anything-but-sympathetic thugs who inhabit it. The central character and narrator (played by Ray Liotta), a true life mob informant chronicled in the book by the film's co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, enters the syndicate as a teenage gofer and ends up a full-fledged wiseguy. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, whose character Tommy DeVito frequently explodes in fits of violence, give standout performances. The soundtrack weaves a cohesive thread of pop tunes that define each of the three decades the film spans.
The Goonies (1985)
The fingerprints of executive producer Steven Spielberg visibly mark every second of "The Goonies," with the plot sporting a narrative structure and many themes characteristic of his work. Spielberg penned the original story, hand-selected director Richard Donner and hired Chris Columbus (who had written the 1983 "Gremlins") to do the offbeat screenplay. With its keen focus on kids of agency and adventure, "The Goonies" protagonists are Tom Sawyeresque outsiders on a magical treasure hunt, and the story lands in the continuum between where "Our Gang" quests leave off and the darker spaces of Netflix's recent "Stranger Things" pick up.
The Graduate (1967)
The coming-of-age story at the heart of "The Graduate" at times feels dated, but the character of Mrs. Robinson—deftly portrayed by Anne Bancroft—seems timeless. In hindsight, the film doesn't capture the '60s as well as the edgier "Easy Rider," but director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry, aided by Dustin Hoffman as the clueless Benjamin, manage to concoct a funny and satirical look at a certain slice of Americana and the generation gap that pervaded the era.
Expanded essay by Jami Bernard (PDF, 520KB)
Grand Hotel (1932)
Dubbed "The Lion Tamer" for his skill in dealing with temperamental Hollywood stars, director Edmund Goulding ("Dark Victory," "Razor's Edge," and "Nightmare Alley") earned that moniker many times over in "Grand Hotel." This film put much of the MGM star factory—Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford—into a single film with multiple plots, arguably the first use of the all-star formula later seen in "Dinner at Eight," "Airport," and "The Towering Inferno." Crawford is reported to have told the Barrymores: "All right, boys, but don't forget that the American public would rather have one look at my back than watch both your faces for an hour." In this film Garbo uttered the line, "I want to be alone."
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
John Ford's Oscar-winning depiction of Okies flocking to California in droves during the Depression was based on John Steinbeck's best seller. Seen by many as more "respectable" than Ford's later westerns, but Gregg Toland's stark photography and Henry Fonda's memorably penetrating performance as hero Tom Joad elevate it to American artistry.
Gallery of images from production of "The Grapes of Wrath"
Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925)
One of the earliest ethnographic documentaries, "Grass" follows a branch of the Bakhtiari tribe in Persia (present-day Iran) in their seasonal quest to find better grazing land for their herds. Its filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, both of "King Kong" fame, sought to depict the "timeless" and "ancient" human struggles of a nomadic people.
Expanded essay by Dennis Doros (PDF, 486KB)
The Great Dictator (1940)
Charlie Chaplin's first all-talking film gives the Little Tramp the opportunity to mix politics with comedy while he stars in a dual role as a Jewish barber and as dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Hynkel despises all Jews and regularly wreaks havoc on the Tomanian Jewish ghetto where lives the little barber and the feisty Hannah (Paulette Goddard) with whom he has a fond friendship. Outraged that a Jewish banker has refused to finance his impending war with Austerlitz, dictator Hynkel begins bearing down heavily on the ghetto. Near the end of the film, when the dictator is expected to make another one of his hate-filled, war-mongering speeches, the barber steps up to the microphones and, out of character and as himself, Chaplin delivers an impassioned plea for peace and tolerance.
Expanded essay by Jeffrey Vance (PDF, 682KB)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Considered the first narrative film, "The Great Train Robbery" was directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter, a former cameraman for the Thomas Edison company. Primitive by modern standards, the 10-minute action picture depicts 14 distinct scenes filmed at various locales in New Jersey intended to represent the American West. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson, the screen's first Western star, played several roles in the film, including a bandit and a train passenger. Audiences were thrilled and terrified to watch a gunman in medium close-up fire directly at the screen in the film's final scene ... although Porter suggested to exhibitors it could just as easily be shown at the beginning of the film instead.
Erich von Stroheim's "Greed" chronicles the downfall of gold miner-turned-dentist, McTeague (Gibson Gowland) and his wife, Trina (ZaSu Pitts), after their lives are destroyed by greed following a lottery win. Based on the novel "McTeague" by Frank Norris, "Greed" is notorious for both its production difficulties, many of which stemmed from the fact that the film was shot on location, a rarity at the time, and its post-production in which MGM edited the film down against Von Stroheim's wishes from his initial 40-reel cut to about 13 reels (133 minutes). The cut sequences were destroyed, so no complete version of the film is known to exist. A 1999 reconstruction based on von Stroheim's final working script utilized still photos for missing sequences to create a 239-minute version.
Grey Gardens (1975)
An influential cinema verité documentary by Albert and David Maysles, "Grey Gardens" has provided inspiration for creative works on the stage and in film. It is absorbing sometimes disturbing look at "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale (the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) who live in a world of their own in their decaying 28-room East Hampton mansion known as "Grey Gardens," a place so far gone that the local authorities once threatened to evict them for violating building and sanitation codes. "Little Edie," was a once-beautiful aspiring actress who put her glamorous New York City life on hold to care for her mother, and together they descended into a strange life of eccentricity and co-dependence.
Groundhog Day (1993)
"Groundhog Day" is a clever comedy with a philosophical edge to boot. Bill Murray plays a smug, arrogant weatherman caught in a personal time-warp, who is continuously forced to relive the Punxsutawney, Penn., annual Groundhog Day event. At first Murray revels at being able to act dishonorably without consequences, but he soon grows weary of having to wake up every morning to Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" and facing the same day again and again. The deft, innovative script creatively keeps rearranging and building on each day's events, while at the same time moving Murray's character into self-growth, redemption and personal rebirth. Andie MacDowell's character tells him, "I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind. It's inspiring in a way." Murray's character knowingly replies, "My years are not advancing as fast as you might think."
Expanded essay by Steve Ginsberg (PDF, 270KB)
Growing Up Female (1971)
Among the first films to emerge from the women's liberation movement, "Growing Up Female" is a documentary portrait of America on the brink of profound change in its attitudes toward women. Filmed in spring 1970 by Ohio college students Julia Reichert and Jim Klein, "Growing Up Female" focuses on six girls and women aged 4 to 34 and the home, school, work and advertising environments that have impacted their identities. Through open-ended interviews and lyrical documentation of their surroundings, the film strived, in Reichert's words, to "give women a new lens through which to see their own lives." Widely distributed to libraries, universities, churches and youth groups, the film launched a cooperative of female filmmakers that bypassed traditional distribution mechanisms to get its message communicated.
Gun Crazy (1949)
This quintessential "B movie," also known as "Deadly is the Female," dramatizes the criminal escapades of a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like couple on the run. John Dall plays an emotionally disturbed World War II veteran with a lifelong gun fixation. He meets a kindred spirit in carnival sharpshooter Peggy Cummins, who is equally disturbed -- but a lot smarter, and hence a lot more dangerous. They embark on a crime spree, with Cummins as the brains and Dall as the trigger man. Appreciation for this low-budget film noir, directed by onetime editor Joseph H. Lewis, has grown since its release thanks to its bold, stylized look and an objectivity that approaches cinema verite.
Expanded essay by Richard T. Jameson (PDF, 639KB)
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Though it would be Spencer Tracy's last film and the second film for which Katharine Hepburn would win an Academy Award for best actress, even these movie milestones are somewhat overshadowed by the then-novel plot of the 1967 "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Hepburn and Tracy play an older married couple whose progressiveness is challenged when their daughter (Katharine Houghton, Hepburn's real-life niece) brings home a new fiancé, who happens to be black. Celebrated actor Sidney Poitier plays the young man with his customary on-screen charisma, fire and grace.
Gunga Din (1939)
George Stevens directed this adventure epic suggested by the Rudyard Kipling poem. Its screenplay was the brainchild of Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol, and the writing team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. star as eternally brawling British sergeants in colonial India, with Sam Jaffe as their faithful Indian water bearer, Gunga Din. Grant and McLaglen scheme to keep Fairbanks in the army after he's announced his intentions to retire and marry the lovely Emmy (Joan Fontaine) in a scenario curiously reminiscent of the earlier Hecht-MacArthur collaboration "The Front Page." As the sergeants scheme to keep the trio together, they're tasked with quelling a revolution by a fanatical religious cult. To prove his worthiness to become the regiment's trumpeter, water bearer Gunga Din bravely comes to the rescue.
Gus Visser and His Singing Duck [Theodore Case Sound Test] (1925)
One of the Registry's more unusual entries, this film was created to demonstrate technological advancements by Theodore Case, a scientist specializing in recording sound on film. In 1926, Case joined forces with Fox Films which purchased the rights to one of his systems and began making short sound films. As Case made improvements to his processes, he would test them by recording popular vaudeville acts, including Gus Visser and "The Original Singing Duck." In this film, probably made as a demonstration for Fox investors, Visser warbles the Eddie Cantor song "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" with the help of a duck who Visser physically "prompts" to quack on cue. Within the year, Warner Bros. would beat Fox as the first producer of a feature-length sound film, and this short film may give some indication why.
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 239KB)
Renowned experimental film by Ralph Steiner, who later served as cameraman and/or director on documentary classics such as "The City" and "The Plow that Broke the Plains." "H2O" is a cinematic tone poem to water in all its forms, using lovely images and editing techniques of movement, shading and texture to produce striking visual effects.
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Writer-director Preston Sturges probably was the only filmmaker in Hollywood in the 1940s who could satirize the worship of war heroes and mothers during wartime. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times credited the success of this film to its "sharpness of verbal wit and the vigor of visual expression" and the ability of Sturges to temper "irony with pity." Nominated for an Academy Award for the best original screenplay category, "Hail the Conquering Hero" follows the foibles of a would-be war hero dismissed from active duty because of chronic hay fever and enlisted by a group of Marines to return home as the war hero that he has pretended to be in letters to his mother. The lightning-paced plot that develops upon his return offers Sturges—a budding "Hollywood Voltaire" in Crowther's eyes—myriad opportunities to spoof corruption in small town politics as well as the propensity to idolize the military. The great French critic André Bazin called this film "a work that restores to American film a sense of social satire that I find equaled only ... in Chaplin's films."
Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy Headed People (1984)
"Hair Piece" is an insightful and funny short animated film examining the problems that African-American women have with their hair. Generally considered the first black woman animator, director Ayoka Chenzira was a key figure in the development of African-American filmmakers in the 1980s through her own films and work to expand opportunities for others. Writing in the New York Times, critic Janet Maslin lauded this eccentric yet jubilant film. She notes the narrator "tells of everything from the difficulty of keeping a wig on straight to the way in which Vaseline could make a woman's hair ''sound like the man in 'The Fly' saying 'Help me!'"
The all-black-cast film "Hallelujah" was a surprising gamble by normally conservative MGM, allowed chiefly because director King Vidor deferred his salary and MGM had proved slow to convert from silent to sound films. Vidor had to shoot silent film of the mass-river-baptism and swamp-murder Tennessee location scenes. He then painstakingly synchronized the dialogue and music. Around themes of religion, sensuality and family stability, 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 dancehall girl (Nina Mae McKinney). The passionate conviction of the melodrama and the resourceful technical experiments make "Hallelujah" among the very first indisputable masterpieces of the sound era.
John Carpenter's first commercially successful film not only became his most famous work, but it also ushered in the dawn of the slasher film. However, "Halloween," unlike many later films of that genre, creates a chilling tension with minimal blood and gore. The setting is Halloween night, and homicidal maniac Michael Myers has escaped from his mental institution and is hunting teenagers in his hometown of Haddonfield, Ill. Although the numerous imitations and elements of the genre are now considered a cliché, Carpenter's style of point-of-view shots, tense editing and haunting piano score make "Halloween" uniquely artistic, frightening and a horror film keystone.
Expanded essay by Murray Leeder (PDF, 522KB)
Hands Up! (1926)
As a comic actor, Raymond Griffith was worlds away from the frantic, rubber-faced funnymen who stereotypically appeared in silent films. An easy elegance was his stock-in-trade. When he performed a gag, Griffith executed it with understatement and panache. In the Civil War saga "Hands Up," Griffith is not only an amusingly intrepid Confederate spy, but also an endearing romantic figure with two young women vying for his attention.
Expanded essay by Steve Massa (PDF, 465KB)
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
An apprentice of Albert and David Maysles, director Barbara Kopple came into her own with this unvarnished examination of a labor strike by 180 coal miners against the Duke Power Company in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1973. Bypassing narration for real sound and dialogue, and evocative music, Kopple produces a film that does not shy away from the harsh working conditions of the strikers or the heated emotions that surround their battle for better wages and working conditions. Her approach to the film's production was an important digression from "direct cinema" toward a more personal filmmaking style.
Expanded essay by Randy Haberkamp (PDF, 363KB)
Harold and Maude (1972)
Most critics were less than impressed and some were downright turned off by this black comedy starring Bud Cort as a young man obsessed with death who meets and eventually falls in love with Ruth Gordon as an eccentric, wisecracking elderly woman. Directed by Hal Ashby and written by Colin Higgins (as his UCLA masters thesis), the film became popular on college campuses in its day and continues to attract a cult following, embracing the warm humor and big heart that lies beneath the darkness. The film's music was composed and performed by Cat Stevens.
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
One of the earliest "creepy clown" movies, "He Who Gets Slapped" was the first film produced completely by the MGM studio, though not the first released. The film features Lon Chaney in a memorable role as a scientist who is humiliated when a rival and his wife steal his ideas just as he is to present them to the Academy of Sciences. He then becomes a masochistic circus clown where the highlight of his act is being repeatedly slapped. One of many stand-out scenes occurs during a circus performance where Chaney spots those who betrayed him and tries to call them out, but his fellow clowns are doing their normal crowd-pleasing routine of slapping him in the face. Filled with nightmarish vignettes, this landmark film from the silent era was directed by Victor Sjöström (newly arrived from Sweden and using an anglicized last name of Seastrom) and also features Norma Shearer and John Gilbert, each on the cusp of stardom.
Hearts and Minds (1974)
Director Peter Davis describes his Academy Award-winning documentary "Hearts and Minds" (1974) as "an attempt to examine why we went to Vietnam, what we did there and what the experience did to us." Compared by critics at the time to Marcel Ophuls' acclaimed documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity" (1971), "Hearts and Minds," similarly addressed the wartime effects of national myths and prejudices by juxtaposing interviews of government officials, soldiers, peasants and parents, cinéma vérité scenes shot on the home front and in South Vietnam, clips from ideological Cold War movies, and horrific archival footage. Author Frances FitzGerald praised the documentary as "the most moving film I've ever seen on Vietnam, because, for the first time, the camera lingers on the faces of Vietnamese and one hears their voices." Author David Halberstam said it "brilliantly catches … the hidden, unconscious racism of the war." Others from both ends of the political spectrum chided it as manipulative propaganda that oversimplified complexities.
The Heiress (1949)
William Wyler spins Henry James's novel "Washington Square" into a cinematic battle of wills between a timid old maid (Olivia de Havilland); her cold, arrogant father (Ralph Richardson); and a rakish fortune-hunting suitor (Montgomery Clift). Wyler adeptly harnesses the diverse acting styles -- Hollywood studio, Shakespearean, and Method, respectively -- exhibited by the leads to heighten the psychological tension. Richardson was nominated for an Oscar and de Havilland captured one for her transformation from wallflower to iceberg. A poignant score by Aaron Copland punctuates the inflexibility and deliberate grandeur of 1880s New York Society that Henry James depicted.
Hell's Hinges (1916)
William S. Hart was one of the most popular of the silent Western stars. Unlike most of the early film cowboys, Hart's characters were ambiguous -- no stereotype men in white hats. They could be crooks or killers just as easily as honorable lawmen or hard-working ranchers. Here he his a self-described killer seeking retribution on behalf of the devout sister of a rather pathetic minister. Performances by Hart and Clara Williams as the aptly-named Faith are confident and comparatively restrained for their day. The cinematography by Joseph August, who would work with masters such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, is equally confident and adds a level of sophistication to the production.
Expanded essay by David Menefee (PDF, 859KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
Heroes All (1920)
The Red Cross Bureau of Pictures produced more than 100 films, including "Heroes All," from 1917-1921, which are invaluable historical and visual records of the era with footage from World War I and its aftermath. "Heroes All" examines returning wounded WWI veterans and their treatment at Walter Reed Hospital, along with visits to iconic Washington, D.C., landmarks. Several Red Cross cinematographers achieved notable film careers, including Ernest Schoedsack and A. Farciot Edouart.
Expanded essay by Gerry Veeder, Ph.D. (PDF, 250KB)
Hester Street (1975)
Joan Micklin Silver's first feature-length film, "Hester Street," was an adaption of preeminent Yiddish author Abraham Cahan's 1896 well-received first novel "Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto." In the 1975 film, the writer-director brought to the screen a portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in America that historians have praised for its accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process. Shot in black-and-white and partly in Yiddish with English subtitles, the independent production, financed with money raised by the filmmaker's husband, was shunned by Hollywood until it established a reputation at the Cannes Film Festival and in European markets. "Hester Street" focuses on stresses that occur when a "greenhorn" wife, played by Carol Kane (nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal), and her young son arrive in New York to join her Americanized husband. Silver, one of the first women directors of American features to emerge during the women's liberation movement, shifted the story's emphasis from the husband, as in the novel, to the wife. Historian Joyce Antler has written admiringly, "In indicating the hardships experienced by women and their resiliency, as well as the deep strains assimilation posed to masculinity, 'Hester Street' touches on a fundamental cultural challenge confronting immigrants."
Expanded essay by Eric A. Goldman (PDF, 375KB
High Noon (1952)
Gary Cooper is a sheriff who's about to marry Quaker Grace Kelly and hang up his star, but is forced into a final gunfight alone when the townspeople refuse to help him. The film's 84 tense minutes are meant to correspond to the actual time in which the plot unfolds. Carl Foreman wrote the script and planned to direct until the Hollywood blacklist intervened and Fred Zinnemann was tapped to take over. Supporing actors include Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr., Lloyd Bridges and Katy Jurado. Beside Cooper's taut Oscar-winning performance, the most unforgettable element of the film may be its theme song ("Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'") by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington.
High School (1969)
Filmmaker Fred Wiseman employed the techniques of a burgeoning documentary style known as direct cinema to capture reality truthfully and without narration. Wiseman roamed freely through Philadelphia's Northeast High School to document students continually clashing with administrators who confuse learning with discipline. Richard Schickel, writing in "Life" magazine, called this a "wicked, brilliant documentary about life in a lower-middle-class secondary school." At 75 minutes, this is one of Wiseman's shortest documentaries, yet the impact is as memorable as his longer films. Wiseman's film "Hospital," made two years later, is also on the Registry.
Expanded essay by Barry Grant (PDF, 406KB)
Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Footage (1937)
One of the 20th Century's most vivid historic images is the crash of the airship Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. The German hydrogen-powered passenger zeppelin had been in operation since March 1936. The disaster is documented as an assemblage of film footage gathered by four news organizations. It is frequently presented with narration by Chicago radio reporter Herbert Morrison, who recorded commentary on the scene at the time, but was broadcast later on radio and in combination with the newsreel footage. Minutes after ground handlers grabbed hold of a pair of landing lines dropped from the nose of the ship, the Hindenburg suddenly burst into flames and dropped to the ground in a little over half a minute. Of the 36 passengers and 61 crew on board, 13 passengers and 22 crew died, as well as one member of the ground crew.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Director Howard Hawks converts the 1931 buddy picture "The Front Page" into a fiery and funny battle of the sexes by casting one of its protagonists as a woman. Cary Grant plays the editor and ex-husband of hardboiled reporter Rosalind Russell whose impending marriage to Ralph Bellamy is sidetracked by a breaking news story. Hawks retains much of the dialog from the original play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and masterfully overlaps lines to great comic effect and a vibrant pace.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Among the original "tough dames" of ‘30s and ‘40s movies, actress Ida Lupino later moved behind the camera to become one of the industry's few prominent female directors. After a series of films often categorized as "women's pictures" ("Never Fear," "Outrage"), Lupino took a hard turn with this gritty, hard-boiled tale. Two men (Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy) make the mistake of picking up a tormented hitch-hiker (William Talman). Upon its release in 1953, the film earned Lupino strong reviews and prompted the occasional comparison to Hitchcock's style.
Expanded essay by Wheeler Winston Dixon (PDF, 743KB)
The Hole (1963)
With "The Hole," legendary animators John and Faith Hubley created an "observation," as the opening title credits state, a chilling Academy Award-winning meditation on the possibility of an accidental nuclear catastrophe. Jazz great Dizzy Gillespie and actor George Mathews improvised a lively dialogue that the Hubleys and their animators used as the voices of two New York construction workers laboring under Third Avenue. Earlier in his career, while he worked as an animator in the Disney studios, John Hubley viewed a highly stylized Russian animated film—brought to his attention by Frank Lloyd Wright—that radically influenced his ideas about the possibilities of animation. With his new vision realized in this film, the Hubleys ominously, yet humorously, commented on the fears of nuclear devastation ever-present in cold war American culture during the year that the Cuban Missile crisis unfolded.
Expanded essay by Greg Cwik (PDF, 337KB)
Hoop Dreams (1994)
This groundbreaking, multiyear account of two inner-city Chicago kids (William Gates and Arthur Agee) struggling to earn college basketball scholarships provides an intimate and comprehensive account of the life and limited options of lower-class black families in America. One of the most critically acclaimed American documentaries, director Steve James's film is a complex and ultimately rewarding picture that uses high school hoops as a jumping-off point to explore issues of race, class, and education in modern America.
Directed by David Anspaugh, Gene Hackman stars as a high school basketball coach who takes his team to the state championship finals. Based on the true story of a 1954 small-town Indiana team and its coach, the film is at times bleak and at others inspiring. The drab palette of this straight-from-the-heartland tale foreshadows an America on the verge of change. Dennis Hopper as the town's basketball-loving drunk was nominated for an Oscar. With Barbara Hershey and Sheb Wooley.
Not to be confused with Arthur Hiller's narrative fiction film "The Hospital" starring George C. Scott, 1970's "Hospital" was another of documentarian Frederick Wiseman's forays into public institutions; he had previously made "Titticut Follies (1967) and "High School" (1968). On assignment for NY public TV station WNET, Wiseman takes his cameras into New York's Metropolitan Hospital and, literally, focuses on life and death. Paying special attention to the hospital's Emergency Room, Wiseman's film highlights doctors and patients and the legal and ethical decisions both must face.
Expanded essay by Barry Keith Grant (PDF, 382KB)
The Hospital (1971)
Paddy Chayefsky, who would later write "Network" (1976), penned an Oscar-winning script for this satire set in a Manhattan teaching hospital whose façade and staff both seem to be crumbling. George C. Scott portrays a beleaguered physician, a character far less in control than the five-star general he portrayed in "Patton" the year before. That earlier role had earned him a Best Actor Oscar, which he famously declined, and "The Hospital" earned him another nomination. Director Arthur Hiller toggles between comedy and tragedy, the real and the surreal to depict, in Chayefsky's words, "a microcosm for all the ills of contemporary society" and a vision of health care that looks frighteningly prescient.
Hot Dogs for Gauguin (1972)
This hilarious New York University student film (with a cast including Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman in her film debut) was written and directed by Martin Brest who later went on to direct "Beverly Hills Cop," "Midnight Run," and "Scent of a Woman." In the film, DeVito plays a down-on-his-luck photographer determined to capture visual magic and fame. He concocts an intricate plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty and sets his camera to record the exact moment of its destruction.
Hours for Jerome: Parts 1 and 2 (1980-82)
Nathaniel Dorsky shot the footage for what would become his silent tone poem, "Hours for Jerome," between 1966 and 1970. He edited that footage over a two-year period. The film's title evokes the liturgical "Book of Hours," a medieval series of devotional prayers recited at eight-hour intervals throughout the day. Dorsky's personal devotional loosely records the daily events of the filmmaker and his partner as an arrangement of images, energies and illuminations. The camera intimately surveys the surroundings, from the pastoral to the cosmopolitan, as fragments of light revolve around the four seasons. "Part 1" presents spring through summer and "Part 2" looks at fall and winter—a full year in 45 minutes. Named filmmaker of the decade in 2010 by Film Comment magazine, Dorsky creates his works to be projected at silent speed, between 17 and 20 frames per second instead of the usual 24 frames per second for sound film. Projecting his films at sound film speed, he writes, "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."
The House I Live In (1945)
This short film, which earned an honorary Academy Award for director Mervyn LeRoy in 1946, exhorts the message of religious tolerance and post-war hopefulness. Frank Sinatra, then the idol of teenage bobby-soxers, takes a break from a recording session and finds a group of children bullying one boy because he's Jewish. Sinatra reminds them that Americans may worship in many different ways but they still remain Americans. The film ends with Sinatra performing the title song, penned by Abel Meeropol, best known for the song "Strange Fruit" which denounced the horror of lynchings.
The House in the Middle (1954)
This curiosity of the Cold War era suggests good housekeeping and home maintenance can reduce the damage to buildings in the event of a nuclear explosion. The film's sponsorship by the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association may have something to do with such a hypothesis.
Expanded essay by Kelly Chisholm (PDF, 409KB)
House of Usher (1960)
The talents of Vincent Price, writer Richard Matheson, director Roger Corman and the legacy of Edgar Allan Poe combined in the first of American International Pictures' series of films that dominated horror on the screen in the 1960s. Despite shooting schedules that rarely ran more than three weeks or budgets over $500,000, the series offered elegant, literary adaptations, luminous decor and color photography that established a new standard for screen horror. As a director and producer, Corman's films helped launch the careers of a galaxy of Hollywood talent including Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and James Cameron.
House of Wax (1953)
A remake of 1933's "Mystery of the Wax Museum," the 1953 "House of Wax" expanded upon the earlier horror tale of a mad sculptor who encases his victims' corpses in wax. It added the dark talents of Vincent Price and helped introduce 3-D visual effects to a wide audience. "House of Wax," produced by Warner Bros. and released in April 1953, is considered the first full-length 3-D color film ever produced and released by a major American film studio. Along with its technical innovations, "House of Wax" also solidified Vincent Price's new role as America's master of the macabre, and his voice resonated even more with the emerging stereophonic sound process. Though he had flirted with the fear genre earlier in his career in the 1946 "Shock," "Wax" forever recast him as one of the first gentlemen of Hollywood horror. Along with Price, Phyllis Kirk, Frank Lovejoy and Carolyn Jones (as one of Price's early victims) complete the cast. André de Toth directed the film.
Expanded essay by Jack Theakston (PDF, 446KB)
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
A seamless collaboration of creative talent, both credited and uncredited, lies behind the success of 1941's Best Picture winner, "How Green Was My Valley." Much of the dialogue arises directly from Richard Llewllyn's novel of a Welsh mining community, while Philip Dunne's screenplay gives the film its episodic structure and reflective narrative voice. William Wyler served as director through preproduction and supervised location scouting and set construction, as well as the crucial casting of Roddy McDowall in the lead role. John Ford took the Dunne screenplay and Wyler sets and staged scenes in his own style. Finally, Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck took all of Ford's footage and supervised the final edit, as he did on many of the projects he oversaw at both Warner Bros. and Fox.
How the West Was Won (1962)
John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall directed the individual episodes of this sprawling epic which was originally released in Cinerama. It follows the Prescotts, an emigrant family, through four generations, from the Erie Canal in the 1830s to their home in the West half a century later. The episode directed by Ford, which focuses on the Civil War, is probably the best of the film's three parts. With James Stewart, John Wayne, Carroll Baker, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Carolyn Jones, Eli Wallach, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, and Richard Widmark. Nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, it claimed three: Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Screenplay.
Paul Newman received his third Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the title character, the handsome, surly and unscrupulous bad-boy son of a Texas rancher who locks horns with his father over business and family matters. Loosely based on Larry McMurtry's debut novel, "Horseman, Pass By," the film received seven Academy Award nominations, winning three: Patricia Neal (best actress), Melvyn Douglas (best supporting actor) and James Wong Howe (black-and-white cinematography). Motion Picture Academy President John Bailey in 2017 chronicled the production of the film and summed up some of his impressions of the film's relevance 55 years after its release: "Naked and narcissistic self-interest have always been a dark undercurrent to the limpid surface stream of American optimism and justice, but it is not a reach to see the character of Hud as an avatar of the troubling cynicism of that other side of American Populism — the side that espouses a fake concern for one's fellow man while lining one's own pockets. Hud, a lothario at the wheel of his crashed convertible, raising a shroud of dust clouds in its trail, is nothing more than a flimflam 19th century snake-oil salesman and carnival barker. His type erupts over and over onto America's psyche like a painful pustule."
Based on a story by Fannie Hurst, "Humoresque" presented to mainstream American audiences a sympathetic portrayal of immigrant Jewish life through its vivid details of street life and rituals, and a riveting performance by Yiddish Theatre actress Vera Gordon, "seemingly a character from life, living," rather than acting, as a New York Times reviewer observed. Although it was not the first film to dramatize the acculturation experiences of recent Jewish refugees from Russian massacres, "Humoresque" became a great screen success, inspiring Hollywood to produce many other films set in the Lower East Side's tenements during the ensuing decade. In this, his first hit film, director Frank Borzage sympathetically treated faith and love—in this case "mother love"—with the utmost solemnity, in a manner that admirer Martin Scorsese has commented "makes him so unfashionable now." Having solidly established its setting and characters through its many poignant and atmospheric touches, the film "touches the deep places of the heart," as one Variety reviewer wrote, and makes its audience believe that prayers are answered and that love can restore health.
The Hunters (1957)
This ethnographic film documents the efforts of four !Kung men (also known as Ju/'hoansi or Bushmen) to hunt a giraffe in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia. The footage was shot by John Marshall during a Smithsonian-Harvard Peabody sponsored expedition in 1952–53. In addition to the giraffe hunt, the film shows other aspects of !Kung life, including family relationships, socializing and storytelling and gathering plant foods. The film won a Robert J. Flaherty Award for best documentary from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 1958.
DER Documentary - The Hunters External
The Hustler (1961)
Paul Newman is an up-and-coming pool player and Jackie Gleason the reigning champ in this moody, deliberately-paced morality play directed by Robert Rossen. Rossen and Sidney Carroll's adaptation of a Walter Tevis novel gets its gritty reality from the black-and-white cinematography by Eugen Shuftan, who won an Oscar for his work. The real contest in "The Hustler" is not between Newman and Gleason, but between Newman's love for his girlfriend (Piper Laurie) and his self-destructive impulses. Rossen's best directorial decision is giving full weight and screen time to all of his characters. In only his third film, George C. Scott gives a chilling performance as Newman's manipulative manager.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
A compelling, Academy Award-nominated performance by Paul Muni as an average guy framed for robbery and sentenced to hard labor distinguishes this Warner Bros. "social conscious" picture from most others of this era. Based on a series of works by Robert Elliot Burns, himself a chain gang escapee, the vividly depicts the prisoner's despair as his strength and dignity are stripped away until escape becomes his only option. Director Mervyn LeRoy ("Little Caesar" and "They Won't Forget") pulls no punches in showing the brutality and corruption of prison farms. Much of the film's story and technique would influence later prison movies.
I Am Joaquin (1969)
"I Am Joaquin" is a 20-minute short film based on an epic poem published by Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales in 1967. Gonzales' poem weaves together the tangled roots of his Mexican, Spanish, Indian and American parentage and a past mythology of pre-Columbian cultures. The film is important to the history and culture of Chicanos in America, spotlighting the challenges of discrimination. Luis Valdez, often described as the father of Chicano theater, produced and directed the film as a project of Teatro Campesino (the Farmworkers Theater), which he founded in 1965. Valdez later directed the Chicano-themed "Zoot Suit" in 1981, a retelling of the early 1940s Los Angeles race riots, and "La Bamba" in 1987.
I, an Actress (1977)
Underground filmmaker George Kuchar and his twin brother Mike began making 8mm films as 12-year-old kids in the Bronx, often on their family's apartment rooftop. Before his death in 2011, George created over 200 outlandish low-budget films filled with absurdist melodrama, crazed dialogue and plots, and affection for Hollywood film conventions and genres. A professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, Kuchar documented his directing techniques in the hilarious "I, an Actress" as he encourages an acting student to embellish a melodramatic monologue with increasingly excessive gestures and emotions. Like most of Kuchar's films, "I, an Actress" embodies a "camp" sensibility, defined by the cultural critic Susan Sontag as deriving from an aesthetics that valorizes not beauty but "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." Filmmaker John Waters has cited the Kuchars as "my first inspiration" and credited them with giving him "the self-confidence to believe in my own tawdry vision."
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 292KB)
Imitation of Life (1934)
This is one of American cinema's most famous examples of the "woman's picture," melodramas which focused on the emotions, problems and concerns of women. This John Stahl film adaptation of Fannie Hurst's novel has an innovative theme involving a white widow (Claudette Colbert) who starts a business partnership with her African-American maid (Louise Beavers). It is arguably the first Hollywood studio film to treat African-American characters in a dignified fashion by casting them in richly developed roles, not merely as comics or entertainers.
Expanded essay by Ariel Schudson (PDF, 384KB)
Imitation of Life (1959)
Film melodrama comes in many variations, but director Douglas Sirk's style of domestic melodrama is marked by stylized interiors and use of mirrors, where the role of photography is crucial, with exquisite use of primary colors and camera angles to convey emotion and mood. During the 1950s, the Universal team of Sirk, producers Ross Hunter and Albert Zugsmith, cinematographer Russell Metty and composer Frank Skinner, released a series of glossy, often deliriously flamboyant "women's picture" melodramas, including "All That Heaven Allows," "Magnificent Obsession," "Written on the Wind" and "Imitation of Life." The often-lurid plots in these films may have seemed laughable and unrealistic, but the emotional impact on audiences packed a wallop that led to major box-office bonanzas for Universal. Sirk's last American film, "Imitation of Life," is based on the Fannie Hurst novel about two mothers (one white and one African-American) and their daughters (one white and one who wishes to pass for white). Sirk's 1959 version (with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore as the mothers) offers a telling contrast to the more restrained melodramatic style used by John Stahl in the 1934 version (previously selected for the registry), starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. One can also spot in Sirk's film fascinating glimpses at the evolving social standards and mores the country had undergone in the 25 years that elapsed between the two films, particularly in the characters of Moore and her daughter Susan Kohner. However, New York Times reviewers did not note much difference in the two versions. The paper's 1934 reviewer called the film "the most shameless tearjerker of the fall" while Bosley Crowther's 1959 review proved little different: "It is the most shameless tearjerker in a couple of years." Sirk's version ends with Mahalia Jackson singing "Trouble of the World" during the penultimate funeral scene and daughter Susan Kohner begging forgiveness while hugging her dead mother's casket.
Expanded essay by Matthew Kennedy (PDF, 761KB)
The Immigrant (1917)
Directed by, written by, and starring Charles Chaplin, "The Immigrant" features Chaplin's Tramp persona as an immigrant making his way to America on a steamship. While on board, he meets a young immigrant woman (Edna Purviance), with whom he reunites later when both are struggling to make a life for themselves in their new home. "The Immigrant" was one of the twelve short films Chaplin made for Mutual Film Corporation between 1916 and 1917. While the film explores the uniquely American immigrant experience in both a sympathetic and optimistic light, a scene in which Chaplin's character kicks an immigration officer was cited as evidence of Chaplin's anti-Americanism in the 1950s, leading to his exile.
Expanded essay by Jeffrey Vance (PDF, 617KB)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Director Nicholas Ray scathing Hollywood satire, "In a Lonely Place," may well rate that honor. Screenwriter Humphrey Bogart, brilliant at his craft yet prone to living with his fists, undergoes scrutiny as a murder suspect while romancing insouciant starlet Gloria Grahame. Their tempestuous on-screen romance mirrors the real-life deteriorating marriage of Grahame and director Ray, who divorced shortly after the film was completed. With jaded passion and paranoid force of character, Bogart perfectly plays the talented but psychologically unstable artist who will not accept his society, proving it with periodic violent, self-destructive confrontations. The film's cynical, fatalistic script marries film-noir themes and doomed romance: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
In a Lonely Place: The Restoration Story, an in-depth look at the preservation process behind Sony Pictures Entertainment's complete restoration of this film (2002).
In Cold Blood (1967)
In 1959 two men brutally murdered four members of a Holcomb, Kan., family. Truman Capote reported on the infamous incident, first in a series of New Yorker articles and later in his non-fiction novel, "In Cold Blood." With an unsparing neo-realism, director Richard Brooks adapted 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. Filmed in striking black-and-white documentary style by cinematographer Conrad Hall, the film starred then-unknown actors Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, both of whom bore a close physical resemblance to the real-life murderers. Blake, in particular, provides a sensational, multi-layered portrayal. The chilling ending depicts Blake climbing to the gallows to be hanged as we hear his heartbeat slowly come to a stop as the screen fades to black.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
While traveling in the Deep South, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black Philadelphia homicide detective, becomes unwittingly embroiled in the murder investigation of a prominent businessman when he is first accused of the crime and then asked to solve it. Finding the killer proves to be difficult, however, especially when his efforts are constantly thwarted by the bigoted town sheriff (Rod Steiger). But neither man can solve the case alone. Putting aside their differences and prejudices, they join forces in a desperate race against time to discover the shocking truth. Director Norman Jewison stages their confrontations for effectively flashy, immediate effect. The film also stars Lee Grant and Warren Oates.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 325KB)
In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
Written and directed by Edward S. Curtis this fictionalized dramatization of the life of the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) peoples of British Columbia is depicted by the natives themselves. The film's story revolves around a chief's son who woos a beautiful maiden though thwarted by an evil sorcerer. The film combines many accurate representations of native culture, art, and technology of the period, however some of the practices pre-date the era depicted or were entirely fictional. However it does accurately capture the potlatch ceremony which until the early 1950s was prohibited by U.S. and Canadian law for being wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to 'civilized values.'
Expanded essay by Brad Evans and Aaron Glass (PDF, 583KB)
In the Street (1948)
This lyrical, slice-of-life documentary (by Helen Levitt, James Agee and Janice Loeb) about East Harlem is one of several outstanding children's documentaries ("The Quiet One" and "Louisiana Story," among others) produced immediately after World War II. The filmmakers captured the energy-filled streets as part theater, part battleground and part playground. In their everyday lives and actions, people project an image of human existence against the turmoil of the street.
Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street (1905)
This early actuality film documents New York City's newest marvel, the subway, less than seven months after its opening. However, the film is not as simple as it first appears. It required coordinating three trains: the one we watch, the one carrying the camera and a third (glimpsed on the parallel track) to carry a bank of lights. The artistic flair is the vision of legendary cameraman G.W. "Billy" Bitzer.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
This sci-fi classic about a man (Grant Williams) who starts to shrink after being exposed to a strange cloud while on vacation is notable for its intelligent script and imaginative special effects which seem simplistic by modern standards. Jack Arnold's sparse direction and Richard Matheson's poignant script allow the tension to build naturally in a world where a house cat and common spider become the ultimate threat to existence and leave an indelible mark on the audience's consciousness. Part of the film's brilliance is its bad-news ending, a surprising -- but effective -- choice for Universal Studios, and its haunting final line of dialogue "I still exist."
Expanded essay by Barry Keith Grant (PDF, 358KB)
The Informer (1935)
This marks the 11th film directed by John Ford to be named to the National Film Registry, the most of any director. "The Informer" depicts with brutal realism the life of an informant during the Irish Rebellion of 1922, who turns in his best friend and then sees the walls closing in on him in return. Critic Andre Sennwald, writing in the New York Times, praised Ford's direction: "In his hands 'The Informer' becomes at the same time a striking psychological study of a gutter Judas and a raw impressive picture of the Dublin underworld during the Black and Tan terror." Ford and cinematographer Joseph August borrowed from German expressionism to convey the Dublin atmosphere. To this point, Ford had compiled a solid workmanlike career as he learned his craft. "The Informer" placed him in the top echelon of American film directors and over the next 20 years he crafted numerous other classics, from the 1939 "Stagecoach" through the 1962 "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."
The Inner World of Aphasia (1968)
This empathic and often poetic medical-training film features a powerful performance by co-director Naomi Feil as a nurse who learns to cope with aphasia, the inability to speak as a result of a brain injury. Feil, a social worker whose career has focused on communicating with language-impaired patients, produced this film and dozens more with her husband Edward Feil. In the film, the patient's inner thoughts are heard through voice-over as she struggles in frustration to overcome her disability and to connect with her caregivers. The Council on International Non-theatrical Events (CINE) awarded "Inner World" its top honor, the Golden Eagle. More than 47 years later, the film is still being screened by media artists and independent filmmakers who appreciate its innovative artistic qualities.
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000)
Just prior to World War II, a rescue operation aided the youngest victims of Nazi terror when 10,000 Jewish and other children were sent from their homes and families to live with foster families and in group homes in Great Britain. This Oscar-winning film was directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, writer and director of another Oscar winner, "The Long Way Home," and was produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, whose mother was among the children evacuated. The film examines the bond between parent and child, uncovering the anguish of the parents who reluctantly acknowledged they could no longer protect their children, but through their love saw a chance to protect them, by proxy if not proximity. Interviews with the surviving children reveal feelings of abandonment and estrangement that often took years to overcome. The film is a tribute not only to the children who survived, but to the people of England who agreed to rescue the refugees when U.S. leadership would not.
A sprawling epic that traverses time and space, D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance," whose full title has alternately been listed as "Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages" and "Intolerance: A Sun-Play of the Ages," tells the stories of men and women throughout history, specifically a woman in Ancient Babylon, a group in Judea, a Huguenot couple in 1572 France, and a woman in modern times, all of whom encounter some form of intolerance. Griffith made "Intolerance" as a direct response to the negative public reaction to the overt racism depicted in "The Birth of a Nation," which was released a year earlier. Notable for its elaborate, expansive sets and complex story structure, which was achieved through crosscutting, "Intolerance" is considered one of the masterpieces of the silent era. As with "The Birth of a Nation," Griffith introduced new cinematic techniques in "Intolerance" that are now considered commonplace in today's motion picture industry.
Expanded essay by Benjamin Schrom (PDF, 635KB)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
This influential and chilling science fiction tale about small-town residents who are being replaced by emotionless alien "pods" features a subtext borne out of 1950s Red-baiting, atomic-testing paranoia as adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from Jack Finney's novel. Don Siegel directed Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter as average citizens trying to come to grips with the unfathomable. Despite the film's lowly exploitation movie roots, Siegel and his writers keenly explore the allegorical depths of their subject. The film's tight plot structure and stark, noir-influenced photography by Ellsworth Fredericks impeccably complements the escalating, suffocating sense of utter terror.
Expanded essay by Robert Sklar (PDF, 687KB)
The Invisible Man (1933)
Universal released many classic horror films during the 1930s and director James Whale crafted some of the greatest from that famous cycle: "Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein," "The Old Dark House" and "The Invisible Man." Whale brought a dazzling stylishness to what were essentially low-budget horror films and, in the case of "The Invisible Man," produced sophisticated special effects, aided by John P. Fulton. As in his discovery of Boris Karloff to play "Frankenstein," Whale made another inspirational choice in picking British-born Claude Rains, in his American film debut, to portray H.G. Wells' tormented scientist Jack Griffin. In the film, after discovering a drug which provides the secret to invisibility, Rains becomes an insane maniac and goes on a power-hungry murder spree, but later makes a deathbed confession to his fiancée: "I meddled in things that man must leave alone."
The Iron Horse (1924)
John Ford's epic Western "The Iron Horse" established his reputation as one of Hollywood's most accomplished directors. Intended by Fox studios to rival Paramount's 1923 epic "The Covered Wagon," Ford's film employed more than 5,000 extras, advertised authenticity in its attention to realistic detail, and provided him with the opportunity to create iconic visual images of the Old West, inspired by such master painters as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. A tale of national unity achieved after the Civil War through the construction of the transcontinental railroad, "The Iron Horse" celebrated the contributions of Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants although the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country legally was severely restricted at the time of its production. A classic silent film, "The Iron Horse" introduced to American and world audiences a reverential, elegiac mythology that has influenced many subsequent Westerns.
Expanded essay by David Kiehn (PDF, 349KB)
Writer Elinor Glyn pioneered risqué romantic fiction aimed at a female audience, and her 1927 Cosmopolitan magazine story defined "It" as "that quality possessed by some few persons which draws all others with its magnetic life force." Paramount saw the opportunity to capitalize on Glyn's popularity with a film by the same title, and cast one of their up-and-coming starlets, Clara Bow, whom Glyn claimed personified "It," according to the film's publicity. The frothy story of a salesgirl (Bow) who pursues her handsome playboy boss (Antonio Moreno) is best remembered for Bow's incandescence.
Expanded essay by Dino Everett (PDF, 715KB)
It Happened One Night (1934)
In this screwball comedy from director Frank Capra, spoiled socialite Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) elopes without her family's approval and consequently finds herself stuck with out-of-work journalist Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on her journey back to her new husband. Based on a short story called "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams, "It Happened One Night" faced a difficult start, with actor after actor rejecting the lead roles. Eventually Claudette Colbert took on the role of Ellie and Clark Gable was loaned from MGM to play Peter. Although now considered a classic, "It Happened One Night" opened to only so-so reviews. Despite the initial reaction, the film performed well in smaller towns and ended up winning every Oscar for which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Writing (Adaptation), marking the first time in history that one film swept the top five Oscar categories. "It Happened One Night" was also Columbia Pictures' first Best Picture Academy Award win.
Expanded essay by Ian Scott (PDF, 513KB)
It's a Gift (1934)
The popularity and influence of W.C. Fields continues with each succeeding generation, distinguishing him as one of the greatest American comedians of the 20th century. "It's a Gift" has survived a perilous preservation history and is the third Fields film to be named to the National Film Registry. The film's extended comic sequence featuring Baby LeRoy, and depicting Fields' travails while trying to sleep on the open-air back porch of a rooming house, was adapted from one of his most successful live theatrical sketches.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Director Frank Capra created a holiday favorite with this story of a once ambitious young man George Bailey (James Stewart) who sacrifices personal adventure to stand up against the despot Potter who tyranizes his small hometown (Lionel Barrymore). When it looks like Potter has finally beaten him, George wishes he'd never been born and an apprentice angel (Henry Travers) grants his wish. Shown the bleak parallel universe that might have been, George recants his wish and is restored just in time to see his family and friends come to his aid against Potter. Suggested by a short story written as a Christmas card by author and historian Philip Van Doren Stern, Capra and writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett crafted the screenplay for this film which has becomesynonymous with Christmas spirit and what some have dubbed "Capra corn."
The Italian (1915)
Produced and co-written by Thomas Ince and directed by Reginald Barker, "The Italian" stars George Beban, a celebrated theatrical actor known for his portrayals of Italian characters, as an immigrant whose experience falls far short of the American Dream. Beban's stage experience and personal appeal translated well to the screen, and he mastered the nuances of film acting better than many of his contemporaries. Characteristic of Ince's film style, "The Italian" is an epic production of opulent sets and costumes expertly and inventively photographed. Ince's influence on cinema alsosurfaces in the film's less structured, less rigid technique, a counterpoint to the more formal "classical" style employed by directors such as D.W. Griffith.
Jailhouse Rock (1955)
Showcasing Elvis Presley as the ultimate rebel, "Jailhouse Rock" possesses an edginess that would be toned down considerably in the singer's later movies. The now-iconic title dance number is both ridiculous and infectious.
Expanded essay by Carrie Rickey (PDF, 495KB)
Jam Session (1942)
The musical short film features Duke Ellington and his orchestra performing "C Jam Blues." The film recording, made in late 1941, was released in 1942 as a Soundie, a musical film played on jukebox-like devices found in social clubs and bars. Recorded for RCA Victor Records in 1942, the song continued to be a staple of the Ellington repertoire. Ellington appeared as a character in short subjects and feature films as early as 1929, and is featured in 1959's "Anatomy of a Murder." He appeared as himself in countless films, documentaries and television shows, and his music is heard in hundreds more.
Expanded essay by Mark Cantor (PDF, 246KB)
Jammin' the Blues (1944)
Based on the success of a series of Los Angeles jazz concerts, Warner Bros. produced this 20-minute film to showcase musicians Lester Young, Harry Edison, Barney Kessel, Red Callender, and vocalist Marie Bryant. Concerts organizer Norman Granz assembled the musicians and the innovative "Life" magazine photographer Gjon Mili directed. Jazz musicians had never been filmed as they were in "Jammin' the Blues." The sets and lighting gave the artists an evocative background against which to perform and the mobile cameras captured them interacting with each other naturally and comfortably.
This now-classic thriller opens on a hot summer weekend in a small coastal New England resort community whose safety and financial livelihood are threatened by an apparent shark attack. The town's new sheriff (Roy Scheider) plans to close the beaches but meets opposition from the mayor and local business owners. When a young boy is killed by a shark in full view of a beach full of tourists, the sheriff must take action, joining with an experienced shark hunter, Capt. Quint (Robert Shaw), and an oceanographer (Richard Dreyfus) to pursue the Great White. As Brody adroitly observes after their first encounter with the shark, they're gonna need a bigger boat ... or at least plenty of moxie. Adapted by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb from Benchley's best-selling novel, the film is expertly, if manipulatively, crafted by director Steven Spielberg and an unforgettable score by John Williams to terrify its audience. Fueled by a successful ad campaign and phenomenal word of mouth and repeat business, "Jaws" broke box-office records and fueled sequels and imitators eager to capitalize on audiences willingly seduced by their own fear.
Jazz on a Summer's Day (1959)
This feature-length documentary highlights the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The musical numbers performed by artists such as Anita O'Day, Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden are interspersed with scenes of Newport Harbor and yachts preparing for the America's Cup. Photographer Bert Stern (best known for his extended "Vogue" magazine photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe which he later published later as "The Last Sitting") directed the film with additional cinematography by Courtney Hesfela and Raymond Phelan.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Starring Al Jolson as a young man who pursues his dream of becoming a jazz singer despite the wishes of his overbearing Cantor father (Warner Oland), "The Jazz Singer" was the first feature film to include sequences with synchronized spoken dialogue. This landmark technological achievement was made possible using Warner Bros.'s Vitaphone sound system, which involved spoken dialogue being recorded on a phonograph record that was then played in-synch with the projected film, thus resulting in synchronized dialogue. "The Jazz Singer," directed by Alan Crossland, won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Al Cohn, as well as a Special Academy Award honoring the film's scientific and technical achievements in revolutionizing motion pictures.
Jeffries-Johnson World's Championship Boxing Contest (1910)
A signal moment in American race relations, this recording of the July 4 heavyweight title fight between champion Jack Johnson and former champion James J. Jeffries became the most widely discussed and written-about motion picture made before 1915's "The Birth of a Nation."
Bette Davis won her second Academy Award for this William Wyler-directed classic. Cast to perfection as a tempestuous southern belle, Davis' head-strong heroine must eventually learn self-sacrifice in order to save the man she loves. Despite its melodramatic underpinnings, the film endures because of Davis' flawless performance and for its examination of both the American South and women's societal roles. The movie co-stars Henry Fonda and Fay Bainter, who also won an Oscar for her work.
Expanded essay by Gabriel Miller (PDF, 186 KB)
John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946)
The African-American folk hero John Henry was probably based on an actual person who worked on the railroads around the 1870s. The legend began to appear in print in the early 20th century, but emerged early on as a popular folk song. Akin to other such rugged folk heroes as Paul Bunyan, John Henry is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man," hammering a steel drill into rock and earth to build tunnels and lay track. According to legend, his prowess was measured in a competition against a steam-powered hammer. John Henry won the race against "Inky-Poo," only to collapse and die, hammer in hand. Stop-motion animation pioneer George Pal created this short film after the NAACP and Ebony magazine criticized his offensively stereotyped Jasper series of cartoons. The magazine later praised "John Henry" as the first Hollywood film to feature African-American folklore in a positive light and to treat its characters with "dignity, imagination, poetry, and love." Highly popular during its time, the film was nominated for an Academy Award. It has been preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
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. "Johnny Guitar," filmed in the Trucolor process, also rates significance as one of a few Westerns featuring women as the main stars (Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge). Crawford is the owner of a gambling saloon in an isolated town waiting for the train lines to arrive so she can get rich; McCambridge plays her nemesis. Upon its release, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter panned "Johnny Guitar," but the film's reputation has soared over time.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 638 KB)
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Selecting as its focus the "Justices Trial" of the post-World War II Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, rather than the more publicized trials of major Nazi war criminals, "Judgment at Nuremberg" broadened its scope beyond the condemnation of German perpetrators to interrogate the concept of justice within any modern society. Conceived by screenwriter Abby Mann during the period of McCarthyism, the film argues passionately that those responsible for administering justice also have the duty to ensure that human-rights norms are preserved even if they conflict with national imperatives. Mann's screenplay, originally produced as a Playhouse 90 teleplay, makes "the value of a single human being" the defining societal value that legal systems must respect. "Judgment at Nuremberg" startled audiences by including in the midst of its narrative seven minutes of film footage documenting concentration camp victims, thus using motion-picture evidence to make its point both in the courtroom and in movie theaters. Mann and actor Maximilian Schell received Academy Awards and the film boasted fine performances from its all-star cast.
The Jungle (1967)
With the guidance of Temple University social worker Harold Haskins, a group of African-American teenage boys in Philadelphia made this hybrid documentary/dramatization of their lives in the 12th and Oxford Street gang. Shot in an original and natural style, this 22-minute film was recognized with festival awards, but was never theatrically released. In 1968, Churchill Films distributed the film in 16mm for the educational market. The production led several of the gang members to earn high school diplomas and college degrees.
Jurassic Park (1993)
The concept of people somehow existing in the age of dinosaurs (or dinosaurs somehow existing in the age of people) has been explored in film and on television numerous times. No treatment, however, has ever been done with more skill, flair or popcorn-chomping excitement than this 1993 blockbuster. Set on a remote island where a man's toying with evolution has run amok, this Steven Spielberg classic ranks as the epitome of the summer blockbuster. "Jurassic Park" was the top public vote-getter this year.
Kannapolis, N.C. (1941)
This example of a "town portrait" was chosen to honor itinerant filmmakers who made films of ordinary people on typical days during the 1930s and 1940s. They showcased this footage (in return for a portion of the receipts) at local cinemas prior to the Hollywood feature films. The surviving footage of the towns and its people often became the sole record of these cultural enclaves. H. Lee Waters, who made movies in 117 towns across North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, filmed all of Kannapolis' separate communities, slyly making sure to include lots of shots of children to attract the entire family to the theaters.
View this film at Duke University Libraries Digital Collections External
The Kid (1921)
Charles Chaplin's first full-length feature, the silent classic "The Kid," is an artful melding of touching drama, social commentary and inventive comedy. The tale of a foundling (Jackie Coogan, soon to be a major child star) taken in by the Little Tramp, "The Kid," represents a high point in Chaplin's evolving cinematic style, proving he could sustain his artistry beyond the length of his usual short subjects and could deftly elicit a variety of emotions from his audiences by skillfully blending slapstick and pathos.
Expanded essay by Jeffrey Vance (PDF, 398 KB)
The Kidnappers Foil (1930s-1950s)
For three decades, Dallas native Melton Barker and his company traveled through the southern and central sections of the United States filming local children acting, singing and dancing in two-reel narrative films, all of which Barker titled "The Kidnappers Foil." Barker recognized that many people enjoyed seeing themselves, their children and their communities on film. Since home movies were an expensive hobby, he developed a business to provide them. Other itinerant filmmakers produced similar fare, but Barker appears to have been the most prolific. Enlisting local movie theaters and newspapers to sponsor and promote the productions, Barker auditioned children and offered "acting lessons" to the most promising for a fee of a few dollars. He then assembled 50 to 75 would-be Shirley Temples and Jackie Coopers, ages 3 to 12, to act out the melodramatic story: a young girl is kidnapped from her birthday party and eventually rescued by a search party of local kids. After the "rescue," the relieved townsfolk would celebrate with a party where the budding stars showcased their musical talents. A few weeks after filming, the town would screen the 15- to 20-minute picture to the delight of the local audience. Most prints of these films no longer exist, although some have been discovered in vintage movie houses or local historical societies. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image holds a collection of these itinerant films and hosts Internet resources for those who appeared in them as children.
Killer of Sheep (1977)
Charles Burnett was one of the "LA School" of African American filmmakers that emerged from the UCLA film department in the 1970s, and "Killer of Sheep" was his thesis film. It is simultaneously naturalistic and poetic, witty and heartbreaking. The story centers on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a blue-collar worker from the Watts area of Los Angeles, whose job in a slaughterhouse barely keeps his family above water. It documents his struggle to retain dignity in the face of grinding deprivation and disquieting temptations, and the alienation that threatens to break him away from his family. It also provides a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrait of a community assaulted by poverty and lack of opportunity, yet it manages to remain hopeful.
The Killers (1946)
Director Robert Siodmak and screenwriter Anthony Veiller, both nominated for an Oscar, 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. Two killers shatter a small town's quiet before an insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien) digs up crime, betrayal, and a glamorous woman (Ava Gardner) behind the death of an ex-fighter (Burt Lancaster in his electrifying film debut). The noir aesthetic is heightened by the Miklós Rózsa score and Arthur Hilton's editing, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards. Hilton's work on the fight scenes would stand as the vanguard of such fare until "Raging Bull" some 34 years later.
King Kong (1933)
Since it first opened, "King Kong" has been an audience favorite, initially giving the troubled RKO much needed money to finance future projects. It has come to epitomize one of Hollywood's best attempts at horror fantasy. Layered with obvious moralizing, the story has taken on the significance of a modern folk tale. Adventurer and movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) takes an unknowing crew and newly found star, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) on a mysterious voyage to the lush prehistoric jungles of Skull Island where giant creatures lurk, including the gargantuan ape, Kong. Captivated by Ann, he carries her off, the crew scrambling after them, until he's finally subdued and taken to New York for exhibition. Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack use Willis O'Brien's spectacular stop-motion effects to develop a series of tumultuous action scenes, both on the island and in Manhattan, culminating with Kong's famous ascent of the Empire State Building.
Expanded essay by Michael Price (PDF, 448KB)
King of Jazz (1930)
A sparkling example of a musical in the earliest days of two-color Technicolor, "The King of Jazz" is a fanciful revue of short skits, sight gags and musical numbers, all with orchestra leader Paul Whiteman—the self-proclaimed "King of Jazz" — at the center. Directed by John Murray Anderson and an uncredited Paul Fejos, it attempted to deliver "something for everyone" from a Walter Lantz cartoon for children to scantily-clad leggy dancers and contortionists for the male audience to the crooning of heartthrob Bing Crosby in his earliest screen appearance. "King of Jazz" also featured an opulent production number of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
Expanded essay by Jonas Nordin (PDF, 522KB)
King: A Filmed Record ... Montgomery to Memphis (1970)
As one of the first public figures to have his entire career documented, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became an astute judge of the media and knew how to exploit his celebrity to further his cause. After King was assassinated, television pioneer Ely Landau envisioned producing a 10-minute film tribute to the slain leader. Landau and his colleague Richard Kaplan assembled thousands of reels of film and rebuilt events from a variety of sources in their effort to condense King's life without losing his message. The first edit ran 10 hours, but the team eventually pared it down to 185 minutes. The resulting documentary illustrates King's development as one of the preeminent champions of the civil rights movement, while demonstrating how he became a media sensation.
The Kiss (1896)
At the time it was produced in 1896, the 20-second film "The Kiss" was denounced in some parts of the country as illicit pornography. Produced under the auspices of Thomas Edison's company, and directed and photographed by William Heise, "The Kiss" between the actors May Irwin and John C. Rice was a reenactment of the final scene of a stage success of theirs titled "The Widow Jones." And, at the time, despite the controversy, Audiences of the emerging art form were drawn to the film's provocative subject matter, and reportedly demanded that the stars be reteamed. "The Kiss" represents not only film's first romance but also the first time films were regularly projected on screens rather than shown to individual viewers on machines that became known as nickelodeons.
Video clip from the Library of Congress Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
In producer/director Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly," the life of private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is turned upside down when he picks up a female hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman) and finds himself catapulted into a hunt for a coveted mystery item. Based on the novel of the same name by Mickey Spillane, "Kiss Me Deadly" blends classic film noir techniques and subjects with Cold War, science fiction-inspired events. The film was initially released with one ending but subsequent releases have occasionally featured an alternative ending. "Kiss Me Deadly" has inspired later filmmakers in the utilization of the "mystery box" as an instigator of action and suspense.
Expanded essay by Alain Silver (PDF, 314KB)
Knute Rockne, All American (1940)
Knute Rockne, who led Notre Dame University's "Fighting Irish" from 1918 to 1930, is regarded as one of the greatest coaches in college football history. His sudden, dramatic death in an airplane accident in 1931 triggered a national outpouring of grief comparable to the deaths of presidents. Based on personal papers and remembrances by family and friends, this biography of the coach, memorably played by Pat O'Brien, is considered less a factual document than a loving tribute to a man for whom many Americans felt a sentimental attachment. Ronald Reagan portrays player George Gipp who dies prematurely and prompts the screen Rockne to inspire his team with the often quoted line, "Let's win this one for the Gipper," a slogan Ronald Reagan would later adopt as a catchphrase during his presidency.
This film produced and directed by Godfrey Reggio is so lyrically unusual that it nearly defies description. A documentary with virtually no dialog, the film is akin to the city symphonies of the '20s and '30s, such as "Manhatta" and "A Bronx Morning," both of which have been named to the Registry. Philip Glass's minimalist compositions accentuate Reggio's metaphoric commentary on technology and modern society. Reggio claimed his film had no message. The film impressed critic Roger Ebert, who found it unassailably beautiful, as "an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind."
L.A. Confidential (1997)
This well-crafted and suspenseful story, directed by Curtis Hanson, teams a trio of incompatible cops who ultimately bring down a corrupt police department and political machine. Hanson and Brian Helgeland adapted the James Ellroy novel and together they successfully interpret film noir's dark and seamy allure for new audiences. Detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) an in-it-for-himself type, Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), who believes in bending the law to enforce it, and Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a straight arrow whose self-righteousness alienates him from his colleagues, all possess some deep-rooted sense of honor that draws them together to untangle the film's web of corruption that climaxes in its virtuoso choreographed shootout. The cast is rounded out by Danny DeVito as the film's occasional narrator and reporter for "Hush-Hush" magazine, Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake look-alike call girl, and James Cromwell as the duplicitous chief of police. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti infuses this homage with a Technicolor richness seldom seen in noirs of the 40s and 50s.
La Bamba (1987)
"La Bamba" is a biopic of the life of rock star Ritchie Valens, rock's first Mexican-American superstar. Directed by Luis Valdez, "La Bamba" (the film draws its name from Valens' signature song) charts Valens' meteoric rise as a musician and his tragic death at age 17 in a 1959 plane crash, along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. Lou Diamond Phillips stars as the late Valens. The film's success not only reinvigorated interest in Valens' brief but notable musical legacy, it also brought the title tune back to the charts (in a cover version by Los Lobos) 28 years after its first appearance.
La vengenza de Pancho Villa (1930-1936) aka The Revenge of Pancho Villa
The compilation film created by itinerant exhibitor Félix Padilla combines the cinematic traditions of the United States and Mexico to construct a biographical film about the regional hero and revolutionary general Francisco "Pancho" Villa. Using footage primarly from American silent features and newsreels – augmented by still photos and footage he shot himself – Padilla produced and exhibited the film in the El Paso-Juárez border region in the 1930s.
Expanded essay by Laura Isabel Serna (PDF, 321KB)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Writer-director Preston Sturges turns Monckton Hoffe's take on the Adam and Eve story on its head with Barbara Stanwyck as a sassy, resourceful con artist out to trap serious young millionaire Henry Fonda. The film features sparkling dialog, a quick pace and more than a touch of Sturges' trademark screwiness. Supporting Stanwyck and Fonda are memorable performances by Charles Coburn and William Demarest.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
The camera is the star in this stylish film noir. "Lady From Shanghai" is renowned for its stunning set pieces, the "Aquarium" scene, "Hall of Mirrors" climax, baroque cinematography and convoluted plot. Director Orson Welles had burst on the scene with "Citizen Kane" in 1941 and "The Magnificent Ambersons" in 1942, but had increasingly become seen as difficult to work with by the studios. As a result, Welles spent most of his career outside the studio sphere. "The Lady From Shanghai" marked one of his last films under a major studio (Columbia) with Welles and the executives frequently clashing over the budget, final editing of the film and the release date.
Lady Helen's Escapade (1909)
This sprightly short comedy stars actress Florence Lawrence ("The Biograph Girl") who became the first true star in American cinema through a combination of natural charm and canny publicity. She was the first actor or actress to receive billing in film credits, a break from the anonymity that actors and actresses had worked in until that point.
Expanded essay by Daniel Eagan (PDF, 316KB)
Lady Windermere's Fan (1925)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and adapted from the play by Oscar Wilde, "Lady Windermere's Fan" stars May McAvoy as Lady Margaret Windermere, a happily-married society woman whose life is thrown into turmoil when she mistakes Mrs. Erlynne, her birth mother, played by Irene Rich, for a woman trying to win her husband's affection. When Lady Windermere rashly decides to leave her husband for the companionship of Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman), Mrs. Erlynne sacrifices her own social reputation to preserve that of her daughter. Lubitsch managed to translate Wilde's witty play into a successful silent film, one that bears his trademark "Lubitsch Touch."
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon (PDF, 218KB)
This short film stars husband and wife comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen as they perform a vaudeville routine to the camera. True to the formula of their successful vaudeville, radio, film and television acts, Burns plays the oft-exasperated straight man to Allen's cluelessly ditzy yet loveable comedienne. Filmed at the Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, the film was not a particular hit, but it did mark Burns and Allen's first foray into motion pictures, a medium which allowed them to hone their craft before the camera and prepare for their highly successful television career .
Expanded essay by Ron Hutchinson (PDF, 593KB)
The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)
This 14-minute Edison film written by Dorothy G. Shore depicts a New York newsboy (Martin Fuller) from an abusive home in the tenements who attends a charity picnic where he hears a fairy tale about the idyllic Land Beyond the Sunset. When the others return to the city, the boy hides and stays behind, finding a small boat in which "he drifted to the Land Beyond the Sunset," as the final intertitle reads. Social conscience films of this type were popular in the early teens, though few were as "genuinely lyrical," treating audiences as partners in the storytelling and allowing them to draw their own conclusions about the boy's ultimate fate.
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 261KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
Lassie Come Home (1943)
Young Joe (Roddy McDowall) is distraught when his father, an unemployed English coal miner (Donald Crisp), is forced to sell Joe's beloved collie Lassie (whose real name was pal) to pay the rent. The buyer (Nigel Bruce) takes Lassie home to Scotland and his daughter (Elizabeth Taylor), but after several attempts, Lassie manages to escape and sets out on a perilous journey back to Joe. "New York Times" reviewer Bosley Crowther noted that the story is told "with such poignance and simple beauty that only the hardest heart can fail to be moved." This is the first and what many consider to be the best of several generations of Lassie movies and television programs which were adapted from novels by Eric Knight. The film's rich color cinematography that captures the lush countryside was nominated for an Academy Award.
The Last Command (1928)
This film is Josef von Sternberg's powerful drama of exiled Russian general Emil Jannings, who is reduced to the scraps of "extra" roles in Hollywood. Jannings' Academy Award-winning performance towers over the screen, showcasing emotions ranging from his forceful leadership as a tsarist general, to incredulous dismay at the loss of his beloved country and his lover who helped him escape. Shaken out of his stupor when cast in a film about the Russian Revolution, Jannings summons his thunderous charisma in one final bid to somehow win the war for Mother Russia. The ending, considered one of cinema's most memorable, remains heart-wrenching.
The Last of the Mohicans (1920)
French-born director Jacques Tourneur loosely adapted James Fenimore Cooper's novel about the culture clash between whites and Native Americans during the late 1700s, and turned it into a forbidden love story between a white woman (Barbara Bedford) and an Indian man, portrayed by white actor Alan Roscoe. Tourneur astutely balanced the romantic angle with plenty of action sequences, albeit often stereotypical and brutal. The film's greatest appeal lies in its interior scenes, beautifully composed by Tourneur and photographed by John van der Broek. Assistant director Clarence Brown, who was responsible for most of the film's exteriors, said of Tourneur's visual style, "He painted on the screen."
The Last Picture Show (1971)
From a novel by Larry McMurtry, director Peter Bogdanovich and McMurtry adapted the story into a visceral reflection of life in a small West Texas town in the early 1950s. The film boasts a cast of young actors, many of whom went on to stardom in film and television, including Cybill Shepherd, Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms, as well as seasoned veterans including Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn. The black and white cinematography by Robert Surtees suggests the innocence of a simpler time and the bleak uncertainty as those simpler times begin to fade away. Johnson and Leachman won supporting actor Oscars for their subtly moving performances.
Director Otto Preminger reveals a coldly objective temperament and a masterful narrative sense which combine to turn this standard 40s melodrama into something as haunting as its famous theme by David Raksin. Less a crime film than a study in obsession, the film's strength lies in downplaying the story (based on Vera Caspary's suspense novel) and emphasizing its seductive style thanks in part to the Oscar-winning camera work of Joseph LaShelle. As a tough detective (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) he methodically questions the chief suspects: an acid-tongued columnist (Clifton Webb), a self-indulgent playboy (Vincent Price), and a wealthy "patroness" (Judith Anderson). The deeper he delves into the case, the more fascinated he becomes with the enigmatic mystery woman, falling in love with her portrait. While he sits in her apartment obsessing, the door opens, the lights go on, and in walks Laura, very much alive!
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Based on the exploits of T. E. Lawrence during World War I, this renowned classic may play fast and loose with history and psychology, but its remarkable beauty is breathtaking. David Lean crafts this film, one of his many epics, with sweeping wide shots that capture the desolation of the desert. Peter O'Toole, who was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Gregory Peck for "To Kill a Mockingbird," plays Lawrence larger than life, albeit with marginal historical accuracy. Also starring Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, and Alec Guinness, the film took home a total of seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography (Freddie Young), and one for Maurice Jarre's memorably rousing score.
Expanded essay by Michael Wilmington (PDF, 573KB)
The Lead Shoes (1949)
"The Lead Shoes" is a dreamlike trance showing the unconscious acts of a disturbed mind through a distorted lens and other abstract visual techniques (such as reverse and stop motion). Sidney Peterson, considered the father of San Francisco avant-garde cinema, said of this film, "Narrative succumbs to the comic devices of inconsequence and illogic."
Expanded essay by Kyle Westphal (PDF, 312KB)
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 this heartfelt comedy-drama. "A League of Their Own," featuring an ensemble cast that includes Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell, not only illuminates this fascinating, under-reported aspect of American sports history, but also effectively examines women's changing roles during wartime. Rich with period detail and equally complex performances—especially Davis as a team ringer and Hanks as the down-on-his-luck coach—Marshall and her company delivered an enjoyably nostalgic film about women's choices and solidarity during World War II that was both funny and feminist.
The Learning Tree (1969)
This visually beautiful and moving, if somewhat sentimentally melodramatic, story of a black teenager growing up in Kansas in the 1920s was the first feature film by a black director to be financed by a major Hollywood studio. Acclaimed photojournalist Gordon Parks directed, produced, wrote, and composed the score of this adaptation of his 1963 semi-autobiographical novel. Essentially a coming-of-age story, the film focuses on Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson, son of "Star Trek" co-star Nichelle Nichols). Newt's nemesis is Marcus Savage (Alex Clarke), an embittered young man burdened with an absent mother and a negligent, angry father. Newt, by contrast, is supported by his hard-working, understanding mother (Estelle Evans), who has kept her son on the square despite the hardships and racism he must face. Parks depicts the ambiguous racial attitudes of blacks and whites in the Kansas town with an ironic complexity rarely found in earlier films about racism.
Expanded essay by Maurice Berger (PDF, 400KB)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Darkness and claustrophobia mark the visual style of many film noirs: the use of black-and-white or gloomy grays, low-key lighting, striking contrasts between light and dark, shadows, nighttime or interior settings and rain-soaked streets. "Leave Her to Heaven" proves the magnificent exception. Filmed in vibrant, three-strip Technicolor, many pivotal scenes occur in spectacular outdoor locations, shot by famed cinematographer Leon Shamroy in Arizona and California. A classic femme fatale, Gene Tierney stars as Ellen, whose charisma and stunning visage mask a possessive, sociopathic soul triggered by "loving too much." Anyone who stands between her and those she obsessively loves tend to meet "accidental" deaths, most famously a teen boy who drowns in a chilling scene. Martin Scorsese has labeled "Heaven" as among his all-time favorite films and Tierney one of film's most underrated actresses. "Leave Her to Heaven" makes a supremely compelling case for these sentiments.
Let There Be Light (1946)
Director John Huston directed three classic war documentaries for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the period 1943-46, and two of those titles, "Battle of San Pietro" and "Let There Be Light," are included on the National Film Registry. "Let There Be Light," is an hour-long documentary featuring brief narration by Huston's father, Oscar-winner Walter Huston. The unscripted footage shows doctors treating emotionally wounded veterans to prepare them for the return to civilian life. The film shows black and white soldiers freely mixing at the hospital, sharing both group therapy sessions and playing sports together. Lensed by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, its score was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin. the War Department blocked the film from public distribution as it was originally shot, and commissioned a replacement, "Shades of Gray," in which white actors were cast in the speaking roles, and the GIs' psychological condition was blamed on their upbringing not war trauma. "Let There Be Light" was first shown publicly in December 1980 after Hollywood leaders, joined by Vice President Walter Mondale, persuaded the secretary of the army to authorize its release. The National Archives and Records Administration restored the documentary in cooperation with Chace Audio by Deluxe.
Expanded essay by Bryce Lowe (PDF, 378KB)
Let's All Go to the Lobby (1957)
In probably the best known "snipe" or theatrical movie trailer ever produced, animated refreshments including a pack of chewing gum, a box of popcorn, a soft drink cup, and a box of candy sing and dance across the screen, imploring audiences to get themselves some treats.
Expanded essay by Thad Komorowski (PDF, 375KB)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Max Ophuls had 18 European films to his credit when he fled Europe in 1941 for Hollywood, where he initally freelanced as a writer and director, and later helmed "Letter from an Unknown Woman." The bittersweet costume drama set in 1900 Vienna is an intimate portrait of a woman (Joan Fontaine) and her consuming adoration for a charming, womanizing concert pianist (Louis Jourdan). Told primarily in flashback, the film's fluid long takes, elaborate camera movement, opulent detail, and visual repetition are some of Ophuls' stylistic trademarks. Deemed "too European" and "schmaltzy," the picture was a box-office failure in the United States, but gained popularity through television in the ‘50s.
The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1927)
Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich created one of the most creative (particularly in light of its reputed $97 budget) and bleakest of the early avant-garde films. Photographed by Gregg Toland, who would become best known for his work on "Citizen Kane," the film is the time-worn tale of a movie extra (Jules Raucort) marginalized by one casting director after another until he's seen only as a number symbolically appearing on his forehead. The ultra simplistic sets and props, made of toys and cardboard buildings projected like shadows, help to create intricate German Expressionistic cityscapes reminiscent at times of "Metropolis."
Expanded essay by Brian Taves (PDF, 372KB)
The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980)
The first of director Connie Field's many documentaries, "Rosie" focuses on the women who joined the workforce during World War II in defense industry jobs typically held by men. Inspired by the cultural icon depicted in posters and songs during the war, Field interviews five real-life "Rosies" who describe their work experiences and their reactions to giving up their jobs to returning GIs. The 60-minute documentary combines newsreel footage with on-camera interviews with five Rosies: Wanita Allen, Gladys Belcher, Lyn Childs, Lola Weixel and Margaret Wright. They tell it like it was: harassment, discrimination and all, but clearly remain proud of their wartime accomplishments and the impact their efforts had on women and all society.
The Life of an American Fireman (1903)
Film historian Charles Musser hails this as a seminal work in American cinema, among the most innovative in terms of editing, storytelling and the relationship between shots. Edwin S. Porter was an influential pioneer in the development of early American cinema and "Life of an American Fireman" provides a superb snapshot of how advanced U.S. filmmaking had become. Porter followed up several months later with "The Great Train Robbery." Ironically, "Life of an American Fireman" later became a controversial topic in American film historiography when a reedited, more modern version of the film using cross-cutting techniques was thought to be the original. Many years later, scholars helped disprove this misconception by reviewing the original paper print copyright deposit in the Library of Congress.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
M-G-M was the studio generally associated with "prestige" pictures -- those with lavish sets and costumes, often boasting literary source material. Here the high-brow opulence is courtesy of Warner Bros., typically known for modern "ripped-from-the-headlines" stories, and the experiment in grandeur earned the studio an Oscar for Best Picture and another for best screenplay. William Dieterle directed Paul Muni as French novelist Zola who defends the falsely accused Captain Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut in an Oscar-winning performance). The Dreyfus case, which was a cause célèbre of antisemitism during the latter years of the Nineteenth Century, formed an exciting climax to Zola's career as a champion of truth and liberty, and is, consequently, the dramatic highlight of this film biography.
The Lion King (1994)
Disney Studios further solidified its position as the producer of modern-day animated masterpieces with this lyrical 1994 offering. The story of a young lion cub destined to become King of the Jungle, but first exiled by his evil uncle, "The Lion King" was a triumph from the moment of its release and has charmed new generations of viewers. Like Disney's beloved "Bambi," "The Lion King" seamlessly blends innovative animation with excellent voice-actors (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, James Earl Jones, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Whoopi Goldberg) and catchy, now-classic songs by Sir Elton John and Tim Rice. It is the film's storytelling that resonates—funny, innovative, suspenseful—for both children and adults. Since its release, the film has spawned an animated TV series, two made-for-video sequels and a highly imaginative Broadway show.
Little Big Man (1970)
In this Arthur Penn-directed Western, Dustin Hoffman (with exceptional assistance from make-up artist Dick Smith) plays a 121-year-old man looking back at his life as a pioneer in America's Old West. The film is ambitious, both in its historical scope and narrative approach, which interweaves fact and myth, historical figures and events and fanciful tall tales. "Little Big Man" has been called an epic reinvented as a yarn, and the Western reimagined for a post-1960s audience, one already well-versed in the white hat-black hat tradition of the typical Hollywood Western saga. Against a backdrop that includes the cavalry, old-time medicine shows, life on the frontier and a climax at Custer's Last Stand, Penn, Hoffman and scriptwriter Calder Willingham (from the novel by Thomas Berger) upend Western motifs while also still skillfully telling a series of remarkable human stories filled with tragedy and humor.
Expanded essay by Kimberly Lindbergs (PDF, 456KB)
Little Caesar (1930)
Edward G. Robinson sneers and preens as the swaggering Caesar Enrico Bandello, a small-time hood who dreams of the big time and crashes the Chicago rackets. Mervyn LeRoy directs the picture with an efficient reserve, thanks partly to his own artistry and partly to the constraints of sound recording in its early days. The stiffness of the static camera lends rigid aloofness to the Rico's gestures and his violent actions. The staccato narrative includes every gangster cliché in its original form, including the mobster who falls in love and wants to go straight (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), the sarcastic Irish police officer (Thomas Jackson), the prodigal gangland banquet, and the operatic death throes.
Little Fugitive (1953)
Ray Ashley (a.k.a. Raymond Abrashkin) shot this film on a tiny budget and with a cast of non-actors. Seven year-old Richie Andrusco—who would never appear in another film—stars as Lennie, the title character. The victim of a cruel and frightening trick perpetrated by his brother and his brother's friends, Lennie flees his New York apartment and takes refuge amidst the sights and sounds of Coney Island. Through deft, mostly hand-held camera work, natural lighting and the unaffected acting of its young lead, "Little Fugitive" explores the innocence of childhood without self-consciousness or heavy sentiment.
Little Miss Marker (1934)
In this film directed by Alexander Hall from a Damon Runyon story, Shirley Temple stars as a little girl whose father leaves her as a marker for a $20 bet. When Temple's father never returns (desperate for the bet to pay off, he kills himself when it doesn't), the bookie and confirmed bachelor (Adolphe Menjou) is stuck with the precocious moppet. Not surprisingly, she wins over the hearts of all the race-track ruffians, including Menjou's tough guy partner (Charles Bickford) and his moll (Dorothy Dell). In her first starring role (she'd already amassed 24 credits in short films and bit parts by this time), the six-year-old Temple would become and household name and the biggest child star the world had ever seen. One of the most popular stars of the 1930's, the revenue from her movies was instrumental in saving Fox Studio from bankruptcy.
Expanded essay by John F. Kasson (PDF, 381KB)
Little Nemo (1911)
This short subject, a mix of live action and animation, was adapted from Winsor McCay's famed 1905 comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland." Its fluidity, graphics and story-telling was light years beyond other films made during that time. A seminal figure in both animation and comic art, McCay profoundly influenced many generations of future animators, including Walt Disney.
Expanded essay by Daniel Eagan (PDF, 272KB)
Lives of Performers (1972)
Yvonne Rainer was born in San Francisco in 1934. At a very young age, Rainer's father introduced her to films and her mother introduced her to ballet. She moved to New York in 1956, where she studied dance at the Martha Graham School while also learning ballet at Ballet Arts. Much like other choreographers of her era, Rainer sought to blur the stark line separating dancers from non-dancers. Her work has been described as "foundational across multiple disciplines and movements: dance, cinema, feminism, minimalism, conceptual art and postmodernism." "Lives of Performers" has been characterized as "a stark and revealing examination of romantic alliances ... the dilemma of a man who can't choose between two women and makes them both suffer."
The Living Desert (1953)
The first feature-length entry in Disney's "True Life Adventure" series, "The Living Desert" opens with a close-up glance of percolating desert geysers seemingly dancing to the appropriate musical accompaniment. Among the wildlife specimens depicted are the roadrunner, the chuckwalla, the skunk, the scorpion and the kangaroo-rat. The narration, by co-writer Winston Hibler, is often undercut by weak attempts at humor, but when Disney plays it straight, such as in the battle between a rattlesnake and a tarantula, the film is at its strongest. Much of the footage was photographed by N. Paul Kenworthy Jr. as part of his UCLA doctoral thesis. The film was originally released to theatres in a package that included the live-action short "Stormy" and the animated featurette "Ben and Me."
Expanded essay by N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. (PDF, 606KB)
"Lonesome" is the first of only a few American feature films directed by Hungarian-born filmmaker and scientist Paul Fejös. Recognized by today's audiences as a comic melodrama about young lovers separated during a thunderstorm at Coney Island, the film was not particularly well received upon its release. Restored by the George Eastman House, "Lonesome" has proven popular among repertory audiences due in large part to its successful early use of dialogue and two-color Technicolor. Universal's first big excursion into sound, legend has it that the studio outfitted the film with its music and effects track and three talking sequences by clandestinely using a Fox Movietone News truck on loan to Universal for conducting sound tests. As Universal hurriedly "sounded" three other features, Fox repossessed their truck. The talking sequences, better for their technological innovation than their wit, hardly diminish Fejos' eloquent and brilliantly photographed tale of a lonely machinist and an equally lonely telephone operator who fall in love during one enchanted day.
Expanded essay by Raquel Stecher (PDF, 25KB)
Lost Horizon (1937)
Frank Capra's big-budget romantic fantasy "Lost Horizon" (based on the James Hilton novel) offered an emotional respite to an American public seeking escape from the Depression and yearning for their own personal utopias. Through the book and film, the term Shangri-La became a household word. In the story, dashing diplomat Ronald Colman and a group of plane passengers are kidnapped and taken for mysterious reasons to a remote valley in the Himalayas where they find a seemingly blissful paradise, refuge from a world on the precipice of war. Along with memorable adventure, "Lost Horizon" stands out for its stunning cinematography and fantastic, extravagant sets, a hallmark of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
A landmark social-problem film, "The Lost Weekend" provided audiences of 1945 with an uncompromising look at the devastating effects of alcoholism. Directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by Wilder and Charles Brackett, the film melded an expressionistic film-noir style with documentary realism to immerse viewers in the harrowing experiences of an aspiring New York writer willing to do almost anything for a drink. Despite opposition from his studio, the Hays Office and the liquor industry, Wilder created a film ranked as one of the best of the decade that won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Direction, Screenplay and Actor (Ray Milland), and established him as one of America's leading filmmakers.
The Lost World (1925)
Based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and directed by Harry O. Hoyt, "The Lost World" is a fantasy adventure film that follows Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) and his fellow explorers (played by Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Lloyd Hughes, and Arthur Hoyt) on a rescue mission to the jungles of South America to find a missing comrade and prove Professor Challenger's claim that living dinosaurs occupy the area. "The Lost World" is historically significant in that it was one of the first full-length feature films to include stop motion model animation. Willis H. O'Brien, who brought King Kong to life eight years later, was responsible for creating the sophisticated animation sequences.
Expanded essay by Brian Taves (PDF, 536KB)
Louisiana Story (1948)
Like his previous films "Nanook of the North," "Moana" and "Man of Aran," Robert Flaherty's "Louisiana Story" is a portrait of an isolated community: here, the Cajuns of the Louisiana bayous. In 1944 Standard Oil commissioned Flaherty to make a film depicting the difficulties of extracting oil, and in his usual style, he told his story from the perspective of a single family. The conflict between personal ownership and corporate enterprise is mediated and eventually resolved through the efforts of the Cajun family's young son (Joseph Boudreaux). As in his previous films, Flaherty shot not a real family, but one assembled from local inhabitants. The film's extended nature sequences are considered among Flaherty's greatest examples of his talent for creating beautiful and stirring images.
Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)
This is the fourth installment in the 16-film series about the adventures of a typical middle class family from middle America. Returning are many of the series regulars, principally teen son Andy (Mickey Rooney) and his father the judge (Lewis Stone), but the film may best be remembered for guest appearances by Lana Turner as Cynthia, whose boyfriend has hired Andy to keep an eye on her, and Judy Garland as neighbor Betsy Booth. Her second picture with Rooney, Garland returned to the series for two more films before her career took off.
Expanded essay by Charlie Achuff (PDF, 800KB)
Love Me Tonight (1932)
According to director Rouben Mamoulian, Paramount executive Adolph Zukor hurried "Love Me Tonight" into production to keep two of his more expensive contract players, Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, from sitting idle. If Mamoulian rushed, it doesn't show in what film historians consider one of the most original of 1930s musicals. , "Love Me Tonight" as By pre-recording the entire score, Mamoulian, who was influenced by the work of Ernst Lubitsch and Rene Clair, combined sound and image with more fluidity than most early musicals achieved. Songs by Rodgers and Hart – including "Isn't It Romantic" and "Mimi" – and an effervescent script filled with risque innuendo are brought to life by Chevalier's saucy charm and MacDonald's angelic voice and beauty.
Expanded essay by Richard Barrios (PDF, 421B)
The Lunch Date (1989)
Adam Davidson's 10-minute Columbia University student film examines the partial erosion of haughty self-confidence when stranded outside one's personal comfort zone. A woman has a slice-of-life, train-station chance encounter with a homeless man, and stumbles through several off-key reactions when they share a salad she believes is hers. Winner of a 1990 Student Academy Award, "The Lunch Date" stands out as a simple, yet effective, parable on the vicissitudes and pervasiveness of perception, race and stereotypes.
Luxo Jr. (1986)
The iconic living, moving desk lamp that now begins every Pixar motion picture (from "Finding Nemo" to "Monsters, Inc." to "Up") has its genesis in this charming, computer-animated short subject, directed by John Lasseter and produced by Lasseter and fellow Pixar visionary Bill Reeves. In the two-minute, 30-second film, two gray balance-arm lamps—one parentally large and one childishly small (the "Junior" of the title)—interact with a brightly colored ball. In strikingly vivid animation, Lasseter and Reeves manage to bring to joyous life these two inanimate objects and to infuse them both with personality and charm—qualities that would become the norm in such soon-to-be Pixar productions as "Toy Story," "Cars" and "WALL-E." Nominated for an Oscar in 1986 for best-animated short, "Luxo Jr." was the first three-dimensional computer-animated film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.
This film, which deftly combined black comedy with sophomoric gags, made director Robert Altman famous for his signature overlapping dialogue -- from Ring Lardner Jr.'s Oscar-winning screenplay -- and stylishly gritty presentation. Its story of an irreverent U.S. medical unit during the Korean war attempting to thwart authority figures at every turn spawned a folksier television sitcom two years later. Spirited ensemble acting helped launch the careers of Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall.
Mabel's Blunder (1914)
Mabel Normand, who wrote, directed and starred in "Mabel's Blunder," was the most successful of the early silent screen comediennes. The film tells the tale of a young woman who is secretly engaged to the boss' son. When a new employee catches the young man's eye, a jealous Mabel dresses up as a chauffeur to spy on them, which leads to a series of mistaken identities. The film showcases Normand's spontaneous and intuitive playfulness and her ability to be both romantically appealing and boisterously funny.
Expanded essay by Brent E. Walker (PDF, 332KB)
Magical Maestro (1952)
When snobby star the Great Poochini refuses to let Mysto the Magician conduct the opera, Mysto gets even with the help of his magic wand. Animator/director Tex Avery employed his wry sense of humor and sarcasm to give the cartoons he produced (this one for MGM Studios) greater appeal to adults.
Expanded essay by Thad Komorowski (PDF, 399KB)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Orson Welles's second feature, which followed his film debut and now bonafide classic "Citizen Kane" less than a year later, is in many ways his most personal and most impressive, but it's also the one most damaged by insensitive studio re-editing, which sliced off 45 minutes of Welles's footage and tacked on a few disappointing new scenes. For the most part, it is a very close adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel about the relentless decline of a wealthy Midwestern family through the rise of industrialization. Welles makes the story even more powerful through his stylish mastery of production design, lighting and cinematography. The film also features some of the best acting – alternatingly stylized and restrained – to be found in American movies, including that of Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, and Ray Collins.
The Magnificent Seven (1961)
The popularity of this Western, based on Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (1954), has continued to grow since its release due in part to its role as a springboard for several young actors on the verge of successful careers: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Horst Buchholz. The film also gave a new twist to the career of Yul Brynner. Brynner bought the rights to Kurosawa's original story and hand-picked John Sturges as its director. Sturges had earned a reputation as a solid director of Westerns such as "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955) and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957). Transporting the action from Japan to Mexico, where it was filmed on location, the story portrays a gang of paid gunslingers hired by farmers to rout the bandits pillaging their town. Contributing to the film's popular appeal through the decades is Elmer Bernstein's vibrant score, which would go on to become the theme music for Marlboro cigarette commercials from 1962 until cigarette advertising on television was banned in 1971.
Expanded essay by Stephen Prince (PDF, 328KB)
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Director Leo McCarey's progressive Depression-era drama, based on a play by Helen and Nolan Leary and a novel by Josephine Lawrence, follows a penniless elderly couple (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) forced by their self-absorbed children to live separately in order to save money. Challenging the tried-and-true conventions of late-‘30s films, "Make Way for Tomorrow" presents the "golden years" with realism and tenderness. The film received only modest reviews and average box office in 1937, but the sensitive screenplay by Viña Delmar and touching performances by Bondi and Moore have earned the respect and affection of modern audiences turned off by the bloated and saccharine "family" pictures typical of the ‘30s.
The Making of an American (1920)
Produced by the state of Connecticut, this silent short is a sincere, dramatically effective public education film aimed at persuading immigrants to learn English. The drama's protagonist is an Italian laborer who attends night school and with his newly acquired English skills obtains a better job. The film's intertitles address the audience in English, Italian and Polish.
Expanded essay by Charles "Buckey" Grimm (PDF, 365KB)
Malcolm X (1992)
Director Spike Lee's willingness to present all sides of his subject's character makes this film a persuasive film biography, though some have seen it as too centrist and lacking in the raw power of its original source, the slain leader's autobiography written with "Roots" author Alex Haley. Lee keeps the film moving at a clip; although it sometimes feels long, it's never boring. The passion in Denzel Washington's superlative performance as Malcolm X, transcends impersonation and reflects Malcolm's gift as an orator, at times fiery and at others calm yet forceful. The cast also includes Al Freeman, Jr., as Elijah Muhammad, Angela Bassett as Malcolm's wife Betty, and Lee himself as Shorty, a youthful Malcom's fellow small-time hood.
Maltese Falcon (1941)
After two previous film versions of Dashiell Hammett's detective classic "The Maltese Falcon," Warner Bros. finally captured the true essence of Hammett's story in 1941 by wisely adhering to the original as faithfully as possible. John Huston, a screenwriter making his directorial debut, was the catalyst for its success, and Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade provided the film's heart and soul, earning him stardom for his effort. A hard-boiled often unscrupulous San Francisco private eye, Spade gets drawn into a series of intrigues and double-crosses by client Mary Astor who, along with partners Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, are in search of a jewel-encrusted statuette shaped like a falcon. Among the most influential movies to emerge from the Hollywood studio system, "The Maltese Falcon" is as significant in some ways as its contemporary "Citizen Kane" for its contribution to establishing an entirely new style of storytelling that would become identified as "film noir."
Expanded essay by Richard T. Jameson (PDF, 437KB)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford, a filmmaker since 1914, already had given the movie-going public such classics as "The Iron Horse," "Stagecoach," "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache," "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," and "The Searchers." Ford's last great Western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," makes explicit everything that was implicit in the genre which Ford himself shaped so heavily. By clearly showing that the conquest of the west meant the triumph of civilization (embodied in Jimmy Stewart) over wild innocence (John Wayne) and evil (Lee Marvin), this elegiac film serves as a film coda for Ford and also meditates on what was lost as progress and statehood marched across the West. The film's concluding aphorism has entered the American lexicon: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
In the midst of cold war with Russia, paranoia ran rampant, and director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod captitalized on America's fears to create what critic Pauline Kael called "the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood." During the Korean conflict, prisoners of war (including Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey) are brainwashed by the Communists in order to lay the foundation for high-level political maneuvering once they return home. Haunted by nightmares, Sinatra is determined to solve the mystery behind his terror and eventually discovers the heart of the scheme: Harvey's mother (Angela Lansbury) and her politician husband (James Gregory). Lansbury and Harvey create a memorably disturbing mother and son relationship, and Sinatra's bug-eyed, perspiration-soaked sleep deprivation is barely soothed by a budding romance with Janet Leigh.
The artistry of this 11-minute black-and-white film by photographer Paul Strand and painter Charles Sheeler helped to bring it to a broader audience than most avant-garde productions of the time. The stark cinematography that captured the 60-plus images of Manhattan is edited together into an elegantly rhythmic configuration. Interspersed with quotations from the writings of Walt Whitman. "Manhatta" inspired a genre of "city films" by directors such as Robert Flaherty and Alberto Cavalcanti.
Woody Allen combines witty dialogue, the music of George Gershwin, and atmospheric locations -- shot in glorious black and white by Gordon Willis -- to fashion this bittersweet romantic comedy. Isaac (Allen), a neurotic television writer in his forties, is romantically involved with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17-year-old student. But things get complicated when he starts to date Mary (Diane Keaton), the ex-mistress of his best friend (Michael Murphy). The film is highlighted by exceptional comedy teamwork that evolved between Keaton and Allen over the course of their six movies together to date, including a dramatic turn for Keaton in "Interiors" the year before and her Oscar-winning performance in "Annie Hall" in 1977.
March of Time: Inside Nazi Germany (1938)
This edition of the popular newsreel series concentrates solely on Nazi Germany: its propaganda machine, discrimination against Jews, youth indoctrination, and increasing militarization. It persuasively criticizes the regime, but often through unethical methods not uncommon at the time: stock footage was edited out of context, events were re-enacted or fabricated, and voiceovers misrepresented the images depicted. While this newsreel fueled anti-Nazi sentiment, its manipulative approach perpetuated a journalistic movement that valued sensationalism over reality.
The March (1964)
George Stevens Jr., who headed the United States Information Agency (USIA) Motion Picture Service unit from 1962-67, brought in several young talented documentary filmmakers such as Charles Guggenheim, Carroll Ballard, Kent McKenzie, Leo Seltzer, Terry Sanders, Bruce Herschensohn, and James Blue, who directed "The March." This period ushered in the "Golden Era" of USIA films. Examining the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington from the ground-level and focusing on the idealistic passion, joy and synergy of the crowds, 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. It culminates in Martin Luther King's electrifying "I Have a Dream" speech. These USIA films were rarely seen in America because, fearing propaganda, the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act mandated that no USIA film could be shown domestically without a special act of Congress. These films are being rediscovered because a 1990 act of Congress (P.L. 101-246) authorized domestic screening 12 years after release.
Marian Anderson: the Lincoln Memorial Concert (1939)
When Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. refused to allow African American contralto Marian Anderson to perform in its whites-only venue in early 1939, a chain of events led to one of the most celebrated live musical performances in American history: the venue was the Lincoln Memorial and the date Easter Sunday, 1939. An estimated 75,000 people gathered to hear Anderson perform selections including gooseflesh-inducing renditions of "America" and "Ave Maria." The event was broadcast live nationally by the NBC blue radio network, and covered, in part, by several news services. The Registry entry consists of excerpts from a Hearst newsreel story titled "Nation's Capital Gets a Lesson in Tolerance."
The Mark of Zorro (1920)
Douglas Fairbanks was gifted not only with a winning smile and athletic prowess, but also with keen insight. Aware that post-World War I audiences had grown weary of the romantic comedies that had made him a star, Fairbanks adapted his persona to create a daring hero and established himself as an icon of American culture. Under the name Elton Thomas, Fairbanks penned the screenplay for his first swashbuckler, portraying Don Diego Vega who has recently returned to California from Spain. Upon finding a despotic governor (George Periolat) persecuting the local inhabitants, he first poses as a preening fop to divert suspicion, then dons a cape and mask to defend the downtrodden armed with a razor-sharp sword and leaving behind his signature "Z" to taunt the evil Captain Ramon (Robert McKim) and his henchmen. The film, directed by Fred Niblo, also stars Marguerite De La Motte and Noah Beery. The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film has preserved the film.
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Under Rouben Mamoulian's inventive direction, Tyrone Power plays Don Diego, son of a 19th-century Los Angeles governor who has been unseated by a mercenary despot and his sadistic captain, portrayed by Basil Rathbone. Convincingly foppish by day, Don Diego conceals his heroic alter-ego to avenge his father and the terrorized citizenry, carving his signature "Z" with his trusty sword as he goes. Mamoulian cleverly cuts in and out of scenes to heighten the drama and action as the film crescendos to a thrilling duel between Rathbone and Power.
Martha Graham Early Dance Films
("Heretic," 1931; "Frontier," 1936; "Lamentation," 1943; "Appalachian Spring," 1944) Universally acknowledged as the preeminent figure in the development of modern dance and one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Martha Graham formed her own dance company in 1926. It became the longest continuously operating school of dance in America. With her company's creation, Graham codified her revolutionary new dance language soon to be dubbed the "Graham Technique." Her innovations would go on to influence generations of future dancers and choreographers, including Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham. This quartet of films, all silent and all starring Graham herself, document four of the artist's most important early works. They are "Heretic," with Graham as an outcast denounced by Puritans; "Frontier," a solo piece celebrating western expansion and the American spirit; "Lamentation," a solo piece about death and mourning; and "Appalachian Spring," a multi-character dance drama, the lyrical beauty of which is retained even without the aid of Aaron Copland's famous and beloved music.
An unremarkable lonely Bronx butcher (Ernest Borgnine) dreams of finding something that will give his life meaning. He meets an equally unremarkable and lonely woman (Betsy Blair) and together they build a relationship not of fairy tale romance but of mutual respect and affection. Directed with touching realism by Delbert Man thanks to the nuanced dialogue of a Paddy Chayevsky screenplay which the writer adapted from his own TV play. Borgnine won an Oscar for his portrayal of a self-described "fat, ugly man."
Mary Poppins (1964)
Alleged to be Walt Disney's personal favorite from all of his many classic films, "Mary Poppins" is based upon a book by P.L. Travers. With Travers' original tale as a framework, screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, with the aid of songwriters the Sherman Brothers (Richard M. and Robert B.), fashioned an original movie musical about a most unusual nanny. Weaving together a witty script, an inventive visual style and a slate of classic songs (including "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Chim Chim Cher-ee"), "Mary Poppins" is a film that has enchanted generations. Equal parts innocent fun and savvy sophistication, the artistic and commercial success of the film solidified Disney's knack for big-screen, non-cartoon storytelling and invention. With its seamless integration of animation and live action, the film prefigured thousands of later digital and CGI-aided effects. The cast, headed by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, also includes Jane Darwell, Glynis Johns and Ed Wynn, "Mary Poppins" has remained a "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" achievement.
Master Hands (1936)
Henry Jamison "Jam" Handy pioneered the corporate promotional film in the early 1920s, and his Jam Handy Organization, officed in Detroit, claimed General Motors among its chief clients. Handy originally created "Master Hands" to promote Chevrolet products to existing and prospective stock holders, but its success lasted for decades, including a stint as a wartime morale booster and later as a training film. It portrays factory workers as masters over the raw materials they bend to their will, as emphasized by Samuel Benavie's score and cinematographer Gordon Avril's artsy lighting and composition. The Jam Handy Organization continued producing films into the 1960s, amassing some 7,000 films over 40 years.
Expanded essay by Richard Marback and Jim Brown (PDF, 240KB)
Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913)
Pioneering woman filmmaker Alice Guy Blache's deft, ironic short film of a man financially compelled to marry by noon, thanks to some sneaky encouragement from the woman in his life.
Expanded essay by Margaret Hennefeld (PDF, 217KB)
The Matrix (1999)
A visionary and complex film, the science-fiction epic "The Matrix" employed state-of-the-art special effects, production design and computer-generated animation to tell a story—steeped in mythological, literary, and philosophical references—about a revolt against a conspiratorial regime. The film's visual style, drawing on the work of Hong Kong action film directors and Japanese anime films, altered science fiction filmmaking practices with its innovative digital techniques designed to enhance action sequences. Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and visual effects supervisor John Gaeta (who received an Academy Award for his efforts) expertly exploited a digitally enhanced simulation of variable-speed cinematography to gain ultimate control over time and movement within images. The film's myriad special effects, however, do not undermine its fundamentally traditional, if paranoid, story of man against machine.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
"McCabe & Mrs. Miller" demonstrates why the Western genre, especially when reinvented by the acclaimed Robert Altman, endured in the 20th century as a useful model for critically examining the realities of contemporary American culture. In a small American frontier village, a stranger named McCabe (Warren Beatty) builds a brothel with the help of experienced madame Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie). The town soon prospers, and success brings the jealous -- and potentially deadly -- attentions of a wealthy mining company. The film's credits include evocative cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond and a music score by Leonard Cohen.
Expanded essay by Chelsea Wessels (PDF, 367KB)
Mean Streets (1973)
Martin Scorsese had made two films before "Mean Streets": "Who's That Knocking at My Door" (1967) and "Boxcar Bertha," but this was the film that proved to the world that Scorsese was a special breed of filmmaker: original, volatile, personal, and brilliant. "Mean Streets" was heavily inspired by events he saw growing up in Little Italy, but the style of filmmaking on display is a kinetic fusion of Scorsese's biggest influences: Powell & Pressburger, Kenneth Anger, John Cassavetes, but with a speed and assurance that would ultimately define Scorsese as a filmmaker. Harvey Keitel shines as Charlie Cappa, but Robert De Niro is the true breakout start as Johnny Boy, a frequently careless low-level gangster who Charlie remains loyal to, in spite of all the trouble he causes.
Medium Cool (1969)
Set in 1968 Chicago, including scenes outside the Democratic National Convention, a TV news reporter (Robert Forster) must come to terms with his conscience and his ambition while juggling a budding relationship with a single mother (Verna Bloom) and her son (Harold Blankenship). Written, directed and photographed by Haskell Wexler, one of the most influential and celebrated cinematographers in the business ("In the Heat of the Night," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), this film is most notable for melding fictional and non-fictional content in a documentarylike style.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Based on Sally Benson's short stories about a family in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, MGM crafted the anecdotal tales into a charming Technicolor musical featuring tunes like "The Trolley Song," and the now-classic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." When Mr. Smith (Leon Ames) announces that the family is moving to New York, he unleashes a tumult of emotional trauma, including nipping in the bud a burgeoning romance between daughter Esther (Judy Garland) and the boy-next-door (Tom Drake). In a cast that includes Mary Astor as Mrs. Smith, Lucille Bremer as the eldest daughter and Marjorie Main as the housekeeper, the most memorable performance radiates from six-year-old Margaret O'Brien as kid sister Tootie. Obsessed with death, she buries her dolls, decapitates snowmen, and even attempts to derail a streetcar. Margaret O'Brien won a special Oscar for her remarkable performance.
Expanded essay by Andrea Alsberg (PDF, 567KB)
Melody Ranch (1940)
As a young man growing up in Oklahoma, Gene Autry sang in the choir of his grandfather's Baptist church, and his early musical roots helped to make him one of the two biggest singing cowboys in Hollywood (Roy Rogers the other). Basically playing himself, Autry's playful humility and popular Western-tinged songs appealed to audiences, and he often made six to eight feature films a year. This was his biggest budget picture to date and featured vaudeville and radio comedian Jimmy Durante and dancer Ann Miller. The story has Autry back in his hometown as Honorary Sheriff for a Frontier Days celebration; once there, the singing cowboy must restore law and order when the local bad guys get out of control.
This innovative detective-murder, psychological puzzle (and director Christopher Nolan's breakthrough film) tells its story in non-linear stops and starts in order to put the audience in a position approximating the hero's short-term amnesia. Guy Pearce tries to avenge his wife's murder but his anterograde amnesia forces him to rely on sticky notes, tattoos and Polaroids. Nolan recounts, "My solution to telling the story subjectively was to deny the audience the same information that the protagonist is denied, and my approach to doing that was to effectively tell the story backwards ... so the story is told as a series of flashbacks which go further and further back in time." According to Nolan, he frequently intercut between the black-and-white "objective" sequences and "subjective" sequences in color. The goal was to show the conflict between how humans see and experience objective versus subjective and the complex relationship between imagination and memory.
Memphis Belle (1944)
Many big Hollywood directors saw active duty in World War II and often became adept at capturing combat footage. In directing this film about the crew of a B-17 "flying fortress" bomber as it approached its 25th mission, William Wyler insisted on using only genuine footage and soldiers, showing civilian audiences a more startlingly realistic view of the war than they'd seen before. Wyler's direct style of telling a story, masterfully written by Lester Koenig, required no embellishment. "The situation was dramatic in itself. You didn't have to dramatize." Wyler was assisted by several Hollywood-trained cinematographers, often under enemy fire, and later back in Hollywood by editor John Sturges, who would go on to direct a number of popular films after the war. Upon viewing the film, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged, "This has to be shown right away, everywhere."
Men and Dust (1940)
Produced and directed by Lee Dick—a woman pioneer in the field of documentary filmmaking—and written and shot by her husband Sheldon, this labor advocacy film is about diseases plaguing miners in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Sponsored by the Tri-State Survey Committee, "Men and Dust" is a stylistically innovative documentary and a valuable ecological record of landscapes radically transformed by extractive industry.
Expanded essay by Adrianne Finelli (PDF, 422KB)
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Maya Deren, a Russian Jewish émigré who came to America in the 1920s, and her husband Alexander Hammid crafted a 14-minute experimental film in 1943 that today is acknowledged as one of the classics of avant-garde cinema. Reminiscent of film noir in style and multi-layered in narrative, the film and its symbolism require the audience to have a sense of curiosity and patience to interpret the fragmented imagery of everyday objects – a flower, a key -- and actions – walking up stair, looking out a window -- within sequences that intersperse dreams and reality to create Deren's brand of "feminine poetry."
Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983)
Possibly the most famous of music videos, the 13-minute "Thriller" caused such a buzz that it was also released theatrically in 35mm. As a follow-up to his smash 1982 album and single, Michael Jackson revolutionized the music industry with this lavish and expensive production. Filmmaker John Landis ("Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers") directed and co-wrote the video.
The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair (1939)
Produced by Westinghouse for the 1939 World's Fair, this industrial film is a striking hour-long time capsule that documents that historic event within a moralistic narrative. Shot in Technicolor, the film follows a fictional Indiana family of five (mom, dad, son, daughter and grandma) as they venture from grandma's quaint house in Long Island to the fair's popular pavilions. The whole family enjoys the gleaming sights, especially the futuristic technologies located in the Westinghouse Pavilion (including something called "television"). While the entire family is affected by the visit, none are changed so much as daughter Babs (played by a young Marjorie Lord), who eventually sours on her foreign-born, anti-capitalistic boyfriend in favor of a hometown electrical engineer who works at the fair. Both charming and heavy-handed, "The Middleton Family" provides latter-day audiences with a vibrant documentary record of the fair's technological achievements and the heartland values of the age.
Expanded essay by Andrew Wood (PDF, 404KB)
Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore light up the screen in this Mitchell Leisen romantic comedy. Liesen is often described as a "studio contract" director—a craftsman with no particular aesthetic vision or social agenda who is efficient, consistent, controlled, with occasional flashes of panache. Leisen's strength lay in his timing. He claimed he established the pace of a scene by varying the tone and cadence of his voice as he called "ready...right...action!" This technique served to give the actors a proper "beat" for the individual shot. In addition to Leisen's timing, "Midnight" also boasts a screenplay by the dynamic duo of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Hilarity ensues when penniless showgirl Colbert impersonates a Hungarian countess, aided by the aristocratic Barrymore, until, despite her best efforts, she falls for a lowly taxi driver (Ameche) —all this amidst a Continental sumptuousness abundant in Paramount pictures of that era. The staggering number of exceptional films released in 1939 has caused this little gem to be overlooked. However, in its day, the New York Times called "Midnight" "one of the liveliest, gayest, wittiest and naughtiest comedies of a long hard season." Reportedly unhappy with Leisen's script changes, Wilder found the motivation to assert more creative control by becoming a director himself.
Expanded essay by Kyle Westphal (PDF, 275KB)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
John Schlesinger's gritty look at the seedy side of urban American life is frequently disturbing, but Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight's electric performances make it difficult to turn away. Voight plays Joe Buck, a good-lucking Texas stud looking to hustle rich New York women, and Hoffman is Ratso Rizzo, a small-time thief who seeks his own fortune by managing the naïve ladies man, and the cold, cruel realities of life that befell them both. Despite its original X rating (later downgraded to an R), the film won the best-picture Oscar, defeating the crowd-pleasing "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Waldo Salt's screen adaptation of James Leo Herlihy's novel also won an Oscar.
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Actor/director/screenwriter Charley Chase is underappreciated in the arena of early comedy shorts. Chase began his film career in the teens, working for Mack Sennett with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. Moving on to the Hal Roach Studios, Chase starred in his own series of shorts. "Mighty Like a Moose," directed by Leo McCarey, is considered to be among his best. A title card at the beginning tells us this is "a story of homely people—a wife with a face that would stop a clock—and her husband with a face that would start it again." Unbeknownst to each other Mr. and Mrs. Moose have surgery on the same day to correct his buckteeth and her big nose. They meet on the street later, but don't recognize each other; they flirt and arrange to meet later at a party. A side-splitting series of sight gags follows.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
This quintessential Joan Crawford film features Crawford as a housewife turned successful restauranteur who sacrifices all for her heartless, manipulative daughter (Ann Blyth). Ranald McDougall wrote the screenplay for this melodrama tinged with film noir which was directed by Michael Curtiz, best known for Errol Flynn swashbucklers. Crawford, ably supported by strong performances from Blyth, Jack Carson and Eve Arden, won her only Oscar for this role.
Expanded essay by Charlie Achuff (PDF, 315KB)
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
In possibly the screwiest of Preston Sturges screwball comedies, a small-town girl with a soft spot for soldiers (Betty Hutton) wakes up the morning after a farewell party for the troops to find that she married someone she can't remember, and shortly thereafter learns she's pregnant. Eddie Bracken is the boy-next-store who's been carrying a torch for Hutton and now comes to her rescue. William Demarest is hilarious as Hutton's befuddled father. Film critic Dave Kehr mused, "The real miracle is that Sturges got all of this past the production-code office," particularly the film's "affably blasphemous" resemblance to the Nativity.
View it free at Paramount Vault
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
This holiday favorite written and directed by George Seaton depicts a kindly old man calling himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) who is hired as the Macy's department store Santa. The trouble is he thinks he really is Santa Claus. When he meets the young daughter (Natalie Wood) of the store's personnel manager (Maureen O'Hara), he endeavors to teach the girl to become a normal, imaginative child instead of the miniature adult raised by her no-nonsense mother. When he becomes beligerent in defending himself as Santa, the old man is sent to an asylum and a public sanity hearing follows. With the help of a sympathetic attorney (John Payne) the court finds that he is indeed Santa Claus and little girl learns the power of believing in the unbelievable.
Miss Lulu Bett (1922)
William C. de Mille (brother of Cecil B. DeMille) was a prolific director during America's silent and early talking era, though few of his films have survived to present day. This progressive study of gender roles and small town hypocrisy focuses on a victimized and belittled woman, Lulu Bett, who gains newfound confidence after a failed marriage, much to the irritation of her sniveling family. Lois Wilson gives a quiet and restrained performance in the lead role which mirrors de Mille's deceptively simple visual storytelling style.
Modern Times (1936)
Despite its loose structure, this film -- Charlie Chaplin's last silent -- coherently and comically denounces the industrialization of everyday life. Chaplin achieves a near-perfect balance of humor and pathos, and his scenes with Paulette Goddard, in particular, reflect genuine warmth and maturity.
Expanded essay by Jeffrey Vance (PDF, 479KB)
Puerto Rico's Division of Community Education produced approximately 65 short subjects between 1950 and 1975. Designed to inform --and influence -- the citizenry about government policy, the productions featured mostly amateur native performers and artists. Feminist at its heart, the film tells the story of a barrio woman (Antonia Hidalgo) who stands up to her abusive husband. Strongly affected by his earlier work as cinematographer on Robert Flaherty's "Louisiana Story," director Benjamin Doniger echoes his mentor's regard for pastoral poetry employing cinematographer Luis A. Maisonet to capture both the beauty of the countryside and the harshness of its lifestyle, bathing them in the soft light of early morning and dusk, as Doniger matter-of-factly depicts rural Puerto Ricans' struggle against poverty.
Mom and Dad (1944)
The most successful sex-hygiene exploitation film of all time, a low budget but relentlessly promoted, socially significant film, which finished as the third highest grossing film during the 1940s. Time magazine dryly noted that Mom and Dad "left only the livestock unaware of the chance to learn the facts of life."
Expanded essay by Eric Schaefer (PDF, 639KB)
Monterey Pop (1968)
This seminal music-festival film captures the culture of the time and performances from iconic musical talent. "Monterey Pop" also established the template for multi-camera documentary productions of this kind, predating both "Woodstock" and "Gimme Shelter." In addition to director D. A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and others provided the superb camerawork. Performers include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Hugh Masekela, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel, and Ravi Shankar. As he recalled in a 2006 Washington Post article, Pennebaker decided to shoot and record the film using five portable 16mm cameras equipped with synchronized sound recording devices, while producers Lou Adler and John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) sagely had the whole concert filmed and recorded, and further enhanced the sound by hiring Wally Heider and his state-of-the-art mobile recording studio.
Moon Breath Beat (1980)
Lisze Bechtold created "Moon Breath Beat," a five-minute color short subject, in 1980 while a student at California Institute of the Arts under the tutelage of artist and filmmaker Jules Engel, who founded the Experimental Animation program at CalArts. Engel asked, hypothetically, "What happens when an animator follows a line, a patch of color, or a shape into the unconscious? What wild images would emerge?" "Moon Breath Beat" reveals Bechtold responding with fluidity and whimsy. Her two-dimensional film was animated to a pre-composed rhythm, the soundtrack cut together afterward, sometimes four frames at a time, to match picture with track, she says. The dream-like story evolved as it was animated, depicting a woman and her two cats and how such forces as birds and the moon impact their lives. Following graduation, Bechtold was the effects animator for the Disney short "The Prince and the Pauper" (1990) and principal effects animator for "FernGully: The Last Rainforest" (1992). Now primarily an author and illustrator, she claims many of her characters were inspired by pets with big personalities, including "Buster the Very Shy Dog," the subject of her series of children's books.
Josef von Sternberg's first American film to star Marlene Dietrich ranks as his best, according to many film historians, rich in exotic atmosphere. Gary Cooper costars as a foreign legionnaire who wins Dietrich's heart with an economy of dialogue, and Adolphe Menjou plays a wealthy rake who competes for her affection. Dietrich, as a cabaret singer with androgynous appeal, looks sultry and performs three songs before trodding across the desert barefoot.
Expanded essay by Donna Ross (PDF, 643KB)
Motion Painting No. 1 (1947)
German-born Oskar Fischinger was a painter, filmmaker and animator whose work involved brilliant colors, abstract forms and inventive photography and film techniques to capture them both. His "Motion Painting No. 1" is made up a series of oil paintings on acrylic glass repeatedly overlaid on top of each other which, via stop motion photography, causes them to appear to move and transmute, multiply and recede. The "moving" paintings are timed to the strains of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto. Fischinger's finished film would influence for generations filmmakers and animators such as Norman McLaren, Jordan Belson, and Harry Smith.
A MOVIE (1958)
Painter, sculptor and avant-garde filmmaker Brucer Conner sets a montage of found footage to Ottorino Respighi's lively and often majestic "Pines of Rome" in this 12-minute short subject. "A MOVIE" splices pieces of film leader and end credits together with scenes from ethnographic documentaries, fictional narratives, stag films and newsreels. Conner cuts rapidly from one piece of found footage to the next with scenes of violence and destruction – mushroom clouds, tanks, car crashes, firing squads – scenes of adventure and derring-do – safaris, scuba divers, tightrope walkers, acrobats, cowboys and Indians – scenes from nature – crashing waves, an otter swimming. He uses music to enhance the drama inherent in each found scene, to punctuate the irony and social commentary, and to comic effect, the occasional erotically-suggestive juxtaposition of images. Despite the deluge of frenetic imagery, Conner's concluding message seems to suggest a sense of hope and transcendence.
Expanded essay by Kevin Hatch (PDF, 2K45B)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Engaging slice of Americana by director Frank Capra stars Jimmy Stewart as a junior senator disheartened by the corruption he finds in Washington. Bolstered by support from Jean Arthur and Thomas Mitchell, Stewart's Mr. Smith fights back on behalf of his home state constituents.
Expanded essay by Robert Sklar (PDF, 1.27MB)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
This sentimental wartime melodrama pictorializes the classic British stiff upper lip and the courage of a middle-class English family (headed by Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon) amid the chaos of air raids and family loss. The film's iconic tribute to the sacrifices on the home front, as movingly directed by William Wyler, did much to rally America's support for its British allies. Among the most memorable scences are the Minivers huddling in their bomb shelter during a Luftwaffe attack, Mrs. Miniver confronting a downed Nazi paratrooper in her kitchen, and clergyman Henry Wilcoxon's calling his parishioners to arms from the pulpit of his bombed out church. "Mrs. Miniver" won six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Teresa Wright.
Multiple SIDosis (1970)
Former vaudevillian and amateur filmmaker Sid Laverents wrote, directed and starred in this short film that features a dozen split-screens of him playing a variety of musical instruments simultaneously. Each of Laverents's musicians displays a different character withs its own costume and hairstyle as they unite to perform the song "Nola," a novelty ragtime number popularized in the 1920s. Coupling his own ingratiating persona, painstaking in-camera multiple exposures and complex overdubbing, Laverents created a film that may be amateur but not amateurish.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
Muppet creators Jim Henson and Frank Oz immersed their characters into a well-crafted combination of musical comedy and fantasy adventure. Kermit the Frog is persuaded by agent Dom DeLuise to pursue a career in Hollywood. Along the way, Kermit picks up Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and a motley crew of other Muppets with similar aspirations. Meanwhile, Kermit must elude the grasp of a frog-leg restaurant magnate (Charles Durning). On the road, they encounter assorted characters played by such actors as Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Orson Welles, and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The picture is filled with songs by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher including the popular "Rainbow Connection."
The Music Box (1932)
Delivery men Laurel and Hardy struggle to push a large crated piano up a seemingly insurmountable flight of stairs. Hal Roach earned an Oscar for producing one of the comic duo's most celebrated short films, which was, in fact, a partial remake of their silent short "Hats Off" in which The Boys tote a washing machine up the same flight of steps.
Expanded essay by Randy Skretvedt (PDF, 509KB)
The Music Man (1962)
This adaptation of Meredith Willson's Broadway hit is Americana at its finest. Con-man extraordinaire Harold Hill (Robert Preston) uses his revolutionary musical "think system" to fleece the sleepy little town of River City, Iowa, and his charisma to woo the town's icy librarian played by Shirley Jones. The supporting cast includes Buddy Hackett, Ron Howard, Paul Ford, Pert Kelton, and Hermione Gingold. Ray Heindorf won an Oscar for his musical direction of songs including include "Ya Got Trouble," "Marian the Librarian," "Gary, Indiana," "Till There Was You" and the spectacular finale "Seventy-six Trombones." Surprisingly, Robert Preston was not even nominated for reprising his Tony-winning Broadway performance.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
Considered the first gangster film, this 17-minute early work by director D.W. Griffith is also noteworthy for employing several innovative camera techniques. Cameramen of the era typically kept the entire frame in focus, but Griffith instructed cinematographer Billy Bitzer to place the subject of a scene in sharp focus while muting the background, a technique common in classical paintings, but unheard-of in films of that era. The film also introduced off-center framing — positioning the subject at the edge of the frame instead of dead center—to achieve greater visual and emotional impact. The cast members, filmed with such revolutionary camerawork, included one of Griffith's most famous discoveries, Lillian Gish, and her sister, Dorothy, as well as Harry Carey. The film has been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art Department of Film and can be viewed at mo.ma/musketeers.
My Darling Clementine (1946)
In his early silent film days, John Ford met Wyatt Earp on a film set, and the eager young prop assistant soaked in the marshal's version of the showdown at the O.K. Corral. Twenty-some years later, Ford recalled Earp's tall tale in the landmark Western "My Darling Clementine." Throughout his career, Ford was known to bend history, and this film is no exception. While lacking in historical accuracy, the film features traditional Western action, but is more memorable for the way in which Ford develops the characters of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), Holliday's mistress, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), and Clementine (Cathy Downs) who represents the new civilized Tombstone.
My Fair Lady (1964)
In the 1950s and 1960s, besieged by shifts in demographics and having much of its audience syphoned off by television, film studios knew they had to go big in their entertainment in order to lure people back to the theater. This film version of the musical "My Fair Lady" epitomized this approach with use of wide-screen technologies. Based on the sparkling stage musical (inspired by George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion"), "My Fair Lady" came to the big screen via the expert handling of director George Cukor. Cecil Beaton's costume designs provided further panache, along with his, Gene Allen's and George James Hopkins' art and set direction. The film starred Rex Harrison, repeating his career-defining stage role as Professor Henry Higgins, and Audrey Hepburn (whose singing voice was dubbed by frequent "ghoster" Marni Nixon), as the Cockney girl, Eliza Doolittle. Though opulent in the extreme, all these elements blend perfectly to make "My Fair Lady" the enchanting entertainment that it remains today.
My Man Godfrey (1936)
In one of her greatest roles, Carole Lombard sparkles as a dizzy but good-hearted heiress in Gregory La Cava's comedic take and sometimes caustic commentary on the Great Depression. William Powell portrays Godfrey with knife-edged delivery, the forgotten man whom Lombard has turned into the family butler. Pixilated mother Alice Brady, beleaguered father Eugene Pallette, and snarky sister Gail Patrick round out the cast of one of the most exemplary screwball comedies of the 1930s. The cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff is a shimmering argument for the supremacy of black and white film. Do not confuse this classic with the pitiful 1957 remake.
The Naked City (1948)
The opening credits reveal this is a different kind of movie; not filmed on a Hollywood back lot but on actual locations in New York City. Winning Oscars for best photography and editing and nominated for best writing (Malvin Wald), this cutting-edge, gritty crime procedural introduced a new style of film-making. "The Naked City" offers up slices of several stories, building and dove-tailing into a logical, heart-pounding resolution. Based on six months of interviews with the NYPD and using three-dimensional characters, it changed the way police were portrayed and crimes solved. Another unique aspect of Mark Hellinger's production and Jules Dassin's direction was to hire local radio and theater actors new to film – it launched several character-acting careers.
The Naked Spur (1953)
James Stewart plays an obsessed bounty hunter in pursuit of outlaw Robert Ryan. Anthony Mann infuses a tried-and-true Western scenario with tense psychological complexity through strong, clear story-telling by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom and vivid Technicolor scenes of the Rockies photographed by William C. Mellor. Unable to capture and bring back Ryan without help, Stewart enlists old-timer Millard Mitchell and dishonourably discharged cavalryman (Ralph Meeker). Ryan, who is looking after a friend's daughter (Janet Leigh), manipulatively pits character against character.
Nanook of the North (1922)
A film now synonymous with the documentary form and with Eskimo life, Robert Flaherty's filmed record of an Inuit family living in artic Canada set down many of the standards for non-fiction filmmaking while also expanding film's ability to document vanishing, cultures. Though Flaherty's authenticity has since been called into question, its emotional impact and artistic style still resonate.
Expanded essay by Patricia R. Zimmermann and Sean Zimmermann Auyash (PDF, 378KB)
Robert Altman directed this funny and poignant series of vignettes following more than 20 characters, including several who are country music performers, as they gather at a Nashville political rally. The film's power lies in its ability to be sarcastic, hopeful, and revelatory all at once as it manages to skewer and honor its subject simultaneously. Stars include Henry Gibson, Ronee Blakley, Karen Black, Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine, who sings the haunting "I'm Easy."
Expanded essay by David Sterritt (PDF, 679KB)
National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)
John Landis directs the escapades of a misfit group of fraternity members who challenge the dean and the establishment. The cast includes John Belushi, Tom Hulse, Tim Mattheson, Karen Allen, Kevin Bacon and Donald Sutherland. It is the first film produced by National Lampoon, the most popular humor magazine on college campuses in the mid-1970s. "Animal House" received mixed reviews but several critics immediately recognized its appeal, one dubbing it "low humor of a high order."
National Velvet (1944)
This enduring family classic based on the novel by Enid Bagnold was directed by Clarence Brown and stars Elizabeth Taylor as a young girl whose sole ambition to run her horse in the Grand National Steeplechase. Although "National Velvet" was the first starring role for 11-year-old Taylor, the early part of the film belongs to Mickey Rooney in the showier role of Mike Taylor, a headstrong English ex-jockey soured on life by a serious accident. Anne Revere, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, co-stars as Velvet's mother and veteran actor Donald Crisp plays her father.
Naughty Marietta (1935)
Cinema's first pairing of sensational singing duo Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, who captivated audiences with songs such as "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life." In order to avoid a prearranged marriage, a beautiful and rebellious French princess (MacDonald) swaps identities with her maid and escapes to colonial New Orleans, where she finds true love with a gallant sea captain (Eddy). Directed by W.S. Van Dyke and based on a popular 1910 operetta by Victor Herbert, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, and sound engineer Douglas Shearer won an Academy Award for his work.
Navajo Film Themselves [aka Through Navajo Eyes] (1966)
In a project that incorporated both anthropological and communications theory, university professors Sol Worth and John Adair taught a group of Navajo students in Pine Springs, Arizona to make documentary films. The researchers wanted to know if it was possible to teach filmmaking to members of a different culture, and how films made by Navajos might differ from films made by outsiders. The research team met with their students for eight hours a day, five days a week for two months. They gave their students basic instructions, while emphasizing that the students should make a film about whatever was important to them. At the end of the project, the students had completed seven films, some of which featured traditional artisans such as weavers, silversmiths and sand painters. Other students created more poetically abstract films depicting Navajo culture as a whole. The films originally shown in the local community, but have since gained a wider audience through outside screenings and DVD release.
The Navigator (1924)
Buster Keaton burst onto the scene in 1920 with the dazzling two-reeler "One Week." His feature "The Navigator" proved a huge commercial success and put Keaton in the company of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin in terms of audience popularity and films eagerly awaited by critics. Decades after release, Pauline Kael reviewed the film: "Arguably, Buster Keaton's finest — but amongst the Keaton riches can one be sure?" Keaton plays an inept, foppish millionaire whose idea of a marriage proposal involves crossing the street in a chauffeured car, handing flowers to his girlfriend and popping the question. Later the two accidentally become stranded at sea on an abandoned boat and Keaton proves his worth by conceiving ingenious work-arounds to ensure they survive. The silent era rarely saw films rife with more creativity and imaginative gags.
The Negro Soldier (1944)
Produced by Frank Capra's renowned World War II U.S. Army filming unit, "The Negro Soldier" showcased the contributions of blacks to American society and their heroism in the nation's wars, portraying them in a dignified, realistic, and far less stereotypical manner than they had been depicted in previous Hollywood films. Considered by film historian Thomas Cripps as "a watershed in the use of film to promote racial tolerance," "The Negro Soldier" was produced in reaction to instances of discrimination against African-Americans stationed in the South. Written by Carlton Moss, a young black writer for radio and the Federal Theatre Project, directed by Stuart Heisler, and scored by Dmitri Tiomkin, the film highlights the role of the church in the black community and charts the progress of a black soldier through basic training and officer's candidate school before he enters into combat. It became mandatory viewing for all soldiers in American replacement centers from spring 1944 until the war's end.
Paddy Chayefsky's Oscar-winning script and Sidney Lumet's deft direction paint a piercing and vitriolic satire of television news. In an inspired final performance that earned him a best actor Oscar, Peter Finch plays news commentator Howard Beale who loses his perspective when he's fired by his faltering network. Flooding the airwaves with delusional rantings of self-empowerment, he becomes a messiah to an audience equally fed up with the establishment. In one impassioned tirade, Beale incites viewers to shout "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" William Holden portrays the fading TV executive and Faye Dunaway (Oscar winner for best actress) is the cutthroat program director who'll do anything for ratings. Chayefsky's script won an Academy Award, as did best supporting actress Beatrice Straight, who plays Holden's wife. On screen for five minutes and two seconds, Straight's is the briefest performance ever to win an Oscar.
Expanded essay by Joanna E. Rapf (PDF, 813KB)
Newark Athlete (1891)
Produced May-June 1891, this experimental film was one of the first made in America at the Edison Laboratory in West Orange, N.J. The filmmakers were W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise, both of whom were employed as inventors and engineers in the industrial research facility owned by Thomas Edison. Heise and especially Dickson made important technical contributions during 1891-1893, leading to the invention of the world's first successful motion picture camera—the Edison Kinetograph—and to the playback device required for viewing early peepshow films—the Edison Kinetoscope.
Video clip from the Library of Congress Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies.
Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-1940s)
Fayard and Harold Nicholas, renowned for their innovative and exuberant dance routines, began in vaudeville in the late 1920s before headlining at the Cotton Club in Harlem, starring on Broadway and performing in Hollywood films. Fred Astaire is reported to have called their dance sequence in "Stormy Weather" (1943) the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen. Their home movies capture a golden age of show business—with extraordinary footage of Broadway, Harlem and Hollywood—and also document the middle-class African-American life of that era, images made rare by the considerable cost of home-movie equipment during the Great Depression. Highlights include the only footage shot inside the Cotton Club, the only footage of famous Broadway shows like "Babes in Arms," home movies of an all African-American regiment during World War II, films of street life in Harlem in the 1930s, and the family's cross-country tour in 1934.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
When the Marx Brothers moved to MGM, director Sam Wood was tasked by studio exec Irving Thalberg to rein in the anarchy the brothers had perpetrated at Paramount. No longer the focal point of the picture, they served as comic relief to the musical romance between Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. As the business-savvy Thalberg might have predicted, the film was the highest grossing of all the Marx Brothers comedies, but also signaled their artistic decline. Though no longer at the reins, they still delivered plenty of frenetic fun, as evidenced by the hilarious stateroom scene, and subjected Margaret Dumont and Sig Ruman to endless indignities.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
This dark allegory of good versus evil defies conventional genre definition with its occasionally outrageous dark humor, bucolic settings contrasted with gothic images, and an unsettling child's-eye perspective. A deranged preacher (Robert Mitchum) terrorizes two children in possession of stolen loot and eventually coming up against a saintly protector of runaway and abandoned children (Lillian Gish).
Expanded essay by Peter Rainer (PDF, 477KB)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director George A. Romero's debut ushered in an entire entertainment industry – the zombie film. Starring Duane Jones and Judith O'Dea are among a small group of survivors holed up in an abandoned farmhouse struggling to fend off a zombie attack. With tight editing and an unapologetically matter-of-fact approach to its violence and gore, the film subtly and surprisingly injects sociopolitical commentary into what most initially saw as a superficial exploitation film. Romero made the picture for a little more than $100,000, and it recouped tens of millions domestically and overseas.
Expanded essay by Jim Trombetta (PDF, 772KB)
In this sparkling romantic comedy, when a beautiful Soviet emissary (Greta Garbo) is sent to Paris on state business, she discovers how the charms of Paris and Melvyn Douglas can melt even the most stoic Soviet, and jeopardizes both national honor and her career. Garbo personifies director Ernst Lubitsch's sophistication and style, delivering dialog cooked up by Billy Wilder and partner Charles Brackett to reveal that the Swedish actress is not only a consummate dramatist, but that, in fact, "Garbo Laughs!" as the ads touted. A trio of Russian delegates played by Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach deliver some of Wilder and Brackett's most satirical lines.
No Lies (1973)
Done in faux cinéma vérité style, Mitchell Block's 16-minute New York University student film begins on a note of insouciant amateurism and then convincingly moves into darker, deeper waters. Opening with a scene of a girl getting ready for a date, the camera-wielding protagonist adroitly orchestrates a mood shift from goofiness to raw pain as an interviewer tears down the girl's emotional defenses after being raped. 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.
Norma Rae (1979)
Highlighted by Sally Field's Oscar-winning performance, "Norma Rae" is the tale of an unlikely activist. A poorly-educated single mother, Norma Rae Webster works at a Southern textile mill where her attempt to improve working conditions through unionization, though undermined by her factory bosses, ultimately succeeds after her courageous stand on the factory floor wins the support of her co-workers. The film is less a polemical pro-union statement than a treatise about maturation, personal willpower, fairness and the empowerment of women. Directed by Martin Ritt, "Norma Rae" was based on the real-life efforts of Crystal Lee Sutton to unionize the J. P. Stevens Mills in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., which finally agreed to allow union representation one year after the film's release.
Expanded essay by Gabriel Miller (PDF, 414KB)
North by Northwest (1959)
When ad exec Cary Grant is mistaken for a government agent, he's thrust into a world of spies, including James Mason and his henchman (Martin Landau). They try to eliminate Grant but he is inadvertently framed for murder. On the lam, he boards a train to track down the man for whom he is mistaken. There he meets a beautiful blonde (Eva Marie Saint) who helps him to evade the authorities. His world is turned upside down yet again when he learns the woman isn't the innocent bystander he thought she was, and it all culminates in a dramatic rescue and escape atop Mt. Rushmore. With the help of screenwriter Ernest Lehman's tight script and snappy dialog and a highly animated score by Bernard Herrmann, director Alfred Hitchcock crafts one of his most stylish and entertaining thrillers.
Expanded essay by Thomas Leitch (PDF, 327KB)
This avant-garde classic by Hollis Framptonis considered eloquent and evocative in its exploration of memory and family.
Expanded essay by the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 217KB)
Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1951)
When Frank Stauffacher introduced the Art in Cinema film series at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1947, he was on his way to becoming a significant influence on a generation of West Coast filmmakers. "Notes on the Port of St. Francis" is the natural progression of Stauffacher's appreciation for the abstract synthesis of film and place. Impressionistic and evocative, the film is shaped by the director's organization of iconic imagery, such as seascapes and city scenes, and by the juxtaposition of these visuals and the soundtrack featuring Vincent Price narrating excerpts from Robert Louis Stevenson's 1882 essay on San Francisco.
Expanded essay by Scott MacDonald (PDF, 548KB)
Nothing But a Man (1964)
Michael Roemer directed the story he co-wrote with Robert M. Young about a black railroad worker in Alabama (Ivan Dixon) who falls in love and marries the local preacher's daughter (Abbey Lincoln) while trying to maintain his self respect amidst the racism of 1960s America. Roemer said he drew on his experience of growing up as a Jew in Nazi Germany and noted, "If you're unemployed you don't feel like you're a man, at least my generation didn't. That's not black; that's all of us." Its naturalistic almost documentary visual style and soundtrack of popular Motown hits invites the audience into the lives of its characters to feel their angst and perseverance.
Arguably Alfred Hitchcock's best black-and-white American film, this is an excellent example of woman's gothic. In the film, a woman (played by Ingrid Bergman) marries a Nazi killer (played by Claude Rains), although she is in love with an American spy (played by Cary Grant) who recruits her for the assignment. Rife with classic Hitchcock brilliance, featuring the crane shot and cross-cutting during the party sequence, "Notorious" is also a resonant cultural document of romantic alienation. Cary Grant is at his most attractive, letting his dark side fuel his bitter cynicism.
Now, Voyager (1942)
The film's title comes from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass:" "The untold want, by life and land ne'er granted/Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find." A resonant woman's picture, "Now, Voyager" features Bette Davis as a dowdy spinster terrorized by her possessive mother and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Psychiatrist Claude Rains cures Davis and suggests a cruise, where she falls in love with married Paul Henreid. The impossible romance does not depress Davis but rather transforms her into a confident, independent woman. Davis' final words electrify one of the most famous endings in romantic cinema: "Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars."
Expanded essay by Charlie Achuff (PDF, 330KB)
The Nutty Professor (1963)
In what many consider Jerry Lewis's greatest film as actor and director, this film is a twist on the classic "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" story, as translated by Lewis and co-screenwriter Bill Richmond. Nerdy professor Lewis concocts a formula to become more popular and turns himself into the narcissistic womanizer Buddy Love who attempts to work his magic on co-ed Stella Stevens. This comical character study tinged with pathos reveals Lewis's not inconsiderable acting talent.
This landmark work from California filmmaker Scott Bartlett is the first avant-garde title to fully marry video with film. The film combines masterful usage of optical printing, superimposing images, color saturation and hand-dying of the film strip, making abstractions from natural images.
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 210KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
The publicity campaign said it all: "A motion picture as big as all outdoors." In this beloved musical, an idealized vision of a turn-of-the-century small town, chicks and ducks and geese scurry right across the wide screen. The literalized film treatment appeared a dozen years after the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway premiere. The film eliminated two songs and substituted breathtaking Technicolor vistas and stereo sound for theatrical innovation. Set shortly before Oklahoma statehood, the movie features such Western-film staples as the cowman/farmer feud (subject of a memorable song sung by Gordon MacRae). As choreographer Agnes de Mille noted: "It's different, but I find it very beautiful to look at."
Expanded essay by Phil Hall (PDF, 681KB)
The Old Mill (1937)
This cartoon, produced by the Walt Disney Company as one of its Silly Symphony entries, depicts a community of animals—mice, doves, bats, bluebirds and an expressive owl—battling a severe thunderstorm that nearly destroys their home in an abandoned windmill. Directed by Wilfred Jackson, the film acted as a testing ground for audience interest in longer form animation as well as for advanced technologies, including the first use of the multiplane camera, which added three-dimensional depth. It also featured more complex lighting and realistic depictions of animal behavior that would be perfected in "Snow White," "Fantasia" and "Bambi." The dazzling imagery was complemented by Leigh Harline's compelling orchestral scoring inspired by a Strauss operetta. In "The 50 Greatest Cartoons Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals," edited by historian Jerry Beck, Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston recalled, "Our eyes popped when we saw all of The Old Mill's magnificent innovations—things we had not even dreamed of and did not understand." The film won an Academy Award for best animated short in 1937, and the studio won an Oscar for its revolutionary camera.
On the Bowery (1957)
On the Bowery" is Lionel Rogosin's acclaimed, unrelenting docudrama about the infamous New York City zone known as the Bowery. The film focuses on three of its alcoholic skid row denizens and their marginal existence amid the gin mills, missions and flop houses. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote that "this is a dismal exposition to be charging people money to see." Rogosin and his small crew spent months on the Bowery observing and talking with residents. They crafted the film as a "synthesis" of Bowery life, and it remains a wrenching portrait of hopelessness, despair and broken dreams. The film's writer, Mark Sufrin, wrote in an issue of Sight and Sound magazine: "Very few, once they hit the Bowery, ever leave, are reclaimed, or rehabilitated...I had escaped that frightening place. They still remain."
On the Town (1949)
Three sailors with 24 hours of shore leave in New York doesn't sound like much to build a film around, but when Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin portray them under the sparkling direction of Stanley Donen (and Kelly), movie magic occurs. "On the Town" was based upon the Comden and Green Broadway musical of the same name. Shot on location all over New York City, the film carries over such splendid songs as "New York, New York," the close-to-opening iconic scene with the sailor trio performing while still in their navy togs. Female song-and-dance pros Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett and Ann Miller match the guys step for step in the numerous musical numbers. "On the Town" represents the upbeat, post war musicals of the era, which summed up the national optimism of the period.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Director Elia Kazan took Budd Schulberg's hard-hitting script and crafted it into a commentary on loyalty and justice in an almost documentarylike depiction of the lives of New York City dock workers and the union thugs who control them. Supreme acting by Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger is most often of the direct, in-your face variety, though offset by more nuanced scenes with Eva Marie Saint and Karl Malden. Known primarily at the time as conductor for the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein earned his only Academy Award nomination for one of his first film scores – a composition that accents the film's fever pitch and enfolds its tender moments.
Expanded essay by Robert Sklar (PDF, 627KB)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Disdained as "Spaghetti Westerns" when they first appeared in American movie theaters, the best of these films, such as "Once Upon a Time in the West," are now recognized as among the greatest achievements of the Western movie genre. Director Sergio Leone's operatic visual homage to the American Western legend is a chilling tale of vengeance set against the backdrop of the coming of the railroad. Ennio Morricone's magnificent score (especially the elegiac "Jill's Theme") is likewise recognized for its brilliance.
Expanded essay by Chelsea Wessels. (PDF, 441KB)
One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
Based on the 1956 Charles Neider novel, "The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones" (a loose retelling of the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), this Western marks Marlon Brando's sole directorial effort. "One-Eyed Jacks" displays his trademark introspection and offbeat quirkiness. Brando's novel approach to updating the Western film genre marks it as a key work in the transition period from Classic Hollywood (1930s through 1950s) to the new era that began in the 1960s and continues to the present day. As director Martin Scorsese and others have said, this evolution from "Old Hollywood" to "New Hollywood" involved a change from filmmaking primarily being about profit-making to a period when many directors create motion pictures as personal artistic expression.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman masterfully adapted Ken Kesey's novel, earning themselves Oscars for Best Screenplay, and providing director Milos Forman with a platform for a hard-hitting and wry condemnation of the Establishment and its ethos of conformity. Jack Nicholson is a ne'er do well who plays crazy to avoid prison work detail and is sent to the state mental hospital for evaluation. There he encounters an assortment of mostly harmless inmates presided over by the icy Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Nicholson leads the inmates to challenge Nurse Ratched, incurring her wrath and setting up their eventual showdown. Nicholson's and Fletcher's Academy-Award winning turns are bolstered by outstanding performances from Brad Dourif and Will Sampson as two of the more memorable inmates. The cast also includes Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd on their way to starring roles in the TV series "Taxi."
One Froggy Evening (1956)
A cartoon on every short list of the greatest animation, this classic Chuck Jones creation features crooning amphibian Michigan J. Frog, who drives his owner insane by singing only in private, but never in public.
Expanded essay by Craig Kausen covers the three Registry films directed by Chuck Jones: Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, and What's Opera, Doc?. (PDF, 602KB)
One Survivor Remembers (1995)
In this Academy Award-winning documentary short film by Kary Antholis, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein recounts her six-year ordeal as a victim of Nazi cruelty. At age 16, her comfortable life was shattered by the Nazi invasion of Poland. She and her family were sent to concentration and slave labor camps. She alone survived. Mixing footage shot in contemporary Europe at key locations of Klein's story with interviews and personal photographs, "One Survivor Remembers" explores the effects that her experience had on the rest of her life. It is told with a simple yet powerful eloquence that "approaches poetry," the Chicago Tribune observed.
Expanded essay by Kary Antholis (PDF, 447KB)
One Week (1920)
"One Week" is the first publicly released two-reel short film starring Buster Keaton. One of Keaton's finest films and one of the greatest short comedies produced during the 1920s, the film, as critic Walter Kerr noted, shows Keaton as "a garden at the moment of blooming." Considered astonishingly creative even by contemporary standards, "One Week" is rife with hilarious comic, often surrealist, sequences chronicling the ill-fated attempts of a newlywed couple to assemble their new home.
Expanded essay by Daniel Eagan (PDF, 557KB)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Considered the "quintessential" Howard Hawks male melodrama by many, "Only Angels Have Wings" stars Cary Grant as the tough-talking head of a cut-rate air freight company in the Andes. Grant has a dangerous business to run and spurns romantic entanglements, fearing women blanch at the inherent danger. Displaced showgirl Jean Arthur arrives and tries to prove him wrong. Along with sparkling dialogue from Grant, Arthur and renowned character actor Thomas Mitchell, "Only Angels Have Wings" captivates with dazzling air sequences featuring landings on canyon rims, vertiginous ups and downs and perilous flights through foggy mountain passes.
Our Daily Bread (1934)
During the heart of the Great Depression, as the nation's capital experimented with New Deal programs to solve the nation's ills, most Hollywood productions remained escapist. A radical exception to the rule, King Vidor's "Our Daily Bread," faced the problem of unemployment head-on by dramatizing an experiment in cooperative farming that proposed pooling resources collectively as an alternative to individualistic competition for jobs. After all the studios passed on his idea, Vidor financed the film himself with borrowed funds. Criticized for its purportedly socialist ideas and also for its seemingly fascistic traits, "Our Daily Bread" remains a document that embodied political contradictions that marked widely divergent contemporary assessments of the New Deal itself. In its widely acclaimed climactic ditch-digging sequence, the film presents images celebrated muscular working-class manhood that also marked public art of the period, which addressed anxieties about the masculinity during times of economic crisis.
Our Day (1938)
Wallace Kelly of Lebanon, Kentucky, made this exquisitely crafted amateur film at home in 1938. "Our Day" is a smart, entertaining day-in-the-life portrait of the Kelly household, shown in both idealized and comic ways. This silent 16mm home movie uses creative editing, lighting and camera techniques comparable to what professionals were doing in Hollywood. His amateur cast was made up of his mother, wife, brother and pet terrier. "Our Day" also contains exceptional images of small-town Southern life, ones that counter the stereotype of impoverished people eking out a living during the Depression. The 12-minute film documents a modern home inhabited by adults with sophisticated interests (the piano, literature, croquet) and simple ones (gardening, knitting, home cooking). Kelly, a newspaperman, was also an accomplished photographer, painter, and writer. He began shooting film in 1929 and continued until the 1950s.
Expanded essay by Margaret Compton (PDF, 316KB)
Our Lady of the Sphere (1969)
A leading figure in the California Bay Area independent film movement, Lawrence Jordan has crafted more than 40 experimental, animation and dramatic films. Jordan uses "found" graphics to produce his influential animated collages, noting that his goal is to create "unknown worlds and landscapes of the mind." Inspired by "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," "Our Lady of the Sphere" is one of Jordan's best-known works. It is a surrealistic dream-like journey blending baroque images with Victorian-era image cut-outs, iconic space age symbols, various musical themes and noise effects, including animal sounds and buzzers.
Out of the Past (1947)
This classic example of 1940s film noir features some of the genre's best dialog. Daniel Manwaring, under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes, smartly adapted his novel "Build My Gallows High," and the stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer breathe life and larceny into his characters. Private eye Mitchum is hired by a notorious gangster (Kirk Douglas) to find his mistress Kathie (Jane Greer) who shot him and ran off with a load of dough. Jeff traces Kathie to Mexico, but falls for her and gets caught in her web of deception and murder. Directed with supreme skill by Jacques Tourneur and brilliantly photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, this film introduced the famous Mitchum screen persona of sleepy-eyed cynic ready to toss out a line like "Baby, I don't care" with nonchalant sex appeal. Jane Greer is equally effective, a combination of erotic fire and cool detachment.
Expanded essay by Stephanie Zacharek (PDF, 529KB)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
By the time he made this film, his fifth as a director, Clint Eastwood was successfully synthesizing the talents of his two mentors, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. As the title character, a Confederate radical out to avenge the murder of his family by Union soldiers, Eastwood blends the stoic realism of a Leone hero with the earnest morality of a Siegel leading man. Eastwood's character possesses a touching emotional vulnerability uncharacteristic of Eastwood's much-criticized "macho" image. Chief Dan George is his memorable self as the wise and understated Indian elder, funny yet always dignified.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
Directed by William A. Wellman and starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Anthony Quinn, "The Ox-Bow Incident" tells the story of a murderous lynch mob that takes justice into its own hands when it finds three men suspected of theft and murder at the oxbow of a river. Based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, "The Ox-Bow Incident" is a quiet yet intense study of the mentality and interpersonal dynamics of mobs. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture but lost to "Casablanca."
In the 1930s, a number of Protestant groups, concerned about the perceived meretricious effects of Hollywood films, began producing non-theatrical motion pictures to spread the gospel of Jesus. "Parable" followed a filmmaking tradition that has not very often been recognized in general accounts of American film history. One of the most acclaimed and controversial films in this tradition, "Parable" debuted at the New York World's Fair in May 1964 as the main attraction of the Protestant and Orthodox Center. Without aid of dialogue or subtitles, the film relies on music and an allegorical story that represents the "Circus as the World," in the words of Rolf Forsberg, who wrote and co-directed the film with Tom Rook for the Protestant Council of New York. "Parable" depicts Jesus as an enigmatic, chalk-white, skull-capped circus clown who takes on the sufferings of oppressed workers, including women and minorities. The film generated controversy even before its initial screening. The fair's president Robert Moses sought to have it withdrawn. Other fair organizers resigned with one exclaiming, "No one is going to make a clown out of my Jesus." A disgruntled minister threatened to riddle the screen with shotgun holes if the film was shown. Undaunted, viewers voted overwhelmingly to keep the film running, and it became one of the fair's most popular attractions. Newsweek proclaimed it "very probably the best film at the fair" and Time described it as "an art film that got religion." The Fellini- and Bergman-inspired film received the 1966 Religious Film Award of the National Catholic Theatre Conference, along with honors at the 1966 Cannes, Venice and Edinburgh film festivals. It subsequently became a popular choice for screenings in both liberal and conservative churches.
Expanded essay by Mark Quigley (PDF, 293KB)
Paris Is Burning (1990)
In a 2015 article in The Guardian, Ashley Clark noted, "Few documentaries can claim to have sparked as much discussion and controversy as Jennie Livingston's debut ‘Paris is Burning,' the vibrant time capsule of New York's ballroom subculture in the 80s." The film explores the complex subculture of fashion shows and vogue dance competitions among black and Hispanic gay men, drag queens and transgender women in Manhattan. It shifts among ballroom contests and shows and interviews with contestants, who belong to different "houses" that are like families to them, sharing their views on wealth, notions of beauty, racism and gender orientation. This film has greatly influenced popular culture.
Pass the Gravy (1928)
Max Davidson was a German-Jewish comedian whose films, made at the Hal Roach studio, typically caricatured established Jewish stereotypes of the day. This short film features Davidson's escapades with a neighbor's stolen chicken.
Expanded essay by Steve Massa (PDF, 402KB)
Paths of Glory (1957)
Based on Humphrey Cobb's novel about three French soldiers, portrayed on film by Joe Turkel, Ralph Meeker, and Timothy Carey, on trial for cowardice during World War I, the film established Stanley Kubrick as an influential director. Adapted by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson, the screenplay chillingly spotlights the arrogance and incompetence of military leaders, three of which are portrayed by Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, and Wayne Morris. Though decidedly antiwar, the film does not espouse pacifism, exemplifying this contradiction in the character passionately portrayed by Kirk Douglas as the officer defending the unjustly charged soldiers.
Franklin Schaffner directed one of Hollywood's most enduring screen biographies, brought to life with great flair by George C. Scott as the larger-than-life World War II general whose personality dictated history. The screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North depicts Patton as both megalomaniac and genius, occasionally even sympathetic. Karl Malden is memorable as General Omar Bradley. The film won several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for Scott, which he famously refused to accept.
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. Rod Steiger's astounding performance — as he tries to repress his memories of the anguish, physical and emotional shame of being an internment-camp inmate — also serves a perfect allegory for American film's own struggles to represent this major tragedy of 20th century history.
Expanded essay by Annette Insdorf (PDF, 596KB)
The Pearl (La Perla) (1948)
Based on the tragic novella "The Pearl" by John Steinbeck, who also co-wrote the screenplay, this film adaptation is considered a landmark among English-language films released for Hispanic audiences in the United States. Directed by Emilio Fernández with award-winning black-and-white cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa, the film tells the tale of a poor Mexican fishing family whose lives are altered when the patriarch finds a perfect pearl. It was acclaimed by critics and film festivals upon its original release.
Director Randal Kleiser ("Grease") crafted this renowned, extremely moving student film while at the University of Southern California. Members of a family visit their blind, dying grandmother Peege at a nursing home, but leave in despair at her condition. Remaining behind, the grandson recounts memories to Peege and manages to connect emotionally with the lonely woman and bring a smile to her face.
The Perils of Pauline (1914)
"The Perils of Pauline" was among the first American movie serials. Produced in 20 episodes, in a groundbreaking long-form motion-picture narrative structure, 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. The film became an international hit and spawned a succession of elaborate American adventure serial productions that persisted until the advent of regularly scheduled television programs in the 1950s. Although now regarded as a satirical cliché of the movie industry, "Perils of Pauline" in its day inspired a generation of women on the verge of gaining the right to vote in America by showing actress Pearl White performing her own stunts and overcoming a persistent male enemy.
Peter Pan (1924)
J.M. Barrie was understandably leery of Hollywood, particularly after Cecil B. DeMille rather flamboyantly adapted his play "The Admirable Crichton" for the film "Male and Female" (1919). When Paramount wanted to film "Peter Pan" five years later, Barrie insisted on the right to veto the director and star; however, he was extremely pleased with the choice of Herbert Brenon and Betty Bronson, and publicly expressed his appreciation of their work. "Peter Pan" remains one of the silent era's most successful fantasies, notable not only for Bronson's exquisitely stylized performance as Peter, but also for its elaborate settings and special effects. The film was an enormous success, which prompted Paramount to approach Barrie to film "A Kiss for Cinderella" for the following year's Christmas release with the same team.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
When escaped prisoner Erik (Lon Chaney), also known as the elusive phantom of the Paris Opera House, becomes obsessed with an up-and-coming singer named Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), he kidnaps her and threatens the lives of her lover, Raoul (Norman Kerry), and the other men who come to rescue her. Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, "The Phantom of the Opera" is a classic horror film released by Universal, the studio that would go on to dominate the horror and "monster-movie" market during the sound era. The production and distribution process for "The Phantom of the Opera" was complicated and involved multiple directors, multiple reshoots, multiple script rewrites, shooting some sequences in two-strip Technicolor, and building a huge Paris Opera House set on the Universal backlot. Particularly impressive was Lon Chaney's makeup, which he applied himself and kept a secret from the cast and crew until the actual filming. Even today, the exact techniques Chaney used to create Erik's appearance are unknown.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
On the eve of her marriage to an uninteresting man (John Howard), a headstrong socialite (Katharine Hepburn) exchanges verbal barbs with her charming ex-husband (Cary Grant), may have compromised her honor while under the influence of champagne, and flirts outrageously with the handsome reporter (James Stewart in an Oscar-winning performance ) who has crashed the society event of the season. George Cukor elegantly directs Donald Ogden Stewart's Oscar-winning adaptation of the Philip Barry play in which Hepburn had starred on Broadway.
Pickup on South Street (1953)
Samuel Fuller's films are sometimes compared to the pulp novels of Mickey Spillane, though Fuller's dynamic style dwarfs Spillane. With films often crass but always provocative, Fuller described his mantra of filmmaking: "Film is like a battleground, with love, hate, action, violence, death … in one word, emotion." Considered by some as the archetypal Sam Fuller film and a nice summary of the main themes in his work, "Pickup on South Street" is a taut, Cold War thriller. The fast-paced plot follows a professional pickpocket who accidently lifts some secret microfilm from his mark. Patriotism or profit? Soon, the thief is being pursued not only by the woman he stole from, but also by Communist spies and U.S. government agents. The film culminates in a landmark brutal subway-based fight scene. It is arguably the classic anti-Communist film of the 1950s and a dazzling display of the seedy New York underlife. In particular, Thelma Ritter's excellent tough-yet-nuanced performance as Moe Williams stands out and earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, which was highly unusual for what was considered at the time a lurid and violent B-movie.
Pillow Talk (1959)
The first film to co-star Doris Day and Rock Hudson, "Pillow Talk" remains one of the screen's most definitive, influential and timeless romantic comedies. Sweet and sophisticated, it is a time capsule of 1950s America. Two single New Yorkers develop an anonymous, antagonistic relationship by sharing a telephone "party line." Both romance and complications ensue when they finally meet in person. The film is a perfect showcase for its two charismatic stars, especially the effervescent Day who demonstrates why she was both America's Sweetheart and one of cinema's finest comediennes.
Expanded essay by Matthew Kennedy (PDF, 332KB)
The Pink Panther (1963)
This comic masterpiece by Blake Edwards introduced both the animated Pink Panther character in the film's opening-and-closing credit sequences, and actor Peter Sellers in his most renowned comic role as the inept Inspector Clouseau. The influence of the great comics of the silent era on Edwards and Sellers is apparent throughout the film, which is recognized for its enduring popularity. The musical score composed by Henry Mancini is also memorable. In addition to Sellers, the cast includes David Niven and Robert Wagner as a suave uncle and nephew both trying to steal the famed "Pink Panter" diamond. Capucine plays Mrs. Clouseau, who dallies with both uncle and nephew, and Claudia Cardinale is a princess and owner of the illustrious gemstone.
Based on stories by 19th century Italian author Carlo Collodi, this animated Disney classic tells the tale of gentle woodcarver Geppetto (Christian Rub) who builds a marionette to be his substitute son. The puppet Pinocchio (Dick Jones) must earn the right to be made human by proving that he is brave, truthful, and unselfish. On his journey to becoming a real boy, Pinocchio encounters Jiminy (Cliff Edwards), a cricket assigned to be Pinocchio's conscience, eventually mastering his lying and truancy, and selflessly risking his life to save Geppetto, proving himself worthy of becoming human. One of the film's most lasting contributions is Edwards' singing of Leigh Harline and Ned Washington's "When You Wish Upon a Star," a tune that would become the Disney anthem.
Expanded essay by J.B. Kaufman (PDF, 439KB)
Additional image here and here
A Place in the Sun (1952)
Loosely based on the 1925 novel (and subsequent stage play) "An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser, the film tells the story of a working-class young man (Montgomery Clift) who becomes involved with two women: one who works in his wealthy uncle's factory (Shelley Winters ) and the other a beautiful socialite (Elizabeth Taylor), with eventually tragic consequences. Directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Harry Brown and Michael Wilson, it was a critical and commercial success, winning six Academy Awards. Modern audiences have not been as impressed with the production, aside from the performances of the lead actors, finding it slow-paced and lacking in depth or social relevance.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Franklin J. Schaffner directed this adaptation of Pierre Boule's sci-fi novel about a society ruled by a race of highly civilized apes. Charlton Heston portrays an astronaut who crashes on a strange planet where inarticulate humans are kept penned-up and creatures that look like oversized chimpanzees and talk like men and women run the world. Heston's life is in danger when ape leader Maurice Evans discovers he can speak, but sympathetic ape scientists Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter risk their own safety by protecting him. Scripted by Michael Wilson and "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, the film won a special Academy Award for John Chambers's simian makeup, and spawned four successful sequels and two TV series.
Expanded essay by John Wills (PDF, 334KB)
Please Don't Bury Me Alive! (1976)
The San Antonio barrio in the early 1970s is the setting for writer, director and star Efraín Gutiérrez's independent piece, considered by historians to be the first Chicano feature film. A self-taught filmmaker, Gutiérrez not only created the film from top to bottom on a shoestring, he also acted as its initial distributor and chief promoter, negotiating bookings throughout the Southwest where it filled theaters in Chicano neighborhoods. He tells his story in the turbulent days near the end of the Vietnam War, as a young Chicano man questioning his and his people's place in society as thousands of his Latino brethren return from the war in coffins. Chon Noriega, director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, wrote, "The film is important as an instance of regional filmmaking, as a bicultural and bilingual narrative, and as a precedent that expanded the way that films got made. ..." Cultural historians often compare Gutiérrez to Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering African-American filmmaker who came to prominence in the 1920s.
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)
Pare Lorentz, a film critic in his early career, wrote and directed this short documentary illustrating the result of out of control agricultural development which contributed to the Dust Bowl. Lorentz was hired as a consultant for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program to document conditions and educate the public. Lorentz exceeded the agency's budget by several times in creating a picture that audiences would find both artistically and thematically compelling. Few theater chose to screen the film initially, but after greater promotion by the administration and Lorentz himself, "The Plow That Broke the Plains" was generally well received. Its impact on farming practices may be difficult to gauge, but it unquestionably impacted John Ford in his film adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."
Expanded essay by Dr. Robert J. Snyder (PDF, 483KB)
Point Blank (1967)
If ever there is a Mount Rushmore for tough guys, the face of Lee Marvin should be sculpted there in bold relief. He definitely upholds that reputation in the relentless crime drama "Point Blank." Based on a novel by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), this tense, stylish thriller from director John Boorman opens with Walker (Lee Marvin) getting double-crossed by mobster friend John Vernon while conducting a crime on Alcatraz Island. Shot, left for dead, and now missing $93,000, Marvin soon learns that his wife was also romantically involved with Vernon. Writing for Slant in 2003, critic Nick Schager frames the film as a reworking of traditional noir: "Boorman set out to make a thriller that looked and felt like nothing else before it, using widescreen Panavision cinematography, explosive colors, and a multi-layered soundtrack to re-envision the noir picture as highbrow Euro-art film." "Point Blank" has come to be recognized as a seminal film of the 1960s.
Point of Order (1964)
Emile de Antonio produced and directed this documentary that explores the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings that sought to unveil Communists in the armed forces and other government agencies. What the film unveils is Senator Joseph McCarthy's duplicitous and pompous nature and a case lacking substance and based in conjecture and obfuscation.
Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
In this film directed by Maurice Tourneur from a script by Frances Marion, Mary Pickford portrays a waif neglected by her parents.
Expanded essay by Eileen Whitfield (PDF, 968KB)
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936)
Wildly popular during the 1930s, Popeye's impact was matched only by Mickey Mouse, his chief rival for cartoon supremacy. This classic by renowned animators Max and Dave Fleischer features lush three-dimensional sets, Technicolor, and was twice the length of normal eight-minute cartoons.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
Composer George Gershwin considered his masterpiece "Porgy and Bess" to be a "folk opera." Gershwin's score reflected traditional songs he encountered in visits to Charleston, S.C., and in Gullah revival meetings he attended on nearby James Island. Controversy has stalked the production history of the opera that Gershwin created with DuBose Heyward, who had written the original novel and play (with his wife Dorothy) and penned lyrics with Gershwin's brother Ira. The lavish film version was produced in the late 1950s as the civil rights movement gained momentum and a number of African-American actors turned down roles they considered demeaning. Harry Belafonte, who refused the part of Porgy, explained, "in this period of our social development, I doubt that it is healthy to expose certain images of the Negro. In a period of calm, perhaps this picture could be viewed historically." Dissension also resulted when producer Samuel Goldwyn dismissed Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the play and musical on Broadway, and replaced him with Otto Preminger. Produced in Todd-AO, a state-of-the-art widescreen and stereophonic sound recording process, with an all-star cast that included Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll, "Porgy and Bess," now considered an "overlooked American masterpiece" by one contemporary scholar, rarely has been screened in the ensuing years.
Expanded essay by Foster Hirsch (PDF, 648KB)
Porky in Wackyland (1938)
Produced by Warner Bros. as part of its Looney Tunes cartoon series, this black-and-white short film supervised by Bob Clampett is a surreal adventure inspired by Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." Porky Pig -- voiced by Mel Blanc -- stars as an explorer who goes to Darkest Africa to hunt the rare do-do bird, a trickster who endlessly alludes and exasperates Porky. Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin called the film an "eye-popping tribute to the unlimited horizons of the animated cartoon." It was remade in Technicolor in 1949 as "Dough for the Do-Do."
Portrait of Jason (1967)
In one of the first LGBT films widely accepted by general audiences, Shirley Clarke explored the blurred lines between fact and fiction, allowing her subject, Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne), a gay hustler and nightclub entertainer, to talk about his life with candor, pathos and humor in one 12-hour shoot. Clarke originally envisioned Jason as the only character, but she subsequently revealed: "When I saw the rushes I knew the real story of what happened that night in my living room had to include all of us [the off-screen voices. her crew and herself], and so our question-reaction probes, our irritations and angers, as well as our laughter remain part of the film." Bosley Crowther of "The New York Times" described it as a "curious and fascinating example of cinéma vérité, all the ramifications of which cannot be immediately known." Legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman called it "the most extraordinary film I've seen in my life." Thought to have been lost, a 16 mm print of the film was discovered at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in 2013 and has since been restored by the Academy Film Archive, Milestone Films and Modern Videofilm.
The Power of the Press (1928)
Dexterous newspaper yarn features Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a reporter investigating a murder. When he discovers rampant political chicanery afoot, what's a clever young Capra hero to do? Expose the corruption, of course, and set his hometown right.
The Power and the Glory (1933)
Preston Sturges' first original screenplay, "The Power and the Glory," is a haunting tragedy in sharp contrast to the comedies of the 1940s that established him as one of America's foremost writer-directors. Contrary to common practice of the time, Sturges wrote the film as a complete shooting script, which producer Jesse L. Lasky, believing it "the most perfect script I'd ever seen," ordered director William K. Howard to film as written. Compared favorably to novels by Henry James and Joseph Conrad for its extensive mix of narration with dramatic action (Fox Studios coined the word "narratage" to publicize Sturges' innovative technique), "The Power and the Glory" introduced a non-chronological structure to mainstream movies that was said to influence "Citizen Kane." Like that film, "The Power and the Glory" presents a fragmented rags-to-riches tale of an American industrial magnate that begins with his death, in this case a suicide, and sensitively proceeds to produce a deeply affecting, morally ambivalent portrayal. The Nation magazine called Spencer Tracy's performance in the lead role "one of the fullest characterizations ever achieved on screen."
Expanded essay by Aubrey Solomon (PDF, 273KB)
Powers of Ten (1978)
In some ways as much a math exercise as an avant-garde film, "Powers of Ten" was produced by visionary design duo Charles and Ray Eames. Their short film makes excellent use of the film medium to convey concepts of scale, time and distance. Beginning with the shot of a young couple enjoying a picnic, an overhead camera, positioned one meter from its subject, slowly begins to withdraw in increments of 10 x 10—10 meters every 10 seconds. With time, the couple becomes just specs in the distance as they are dwarfed first by their neighborhood, then their city, then their continent, and then the planet. The film later reverses and zooms in, eventually reaching the molecular level. Billed at the beginning as "a film about the relative size of things in the universe," at the conclusion of its nine minutes, "Powers of Ten" has revealed the world simultaneously as both a very big and very small place.
Expanded essay by Eric Schuldenfrei (PDF, 554KB)
Precious Images (1986)
Produced by Chuck Workman to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Directors Guild of America, this dizzying compilation celebrates the first eight decades of American cinema to dazzling effect. Workman, best known for his Academy Awards broadcast montages, rolls out nearly 500 clips from films dating back to1903 in the space of seven short minutes to create one of the most influential and widely shown short films in history.
Expanded essay by Dale Hudson and Patricia R. Zimmermann (PDF, 500KB)
Preservation of the Sign Language (1913)
Presented without subtitles, "Preservation" is a short, one-reel film featuring George Veditz, onetime president of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) of the United States, demonstrating in sign language the importance of defending the right of deaf people to sign as opposed to verbalizing their communication. Deafened by scarlet fever at the age of eight, Veditz was one of the first to make motion-picture recordings of American Sign Language. Taking care to sign precisely and in large gestures for the cameras, Veditz chose fiery biblical passages to give his speech emotional impact. In some of his films, Veditz used finger spelling so his gestures could be translated directly into English in venues where interpreters were present. On behalf of the NAD, Veditz made this film specifically to record sign language for posterity at a time when oralists (those who promoted lip reading and speech in lieu of sign language) were gaining momentum in the education of the hearing-impaired. The film conveys one of the ways that deaf Americans debated the issues of their language and public understanding during the era of World War I.
Expanded essay by Christopher Shea (PDF, 227KB)
President McKinley Inauguration Footage (1901)
Two separate short bits of film comprise "President McKinley Inauguration Footage, and the material presents a unique look at one of the seminal events of turn-of-the-20th-Century political history.
Expanded essay by Charles "Buckey" Grimm (PDF, 319KB)
Produced by Robert Drew, shot by Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles, and edited by D. A. Pennebaker, "Primary" charted new territory in documentary film making. Using lighter, more mobile cameras and sound equipment, the filmmakers achieved greater intimacy with their subjects, following on their heels as the candidates wound through packed crowds and hovering like gnats to capture their more private moments. Modern political and news reporting owes much to the audacity of this film's invasive technique.
The Princess Bride (1987)
The 1980s produced many feel-good movies and "The Princess Bride" is one of the decade's most beloved. Adapting his popular 1973 novel for the screen, William Goldman collaborated with director Rob Reiner to craft a lighthearted parody of classic fairy tales that retains the writer's wit and memorable characters, and adds bravura performances and a barrage of oft-quoted dialog. It is a joyride filled with assorted storybook figures like the beautiful title character (Robin Wright), her dashing true love (Cary Elwes), makers of magic spells (Billy Crystal and Carol Kane) and a rhyming colossus (Andre the Giant). As the devious Vizzini, Wallace Shawn incredulously exclaims "Inconceivable!" at every turn. Swashbuckling Mandy Patinkin dreams of avenging family honor and someday declaring, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!" The film continues to delight audiences, drawing new generations of fans.
Princess Nicotine; or The Smoke Fairy (1909)
This tale of a tormented smoker, in which fairies bedevil a man's attempt to light his pipe, was the most celebrated special effects film of its day. Trick films were a specialty of the New York-based Vitagraph Company, then America's leading film producer, and many were inspired by Georges Méliès's pioneering French fantasies. Director J. Stuart Blackton used double exposure, stop-motion animation and parlor tricks that literally relied on smoke and mirrors to create his fantasy tour de force.
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 242KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
A romantic adventure from David O. Selznick, "The Prisoner of Zenda" harkens back to a time of chivalry and swordplay. Anthony Hope's 1894 novel served as the basis for this and as many as five other filmed interpretations. When an Englishman (Ronald Colman) tours a small kingdom he is discovered to bear a striking resemblance to that country's royal family, placing Colman in a dual role amid a tangled tale of mistaken identity. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. portrays the scoundrel bent on exposing the charade. Madeleine Carroll is the king's regal fiance, and Raymond Massey plays the king's evil brother. Selznick banked on the film's escapist charm and capitalized on the world's fascination with the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII of England, who gave up his throne to marry a commoner. His instinct proved right and the production was a box-office success.
The Producers (1968)
In a broad comedic style with which he would become associated, Mel Brooks began his directorial career with this satire of backstage Broadway. Zero Mostel plays a down-on-his-luck producer and Gene Wilder is the neurotically nerdy accountant with whom he schemes to make a fortune. By severely (and illegally) overfinancing a show that's sure to flop, the partners avoid repaying the backers -- little old ladies Mostel's conned into backing the show. All goes awry when the show is a hit. Brooks tempers the over-the-top gags and stereotypical characters with a touch of sweetness to give the audience an entertaining ride.
Expanded essay by Brian Scott Mednick (PDF, 509KB)
Suspensefull thriller by Alfred Hitchcock shocked audiences when it was released, and still manages to terrify viewers more than 50 years later. The film boosted the career of Anthony Perkins as the creepy Norman Bates, but subsequently stereotyped him as the damaged outsider. Portraying the doomed Marion Crane, Janet Leigh fared better, though she was constantly overshadowed by her role in the film and her experience with Hitchcock. The Bernard Herrmann score, rich with discordant strings, is spine-tinglingly unforgettable.
Expanded essay by Charles Taylor (PDF, 488KB)
The Public Enemy (1931)
Raw and brutal, this crime saga – one of the earliest sound examples by Warner Bros. , the studio known for its gritty tales of the street – features James Cagney in an incendiary star-making portrayal of a two-bit bootlegger and his rise to the top amid gang warfare. Director William Wellman infuses the film with fierce machismo, witness the now-famous grapefruit-in-the-face scene (the face belongs to Mae Clarke). Jean Harlow as Cagney's moll gives viewers little indication of the superstar she'd become in a few short years.
Pull My Daisy (1959)
This adroit parody of the beat generation was written by the man who invented the '50s zeitgeist: Jack Kerouac. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's nonsense comedy blends improvisation and careful construction so well that more than a few serious commentators took the film for pure slice-of-life naturalism—and were properly offended.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
By turns utterly derivative and audaciously original, Quentin Tarantino's mordantly wicked Möbius strip of a movie influenced a generation of filmmakers and stands as a milestone in the evolution of independent cinema in the United States, making it one of the few films on the National Film Registry as notable for its lasting impact on the film industry as its considerable artistic merits. Directed by Tarantino from his profane and poetic script, "Pulp Fiction" is a beautifully composed tour-de-force, combining narrative elements of hardboiled crime novels and film noir with the bright widescreen visuals of Sergio Leone. The impact is profound and unforgettable.
Expanded essay by Jami Bernard (PDF, 468KB)
Punch Drunks (1934)
Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard – better known as the Three Stooges – reached their cinema heyday at Columbia Pictures between 1933 and 1959, following a career in vaudeville starting in 1925 as Ted Healy and His Stooges. "Punch Drunks," the second of nearly 200 short subjects in which the team starred, is one of the few scripted solely by the trio. It finds the boys in the world of professional boxing with Moe and Larry attempting to turn waiter Curly into a heavyweight champ. The boxing ring proved the perfect background for the Stooges' trademark super violent, cartoonlike slapstick.
Pups Is Pups (1930)
"Pups is Pups" expertly combines slapstick, verbal humor and pathos in one neat, entertaining package. In this the 100th entry in the "Our Gang" series of short subjects, and the 12th talking installment, the little rascals systematically wreack havoc at a fancy pet show when they bring in their own menagerie of mice, pigs, goats and toads. This was the first "Our Gang" comedy to utilize the jazzy background music of LeRoy Shield for which the Hal Roach Studio, and most notably Laurel and Hardy, became known.
Expanded essay by Randy Skretvedt (PDF, 275KB)
Putney Swope (1969)
When writer-director Robert Downey Sr.'s surrealistic satire of Madison Avenue and black power, "Putney Swope," opened in July 1969, New York Times critic Vincent Canby characterized it as "funny, sophomoric, brilliant, obscene, disjointed, marvelous, unintelligible and relevant," while New York Daily News reviewer Wanda Hale damned it as "the most offensive picture I've ever seen." A cult classic from an earlier time, Downey's wildly irreverent underground breakout film presents hilarious vignettes of an ad agency takeover by black nationalists. Although noting that power ultimately corrupts the militants, Henry Louis Gates Jr. reminisced that he and fellow black students at Yale loved the film as a utopian fantasy that offered them a realistic path—infiltration, then transformation—for social change.
Quasi at the Quackadero (1975)
Sally Cruikshank's wildly imaginative tale of odd creatures visiting a psychedelic amusement park careens creatively from strange to truly wacky scenes. It became a favorite of the Midnight Movie circuit in the 1970s. Influenced by the animation produced by the Fleischer Studios and the Van Beuren Studios, as well as the early work of Bob Clampett, Cruikshank spent more than two years working on the 10-minute "Quasi." She later created animation sequences for "Sesame Street," the 1986 film "Ruthless People" and the "Cartoon Land" sequence in the 1983 film "Twilight Zone: The Movie."
The Quiet Man (1952)
Never one to shy away from sentiment, director John Ford infused "The Quiet Man" with unadulterated adulation of his Irish heritage and the grandeur of the Emerald Isle. Red hair ablaze against lush landscapes, Maureen O'Hara embodies the mystique of Ireland, as John Wayne personifies the indefatigable American searching for his ancestral roots, with Victor Young's jovial score punctuating their escapades. The film and the locale are populated with characters bordering on caricature. Sly, whiskey-loving matchmaker Michaleen O'Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), the burly town bully Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) and the put-upon but patient Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) are the most vivid. Beautifully photographed in rich, saturated Technicolor by Winton C. Hoch, with picturesque art direction by Frank Hotaling, "The Quiet Man" has become a perennial St. Patrick's Day television favorite.
Expanded essay by Scott Allen Nollen (PDF, 537KB)
Raging Bull (1980)
Hard hitting is the character, hard hitting is the film. Martin Scorsese painted a visceral portrait of prizefighter Jake LaMotta, and Robert DeNiro fleshed out that portrait, literally and figuratively. DeNiro famously gained 60 lbs. for the role, donned a prosthetic nose and walked away with an Academy Award. DeNiro adroitly captures the fighter's success in the ring and contrasts it to a personal life full of rage, jealousy, and suspicion which ultimately left LaMotta destitute, alone, and seeking redemption. Scorsese's vision is expertly executed by Thelma Schoonmaker's editing of cinematographer Michael Chapman's footage. Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarity give Oscar-nominated performances.
Expanded essay by Jami Bernard (PDF, 476KB)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Indiana "Indy" Jones (Harrison Ford) is no ordinary archeologist, whether he's in a Peruvian jungle searching for a solid gold idol or on a quest to keep the Ark of the Covenant out of the hands of the Nazis, who believe it will make them invincible. When Indy seeks out an old friend to aid in his quest, he's reunited with the man's daughter, Marion (Karen Allen), with whom Indy was once involved, and the two become partners in one action-packed adventure after another. A joint project of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the script was co-written by Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman, among others, and spawned three sequels.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Model film adaptation of Lorraine Hansbury's classic play about a black lower middle class family. The legendary cast is a veritable who's who of the civil rights era: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee.
Rear Window (1954)
Alfred Hitchcock's study in voyeurism tantalizes and teases the viewer much as the plot twists intrigue the film's protagonist. Hitchcock's story comes from a Cornell Woolrich story as adapted by John Michael Hayes. Laid up with a broken leg, photojournalist L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is confined to his tiny, sweltering courtyard apartment. To pass the time between visits from his nurse (Thelma Ritter) and his fashion model girlfriend (Grace Kelly), the binocular-wielding Jeffries stares through the rear window of his apartment at the goings-on in the other apartments around his courtyard. Of particular interest is seemingly bland travelling salesman (Raymond Burr) and his nagging, invalid wife. When the couple's bickering comes to an abrupt halt, Jeffries begins to suspect that the salesman has murdered his wife and disposed of her body.
Expanded essay by John Belton (PDF, 510KB)
"Rebecca," Daphne du Maurier's most famous book ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…"), found its perfect cinematic interpreter in Alfred Hitchcock, here directing his first American motion picture. Powerhouse producer David O. Selznick had just imported the "master of suspense" from his native England. Laurence Olivier stars as Maxim de Winter and Joan Fontaine in her breakthrough role co-stars as Maxim's new (and never given a first name) wife. However, it is two other women who dominate the film—the intimidating housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson) and the film's title woman, the deceased first Mrs. de Winter whose powerful shadow still hangs heavily over this great estate and all its inhabitants. Winner of the Oscar for best picture that year, "Rebecca" is stylish, suspenseful and a classic.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This portrait of youthful alienation spoke to a whole generation and remains wrenchingly powerful, despite some dated elements. The yearning for self-esteem, the parental conflict, the comfort found in friendships, all beautifully orchestrated by director Nicholas Ray, screenwriter Stewart Stern, and a fine cast. This was James Dean's defining performance and an impressive showing for Sal Mineo.
Expanded essay by Jay Carr (PDF, 627KB)
The Red Book (1994)
Renowned experimental filmmaker and theater/installation artist Janie Geiser's work is known for its ambiguity, explorations of memory and emotional states and exceptional design. She describes "The Red Book" as "an elliptical, pictographic animated film that uses flat, painted figures and collage elements in both two and three dimensional settings to explore the realms of memory, language and identity from the point of view of a woman amnesiac."
Expanded essay by Holly Willis (PDF, 307KB)
Red Dust (1932)
This steamy pre-Production Code melodrama stars virile, tough guy Clark Gable as a Far East plantation owner who proves no match for Jean Harlow's saucy incandescence. Her earthy, breathless dialogue ("You can check the wings and halo at the desk") serves to turn up the heat. The movie's well-remembered humor, star chemistry and atmosphere owe much to underrated director Victor Fleming, who managed to inspire a superior performance from Harlow, who was coping with the suicide of her husband during the filming of "Red Dust."
Red River (1948)
Director Howard Hawks' second western was also his first collaboration with John Wayne. Based on Borden Chase's novel "The Chisholm Trail," the film stars Wayne as headstrong frontiersman Tom Dunson. On his way to seek his fortune in Texas, Dunson splits off from the wagon train with which he'd been traveling and leaves behind his fiancé. Not long afterward, Dunson and his companion, an old camp cook (Walter Brennan), see smoke on the horizon and turn back to find the travelers – including his fiancé – murdered in an Indian raid. The only survivor is a young boy, Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), orphaned in the raid, and subsequently adopted by Dunson. In time, Dunson becomes the most powerful cattle baron in the territory, but adult Garth (played by Montgomery Clift in his first film appearance) eventually rebels against Dunson's tyranny and strikes out on his own away from his vengeful mentor. Garth, leading his own cattle drive, becomes Dunson's most formidable rival. The film is distinguished by a stirring Dmitri Tiomkin score and black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan. The cast includes John Ireland, Joanne Dru, and both Harry Carey, Sr. and Harry Carey, Jr. Hawks reportedly spent $1 million over budget and several months over schedule, but the end result was a $4 million hit.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 391KB)
The film's director Raoul Walsh called "Regeneration" the first feature film about gangsters, although the crime-centric film deals more with individual spiritual growth and redeption and very little with organized gangs or kingpins. Adapted from an autobiography and subsequent play by a reformer named Owen Kildare, the film starred Rockcliffe Fellowes and seasoned actress Anna Q. Nilsson. It depicts an assortment of crimes, but shows the perpetrator to be more misguided than inherently evil. The triumph of filmmaker Walsh, who had worked with D.W. Griffith and reflected his influence, was its naturalistic edginess aided by masterful use of close ups.
Expanded essay by Marilyn Ann Moss (PDF, 247KB)
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971-72)
Jonas Mekas' "Reminiscences" is an elegiac diary film of a trip that he took back to his birthplace of Semeniskiai, Lithuania. In addition to his own exceptional body of avant-garde films, Mekas also is a legendary member of that community through his work as spokesperson, archivist and theoretician of the avant-garde movement. Often called the godfather of American experimental cinema, his writings in "Film Culture" and "The Village Voice" helped spur public interest. His founding of the Film-Makers Cooperative and the Anthology Film Archives also made avant-garde films more accessible and aided their preservation.
Republic Steel Strike Riot Newsreel Footage (1937)
Paramount studio's news division scooped other newsreel services with its footage of demonstrators marching toward a Chicago steel plant in confrontation with city police officers hired to keep the strikers away from plant. The clash escalated into what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre in which 10 demonstrators were killed and 60 were injured. The footage was initially kept out of theaters, and not released for more than a month following Congressional Civil Liberty hearings in which the footage was presented as evidence that police used excessive force against the strikers.
[still photograph of newsreel cameraman testifying to Congressional committee]
Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980)
The debut feature of writer, director and editor John Sayles, this film exemplifies early "indy" films with their minimal budgets and fast shooting schedules. Sayls' lack of funds and frills defines the feel of the film centered on a group of friends, anti-war demonstrators in the '60s, who've matured in the decade following their activism. Some remain true to their principles, others sell out to conventional values. Its bare-bones structure accentuated by Altman-like editing and overlapping dialog, along with naturalistic acting by Sayles and David Strathairn among many others, and Sayles' insightful script distinguish the film among other indies of its time.
The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930-1936)
see La vengenza de Pancho Villa
Ride the High Country (1962)
Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott are aging gunfighters chaperoning a gold shipment to a mining town in director Sam Peckinpah's western. One partner wants to deliver the gold safely and the other to steal it. On the way they meet a religious fanatic (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley in her film debut), who is planning to elope with her boyfriend Billy (James Drury). The next day, Elsa insists on joining up with the group so she can marry Billy at the mining town. Complications ensue, leading to a final shoot-out that allows McRea and Scott to reconcile their differences and pave the way for the film's poignant finale.
Expanded essay by Stephen Prince (PDF, 381KB)
The Right Stuff (1983)
At three hours and 13 minutes, Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel is an epic right out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but thanks to its assortment of characters and human drama, it rarely drags. Director/screenwriter Kaufman ambitiously attempts to boldly go where few epics had gone before as he recounts the nascent Space Age. He takes elements of the traditional Western, mashes them up with sophisticated satire and peppers the concoction with the occasional subversive joke. As a result, Kaufman (inspired by Wolfe) creates his own history, debunking a few myths as he creates new ones. At its heart, "The Right Stuff" is a tribute to the space program's role in generating national pride and an indictment of media-fed hero worship. Remarkable aerial sequences (created before the advent of CGI) and spot-on editing team up to deliver a movie that pushes the envelope.
Rio Bravo (1959)
As legend goes, this Western, directed by Howard Hawks, was produced in part as a riposte to Fred Zinnemann's "High Noon." The film trades in the wide-open spaces for the confines of a small jail where a sheriff and his deputies are waiting for the transfer of a prisoner and the anticipated attempt by his equally unlawful brother to break the prisoner out. John Wayne stars as sheriff John T. Chance and is aided in his efforts to keep the law by Walter Brennan, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. Angie Dickinson is the love interest and Western regulars Claude Akins, Ward Bond and Pedro Gonzalez are also featured. A smart Western where gunplay is matched by wordplay, "Rio Bravo" is a terrific ensemble piece and director Hawks' last great film.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 500 KB)
Rip Van Winkle (1896)
Renowned stage actor Joseph Jefferson made a career of portraying Washington Irving's mercurial title character beginning in the mid 1800s and by the 1890s was the most famous actor in America. Capitalizing on Jefferson's success, Edison protege William K.L. Dickson filmed the actor in eight scenes from the fantasy tale set in New York's Catskill Mountains. The scenes were available to exhibitors as individual films that could be shown together or separately in any order they chose. They proved so popular that the scenes were edited together as a single film released in 1903. The film's success helped Dickson's Biograph company, successor to his original American Mutoscope Company, the most popular studio in the country.
The River (1938)
As he did with "The Plow That Broke the Plains," Pare Lorentz infuses this short documentary about the Mississippi River with artistic and persuasive scenes intended to further the Roosevelt administration's policies. The film portrayed the devastation caused by irresponsible farming and timber practices that caused massive erosion and pushed nearby residents to the brink of poverty. In the end, Lorentz presents the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as savior with its use of dams to prevent flooding and its advocacy for less damaging farming techniques. Audiences responded mostly favorably, though a number of viewers as well as most critics found its propagandistic approach often overshadowed its artistry.
Expanded essay by Dr. Robert J. Snyder (PDF, 474KB)
Road to Morocco (1942)
Bing Crosby and Bob Hope reprise their earlier success with the third in their series of "Road" pictures. The hapless duo are castaways on a desert shore where they employ snappy dialog, asides to the camera, and a little song and dance as they woo Dorothy Lamour across the dunes, but not before encountering a spitting camel.
Expanded essay by Richard Zoglin (PDF, 455KB)
This stirring tale of a million-to-one-shot underdog has become part of the American psyche. According to legend, Sylvester Stallone, then a down-on-his-luck actor, hurriedly wrote a brilliant script after watching the Muhammad Ali/Chuck Wepner fight. Stallone shopped the script to studios, who loved the plot but not Stallone's take-it-or-leave-it demand that he star in the film. Eventually, Stallone and United Artists crafted a deal, and the film became a top-grossing cultural sensation in 1976. One of the truly iconic moments in American cinema is when Stallone runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the strains of Bill Conti's pulsating score.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
This low-budget cult classic centers on the misadventures of a young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who find themselves inside a strange mansion when their car breaks down on a rainy night. There they encounter a wild party hosted by a lingerie-clad transvestite and mad scientist (Tim Curry). Richard O'Brien (who also plays the butler) wrote the catchy songs, with John Barry and Richard Hartley composing the score.
Roger & Me (1989)
After decades of product ascendancy, American automakers began facing stiff commercial and design challenges in the late 1970s and 1980s from foreign automakers, especially the Japanese. Michael Moore's controversial documentary chronicles the human toll and hemorrhaging of jobs caused by these upheavals, in this case the firing of 30,000 autoworkers by General Motors in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan. As a narrative structure, Moore uses a comic device sometimes found in political campaign commercials, weaving a message around trying to find the person responsible for a wrong, in this case General Motors Chairman Roger Smith. "Roger & Me" is take-no-prisoners, advocacy documentary filmmaking, and Moore makes no apologies for his brazen, in-your-face style—he would argue the situation demands it. The themes of unfairness, inequality and the unrealized attainment of the American Dream resonate to this day, while the consequences of ferocious auto-sector competition continue, playing a key long-term role in the city of Detroit's recent filing for bankruptcy protection.
Roman Holiday (1953)
Audrey Hepburn, in the role that made her an overnight star at 24, sparkles as a waifish princess bored to tears of formal receptions and rehearsed speeches. During a state visit to Rome, she slips out of the palace to be among the real people – and falls in with an American reporter (Gregory Peck) who realizes he's stumbled into the scoop of the century. Directed by William Wyler from a story by then blacklisted and hence uncredited Dalton Trumbo, features a quick pace, light-hearted comedy and poignant scenes that utilize the smart script, Roman landmarks, and cast to the utmost advantage. Eddie Albert makes a major comedy contribution as Peck's photographer buddy who secretly lenses the princess. The film was nominated for numerous Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, and won Oscars for Hepburn, Trumbo's screenplay and Edith Head's costumes.
Rose Hobart (1936)
Joseph Cornell, an artist in the "assemblage" movement, combined fragments of found objects into three-dimensional collages and encased them in glass boxes. An avid film buff, Cornell brought his passion for cinema to the assemblage movement by randomly splicing together found footage, including segments of a 1931 "B" picture titled "East of Borneo," which starred, among others, actress Rose Hobart. Cornell created – without ever touching a camera – a 19-minute distillation that he would project at a slower speed and through a deep blue filter while playing a recording of Nestor Amaral's "Holiday in Brazil." The film premiered in December 1936 at the first Surrealist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. A guest at the debut, Salvador Dalí became outraged, claiming the idea of merging collage and film as his own and deriding Cornell to "stick to making boxes" and give up films. Traumatized by the event, the reclusive Cornell rarely exhibited his films again, though he did continue to experiment with the medium until his death in 1972.
Expanded essay by Holly Willis (PDF, 386KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
With "Rosemary's Baby," writer-director Roman Polanski brought his expressive European style of psychological filmmaking to an intricately plotted, best-selling American novel by Ira Levin, and created a masterpiece of the horror-film genre. Set in the sprawling Dakota apartment building on New York's Central Park West, the film conveys an increasing sense of unease, claustrophobia and paranoia as the central character, convincingly played by Mia Farrow in her first starring role, comes to believe that a cult of witches in the building is implementing a plot against her and her unborn child. The supporting cast that Polanski assembled—John Cassavetes as Rosemary's husband, Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as their neighbors, and Ralph Bellamy as her doctor—portray believably banal New Yorkers who gain nearly total control over Rosemary's daily life during her pregnancy. Insistent that "a thread of deliberate ambiguity runs throughout the film," Polanski maintains that the film's denouement can be understood in more than one way.
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
Charles Laughton, known for such serious roles as Nero, King Henry XIII and later as the 1935 Captain Bligh, takes on comedy in this tale of an English manservant won in a poker game by American Charlie Ruggles, a member of Red Gap, Washington's extremely small social elite. Laughton, in understated valet fashion, worriedly responds: "North America, my lord. Quite an untamed country I understand." However, once in America, he finds not uncouth backwoodsmen, but rather a more egalitarian society that soon has Laughton reciting the Gettysburg Address, catching the American spirit and becoming a successful businessman. Aided by comedy stalwarts ZaSu Pitts and Roland Young, Laughton really shows his acting range and pulls off comedy perfectly. It didn't hurt that Leo McCarey, who had just worked with W.C. Fields and would next guide Harold Lloyd, was in the director's chair. McCarey, who could pull heartstrings or touch funny bones with equal skill, started his long directorial career working with such comedy icons as Laurel & Hardy and created several beloved American films.
Director Wes Anderson's film "Rushmore," a work filled with incisive detail to pop sensitivities, remains a cultural milestone of Gen X and millennials. Geeky misfit Jason Schwartzman tries to escape the stigma of being wildly unpopular at Rushmore Academy by becoming the king of extracurricular activities, nearly flunking out in the process. He makes bizarre, unsuccessful attempts to woo elementary schoolteacher Olivia Williams and has a chaotic, up-and-down relationship with wealthy businessman-mentor Bill Murray. This was Anderson's second film, following the unexpected success of his debut, "Bottle Rocket." In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Anderson and screenwriter Owen Wilson described their cinematic approach: "We're interested in characters who have enthusiasm," and "We wanted to have ‘Rushmore' become its own slightly heightened reality, like a Roald Dahl children's book."
Billy Wilder directed this soufflé about a chauffeur's daughter, Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), pining for the family's spoiled, womanizing younger son, David (William Holden), who doesn't even know she exists. Her father (John Williams) sends Sabrina to Paris to get over David, and when she returns as an elegant and sophisticated woman, David is quickly drawn to her. Older sibling Linus (Humphrey Bogart) fears his brother's interest in Sabrina may derail David's upcoming marriage, the centerpiece of an advantageous corporate merger, so Linus jockeys to redirect Sabrina's affection away from David and toward himself. His plan succeeds, but in the process, he falls for Sabrina. The story was adapted for the screen by Wilder, Samuel A. Taylor, and Ernest Lehman from Taylor's play "Sabrina Fair." Not one of Wilder's most hilarious or thought-provoking, but still charming and entertaining.
Safety Last! (1923)
"Safety Last" may be Harold Lloyd's finest film, and from it comes the most recognizable image in silent comedy: the man dangling from a clock. Joining forces with Hal Roach in 1915, the former movie extras started a company to produce Lloyd's films, and the comedian was soon the highest paid actor and biggest box-office draw. Bolstered by his success with a few early "thrill" shorts and inspired by a popular stunt performer known as "the human fly," Lloyd was eager to make a feature-length film that would give audiences the same excitement. In the film, Lloyd's country boy seeks fame and fortune in the big city and ends up as an unwitting human fly forced to scale a tall building. The studio built sets on the rooftops of several downtown Los Angeles buildings to enhance the illusion, although Lloyd still risked danger with his antics, thus delivering on his recipe for a successful thrill picture: "a laugh, a scream and a laugh."
Expanded essay by Richard W. Bann (PDF, 425KB)
As documentary filmmakers, Albert and David Maysles gravitated toward the fringes of society for their "cinema direct: nothing between us and the subject." In this film, the brothers and frequent collaborator Charlotte Zwerin focus on a waning American phenomenon: the door-to-door salesman; specifically, four representatives of the Mid-American Bible Company. At the center is Paul "The Badger" Brennan who reflects on his career choice with the refrain of the pop tune "Is That All There Is?" New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby observed that the Maysles Brothers transcend superficiality with compassion by showing that "the salesmen are no less vulnerable than their customers."
Before entering films in 1916, Alla Nazimova, who studied with Russian theatrical visionary Constantin Stanislavski, had already earned a reputation as an intensely dedicated, if unorthodox, stage performer. She starred in several successful film adaptations of literary classics, and in 1922, chose to produce Oscar Wilde's sensational version of "Salomé," starring as the 14-year-old stepdaughter of King Herod. The resulting product was one of the earliest examples of surrealism in film, thanks to highly-stylized sets and costumes by the flamboyant Natacha Rambova as well as its overtly theatrical and sexualized presentation.
Expanded essay by Martin Turnbull (PDF, 509KB)
Salt of the Earth (1954)
Inspired by an actual miners strike in New Mexico that lasted for more than a year, "Salt of the Earth" recounted major incidents in the strike. Its impact was most felt in its focus on discrimination against minorities and women. Miners' wives had been instrumental in the strike, marching in picket lines and eventually going to jail. Produced by filmmakers who had been blacklisted in Hollywood for alleged Communist sympathies, the story was decidedly pro-union; consequently, few theater owners were willing to book it. It eventually debuted in New York City to mostly positive reviews, and found greater success in Europe. Its status has grown in subsequent decades, as has its influence on independent filmmakers.
Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia (1990)
International relief worker Ellen Bruno's master's thesis at Stanford University, "Samsara," documents the struggle of the Cambodian people to rebuild a shattered society in the aftermath of Pol Pot's killing fields. "Samsara" is a Sanskrit term that literally means "circle" or "wheel," and is commonly translated as "cycle of existence." Bruno fleshes out this concept by using ancient Buddhist teachings and folklore to provide a context for Cambodia's struggle. Described as poetic, heartbreaking and evocative, the film brings a humanistic perspective to the political chaos of Southeast Asia with a deliberate, reflective and sometimes dreamlike pace as it intertwines the mundane realities of daily life with the spiritual beliefs of the Khmer people. 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 not just to a faraway place but to an altered consciousness."
San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, April 18, 1906 (1906)
This film shows the aftermath of the 8.3 magnitude 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the devastation resulting from the subsequent three-day fire that erupted amidst collapsed buildings and broken water mains. Each scene in the film is preceded by a title, and many of the titles overdramatized and sentimentalized on-screen events such as "At mealtimes, when there was food to be had, troubles were banished." Some scenes were almost certainly staged for the camera as the final montage of actual footage, fabricated scenes and titles was released at least a month after the event.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Young Brooklynite Tony Manero (John Travolta) has a dead-end job and lives at home with his parents but escapes his tedious existence each night on the disco dance floor where he reigns supreme. As the soundtrack plays one Bee Gees hit after another (including "Stayin' Alive"), we watch white-suited Tony strut his stuff amidst flashing lights and pulsating bodies. Tony's class aspirations are reflected in his relationship with his dance partner, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a secretary struggling to make it to the dazzling splendor of Manhattan. Travolta graduated from a minor television presence to a superstar with this film. This crossover between music and movies set the pace for many films to follow.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Through the years, Hollywood's take on war, honor and heroism has taken many conflicting forms. "Saving Private Ryan" drops ordinary soldiers into a near-impossible rescue mission set amid the carnage of World War II's Omaha Beach landing. The film's beginning scenes vividly show us "war is hell," as William T. Sherman said. Spielberg conveyed ultra-realism with harrowing intensity. "Omaha Beach was actually an 'X' setting," says Spielberg, "even worse than 'NC-17,' and I just kind of feel that (I had) to tell the truth about this war at the end of the century, 54 years later. I wasn't going to add my film to a long list of pictures that make World War II 'the glamorous war,' 'the romantic war.'"
Howard Hawks's 1932 masterpiece is a dark, brutally violent film depicting the horror of mob intimidation. Paul Muni gives his best performance as the thug Tony Camonte, who gradually insinuates himself as the leader of a small ring of hoods, wooing away the boss's girl (Karen Morley) and further terrorizing his rivals with the latest in gang warfare, the tommy gun. But as Tony's thirst for power grows, so does his recklessness and temper, increasing his already frightening obsession with protecting his sister (Ann Dvorak) as well as sending him on a collision course with the law that won't end with a clean getaway. Hawks reverses the usual structure of the gangster tragedy: Camonte's not driven by his ego to challenge the world so much as to embrace its natural chaos and violence. The supporting actors include Osgood Perkins, Boris Karloff, Vince Barnett, and George Raft (flipping his coin).
Schindler's List (1993)
Based on a true story, Steven Spielberg's film stars Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, a German businessman in Poland hoping to benefit financially from the Nazis' rise to power. Schindler staffs his manufacturing plant with unpaid Jewish workers, including Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who Schindler brings in to help run the factory. As conditions under the Nazis worsen for the workers, Schindler's humanity eventually shines through and he bribes the Nazis to keep his workers out of the death camps. By the time Germany falls, Schindler has saved 1,100 people from likely death. The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg.
Expanded essay by Jay Carr (PDF, 568KB)
Scratch and Crow (1995)
Helen Hill's student film was made at the California Institute of the Arts. Consistent with the short films she made from age 11 until her death at 36, this animated short work is filled with vivid color and a light sense of humor. It is also a poetic and spiritual homage to animals and the human soul.
This film External (and others by Helen Hill) External is viewable online courtesy of Paul Gailiunas.
The Searchers (1956)
Considered by many to be John Ford's best film, it is equal parts majestic spectacle and soul-searching moral examination that anticipated the complex themes and characters that would dominate films of the 1970s. John Wayne, a Confederate soldier, returns after the war to find his niece has been kidnapped by Comanches and sets out to find her – not to rescue her, but to destroy what he sees as a creature no longer human. Is the film intended to endorse the racist attitudes of the main character (John Wayne), or to dramatize and regret them? Today we see it through enlightened eyes, but in 1956 many audiences accepted its harsh view of Indians. "New York" magazine called it the most influential movie in American history.
Sergeant York (1941)
Gary Cooper, in one of his favorite roles, won his first Oscar for his dead-on portrayal of Tennessee pacifist Sgt. Alvin York who, in an Argonne Forest World War I battle, single-handedly captured more than 130 German soldiers. A stirring bit of Americana, which appeared six months before America entered World War II as a nation and inspired Americans through the later conflict, "Sergeant York" contains three main segments all masterfully directed by Howard Hawks: York's life in Tennessee, the war scenes, and post-war scenes in New York City where his newfound fame briefly tempts York not to return to his Tennessee home.
Expanded essay by Donna Ross (PDF, 1054KB)
Two staples of 1960s cinema—evil organizations and the wasteland of suburbia—combine to drive this sinister tale about the perils of seeking a second chance, a life do-over. Bored with his banal marriage and unexciting daily grind, banker John Randolph meets the representative for a mysterious company offering the "too-good-to-be-true" opportunity to erase his current Scarsdale existence for a makeover in the guise of Malibu painter Rock Hudson. Headed by grandfatherly scion Will Geer and master-of-the-hard-sell executive Jeff Corey, "The Company" takes care of everything surrounding Randolph (in his new Hudsonesque persona) with business reps and human "seconds," in order to smooth his transition to a new life and keep him from spilling the lucrative-but-dark corporate secret. His new identify seems idyllic, but Randolph chafes with unease and demands a return to his now fondly remembered past average life. With no intention of imperiling its advertising message and humming assembly-line template for reborn humans, the company has a "third chance" plan in mind for Randolph: he learns "you can't go home again," in the wry words of a New York Times reviewer quoting Thomas Wolfe. Director John Frankenheimer crafts a memorably creepy sense of foreboding in "Seconds," aided immensely by the black-and-white cinematography, disorienting camera angles and lenses of cameraman James Wong Howe, as well as Jerry Goldsmith's eerie score. Critic David Sterritt lauds "Seconds" as "the third and crowning chapter of what's now known as Frankenheimer's paranoia trilogy" following "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May."
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Often seen as trite and sexist by contemporary standards, the story for this widescreen M-G-M musical directed by Stanley Donen centers on a 1850s backwoods family of lovestruck young men who resort to kidnapping to marry their sweethearts, cloistered away by the local townsfolk to protect them from the unsavory brothers. Outstanding musical numbers choreographed by Michael Kidd -- particularly the rousing barn-raising dance -- prove to be its most enduring quality. Howard Keel and Jane Powell star as the eldest brother and his new wife, and the remaining cast is comprised of top dancers including Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, Jacques d'Amboise.
The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928)
Humorist Robert Benchley's career was both varied and distinguished: essayist, member of the Algonquin Round Table, writer for "Vanity Fair" and "The New Yorker," actor in Hollywood features ("Foreign Correspondent") and several dozen short comedy subjects. "The Sex Life of the Polyp," Benchley's second short (following "The Treasurer's Report") features him as a daft doctor giving a droll but earnest lecture on polyp reproductive habits to a women's club.
Expanded essay by Steve Massa (PDF, 564KB)
sex, lies and videotape (1989)
Writer-director Steven Soderbergh explores the messy personal relationships and sexual mores of four friends (Peter Gallagher, Andy MacDowell, Laura San Giacomo, James Spader,) with a low-key style that creates a highly focused psychoanalysis of human impulses and inhibitions. This landmark film launched an independent film renaissance.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
One of Hitchcock's favorite themes to explore was the idea of "murder at the dinner table," that is, taking the horrors of murder and placing them in suburban environments, even making them popular topics among locals. "Shadow of a Doubt" is his most literal example of this theme, as a young girl named Charlie, portrayed by Teresa Wright, becomes terrified that her Uncle Charlie, with whom she has always been close, could be a serial killer. Hitchcock gives the movie and its setting a nice homey feel, a quiet little slice of Americana, which makes the main storyline even more disturbing. It's an intense film, with undertones that are incredibly dark, even for Hitchcock.
Expanded essay by Thomas Leitch (PDF, 480KB)
The making of John Cassavetes' "Shadows" was the culmination of an almost three-year filmmaking process as unorthodox and full of surprises as the film itself. Begun in early 1957, Cassavetes' feature directorial debut was a 16mm (later blown up to 35mm) experiment executed by a crew of mainly novice technicians and unknown actors. The plot focuses on Ben (Ben Carruthers) and Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), light-skinned African-American siblings passing for white in 1950s New York. Cassavetes' style, distinguished by personal expression and character study and devoid of rigid structure, was already apparent in this early work that poetically treats race and identity not as sociological discourse but as a sort of free jazz.
Expanded essay by Ray Carney (PDF, 308KB)
In this prime example of the "blackploitation" film (one made specifically for urban black moviegoers but whose appeal attracted a broader audience), Richard Roundtree stars as John Shaft, the coolest of cool private eyes. Moses Gunn is the dope-dealing racketeer who hires Shaft to track down his kidnapped daughter. Adapted by Ernest Tidyman from his novel, the movie comes to vibrant life whenever director Gordon Parks hits the streets of New York. The soul and funk-styled theme song by Isaac Hayes topped the music charts and won an Oscar for best original song.
George Stevens' western stars Alan Ladd as an ex-gunfighter pressed into defending a family of homesteaders portrayed by Jean Arthur and Van Heflin with Brandon De Wilde as their impressionable son. Their foes are an evil rancher (Emile Meyer) and his sadistic top gun (Jack Palance). Stevens fills the screen with expansive vistas, as he would do on an even greater scale three years later in "Giant." The film employs some of the longest dissolves in American cinema and Loyal Griggs' lush color cinematography further helps to establish landscapes of mythic proportions. Palance is superbly evil while Ladd juxtaposes warmth and mystery.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
From a modest start as a critical success, but something of a commercial bust upon initial release, "The Shawshank Redemption" now often rates as the top film in Internet Movie Database polling. Like many Stephen King novels and stories, it was adapted to film, but, as some critics have noted, the best movies have arguably resulted from the non-horror part of King's literary output (such as the novellas "Stand by Me" and "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption"). Banker Tim Robbins is wrongly convicted of the double murder of his wife and her lover. However, he spends much of his prison sentence beset by guilt over whether he contributed to her infidelity and consumed by the knowledge that he had seriously contemplated murdering her. Eventually, Robbins decides he must "get busy living or get busy dying" and plots a meticulous, long-term plan for escape. Critics have struggled at times to explain the immense public affection for "Shawshank," but perhaps it's due to the poignant Thomas Newman score and most importantly the moving character portrayals and deep friendship between inmates Robbins and Morgan Freeman, highlighting the abiding resilience of the human spirit.
She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Adapted by Mae West from her successful stage play and directed by Lowell Sherman, this is one of the key films cited as the impetus for the motion picture industry's stricter enforcement of its nascent production code. The suggestive musical number "Where Has My Easy Rider Gone?" was found particularly objectionable. Co-starring with West were Gilbert Roland who plays her estranged outlaw lover and Cary Grant, in one of his earliest roles, as a temperance union leader trying to reform saloon singer West.
Expanded essay by Randy Skretvedt (PDF, 307KB)
Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
A young movie theater projectionist and amateur sleuth (Buster Keaton) must solve the mystery of a stolen pocket watch in order to impress and win the love of the girl (Kathryn McGuire) he adores. Directed by Keaton and written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A. Mitchell, Sherlock, Jr. utilizes Keaton's trademark physicality and dry humor, fast-paced editing, and jump cuts, to create a comedic masterpiece that both acknowledges and embraces the cinematic medium.
Sherman's March (1986)
Director Ross McElwee's first feature-length documentary ostensibly focuses on the modern day impact of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman's famous March to the Sea on Southerners. While at MIT working on a master's degree in filmmaking, McElwee studied under documentarians Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus, both pioneers of the cinéma vérité movement, and refined his first person narrative approach. In the film, General Sherman's story intersects McElwee's own self-deprecating tale of life, love, and religion. It straddles fiction and nonfiction, comedy and drama, primarily through a series of impromptu interviews. "Sherman's March" won the Grand Jury prize in the field of documentary at the 1987 Sundance Film Festival.
The Shining (1980)
Director Stanley Kubrick's take on Stephen King's terrifying novel has only grown in esteem through the years. The film is inventive in visual style, symbolism and narrative as only a Kubrick film can be. Long but multi-layered, "The Shining" contains stunning visuals — rivers of blood cascading down deserted hotel hallways, disturbing snowy mazes and a mysterious set of appearing and disappearing twins — with iconic performances by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.
Shock Corridor (1963)
Director Sam Fuller's movies often were labeled too edgy and unseemly, with the ability to simultaneously grab and repel the viewer. Seen as Hollywood's tough guy, his style was most evident in his breakneck storytelling and central characters who defy easy categorization. In "Shock Corridor," undercover reporter Peter Breck gets himself committed to a psychiatric ward to flush out a Pulitzer Prize-worthy story. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez shot the film entirely indoors in ominously lit rooms and corridors, and editor Jerome Thoms amps up the hysteria with quick cuts that create a montage of disturbing behavior, violent outbursts, and dream sequences.
Renowned silent era writer-director Lois Weber drew on her experiences as a missionary to create "Shoes," a masterfully crafted melodrama heightened by Weber's intent to create, as she noted in an interview, "a slice out of real life." Weber's camera empathetically documents the suffering her central character, an underpaid shopgirl struggling to support her family, endures daily—standing all day behind a shop counter, walking in winter weather in shoes that provided no protection, stepping on a nail that pierces her flesh. Combining a Progressive era reformer's zeal to document social problems with a vivid flair for visual storytelling, Weber details Eva's growing desire for the pair of luxurious shoes she passes each day in a shop window, her self-examination in a cracked mirror after she agrees to go out with a cabaret tout to acquire the shoes, her repugnance as the man puts his hands on her body, and her shame as she breaks down in tears while displaying her newly acquired goods to her mother. The film, which opens with pages from social worker Jane Addams's sociological study of prostitution, was acclaimed by "Variety" as "a vision of life as it actually is ... devoid of theatricalism."
Expanded essay by Shelley Stamp (PDF, 379KB)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
This romantic comedy, one of director Ernst Lubitsch's most enduring works, takes place almost entirely within a store in Budapest shortly before World War I. James Stewart is the earnest, slightly awkward young manager; Margaret Sullavan is the novice clerk who gets under his skin. What neither realizes is that they're pen pals who have just begun to fall in love through each other's letters. As the romance develops, Lubitsch uses point of view to let the audience in on each character's experiences at just the right moment to heighten anticipation and empathy. The film was remade in 1949 as "In the Good Old Summertime" and in 1998 as "You've Got Mail."
Expanded essay by Kevin Bahr (PDF, 270KB)
Show Boat (1936)
James Whale's direction of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical, which was based on an Edna Ferber novel, is brilliant, at times because of its boldness, at others because of its restraint. The depiction of "Old Man River" proves among the film's greatest strengths in its pairing of Paul Robeson's heartfelt rendition of the spiritual-inspired showstopper with an expressionistic and inventive montage sequence. Irene Dunne as Magnolia and Allan Jones as Gaylord Ravenal are the young lovers torn apart by gambling. As the alcoholic torch singer Julie, Helen Morgan's performance is moving and sadly prescient. Helen Westley and Charles Winninger are delightful as Magnolia's domineering mother and henpecked father. The 1950s remake has lush Technicolor but not the heart and soul.
Expanded essay by Phil Hall (PDF, 1,013KB)
Show People (1928)
This silent gem directed by King Vidor showcased Marion Davies' deft touch for light comedy in a story about a young girl from Georgia who goes to Hollywood to become an actress. Befriended by a working actor (William Haines), the aspiring star gradually gets small comic roles but dreams of being a serious actress. When she finally gets her big break, she abandons her old studio and friends, but eventually sees the errors of her ways and is reunited with her actor beau. Gently skewering the industry that created it, "Show People" features cameos by some of the biggest stars of the era — including Charlie Chaplin and Davies as herself.
In his career, Julien Bryan, founder of the International Film Foundation, managed to amass a historical treasure trove of footage from foreign lands. On his way back from filming in Europe in 1939, Bryan became stranded in Warsaw during the German bombardment and blitzkrieg, where he managed to shoot and smuggle out an astonishing record of events in Warsaw. As the only neutral-country cameraman left in Warsaw when the Germans arrived, Bryan's footage is a unique, horrifying record of the dreadful brutality of war. One such scene shows German planes strafing Polish women as they dug potatoes for their hungry families.
This film is online courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum External
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jodie Foster, Sir Anthony Hopkins and director Jonathan Demme won accolades for this chilling thriller based upon a book by Thomas Harris. Foster plays rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling who must tap into the disturbed mind of imprisoned cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in order to aid her search for a murderer and torturer still at large. A film whose violence is as much psychological as graphic, "Silence of the Lambs"—winner of Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay—has been celebrated for its superb lead performances, its blending of crime and horror genres, and its taut direction that brought to the screen one of film's greatest villains and some of its most memorable imagery.
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
This rollicking musical satire of Hollywood in the 1920s when film transitioned from silent to sound features outstanding performances by Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Jean Hagen, and Gene Kelly who co-directed the film with Stanley Donen. Don Lockwood (Kelly) is the reigning king of silent movies and his regular co-star Lina Lamont (Hagen), while beautiful, is dumb but manipulative. When Don becomes interested in fresh-faced studio singer Kathy Selden (Reynolds), Lina has her fired. When talkies take off, Don and Lina's stardom appears to be over as audiences laugh at Lina's shrill voice for the first time. Don's friend and creative partner Cosmo (O'Connor) comes up with the brilliant idea of using Kathy to dub Lina's voice. Now considered one of the greatest musicals ever filmed, it's filled with memorable songs, lavish routines and Kelly's fabulous song-and-dance number performed in the rain.
Sink or Swim (1990)
In this autobiographical tale told in voice-over by a teenage girl (Jessica Lynn), Su Friedrich relates a series of 26 short vignettes that reveal a subtext of a father preoccupied by his career and of a daughter emotionally scarred by his behavior. Black-and-white film clips of ordinary daily activities illustrate Friedrich's poetically powerful text to create a complex and intense film. Of this work, which garnered numerous festival awards, Friedrich wrote, "The issue for me is to be more direct, or honest, about my experiences, but also to be analytical. ‘Sink or Swim' is personal, but it's also very analytical, or rigorously formal." Friedrich's films and videos have been featured in retrospectives at major museums and festivals, and she has received both Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships. Michael Zryd wrote in Senses of Cinema: "The textures, cinematic and emotional, of Friedrich's work are both private and highly mediated, embodying an aesthetic style and range of concerns that make her one of the most innovative and accessible artists currently working in the dynamic tradition of the modernist American Avant-Garde."
The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)
Having virtually established animation as a viable medium through films such as "Little Nemo" (1911) and "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914), newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay produced this propaganda short (combining animation, editorial cartoon and live-action documentary techniques) to stir Americans into action after a German submarine sank the British liner RMS Lusitania in 1915, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. McCay was upset with the isolationist sentiment present in the country and at his employer, the Hearst newspapers chain. It took McCay nearly two years working on his own to produce the film, debuting a year after America entered the war. Nevertheless, this is a significant film historically and a notable early example of animation being used for a purpose other than comedy. In his seminal "American Silent Film," William K. Everson called the film "a wartime film that was both anti-German propaganda and an attempt to provide a documentary reconstruction of a major news event not covered by regular newsreel cameramen. The incredibly detailed drawings of the Lusitania, intercut with inserts of newspaper headlines relative to the notable victims, and strongly-worded editorializing sub-titles concerning the bestiality of the Hun, make this a fascinating and seldom-repeated experiment."
Sky High (1922)
Western star Tom Mix, dubbed King of the Cowboys, portrays a government agent in pursuit of a ring of smugglers who Newbury has discovered are trafficking in Chinese immigrants. The pursuit eventually leads to a showdown in the Grand Canyon where many scenes in the film were shot. A romance with a character portrayed by Eva Novak dominates one of the subplots of the story written and directed by former newspaper reporter Lynn Reynolds. Mix, the antithesis of reigning Western hero William S. Hart, was easygoing, wore flashy gear and did his own stunts, a style that set a standard for cowboy stars that lasted decades.
Along with "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" (1989), "Slacker" is widely regarded as a touchstone in the blossoming of American independent cinema during the 1990s. A free-floating narrative, the film follows a colorful and engaging assortment of characters in Austin, Texas, throughout the course of a single day as they ruminate on UFOs, Scooby Doo, Leon Czolgosz and many other things. Shot on 16mm film with a budget of $23,000, director Richard Linklater dispensed with a structured plot in favor of interconnected vignettes. This resulted in a film of considerable quirky charm that has influenced a whole generation of independent filmmakers. "Slacker" was eventually picked up by a major distributor and earned more than $1 million at the box office.
Smoke Signals (1998)
Native American directors are a rarity in Hollywood. After the early silent film pioneers James Young Deer and Edwin Carewe, the portrayal of Native Americans in cinema turned dark and stereotypical. These social trends started changing with motion pictures like the groundbreaking "Smoke Signals," generally considered to be the first feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans. Director Chris Eyre uses the relaxed road-movie concept to create a funny and unpretentious look at Native Americans in the nation's cinema and culture. The mostly Native American cast features Adam Beach and Evan Adams as the two road warriors who find themselves on a hilarious adventure. Beneath the highly entertaining façade, the film acquainted non-Native American audiences with real insights into the indigenous Americans' culture. Sherman Alexie penned the witty, droll script based his book "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." This Miramax release was a big hit on the independent film circuit and won numerous awards, including a Sundance award.
Snow White (1933)
Four years before Walt Disney made "Snow White" the star of an animated motion picture, the Fleischer brothers -- director Dave and producer Max -- turned the spunky, sexy Betty Boop (voiced by Mae Questel) into the fairy tale damsel. Trouble starts when the queen's magic mirror says Betty Boop is fairest in the land and is ordered to be beheaded. Another Fleischer stalwart, Koko the Clown, is voiced by Cab Calloway and sings "St. James Infirmary Blues" in a spooky cave full of flying skeletons and floating ghosts.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
A virtual watercolor painting come to life, the details in the Disney animation never fail to amaze. The kind and beautiful Snow White charms every creature in the kingdom except one - her jealous stepmother, the Queen. When the Magic Mirror proclaims Snow White the fairest one of all, she must flee into the forest, where she befriends the lovable seven dwarfs. When the Queen tricks Snow White with an magic apple, only a kiss from her true love can save her.
Expanded essay by J.B. Kaufman (PDF, 576KB)
So's Your Old Man (1926)
While W.C. Fields' talents are better suited for sound films — where his verbal jabs and asides still delight and astound — Fields also starred in some memorable silent films. Fields began his career as a vaudevillian juggler and that humor and dexterity shines through in "So's Your Old Man." The craziness is aided immeasurably through the deft comic touches of director Gregory LaCava. In the film, Fields plays inventor Samuel Bisbee, who is considered a vulgarian by the town's elite. His road to financial success takes many hilarious detours including a disastrous demo for potential investors, a bungled suicide attempt, a foray into his classic "golf game" routine and an inspired pantomime to a Spanish princess.
Expanded essay by Steve Massa (PDF, 502KB)
Solomon Sir Jones films (1924-28)
Solomon Sir Jones was a Baptist minister and businessman who also had an important career as an accomplished amateur filmmaker. Jones was born in Tennessee to former slaves and grew up in the South before moving to Oklahoma in 1889. As described on the website of Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Solomon Sir Jones films in Yale's collection consist of 29 silent black-and-white films documenting African-American communities in Oklahoma from 1924 to 1928. They contain nearly 355 minutes of footage shot with then-new 16-mm cameras. The films document a rich tapestry of everyday life: funerals, sporting events, schools, parades, businesses, Masonic meetings, river baptisms, families at home, African-American oil barons and their wells, black colleges, Juneteenth celebrations and a transcontinental footrace. Jones also documented his travels. IndieWire termed these films "the most extensive film records we have of Southern and urban black life and culture at the time of rapid social and cultural change for African-Americans during the 1920's, the very beginning of the Great Migration, which transformed not only black people as a whole, but America itself." The Smithsonian also has nine reels of film, comprising approximately two hours of footage. The films have been preserved by Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
One of director Billy Wilder's best-loved films thanks to breakneck pacing, a touch of cynicism, and gender-bending and gender-celebrating jokes galore. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are the two musicians who disguise themselves as members of an all-girl orchestra in order to escape from gangster George Raft after the the pair of musicians witness a mob hit. Marilyn Monroe is the singing star of the band who dreams of marrying a bookish millionaire instead of the bums who always leave her with the "fuzzy end of the lollipop." "Some Like It Hot" marked the first of seven films that Lemmon would make with Wilder between 1959 and 1981 including "The Apartment," which is also on the Registry. With Pat O'Brien, Nehemiah Persoff, and Joe E. Brown, who gets one of the best punch lines in American cinema.
Expanded essay by David Eldridge (PDF, 327KB)
Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898)
According to scholars and archivists, this recently discovered 29-second film may represent the earliest example of African-American intimacy on-screen. American cinema was a few years old by 1898 and distributors struggled to entice audiences to this new medium. Among their gambits to find acceptable "risqué" fare, the era had a brief run of "kissing" films. Most famous is the 1896 Edison film "The Kiss," which spawned a rash of mostly inferior imitators. However, in "Something Good," the chemistry between vaudeville actors Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown was palpable. Also noteworthy is this film's status as the earliest known surviving Selig Polyscope Company film. The Selig Company had a good run as a major American film producer from its founding in 1896 until its ending around 1918. "Something Good" exists in a 19th-century nitrate print from the University of Southern California Hugh Hefner Moving Image Archive. USC Archivist Dino Everett and Dr. Allyson Nadia Field of the University of Chicago discovered and brought this important film to the attention of scholars and the public. Field notes, "What makes this film so remarkable is the non-caricatured representation and naturalistic performance of the couple. As they playfully and repeatedly kiss, in a seemingly improvised performance, Suttle and Brown constitute a significant counter to the racist portrayal of African Americans otherwise seen in the cinema of its time. This film stands as a moving and powerful image of genuine affection, and is a landmark of early film history."
The Son of the Sheik (1926)
Rudolph Valentino, who died at the age of 31 shortly after the film's release, inflamed female hearts for a final time in this slightly tongue-in-cheek adventure-romance. The son of an Arabian sheik (Valentino) falls in love with a dancer (Vilma Banky) whose father (George Fawcett) and his cronies are thieves. When the young sheik is mistakenly led to believe the girl seduced him as a front for her father's gang, he feels betrayed, and kidnaps her in revenge.
Expanded essay by Donna Hill (PDF, 800KB)
Sons of the Desert (1933)
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, along with comedian Charley Chase, star in this riotous comedy of fraternity and marital mishaps. Directed by veteran comedy director William A. Seiter for Hal Roach Studios, "Sons of the Desert" successfully incorporated into a feature-length film many of the comedic techniques that had made Laurel & Hardy such masters of short-subject humor. The film was ranked among the top 10 box-office hits after its release. Film scholars and fans consider it to be the duo's finest feature film.
The Sound of Music (1965)
One of the most popular movie musicals of all time, "The Sound of Music" is based on the true story of the Trapp Family Singers. Julie Andrews stars as Maria, a young nun in an Austrian convent who is sent off by the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood) to be governess for the children of widower Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). Maria wins over the children and eventually the stern captain, and the two fall in love and marry, only to return from their honeymoon as the Nazis overtake their country. The family covertly flees Austria to safety during a public musical performance. Directed by Robert Wise with a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the film features nearly a dozen tunes including the infectious "Do-Re- Mi," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "Edelweiss," "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and the title song. It earned numerous awards including best picture and best director Oscars, and solidified the status of Julie Andrews as bona fide movie star, a feat she began with "Mary Poppins."
Even among the mega epics being produced by Hollywood at the time (such as "The Ten Commandments" and "Cleopatra"), "Spartacus" stands out for its sheer grandeur and remarkable cast (Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov), as well as for Stanley Kubrick's masterful direction. The film is also credited with helping to end the notorious Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s – its producer, Douglas, hired then-blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to author the script, which was based on a book by another blacklisted author, Howard Fast.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
When "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" was restored for DVD release in 2004, the New York Times called it "a story of black insurrection too strong for 1973. "Based on a controversial best-selling 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee and with a subtly effective score by jazz legend Herbie Hancock, the film presents the story of a black man hired to integrate the CIA who uses his counter-revolutionary training to spark a black nationalist revolution in America's urban streets. Financed mostly by individual African-American investors, some commentators lambasted the film for its sanctioning of violence and distributor United Artists pulled the movie from theaters after a successful three-week run. Others appreciated its significance. Washington Post journalist Adrienne Manns, a former spokesperson in the black student movement, argued that the film "lends humanity to persons who are usually portrayed as vicious, savage, sub-humans – the street gangs, the young people who have in many cities terrorized the communities they live in." New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby commented, "The rage it projects is real." Ivan Dixon, the film's director known for his roles in "Hogan's Heroes" and as the lead in "Nothing But a Man" (1964), believed that the film did not offer "a real solution" to racial injustice, but projected instead "a fantasy that everybody felt, every black male particularly."
Expanded essay by Michael T. Martin & David C. Wall (PDF, 441KB)
St. Louis Blues (1929)
A two-reeler made both for "race theater" distribution and RKO's experiments with early recording of musical shorts in its theater chains, "St. Louis Blues" features the only film recording of Bessie Smith, "Queen of the Blues," backed by an outstanding cast of African-American artists. According to film historian Donald Bogle, the film "was marred by its white director's overstatement, but it was distinguished by Bessie Smith's extraordinary ability to express black pain. ... Haughty, husky, hungry, earthy, confident, and supremely committed to her music, Bessie Smith is magnificently larger than life here, a true dark diva, who lives up to her legend as one of America's great original artists."
Expanded essay by Mark Cantor (PDF, 836KB)
Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border was one of director John Ford's favorite locations for filming the western films that would come to define his career. With "Stagecoach," Ford forged a model for Westerns (and film drama as a whole) that would last well into the 21st century. A cast of outstanding performers including Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell in an Academy Award-winninger turn, and John Wayne in the role that would jetison him to stardom, portray passengers traveling across dangerous Indian territory by stage. Groundbreaking stunt work by Yakima Canutt contribute to action sequences that inspired countless filmmakers.
Expanded essay by Scott Allen Nollen (PDF, 708KB)
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Based on a true story, "Stand and Deliver" stars Edward James Olmos in an Oscar-nominated performance as crusading educator Jaime Escalante. A math teacher in East Los Angeles, Escalante inspired his underprivileged students to undertake an intensive program in calculus, achieve high test scores, and improve their sense of self-worth. Co-produced by Olmos and directed by Cuban-born Ramón Menéndez, "Stand and Deliver" became one of the most popular of a new wave of narrative feature films produced in the 1980s by Latino filmmakers. The film celebrates in a direct, approachable, and impactful way, values of self-betterment through hard work and power through knowledge.
A Star Is Born (1954)
What sets "A Star is Born" apart from other films of its ilk, including the original 1937 non-musical version, is its score by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, and the singing of Judy Garland, who performs the film's best number, "The Man That Got Away," in one long take. Under director George Cukor, Garland returned to the screen after a four-year absence to star as an aspiring actress who is mentored by an alcoholic film star Norman Maine (James Mason) whose career is waning. The two marry, whereupon her fame and fortune rises while his spirals sharply downward. Unable to accept his fate and fearing he'll take her down with him, Maine opts to ensure her success by committing suicide. Garland was nominated for an Oscar (as was Mason) but lost to Grace Kelly, a selection many still find baffling.
Star Wars (1977)
A legendarily expansive and ambitious start to the saga set in a galaxy far, far away, director George Lucas opened audiences' eyes to the possibilities of successful science fiction movies using special effects that are effective and intelligently integrated with the story. Young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is thrust into the struggle of the Rebel Alliance when he meets the wise Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Obi-Wan begins training Luke as a Jedi knight to combat the opposition, and the two head off and join mercenary Han Solo (Harrison Ford) on a daring mission to rescue the beautiful Rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the clutches of the evil Empire. Luke proves that he does indeed possess mystical powers known as the Force which he invokes to destroy the Empire's dreaded Death Star.
Stark Love (1927)
A maverick production in both design and concept, "Stark Love" is a beautifully photographed mix of lyrical anthropology and action melodrama from director Karl Brown. "Man is absolute ruler. Woman is working slave." Such are the rigid attitudes framing this tale of a country boy's beliefs about chivalry that lead him to try to escape a brutal father with the girl he loves. "Stark Love," cast exclusively with amateur actors and filmed entirely in the Great Smoky Mountains, is an illuminating portrayal of the Appalachian people.
State Fair (1933)
For director Henry King to create a film that celebrated an institution as beloved and indomitable as the State Fair, it required the presence of a cherished and steadfast star—in this case, icon, philosopher and America's favorite cowboy, Will Rogers. Rogers found a superlative vehicle for his homespun persona in this small town slice-of-life setting. He is assisted by Janet Gaynor (already the Academy's very first best-actress winner), Lew Ayres and Sally Eilers. Enhancing the fair's festivities, which include the making of mom's entry for the cook-off and the fattening-up of the family pig, are diverse storylines rich with Americana and romance—some long-lasting and some ephemeral, rife with fun but fleeting as the fair itself. The film's authenticity owes much to its director, widely known as the "King of Americana" through films such as "Tol'able David," "Carousel" and "Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie."
Expanded essay by Aubrey Solomon (PDF, 509KB)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
If Charlie Chaplin can be called the "poet" of American comedy and Harold Lloyd its "everyman" with a keen eye for contemporary tastes and attitudes, Buster Keaton can best be seen as an ingenious craftsman whose films adopt an outlook more in tune with later generations: his films with rare exception hold up better than those of his contemporaries. Born in Piqua, Kansas to vaudevillian parents, Keaton as a toddler was given the name "Buster" by Harry Houdini for his ability to survive falls. Keaton's fame rests on his array of work from 1920 to 1928 when, in both shorts and feature films, he displayed a seamless mastery of film comic technique, from superb cinematography and editing to brilliant, intricately visual gags. "Steamboat Bill, Jr." opens with ship captain Steamboat Bill (Ernest Torrence) awaiting the arrival of his long-unseen son (Buster Keaton) whom he hopes to groom as his successor. Keaton, fresh from Boston schooling, turns out to be a dandy wearing a striped blazer and sporting a ukulele. Impatient parent Torrence wearily begins the daunting makeover. The film is remembered for its breath-stopping stunts and cyclone finale. After making the film, Keaton made a disastrous move to MGM, which, combined with personal difficulties, ended his productive career.
Steamboat Willie (1928)
Generally thought of as the film that introduced the world to Mickey Mouse, "Steamboat Willie" proved a huge success and established Walt Disney as a key player in the animation industry, setting a standard that would influence all other animation pioneers. Mickey's character in the film is a nod to Buster Keaton's recent film "Steamboat Bill, Jr."
Expanded essay by Dave Smith (PDF, 358KB)
The Sting (1973)
Four years after the box office hit "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and director George Roy Hill re-teamed with similar success for "The Sting." Redford plays a Depression-era conman seeking revenge on the racketeer (Robert Shaw) responsible for the murder of his mentor. He enlists the aid of con artist extraordinaire Paul Newman to gather together an impressive array of con men eager to settle the score with Shaw. "The Sting" became one of the biggest hits of the early '70s and picked up seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Adapted Score for Marvin Hamlisch's unforgettable setting of Scott Joplin's ragtime music. The film boasts a strong supporting cast including Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Harold Gould and Ray Walston.
Stormy Weather (1943)
Though not the most imaginative of scripts or direction, the cast of this all-black revue distinguishes it among musicals of the day. Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and the Nicholas Brothers sing and dance to standards from the American songbook such as the title tune, "Ain't Misbehavin'," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and "The Jumpin' Jive." Andrew Stone directed with choreography by Katherine Dunham and musical direction by Benny Carter.
The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
William Wellman's gritty portrayal of the realities of war was based on the newspaper columns of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, played with understated realism by Burgess Meredith. In the film, Pyle follows a small group of ordinary infantrymen from North Africa into Italy, and his observations reflect the full gamut of human emotion that war invokes while trying to make sense of the inhuman randomness of war's destruction.
Expanded essay by Amy Dunkleberger (PDF, 1.07MB)
The Story of Menstruation (1946)
Sponsored by Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Kotex, this title was produced by the Walt Disney Company through its Educational and Industrial Film Division. Distributed free to schools and girls' clubs with an accompanying pamphlet titled "Very Personally Yours," the film used friendly Disney-style characters and gentle narration to "encourage a healthy, normal attitude" toward menstruation. Although a few such educational filmstrips were available before World War II, this version was seen as more progressive than previous offerings and, according to advertisements in "The Educational Screen," it replaced superstitions with "scientific facts" and dispelled "embarrassment." Some contemporary scholars, however, take issue with the approach. Sean Griffin of Southern Methodist University's Division of Film and Media Arts and author of "Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out" suggests that Disney's abstract representation of the body "‘bleaches' the more ‘unsavory' parts of the lesson, such as making the menstrual flow white instead of red." According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls," approximately 93 million American women, mostly teenagers, viewed this film between 1946 through the late 1960s.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Jim Jarmusch has emerged as a leading figure in independent cinema, and this, his first major film, reflects his non-traditional style. From an earlier version of a script written with his punk rock musician friend, John Lurie, Jarmusch fashioned the piece into a three-part black comedy set in New York, Cleveland and Florida. His main characters, three disillusioned young people played by Lurie, Eszter Balint and Richard Edson, do little more than watch TV, go to movies and play cards. Citing inspiration from the works of Andy Warhol, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, Jarmusch has adopted a minimalist approach to his work that often straddles several languages and cultures.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Elia Kazan brought to the screen Tennessee Williams' classic play about fragile faded Southern belle Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) who comes to visit her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans and is assaulted verbally and physically by her boorish brother-in-law Stanley (Marlon Brando). On the fringes of sanity, Blanche tries in vain to escape her checkered past and start life anew, but her history comes back to haunt her when she becomes attracted to Stanley's friend Mitch (Karl Malden), setting the stage for a final brutal confrontation with Stanley. Brando, Hunter, and Malden had all starred in "Streetcar," on Broadway, where Blanche had been portrayed by Jessica Tandy. Brando lost out to Humphrey Bogart for Best Actor, but Leigh, Hunter, and Malden all won Oscars.
The Strong Man (1926)
A vaudevillian for much of his professional life, Harry Langdon was discovered and brought to Hollywood by Mack Sennett in the early 1920s but languished until 1925, when director Harry Edwards and then-gagman Frank Capra developed three features and several shorts for him. Their great success added Langdon to the fraternity of "The Four Silent Clowns" along with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In the film, Langdon plays the assistant of circus strong man Zandow the Great, who inevitably and most comically is forced to impersonate Zandow when the headliner is incapacitated. Langdon and Capra predated by five years Chaplin's "City Lights" with its story of a timid man in love with a blind woman, in this instance Priscilla Bonner, successfully mixing belly laughs with scenes of great emotional tenderness.
Expanded essay by Bill Schelly (PDF, 359KB)
A Study in Reds (1932)
This polished amateur film by Miriam Bennett spoofs women's clubs and the Soviet menace in the 1930s. While listening to a tedious lecture on the Soviet threat, Wisconsin Dells' Tuesday Club members fall asleep and find themselves laboring in an all-women collective in Russia under the unflinching eye of the Soviet special police.
Expanded essay by Patricia R. Zimmermann (PDF, 450KB)
Study of a River (1996)
Experimental filmmaker Peter Hutton is best known for his thoughtful and beautifully photographed ruminations on the co-existence of urban areas and natural waterways. His most renowned films focused on the Hudson River. "Study of a River" is a meditative examination of the winter cycle of the Hudson River over a two-year period, showing its environment, ships plying its waterways, ice floes, and the interaction of nature and civilization. Some critics have described Hutton's work as reminiscent of the 19th century artist Thomas Cole and other painters of the Hudson River School.
Expanded essay by Claudia Costa Pederson (PDF, 369KB)
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Director Preston Sturges is quoted as saying that "Sullivan's Travels" came about as "the result of an urge to tell some of my fellow filmwrights that they were getting a little too deep-dish and to leave the preaching to the preachers." Joel McCrea, in one of his most memorable roles, plays a successful Hollywood film director who, having helmed only fluffy comedies, decides to make an important social drama and takes to the open road to experience the seemier side of America for himself. Though initially discouraged by his studio bosses (Robert Warwick and Porter Hall) they scheme to turn Sullivan's odyssey into a publicity stunt. Along the way he meets a disheartened wannabe starlet, Veronica Lake, who's giving up on Hollywod and headed home. From there hilarity -- tempered with romance and pathos-- rules the day.
Expanded essay by Julie Grossman (PDF, 397KB)
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans" explores the relationship between a farmer (George O'Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor) when the farmer's metropolitan mistress (Margaret Livingston) suggests he kill his wife so he can run away with her to the city. Directed by German auteur F.W. Murnau, "Sunrise" bears the hallmarks of German Expressionism and continues the director's tradition of introducing new technical methods of enhancing the storytelling process. "Sunrise" is perhaps most historically and technologically significant because it was the first feature film to be released using Fox's Movietone sound system, which allowed the film score and sound effects to be synchronized with the moving image by recording the soundtrack as an optical track on the same film that captures the image. "Sunrise" won multiple Academy Awards, including best actress for Janet Gaynor, best cinematography, and a special Academy Award for "unique and artistic production," the first and only time that award was ever given.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Arguably the greatest movie about Hollywood, director Billy Wilder's masterpiece is a combination of noir, black comedy, and character study. Aging silent-film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) persuades down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) to polish the behemoth of a script she's been laboring over for decades, and in the process he becomes her paid companion. One-time titan of the silent screen director-actor Erich von Stroheim adds to the gothic creepiness as butler Max. The film's often been parodied but its brilliant dialog, decadent production design and wide-ranging acting styles have never been topped.
Director Richard Donner's treatment of the famous superhero was not the first time the character had been on the big screen. Kirk Alyn played the role back in a 1948 serial and George Reeves appeared in both theatrical and TV versions in the 1950s. However, for many, Christopher Reeve remains the definitive Man of Steel. This film, an "origins" story, recounts Superman's journey to Earth as a boy, his move from Smallville to Metropolis and his emergence as a true American hero. Beautiful in its sweep, score and special effects, which create a sense of awe and wonder, "Superman" — as the tag line reads — makes you "believe a man can fly."
Suzanne, Suzanne (1982)
This insightful 30-minute documentary profiles a young black woman, Suzanne Browning, as she confronts a legacy of physical abuse and its role in her descent into substance abuse. The film was conceived by Browning's aunt, Camille Billops, as a sort of cinematic drug intervention. Family remembrances revealed the truth behind the addiction: Suzanne and her mother were victims of domestic abuse at the hands of the family patriarch. Armed with the key to her own self-destructive behavior, Suzanne struggles to understand her father's brutality and her mother's passive complicity. After years of silence, Suzanne and her mother are finally able to share their painful experiences with each other in an intensely moving moment of truth. Directed by Billops and James Hatch, this film essay captures the essence of a black middle-class family in crisis.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
A powerful New York newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster) is dead set against his sister (Susan Harrison) marrying a jazz musician (Martin Milner). A sleazy PR man (Tony Curtis) will do anything to get publicity for his clients, and he sees the columnist's situation as an opportunity to win his favor and sets out to break up the affair any way he can. The film was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, a British director best known for comedies like "The Ladykillers" and "The Man in the White Suit," from a script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. Mackendrick and cinematographer James Wong Howe capture the pre-Beat Generation era when jazz artists wear suits and ties, hair is cropped short, and everyone wants to appear cool.
Expanded essay by Andrea Alsberg (PDF, 423KB)
Swing Time (1936)
The sixth of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals features dance numbers set to six Jerome Kern tunes including "Never Gonna Dance," "A Fine Romance," and "The Way You Look Tonight." "Swing Time" is considered by many critics to be the duo's best film, thanks not only to the Jerome Kern score, but to the direction of the well-respected and perfectionist George Stevens, adept in helming any genre. Astaire, a painstaking craftsman in his own right, preplanned even the slightest gesture in his dances. Rogers was a performer, not a creator, but was willing to rehearse until her feet bled -- and did.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968)
William Greaves worked at the intersection of many cultural focal points, including as an original co-host and producer of the landmark "Black Journal" public television series. He, however, is perhaps best known for his prolific work as a documentary film director and producer. He was associated with more than 200 productions during his career. His best-known film, "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One," faced a strange, lengthy road to recognition. As recounted by Richard Brody in The New Yorker, Greaves shot the film in 1968 and completed production in 1971 in hopes of a debut at the Cannes Film Festival, but was turned down. The film then spent two decades unseen before being rediscovered by a Brooklyn Museum curator who premiered it at a retrospective of Greaves' voluminous work in cinema. Its acclaim grew and caught the attention of a later champion, actor/director Steve Buscemi. The film is a unique 1960s' time capsule, a telling look at the myriad tensions involved in film creation—a film on the making of a film—with three camera crews recording different parts of the process and personalities involved (director, actors, crew, bystanders). Though Greaves is undoubtedly the film's visionary auteur—notable for an African-American filmmaker in the 1960s—it is truly a film made collectively by Greaves and his multi-racial crew, whose staging of an on-set rebellion becomes the film's drama and its platform for sociopolitical critique and revolutionary philosophy. Filmed entirely on location in New York City's Central Park, with a score by Miles Davis, Greaves' film serves as a vivid tabloid of this heady historical era and a memorable document of this creatively prosperous period of American independent filmmaking. The New York Times' critic A.O. Scott lauded the film's creativity and imagination: "It is one of the great New York films, one of the great experimental films, one of the great '60s films, one of the great black films—just one of the great films, period, largely because it remains so fresh, so radical and so hard to assimilate more than 45 years after it was made."
Expanded essay by Maria San Filippo (PDF, 258KB)
The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)
This legendary film (the initials stand for "Teen Age Music International") is quite possibly the greatest rock and rhythm-and-blues concert on film. Considered wildly campy with screaming girls and "Shindig"-style go-go dancers, the film captures all the live immediacy of an astonishing line-up in an era when films commonly matched records to lip-syncing. A who's who of musicians creates magic onstage, from the Rolling Stones running onstage and plugging in their guitars to the show-stopping cape routine of James Brown.
Expanded essay by David E. James (PDF, 259KB)
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)
Utilizing a cast of natives, German director F.W. Murnau blends ethnographic curiosity with romantic drama as he examines the dangers faced by lovers who break the rules of society in Bora Bora. Best known for the more expressionistic "Nosferatu" and "Sunrise," Murnau dispenses with inter-titles and exaggerated gestures that typified most silent films, and reveals plot points visually through journal entries, newspaper articles and signs. The New York Times described it as a "picture poem" of 'paradise' and 'paradise lost.' Shot entirely in Tahiti, Floyd Crosby's lush cinematography won him an Academy Award. "Tabu" would be Murnau's last film; he died in a car accident one week before its premiere.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse (1940)
In November 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed due to a combination of high winds and poor construction. The local camera store owner, Barney Elliot, captured the undulating bridge with his Bell & Howell 16mm movie camera just before and as the bridge collapsed. Elliott's footage shows the bridge, nicknamed "Galloping Gertie," waving and twisting for several minutes before finally collapsing into Puget Sound.
The Tall T (1957)
Randolph Scott stars in director Budd Boetticher's psychological western about a man trying to rescue a woman (Maureen O'Sullivan) being held for ransom by outlaws played Richard Boone, Henry Silva, and Skip Homeier. the landscape is deftly stylized into dark interiors (caves, a fateful well) that punctuate the wide-open spaces. Boone makes one of the most memorable of Boetticher's witty, intelligent villains. Screenwriter Burt Kennedy adapted a story by Elmore Leonard.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 261KB)
"Tarantella" is a five-minute color avant-garde short film created by Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer of visual music and electronic art in experimental cinema. With piano accompaniment by Edwin Gershefsky, "Tarantella" features rich reds and blues that Bute uses to signify a lighter mood, while her syncopated spirals, shards, lines and squiggles dance exuberantly to Gershefsky's modern beat. Bute produced more than a dozen short films between the 1930s and the 1950s and once described herself as a "designer of kinetic abstractions" who sought to "bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding with the ... rhythmic cadences of music." Bute's work influenced many other filmmakers working with abstract animation during the '30s and '40s, and with experimental electronic imagery in the '50s.
Expanded essay by Lauren Rabinovitz (PDF, 261KB)
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
A rather steamy pre-Production Code Tarzan film, the second and generally considered the finest in the series, has Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) battling poachers and living a carefree life in the jungle. Jane's scanty costumes and "nude" swimming scene (performed by a double) rankled Production Code bigwigs, and the numerous sequels that followed would reflect more family-friendly sensibilities. Cedric Gibbons, who was responsible for the art direction on many lavish MGM films, began the picture as director, but was replaced by the more seasoned director Jack Conway during the shoot.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese packed an assortment of urban fears into this story of New York taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and his rampage against the "scum" of the earth. Scorsese, aided by cinematographer Michael Chapman, composer Bernard Herrmann and art director Charles Rosen, transforms the city into the personification of Bickle's twisted mind. Paul Schrader's screenplay, with its buried themes of sin and redemption, borrows heavily from French writer-director Robert Bresson's 1959 film "Pickpocket" to create one of American cinema's most European in artistic style. With Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, and Harvey Keitel.
The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
Ted Parmelee directed this animated short film adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's story of a murderer haunted by the sound of his victim's beating heart. Paul Julian served as both designer and color artist for the film, and Pat Matthews was the principal animator. Actor James Mason provides the narration.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
The film, which covers the life of Moses from the time he was discovered as an infant by pharoah's daughter to his struggle to free the Hebrews from their slavery at the hands of the Egyptians, would be director Cecil B. DeMille's final film and his most epic. Charlton Heston stars as Moses and is joined by the likes of Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, Anne Baxter, Yvonne DeCarlo and Debra Paget. The film's true star is its special effects, including the spectacular parting of the Red Sea, for which it won an Oscar.
The Terminator (1984)
In 1984, few expected much from the upcoming film "The Terminator." Director James Cameron, a protégé of legendary independent filmmaker Roger Corman, had made only two films previously: the modest sci-fi short "Xenogenesis" in 1978 and "Piranha Part Two: The Spawning" in 1981. However, "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. Most notable was Arnold Schwarzenegger's star-making performance as the mass-killing cyborg with a laconic sense of humor ("I'll be back"). Low-budget, but made with heart, verve, imagination, and superb Stan Winston special effects, "The Terminator" remains among the finest science-fiction films in many decades.
Expanded essay by John Wills (PDF, 314KB)
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
This is the feature film that made Canadian-born Mary Pickford, Hollywood's first movie superstar, a national icon and an international celebrity. The film is often credited with launching what was known as the "cult of Mary Pickford" in the early 20th century and was essential in shaping the actress' on-screen persona as a working-class heroine. The picture was so successful that it spawned a number of knockoffs and several remakes, including one by Pickford herself in 1922. The movie's director, Edwin S. Porter, was a former Edison cameraman who worked with Pickford on five of her earliest features. He is best known for two innovative silent shorts from 1903, "The Life of an American Fireman" and "The Great Train Robbery."
Expanded essay by Eileen Whitfield (PDF, 750KB)
Loosely based on stories by renowned Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem (whose work also inspired the stage play and motion picture "Fiddler on the Roof"), "Tevye" (also known as "Tevya" and Tevye der Milkhiker") is the story of a Jewish Ukranian milkman, his wife and their daughters, one of whom falls in love and marries the son of a Christian peasant. Tevye's paternal love causes tremendous inner conflict with his devout faith and loyalty to tradition, a foreshadowing of the growing conflict between Russian Christians and Jews in the early 1900s. The Yiddish language film was written and directed by and starred Maurice Schwartz who had performed the role of Tevye on stage two decades earlier.
Expanded essay by J. Hoberman (PDF, 389KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Screenwriter Callie Khouri began her script for "Thelma & Louise" with a single sentence premise: "Two women go on a crime spree." What emerged, from her word processor and eventually from the screen, became a feminist manifesto and a cultural flashpoint that eventually landed the film's stars, in character, onto the cover of "Time" magazine. Anchored by two career-defining performances from Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis (and a breakout early appearance by Brad Pitt), "Thelma & Louise" skillfully contrasts action-movie themes with a social commentary before building to an unforgettable climax. Directed by Ridley Scott, "Thelma & Louise" has become both a symbol of feminism.
Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988)
Charlotte Zwerin's insightful documentary of the jazz pianist-composer Thelonious Monk blends together excellent interviews with those who knew him best and riveting concert performances, many shot in the 1960s by Christian Blackwood. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, Stephen Holden noted, "Charlotte Zwerin's remarkable documentary ... reminds us again and again that Monk was as important a jazz composer as he was a pianist."
There It Is (1928)
One of the increasingly famous Charley Bowers surrealist shorts, this film combines live action with stop-motion object animation in settings where the usual rules do not apply. This "Scotland Yard investigates Haunted House" spoof features the adorable animated bug MacGregor.
Expanded essay by Steve Massa (PDF, 554KB)
They Call It Pro Football (1966)
Before "They Call It Pro Football" premiered, football films were little more than highlight reels set to the oom-pah of a marching band. In 1964, National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle agreed to the formation of NFL Films. With a background in public relations, he recognized that the success of the league depended on its image on television, which required creating a mystique. "They Call It Pro Football," the first feature of NFL Films, looked at the game "in dramaturgical terms," capturing the struggle, not merely the outcome, of games played on the field. Written and produced by Steve Sabol, directed by John Hentz and featuring the commanding cadence of narrator John Facenda and the music of Sam Spence, the film presented football on an epic scale and in a way rarely seen by the spectator. Telephoto lenses brought close-ups of players' faces into viewers' living rooms. Slow motion revealed surprising intricacy and grace. Sweeping ground-to-sky shots imparted a "heroic angle." Coaches and players wearing microphones let the audience in on strategy and emotion. "They Call It Pro Football" established a mold for subsequent productions by NFL Films and has well earned its characterization as the "Citizen Kane" of sports movies.
Expanded essay by Ed Carter (PDF, 281KB)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
The acrobatic and occasionally balletic moves Douglas Fairbanks performed in his films took audiences breath away. Many decades removed from the silent film era, Fairbanks still delights, and never so imaginatively as in this awe-inspiring Arabian Nights spectacular. Audiences were awed not only by Fairbanks' athleticism (and his beguiling joie de vivre) but looked on in wonder as William Cameron Menzies' sets drew them in to an exotic adventure.
Expanded essay by Joe Morgenstern (PDF, 748KB)
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
In his third feature documentary, director Errol Morris uses abstract re-creations to reconstruct the investigation of the 1976 murder of a Dallas policeman. Morris spent more than two years tracking down the various players in the case and convincing them to appear in the film, eventually uncovering a miscarriage of justice in the conviction of Randall Adams. The film was instrumental in overturning the verdict and Adams' release from prison in March 1989. The score was one of the first by minimalist composer Philip Glass, known for his music style of "repetitive structures," who would become one of the most influential musicians in the late 20th century.
The Thin Man (1934)
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, W.S. Van Dyke's "The Thin Man" introduced American audiences to Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), a married couple who solves mysteries with the help of their dog, Asta (Skippy). The film received multiple Academy Award nominations, including those for Best Actor, Best Directing, Best Writing (Adaptation) for Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and Outstanding Production (the equivalent of today's Best Picture). The popularity of "The Thin Man" spawned a number of sequels, resulting in a series of six films starring the Charleses, as well as a radio series in the 1940s and a television series in the 1950s.
The Thing from Another World (1951)
Production credits cite Christian Nyby as the director of this science fiction classic, but the producer, Howard Hawks, is most responsible for the film's thrills, strong narrative and well-defined characters. At the Arctic research station where they're working, scientists Robert Cornthwaite, Kenneth Tobey, and Margaret Sheridan discover the frozen pilot of a spacecraft that's been buried in the ice. The researchers take the pilot back to their station, where he comes to life and terrorizes the crew. In the climactic scene, the monster (James Arness) is engulfed in flames.
Think of Me First as a Person (1960-75)
"Think of Me First as a Person" is an astonishing discovery from the Center for Home Movies and its annual Home Movie Day, where once a year people in cities across the nation bring their home movies to screen. This loving portrait by a father of his son with Down syndrome represents the creativity and craftsmanship of the American amateur filmmaker.
This Is Cinerama (1952)
This full-length feature was designed to introduce audiences to the technologically revolutionary widescreen process of Cinerama. The film begins with narration by newscaster Lowell Thomas, shot in the usual 4:3 aspect ratio, then opens to a panoramic display of images projected simultaneously from three synchronized 35mm projectors onto a huge, deeply curved screen. The images included scenes of a roller coaster, Niagara Falls, a bullfight, a water skiing show, and aerial shots from a low-flying plane. Cinerama's impact was felt throughout the 1950s as studios competed to develop their own widescreen formats, however, by the early 1960s its novelty had worn off. Cinerama can be viewed today as a prototype of the Imax format.
Expanded essay by Kyle Westphal (PDF, 724KB)
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
When "This is Spinal Tap" debuted in 1984 it inspired a new film genre: the "mockumentary." Its stars-writers Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer – all of them musicians – first appeared as the band on a 1979 TV pilot, and director Rob Reiner and "the band" produced a 20-minute demo reel to sell their improv idea to studio execs. Many of these ad-libbed scenes appear in the final movie -- its cinematic style approximating rock documentaries like "The Last Waltz" and "Gimme Shelter." Critic Roger Ebert observed that the film's satire "has a deft, wicked touch" which audiences embraced only modestly upon its theatrical release, but has since grown a cult following and greater success on home video.
The Three Little Pigs (1933)
Voted among the best cartoons of all time in a 1990s animators' poll, "The Three Little Pigs" was one of a series of Silly Symphony shorts on which Walt Disney practiced and refined his art on the way to his first Technicolor masterpiece: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Wildly popular, this film pushed the envelope in "personality animation"— each of the three pigs had a different personality—and the title tune "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" became a Depression-era anthem.
(see "Michael Jackson's Thriller")
A Time for Burning (1966)
Hailed by Fred Friendly as "the best civil rights film ever made," this documentary by Bill Jersey chronicles the ultimately unsuccessful attempts of a Nebraska Lutheran minister to integrate his church. Contains some of the best observational "fly on the wall" footage ever filmed, filled with incisive scenes showing people struggling with their prejudices, anger, disillusionment, changing social times and hopes for the future.
Expanded essay by Ed Carter (PDF, 368KB)
A Time Out of War (1954)
Easily in the pantheon of best student films ever produced, "A Time Out of War" managed to beat the odds and win the Oscar for best short film. Two Union soldiers and one Confederate soldier declare a temporary truce in this sensitive, elegantly unhurried film that helped put student filmmaking on the cultural map.
Time and Dreams (1976)
Created in 1976 by Mort Jordan, a student at Temple University, "Time and Dreams" is a unique and personal elegiac approach to the civil rights movement. The filmmaker has described "Time and Dreams" as a personal journey back to his Alabama home, where he contrasts two societies: the nostalgia some residents have for past values versus the deferred dreams of those who are well past waiting for their time to fully participate in the promise of their own dreams. Through vignettes and personal testimonies, the film portrays Greene County, Alabama, as its people move toward understanding and cooperation in a time of social change.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Told largely with revealing news clips and archival footage interspersed with personal reminiscences, "The Times of Harvey Milk," directed by Rob Epstein, vividly recounts the life of San Francisco's first openly gay elected city official. The film, which received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, traces Harvey Milk's ascent from Bay Area businessman to political prominence as city supervisor and his 1978 assassination, which also claimed the life of San Francisco mayor George Moscone. While illuminating the effect that Milk had on those who knew him, the film also documents the nascent gay rights movement of the 1970s. The film, with its moving and incisive portrait of a city, a culture and a struggle—as well as Harvey Milk's indomitable spirit—resonates profoundly as a historical document of a grassroots movement gaining political power through democratic means.
Tin Toy (1988)
This innovative short cartoon and precursor to the blockbuster feature "Toy Story" won an Oscar and helped Pixar Studios revolutionize American animation. Written and directed by John Lasseter, the film depicts a destructive baby's playtime from a frightened tin toy's point of view. Despite a clunky foray into human characters, this is one of Pixar's best short subjects.
James Cameron's epic retold the story of the great maritime disaster and made mega-stars of both its leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Their upstairs-downstairs romance transported the audience to another world and time via spectacular sweeping scenes in the bow of the ship and beyond. The film cost $200 million to produce, leading many to predict a historic box office disaster, but "Titanic" became one of the top-grossing films of all-time and a cultural touchstone of the era. Newsweek's David Ansen spoke of how Cameron managed to fulfill expectations for the film: "When Cameron's camera pulls back from a closeup of the exuberant DiCaprio at the bow of the ship and lifts to peer down from the sky at the Titanic passing majestically underneath, you feel the kind of jaw-dropping delight you felt as a child overwhelmed by the sheer size of Hollywood's dreams. ‘Titanic' is big, bold, touchingly uncynical filmmaking."
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Director Ernst Lubitsch's film is a black and occasionally slapstick comedy about a Polish theater company--led by the ham acting husband and wife team of Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard)--that turns to espionage after being shut down by the invading Nazis. Though not particularly successful with either critics or audiences, it has grown in stature over time and is now appreciated as a complex and timely satire that delicately balances humor and ethics.
Expanded essay by David L. Smith (PDF, 697KB)
To Fly! (1976)
This documentary, which pioneered the ultra-wide IMAX format, follows the history of flight from the earliest hot air balloons to manned space missions. Commissioned by the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. for its grand opening, the film captures aerial panoramas of Niagara Falls, aerobatic maneuvers by the Blue Angels, the excitement of a rocket lift-off, and the serenity of hang gliding. Directed and co-written by Jim Freeman and Greg MacGillivray, the film is among the most popular diocumentaries ever produced and has garnered awards domestically and internationally.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Novelist Harper Lee's child's-eye view of southern bigotry is adapted exquisitely for film by screenwriter Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan. Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his performance, is country lawyer Atticus Finch who must defend a black man (Brock Peters) on a trumped-up rape charge. As the courtroom drama unfolds, the Finch children (Mary Badham and Philip Alford) learn about courage and self-respect. In his film debut, Robert Duvall plays the mysterious Boo Radley.
To Sleep with Anger (1990)
Beginning with his UCLA student film, the austere neo-realistic "Killer of Sheep," director Charles Burnett has carved out a distinctive and exalted niche in American independent cinema. Burnett often sets his films on a small scale but deftly explores universal themes, including the power to endure and the rewards and burdens of family. Critic Leonard Maltin called "To Sleep with Anger" an "evocative domestic drama about the effect storyteller/trickster (Danny) Glover has on the various members of a black family. More than just a portrait of contemporary black society, it's a story of cultural differences between parents and children of how individuals learn (or don't learn) from experience, and of how there should be no place for those who cause violence and strife."
Tol'able David (1921)
Henry King 50-year career in Hollywood, reputation for capturing the values, culture, history, personality, and character of the nation. His nostalgia was honest, and often bittersweet. In "Tol'able David," King tells a coming-of-age story about a youth who must overcome savage, bullying neighbors as he takes on his first job delivering mail in rural Virginia. "Tol'able David" was studied by Russian filmmakers of the 1920s. They were inspired by King's memorable conjunctions of shots that evoked personalities and emotions without a need for explanatory titles. "Tol'able David" remains a powerful drama and is also known for its craftsmanship, which was tremendously influential on subsequent filmmaking.
Expanded essay by Fritzi Kramer (PDF, 380KB)
Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969-1971)
Considered a landmark of experimental cinema and one of filmmaker Ken Jacobs' most popular films, "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son" was created by re-photographing a 1905 paper print short film as a means of exploring the parameters of film art and the act of watching films. Through techniques ranging from slow and studied examinations of individual paper print images to probing experiments in manipulation of motion and light, Jacobs created a "structuralist film" masterpiece.
An unsuccessful actor (Dustin Hoffman) disguises himself as a woman to land a role on a soap opera. As the assertive Dorothy Michaels, he confronts sexist double-standards, and discovers that the experience makes him a better man. The film is directed by Sydney Pollack, who appears in the film alongside Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Teri Garr, and Jessica Lange, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Expanded essay by Brian Scott Mednick (PDF, 242KB)
Top Gun (1986)
Though a wag might be tempted to call this Tony Scott film "The Testosterone Chronicles," the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production actually comprises a deft portrait of mid-1980s America, when politicians promised "Morning in America Again," and singers crooned "God Bless the U.S.A." The U.S. Navy, for one, did not complain: applications to naval aviation schools soared in part as a result of this relentless, pulsating film famed for its vertiginous fighter-plane sequences. Scott, always most at home when crafting slick, visually arresting action-set pieces with distinctive flair, delivers on all fronts. Among others, director Christopher Nolan has highlighted "Top Gun" for the clear influence of the film's celebrated visual style on future filmmakers. Tom Cruise here graduated to the top echelon of in-demand actors, aided by his good looks, cocky attitude, omnipresent smile, and brazen attempts to woo and secure steamy personal time with (at first amused and later swooning) civilian instructor Kelly McGillis.
Top Hat (1935)
The fourth pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the first with a screenplay written specifically for them, "Top Hat" is the quintessential Astaire-Rogers musical, complete with a contrived story of mistaken identity, romance, dapper outfits, art deco sets, plenty of dazzling dance numbers and an array of wonderful songs, including perhaps the most famous Astaire-Rogers duet, "Cheek to Cheek." This effervescent musical proved the perfect tonic for Depression-era audiences, even if it was merely a reworking of the dance team's earlier "The Gay Divorcee."
Expanded essay by Carrie Rickey (PDF, 607KB)
The Topaz Relocation Center, located 140 miles south of Salt Lake City, was one of 10 internment camps during World War II that housed thousands of Japanese Americans perceived as "alien enemies." Internee Dave Tatsuno smuggled a Bell & Howell 8mm camera and color film into the guarded camp, and for two years recorded daily activities including church services, birthdays, meal preparation, snowstorms and sunsets. Tatsuno's footage, a total of nine rolls of Kodachrome film that runs approximately 48 minutes, is the only color motion pictures of life inside an internment camp, and often features smiling evacuees. Tatsuno observed that his films lacked "the fear, the loneliness, the despair and the bitterness that we felt."
Expanded essay by Karen L. Ishizuka (PDF, 379KB)
View this film at Discover Nikkei External, a community website celebrating people of Japanese descent who have migrated and settled throughout the world.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles directed, coscripted and costarred in one of cinema's most influential and audacious suspense dramas about a honeymoon couple (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) being terrorized by corrupt officials (Welles and Akim Tamiroff) on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. The shadow-drenched cinematography of Russell Metty is remarkable and stands out right from the film's opening shot from high above in one long extended take.
Expanded essay by Michael Sragow (PDF, 596KB)
Toy Story (1995)
This film changed animation's face and delivery system as the first full-length animated feature to be created entirely by artists using hi-tech tools known today simply as CGI, for computer-generated imagery. Young Andy's current toys – including his longtime favorite, the loveable cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) – have to learn to live with his new and improved playmate, galactic superhero Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen). Director John Lasseter opens up the magical and hilarious secret world of toys in Pixar Studios' first feature, which would go on to give birth to several theatrical and home video spinoffs.
Traffic in Souls (1913)
This sensational exposé of "white slavery" (forced prostitution) captivated the country upon its 1913 release and presaged the Hollywood narrative film. At six reels, its length was nearly unheard of at the time, save for a few biblical epics. Although arguably an exploitation film, the film's riveting sociology is gripping in its portrayals of methods used to entrap working women and immigrants. "Traffic in Souls" holds up well today because of its verve and location shooting.
Expanded essay by Marilyn Ferdinand (PDF, 375KB)
Trance and Dance in Bali (1936-39)
Husband and wife anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead ventured to the island of Bali (now Indonesia) in 1936 to document the country's culture including such behaviors as parent-child interactions, artists at work, and ritual performances and ceremonies in which participants meditate to reach a half-conscious state in order to commune with spirits of ancestors. When possessed by these spirits, those involved may perform unusual acts such as eating glass or fire, until they are brought out of the trance by a shaman. While Mead and Bateson's field work is still considered groundbreaking for illustrating how film could be used as a research tool, it has been criticized, particularly for not accounting sufficiently for the role of religion in Balinese culture.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Huston wrote and directed this intense character study of gold fever among an unlikely trio of prospectors (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director's father, Walter Huston). Bogart is outstanding as the pathetic bully Fred C. Dobbs, a tragic hero brought down precisely by his flaws. Walter Huston won an Oscar for best supporting actor as a giddy, grizzled old-timer. Critic Roger Ebert noted the film's "pitiless stark realism" that gives the film its honesty and truth.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
Encouraged by her idealistic, alcoholic father (James Dunn), a bright and imaginative young girl (Peggy Ann Garner) comes of age in a Brooklyn tenement during the early 1900s. Elia Kazan, in his directorial debut, molds a faithful screenplay by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis from the Betty Smith novel into a sensitive film with strong performances. Dunn, who won an Oscar, is joined by Dorothy McGuire as the hard-edged wife and mother, Joan Blondell as the irrepressible aunt and Lloyd Nolan as the kind, honest cop on the beat. The 13-year-old Garner received a special Oscar for her portrayal of the aspiring writer, Francie. Critic Bosley Crowther remarked on Kazan's "easy naturalness that has brought out all the tone of real experience in a vastly affecting film."
A Trip Down Market Street (1906)
This 13-minute film was recorded by placing a movie camera on the front of a cable car as it proceeded down San Francisco's Market Street. As a time capsule, the film showcases the details of daily life in a major American city, including the fashions, transportations and architecture of the era. The film was originally thought to have been made in 1905, but historian David Kiehn, who examined contemporary newspapers, weather reports and car license plates recorded in the film later suggested that "A Trip Down Market Street" was likely filmed just a few days before the devastating earthquake on April 18, 1906.
Expanded essay by David Kiehn (PDF, 281KB)
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
The "Lubitsch Touch" -- an easy comedic elegance which characterized the films of director Ernst Lubitsch -- is epitomized in this frothy gem starring Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins as professional thieves who fall in love while plundering the Riviera. Saucy dialog delivered with mock melodrama runs rampant amidst sophisticated promiscuity when Marshall is bewitched by the wealthy Parisienne he intends to fleece (Kay Francis), the thieves find they're not as thick as they thought.
Tulips Shall Grow (1942)
George Pal created his "Puppetoons" while living in Europe in the 1930s. These animated puppet films are distinguished by a technique known as replacement animation in which multiple puppets (or multiple parts of puppets) represent each action desired. While this process required extensive planning and labor before production began, once the puppets were created, they could be reused endlessly. Pal came to the U.S. in 1940 to work for Paramount where one of his earliest projects was "Tulips Shall Grow." The film depicts a Dutch boy and girl whose carefree life is destroyed when they are overrun by a group of mechanical men called "The Screwballs." Seen as a not-so-subtle metaphor for the conquest of Holland by the Nazis, the cartoon was nominated for an Academy Award as best animated short subject.
Expanded essay by Mark Mayerson (PDF, 236KB)
Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
Based on an actual Air Force bomber group, this Henry King-directed drama is one of the first films to take a complex look at World War II heroism. It depicts the physical and emotional stress of day-in and day-out flight combat and shows both pilots and officers as vulnerable individuals. Gregory Peck plays a callous general the brass brings in to replace a commander (Gary Merrill) deemed too undisciplined and sympathetic to effectively lead the squadron. Dean Jagger portrays an introspective veteran of the First World War who serves as the glue holding together the frayed ends of the beleaguered squadron. In addition to the fine acting, "Twelve O'Clock High" features impressive camerawork by Leon Shamroy who masterfully captures the harrowing tension of a dangerous aerial attack.
Expanded essay by Luisa F. Ribeiro (PDF, 594KB)
Twentieth Century (1934)
A satire on the theatrical milieu and its oversized egos, "Twentieth Century" marked the first of director Howard Hawks' frenetic comedies that had leading actors of the day "make damn fools of themselves." In Hawks' words, the genre became affectionately known as "screwball comedy." Hawks had writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who penned the original play, craft dialogue scenes in which lines overlapped as in ordinary conversations, but still remained understandable, a style he continued in later films. This sophisticated farce about the tempestuous romance of an egocentric impresario and the star he creates did not fare well on its release, but has come to be recognized as one of the era's finest film comedies, one that gave John Barrymore his last great film role and Carole Lombard her first.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 515KB)
Two-Color Kodachrome Test Shots No. III (1922)
This two-color (green-blue and red) film was produced as a demonstration reel at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey under the direction of Kodak scientist John Capstaff. It features leading actresses Mae Murray, Hope Hampton, and Mary Eaton posing for the camera to showcase Kodachrome's superiority in capturing their translucent complexions and colorful costumes. Early on, color in film was achieved through laborious processes such as painting individual film frames by hand or overlaying stencils on prints and applying colors in sequence. These color additive methods were complicated and costly, and companies sought more efficient ways to reproduce the true colors of nature. Leading the way in the U.S. was Technicolor in 1912 and Eastman Kodak in 1914. Studios incorporated two-color sequences using Kodachrome and the rival Technicolor film stocks until three-strip Technicolor became the industry standard in the late 1930s.
Expanded essay by James Layton (PDF, 388KB)
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
In the late 1960s, following the success of such youth-oriented fare as "Easy Rider," Hollywood executives greenlighted a spate of innovative, low-budget films by young filmmakers influenced by European directors like Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni. One such film was the minimalist "Two-Lane Blacktop," which follows two "gearhads" (singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) in their souped-up '55 Chevy as they're challenged to a cross-country race by a middle-aged driver (Warren Oates) in a Pontiac GTO. The leisurely pace set by director Monte Hellman and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer bathes audiences in spare landscapes and car culture rituals that engender a myth of freedom promised by life on the road.
Expanded essay by Sam Adams (PDF, 633KB)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1914)
Harriet Beecher Stowe published her great anti-slavery novel in 1852. Adapted for the stage in 1853, it was continuously performed in the U.S. well into the 20th century. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was frequently adapted to movies after 1900, but always with white actors in the lead roles until this version, said to be the first feature-length American film that starred a black actor. Sam Lucas—actor, musician, singer and songwriter—had become famous in the 19th century for his performances in vaudeville and minstrel shows produced by Charles Frohman. In 1878, Frohman achieved a breakthrough in American theatrical history when he staged a production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," featuring Lucas in the lead role. Thirty-six years later, Lucas was lured out of retirement by the World Producing Corp. to recreate his historic role on film and, in the process, set an important milestone in American movie history.
Expanded essay by Stephen Railton (PDF, 385KB)
Under Western Stars (1938)
"Under Western Stars" turned Roy Rogers into a movie star. In the film, Rogers plays a populist cowboy/congressman elected to champion for small ranchers' water rights during the Dust Bowl. He and his golden palomino Trigger appeared in nearly 100 films and a long-running television series. Known as "King of the Cowboys," the popular Rogers had an enormous impact on American audiences. Rogers was perceived as the almost perfect embodiment of what a cowboy should be in appearance, values, good manners and chivalrous behavior.
Expanded essay by Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss (PDF, 389KB)
Clint Eastwood directed and stars as a reformed alcoholic killer, now a widower, father, and failing hog farmer who's lured into a bounty hunt by a brash kid (Jaimz Woolvett) and persuades an old partner (Morgan Freeman) to join them. With Frances Fisher, Anna Thomson, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris.
At the time "Unmasked" was released, Grace Cunard rivaled daredevils Pearl White ("The Perils of Pauline") and Helen Holmes ("The Hazards of Helen") as America's Serial Queen. In the film, Cunard is a jewel thief pursuing the same wealthy marks as another thief played by Francis Ford, brother of director John Ford and himself a director and character actor. Cunard, in the mode of many women filmmakers of that era, not only starred in the film, but also wrote its script and parlayed her contributions into a directorial role as well. Produced at Universal Studios, the epicenter of female directors during the silent era, "Unmasked" reflected a style associated with European filmmakers of the time: artful and sophisticated cinematography comprised of complex camera movements and contrasting depths of field. With a plot rich in female initiative and problem-solving, Cunard fashioned a strong character who does not fit the image of traditional womanhood: she relishes her heists, performs unladylike physical exploits, manipulates court evidence, carries on with a man who is not her husband and yet survives the film without punishment. In essence, the character Cunard created echoed the woman behind the camera. Today, "Unmasked" serves as a succinct but illustrative example of the role of women in film history, as depicted in fact and fiction.
V-E +1 (1945)
The silent 16 mm footage that makes up "V-E +1" documents the burial of beaten and emaciated Holocaust victims found by Allied forces in the Nazi concentration camp at Falkenau, Czechoslovakia, as World War II ended in Europe. According to Samuel Fuller, who shot the footage while in the infantry unit that liberated the camp, the American commander in charge ordered leading civilians of the town who denied knowledge of the death camp to "prepare the bodies for a decent funeral," parade them on wagons through the town, and bury them with dignity in the town's cemetery. Fuller later became an acclaimed maverick writer-director known for crafting films that entertained, but nevertheless forced audiences to confront challenging societal issues. After making "The Big Red One," a fictionalized version of his war experiences that included scenes set in Falkenau, Fuller unearthed his "V-E + 1" footage and returned to Falkenau to comment on the experience for the French documentary "Falkenau: The Impossible Years."
Verbena tragica (1939)
In the early years of sound motion pictures, studios often filmed foreign language versions of American productions. Some utilized subtitles, others were dubbed. In some cases, American stars spoke foreign dialog from a script written phonetically on a blackboard just off camera. More commonly, however, the films featured an entirely different cast. Spanish-language productions were the most common of these alternate versions, thanks to sizeable Latino audiences in Los Angeles and other metropolitan markets, as well as those in Latin American countries. Directed by Charles Lamont and starring Spanish-born actress Luana Alcañiz and Mexican star Fernando Soler, this melodrama surrounds a boxer, released after eight months in jail, who comes home to a recently pregnant wife. Produced at low-budget Columbia studio, "Verbena tragica" was unusual for the multi-version formula in that an English-language version was never made, most likely due to the film's themes of adultery and revenge.
Expanded essay by Carl J. Mora (PDF, 424KB)
Few movies thrust its viewers into the heart of erotic obsession than Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." As Jimmy Stewart pursues mystery woman Kim Novak, whom he transforms into the image of the dead woman he loved, Hitchcock paints a vivid picture of the consuming and harrowing nature of desire. Stewart, a police detective debilitated by the dizzying effects of his acrophobia, is shown as a man free-falling into love, in a thrillingly and surprisingly compelling performance. Novak exhibits a slinky feline grace and alley cat passion in a mesmerizing dual role. The dreamlike images of this romantic tragedy are so eerily beautiful they become indelible in viewers' minds. Upon its release, few people considered the film Hitchcock's best. Many of the director's films were tenser, scarier, spine-tinglingly entertaining. But over time, "Vertigo" has percolated into our collective consciousness, and is now cited by film scholars and viewers alike as the greatest film of all time, displacing the previously perennial champion "Citizen Kane."
Expanded essay by Thomas Leitch (PDF, 614KB)
A Virtuous Vamp (1919)
Employing a title suggested by Irving Berlin, screenwriter Anita Loos, working with husband John Emerson, crafted this charming spoof on romance in the workplace that catapulted Constance Talmadge, the object of Berlin's unrequited affection, into stardom. During the silent era, women screenwriters, directors and producers often modified and poked fun at stereotypes of women that male filmmakers had drawn in harsher tones. The smiles of Loos' "virtuous vamp"—as embodied by Talmadge—lead to havoc in the office, but are not life-threatening, as were the hypnotizing stares of Theda Bara's iconic caricature that defined an earlier era. In this satire of male frailties, the knowing innocence of Loos' character captured the imagination of poet Vachel Lindsay, who deemed the film "a gem" and called Talmadge "a new sweetheart for America."
Expanded essay by Jennifer Ann Redmond (PDF, 261KB)
A Walk in the Sun (1945)
Though better known for his World War I masterpiece "All Quiet on the Western Front," director Lewis Milestone also directed the World War II classic "A Walk in the Sun." The film (Robert Rossen adapted the excellent script from the Harry Brown novel) tells the story of a group of men and "how they came across the sea to sunny Italy and took a little walk in the sun." The walk here is the struggle the platoon faces after surviving a beach landing near Salerno, Italy, and then having to fight their way a few miles toward a bridge and fortified farmhouse held by the Nazis. "A Walk in the Sun" forgoes the usual focus of war movies on fierce battle scenes for an episodic, perceptive character study of the men in the platoon, interspersed with sharp, random bursts of violence. The frequent conversations among the soldiers reveal the emotional stress they go through when faced with the day-to-day uncertainties of war, constant peril and the fear of death.
Film and TV actress Barbara Loden wrote and directed this affecting and insightful character study about an uneducated, passive woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania, where the cinema verite-like film was shot. The title character possesses critically low self-esteem, leaves her kids and husband and then drifts aimlessly into a series of one-night stands and a dangerous relationship with a bank robber. Today, many consider this low-budget study of loneliness and personal isolation one of the finest works of independent cinema during the 1970s.
War of the Worlds (1953)
Released at the height of cold-war hysteria, producer George Pal's lavishly-designed take on H. G. Wells' 1898 novel of alien invasion was provocatively transplanted from Victorian England to a mid-20th-century Southern California small town in this 1953 film version. Capitalizing on the apocalyptic paranoia of the atomic age, Barré Lyndon's screenplay wryly replaces Wells' original commentary on the British class system with religious metaphor. Directed by Byron Haskin, formerly a special effects cameraman, the critically and commercially successful film chronicles an apparent meteor crash discovered by a local scientist (Gene Barry) that turns out to be a Martian spacecraft. Gordon Jennings, who died shortly before the film's release, avoided stereotypical flying saucer-style creations in his Academy Award-winning special effects described by reviewers as soul-chilling, hackle-raising and not for the faint of heart.
Water and Power (1989)
Winner of a Sundance Grand Jury prize, Pat O'Neill's influential experimental work is in his own words "a landscape film that became animated by the beginnings of human stories." In this "city symphony," O'Neill juxtaposes images of downtown Los Angeles with scenes from the Owens Valley, Los Angeles' source of water. This was a brilliant examination of water in all its forms and the one-sided sharing of energy between the two places, representing nature and civilization.
The Way of Peace (1947)
Frank Tashlin, best known for making comedies with pop icons like Jerry Lewis or Jayne Mansfield, directed this 18-minute puppet film sponsored by the American Lutheran Church. Punctuated with stories from the Bible, the film's purpose was to reinforce Christian values in the atomic age by condemning the consequences of human conflict with scenes of the crucifixion, lynching and Nazi fascism. Wah Ming Chang, a visual- effects artist who specialized in designing fantastic models, characters and props, created the puppets for the stop-motion animation and also produced the film, which reportedly took 20 months to complete. The film is narrated by actor Lew Ayres, who starred in the anti-war film "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930). He was so influenced by that experience, that he became a vocal advocate for peace and famously declared himself a conscientious objector during World War II. The Reverend H. K. Rasbach, a frequent adviser on big-budget films such as "The Ten Commandments" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told," provided technical supervision and story concept. The film premiered at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., with more than 2,700 in attendance, including members of Congress, representatives of the Supreme Court and 750 leaders from various branches of government.
The Wedding March (1928)
Produced, directed, written by, and starring Erich von Stroheim, "The Wedding March" tells the story of poor Austrian aristocrat Nicholas Ehrhart Hans Karl Maria, Prince von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg (von Stroheim), whose parents are determined he marry for money to increase their family wealth. However, when the prince falls in love with Mitzi (Fay Wray), the daughter of an innkeeper, his plans are put in jeopardy. As was often the case with von Stroheim productions, "The Wedding March" went significantly over schedule and over budget due to the filmmaker's perfectionism. When von Stroheim's initial cut was deemed too long, Paramount took control of the editing process and the film was edited down to the version known today.
Expanded essay by Crystal Kui (PDF, 335KB)
West Side Story (1961)
This musical presentation of a Romeo and Juliet-like relationship amid the clashing cultures of young Puerto Rican emigres and bigoted New York street toughs boasts sets and production numbers even bigger and more elaborate than the successful stage version that preceded it. The film retained the play's music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, who co-directed with Robert Wise. The film's supporting cast, lead by Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, both Oscar winners for their roles, fared better with critics than its stars Natalie Wood and Richar Beymer, whose singing voices were dubbed and whom were considered by many to be miscast.
Westinghouse Works 1904 (1904)
This collection of 21 short films, shot in and around various Westinghouse companies near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, illustrates some of the earliest examples of what became known as industrial films. These highly illustrative shorts were produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (AM&B) and shot by acclaimed cinematographer Billy Bitzer, sometimes from overhead cranes. The films demonstrate tasks as mundane as punching a time clock and as complex as assembling and testing huge turbines. When screened for Westinghouse employees and later at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (the St. Louis World's Fair), live narration describing each scene accompanied the films.
What's Opera, Doc? (1957)
In this animation classic, Elmer Fudd's pursuit of Bugs Bunny is set to opera music and plays out on a Wagnerian scale. The film features such now-classic lines as "Kill the wabbit!" and is one of only three cartoons in which Elmer Fudd bests his rival Bugs. Directed by renowned animator Chuck Jones and his team at Warner Bros., this seven-minute short film is often considered to be Jones' cinematic masterpiece. It also holds the distinction of being the first cartoon selected for inclusion on the National Film Registry.
Expanded essay by Craig Kausen covers the three Registry films directed by Chuck Jones: Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, and What's Opera, Doc? (PDF, 602KB)
Where Are My Children? (1916)
Written and directed by Lois Weber, this dramatization of the moral and legal dilemmas associated with contraception and abortion is said to have been inspired by birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and her 1914 indictment for obscenity. Though Weber's style may appear heavy-handed and stilted by modern standards, she creates a thought-provoking film that forthrightly addresses an assortment of taboo subjects that rankled censors. Such "message dramas" were not uncommon at this point in the evolution of silent film, nor were women directors and writers, and Weber was among the most popular and commercially astute.
Expanded essay by Shelley Stamp (PDF, 329KB)
White Fawn's Devotion (1910)
James Young Deer is now recognized as the first documented movie director of Native American ancestry. Born in Dakota City, Neb., as a member of the Winnebago Indian tribe, James Young Deer (aka: J. Younger Johnston) began his show-business career in circus and Wild West shows in the 1890s. When Pathé Frères of France established its American studio in 1910, in part to produce more authentically American-style Western films, Young Deer was hired as a director and scenario writer. Frequently in collaboration with his wife, actress Princess Red Wing (aka: Lillian St. Cyr), also of Winnebago ancestry, Young Deer is believed to have written and directed more than 100 movies for Pathé from 1910-1913. Many details of Young Deer's life and movie career remain undocumented and fewer than 10 of his films have been discovered and preserved by U.S. film archives.
Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 281KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
White Heat (1949)
This pulsating gangster film was directed by Raoul Walsh and stars James Cagney as a mother-obsessed, psychopathic gangster exiting the world with the legendary "Made it, Ma. Top of the world" ending. One of the toughest and most brilliant crime films ever made, "White Heat" marked a breakthrough in the explicitly psychological depiction of screen bad guys.
Expanded essay by Marilyn Ann Moss (PDF, 919KB)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Described by Roger Ebert as "not only great entertainment but a breakthrough in craftsmanship," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" introduced a new sense of realism into the interactions between cartoons and live-action characters on screen. In this film noir comedy, set in a 1940s Hollywood where cartoon characters are real, private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired to prove the innocence of the accused murderer and uncontrollably crazy ‘toon' Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer), with memorable appearances by Roger's voluptuous wife, Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner) and the chillingly evil Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). The film evokes a love for the golden age of animation, represented through the construction of Roger Rabbit himself, who embodies Disney's high-quality animation, Warner Bros.' character design and Tex Avery's sense of humor. Executive producer Steven Spielberg worked tirelessly to negotiate the use of over 140 beloved cartoon characters in the film, making this the first time Warner Bros. and Disney characters shared the screen and the last time Mel Blanc voiced Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck before his death in 1989.
Expanded essay by Alexis Ainsworth (PDF, 99KB)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Edward Albee's 1962 stage triumph made a successful transfer to the screen in this adaption written by Ernest Lehman. The story of two warring couples and their alcohol-soaked evening of anger and exposed resentments stunned audiences with its frank, code-busting language and depictions of middle-class malaise-cum-rage. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton—who were both Academy Award nominees for their work (with Taylor winning)—each achieved career high-points in their respective roles as Martha and George, an older couple who share their explosive evening opposite a younger husband and wife, portrayed by George Segal and Sandy Dennis. "Woolf's" claustrophobic staging and stark black-and-white cinematography, created by Haskell Wexler, echoed its characters' rawness and emotionalism. Mike Nichols began his auspicious screen directing career with this film, in which he was already examining the absurdities and brutality of modern life, themes that would become two of his career hallmarks.
Why Man Creates (1968)
Saul Bass, the graphic designer and filmmaker best known for his posters and credit sequences for such films as "North by Northwest," "Anatomy of a Murder" and "Psycho," wrote and directed this animated Oscar-winning short documentary examining the nature of creativity. "Why Man Creates" is divided into eight sections, each preceded by a hand that writes the names and sub-categories of each chapter: The Edifice, Fooling Around, The Process, Judgment, A Parable, Digression, The Search, and The Mark. Co-written by Mayo Simon and financed by Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation, the film distills its narrative into metaphors represented by Bass's signature iconography.
Expanded essay by Sean Savage (PDF, 243KB)
Why We Fight (1942-1945)
Under the auspices of the Office of War Information's Bureau of Motion Pictures, Frank Capra directed a series of seven government training and propaganda films under the unifying title "Why We Fight." The films were narrated by Walter Huston, and most of the footage came from newsreels, studio libraries, government footage and from British and Russian sources. Capra and his crew had very few tools of the trade available to them: No actors, no dialog, no lighting, no sets. The one tool they did have was editing and the strength of "Why We Fight" lies in its editing. The seven titles in the series are "Prelude to War,""The Nazis Strike," "Divide and Conquer," "The Battle of Britain," "The Battle of Russia," "The Battle of China" and "War Comes to America."
Expanded essay by Thomas W. Bohn (PDF, 397KB)
Wild and Woolly (1917)
An Eastern railroad heir (Douglas Fairbanks) indulges his passion for the Wild West by traveling to Arizona at the behest of his father. The locals attempt to indulge his fantasy and, unbeknownst to Fairbanks, stage fake gun fights and Indian raids. But the joke''s on the townsfolk when Fairbanks thwarts real criminals and saves the day. Lacking the sensational antics of his later pictures, Fairbanks still manages to entertain and shows brief flashes of the derring-do that will become his trademark.
Expanded essay by Steve Massa (PDF, 225KB)
Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
Historians estimate that more than 250,000 American teens were living on the road at the height of the Great Depression, criss-crossing the country risking life, limb and incarceration while hopping freight trains. William Wellman's "Wild Boys of the Road" portrays these young adults as determined kids matching wits and strength in numbers with railroad detectives as they shuttle from city to city unable to find work. Wellman's "Wild Bill" persona is most evident in the action-packed train sequences. Strong performances by the young actors, particularly Frankie Darrow, round out this exemplary model of the gritty "social conscience" dramas popularized by Warner Bros. in the early 1930s.
Expanded essay by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (PDF, 321KB)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Viewed as hyper violent at the time of its release, this film seems almost tame by modern standards. Aging desperadoes out for a final payday learn too late and at too high a cost that they have become obsolete. Peckinpah's direction, brilliant performances by the entire cast, beautiful cinematography and most especially landmark editing make it a true American classic.
Expanded essay by Michael Wilmington (PDF, 541KB)
Wild River (1961)
Elia Kazan directed this often overlooked and visually stunning film, set in the early 1930s, about a Tennessee Valley Authority official (Montgomery Clift) who goes up against an elderly townswoman (Jo Van Fleet) bent on protecting her water rights at the expense of the community that will benefit from the agency's dam project. Further complicating the situation is the romance evolves between her widowed daughter-in-law (Lee Remick in a standout performance) and the TVA official. The film was scripted by Paul Osborn, and adapted in part from books by Borden Deal and William Bradford Huie.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
The cult of personality and its impact on the average consumer is skewered in this wry and risqué comedy by writer-director Frank Tashlin and starring Jayne Mansfield, herself one of the most popular mass media idols of the 1950s. Ambitious ad man Rockwell Hunter (Tony Randall) tries to use a sex symbol (Mansfield) to promote his product, and ends up being used as a pawn to make her boyfriend jealous. How the film made it past the censors is something of a mystery, and today it comes across as fresh and daring as it did in the 1950s.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Author Roald Dahl adapted his own novel, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote a memorable musical score, and producer David Wolper wisely cast Gene Wilder as Wonka in this film musical about a contest put on by an often-sadistic candymaker. Harkening back to the classic Hollywood musicals, "Willy Wonka" is surreal, yet playful at the same time, and suffused with Harper Goff's jaw-dropping color sets, which richly live up to the fanciful world found in one of the film's signature songs, "Pure Imagination." Wilder's brilliant portrayal of the enigmatic Wonka caused theatergoers to like and fear Wonka at the same time, while the hallucinogenic tunnel sequence has traumatized children (and adults) for decades, their nightmares indelibly emblazoned in memory like the scariest scenes from "The Wizard of Oz."
Expanded essay by Brian Scott Mednick (PDF, 452KB)
Winchester '73 (1950)
Actor Jimmy Stewart collaborated with director Anthony Mann on eight films during the 1950s. Most renowned was an influential series of five taut, psychological Westerns from 1950-55 revolving around themes of hidden secrets, vengeance, shifting personal morals and concepts of heroism. The movie "Winchester '73" launched their partnership. Film historian Scott Simmon calls "Winchester ‘73" "the La Ronde of Death, as opposed to the love that keeps the Schnitzler play in motion," and "the film where a gun is more of an object of worship than in any other American film." Ironically, in light of current debates about gun-carry rights, it's fascinating that even in this most gun-obsessed of movies, nobody is allowed to carry a gun in town. But for a man caught out in the desert without ammo, he has not "felt so naked since the last time I took a bath." Stewart's obsessive quests are to avenge the death of his father and pursue a Winchester rifle as it moves from one owner to the next, changing everyone into whose hands the gun briefly passes, and culminating in a justly-famous shootout amidst steep, rocky terrain.
The Wind (1928)
Southern waif Letty (Lillian Gish) moves to the untamed west to live with her cousin and his family, but her presence creates rifts within the family and inspires jealousy between two brothers Lige (Lars Hanson) and Sourdough (William Orlamond). In addition to family tensions and marital strife, Letty must contend with the neverending wind, which becomes a character in its own right, slowly driving Letty to the edge of sanity. Directed by Victor Sjöström and adapted from Dorothy Scarborough's novel of the same name, "The Wind" was one of the last silent films released by MGM before converting to sound and was the last silent film in which Lillian Gish starred.
Expanded essay by Fritzi Kramer (PDF, 283KB)
Dazzling aerobatic dogfights mark "Wings" as one of the last epics of the silent era and the first winner of the Oscar for what would become known as Best Picture. William Wellman, a former World War I pilot, directed John Monk Saunders' story of two childhood friends (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen) and the women who love them ("It Girl" Clara Bow and Jobyna Ralston). Short on story but long on action, the film employed a reported 17 assistant cameramen to choreograph its extended flying sequences and hundreds of Army extras, giving many in the audience the closest glimpse of flight that they would ever experience.
View it free at Paramount Vault
Expanded essay by Dino Everett (PDF, 522KB)
The Wishing Ring; An Idyll of Old England (1914)
Director Maurice Tourneur, called by film historian Kevin Brownlow "one of the men who introduced visual beauty to the American screen," arrived in America in 1914. Previously, he worked as an artist (assisting sculptor Auguste Rodin and painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes), actor and innovative director in French theater and cinema. Tourneur's third American film, "The Wishing Ring," was once believed lost until Brownlow located a 16mm print of the film in northern England. The print subsequently was copied to 35mm by the Library of Congress as part of an effort funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to preserve America's film heritage. At the time of its initial release, the film was admired for its light and pleasing cross-class romantic story, its fresh performances and the authenticity of its "Old England" settings—although it was shot in New Jersey. Historians of silent cinema have lionized the film since its rediscovery. William K. Everson praised its "incredible sophistication of camerawork, lighting, and editing." Richard Koszarski deemed it "an extraordinary film – probably the high point of American cinema up to that time."
Expanded essay by Kyle Westphal (PDF, 375KB)
With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain (1937-38)
This advocacy documentary about the Lincoln Brigade was shot during the Spanish Civil War to raise funds for bringing wounded American volunteers home. Some 2,800 Americans enlisted in the International Brigades to fight against fascism in defense of the Spanish Republic. The film was directed by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Herbert Kline and additional photography was provided by Jacques Lemare and Robert Capa. This film is held at New York University's Tamiment Library and is part of a vast collection of materials in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive.
Within Our Gates (1920)
Oscar Micheaux wrote, produced and directed this groundbreaking motion picture considered one of the first of a genre that would become known as "race films." Many critics have seen "Within Our Gates" as Micheaux's response to D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," in which African Americans were depicted as generally negative stereotypes, as they were in almost all films of the day. Despite Micheaux's limited budget and limited production values, it still effectively confronted racism head on with its story of a teacher (Evelyn Preer) determined to start a school for poor black children. Contemporary viewers may find it difficult to defend Micheaux's balancing act between authenticity and acceptability to white audiences, but that's what he believed was necessary simply to get the film made.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A genuine American classic, the film is based on L. Frank Baum's story of a little girl from Kansas who dreams of a better life somewhere "Over the Rainbow" and discovers a magical world of mysterious creatures. Outstanding performances — particularly by Judy Garland — fanciful sets and an unforgettable score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg combine to create cinema perfection
Expanded essay by Peter Keough (PDF, 649KB)
Woman of the Year (1942)
In the first teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, the natural chemistry between the two is readily apparent as they portray newspaper colleagues who eventually fall in love. The personal and professional chemistry lasted until Tracy's death in 1967 following the duo's ninth picture. Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin wrote the original screen play about the two strong-willed lovers, feminist leader Tess and crusty no-nonsense sports writer Sam. Knitting together the crackling dialog and strong performances is director George Stevens, equally adept at helming comedies, dramas, musicals and Westerns.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Director John Cassavetes pioneered American independent film with his use of cinéma vérité in fictional narrative. By this, his seventh film as director, Cassavetes had developed a distinct style of long takes, desultory lighting, and handheld cinematography which were employed to "convince the audience that what's on the screen is really happening." Often in collaboration with his wife, actress Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes created a series of stark dramas like this tale of a New York housewife slowly losing her grip on reality. As the title character, Rowlands gives an Oscar-nominated performance opposite Peter Falk as her beleaguered husband.
Expanded essay by Ray Carney (PDF, 454KB)
The Women (1939)
Probably no movie in history has combined more leading Hollywood ladies (Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine) without, as advertising noted, "a man in sight." Yet "It's all about men." Based on the hit play by Clare Boothe Luce, "The Women" explores the new options open to women with the possibility of divorce, following several intertwining paths to the courts in Reno. The characters learn of the various affairs and entanglements of their husbands with others, and are forced to decide between "freedom" and surrendering pride for love. "See them with their hair down, and their claws out!" promised MGM, and delivered. George Cukor secured his reputation as a women's director with this movie.
This documentary by Michael Wadleigh, with editor/assistant director Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese's longtime editor), covers the historic rock "happening" in Woodstock, NY, and includes performances by Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who and another dozen performers. It's official slogan was "three Days of Peace and Music ... An Aquarian Exposition." The film is distinguished by its innovative use of split frame visuals and a sound track that integrated and overlapped recordings from several sources at once.
Wuthering Heights (1939)
William Wyler directed Laurence Olivier in the role of Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy in this abbreviated adaptation of Emily Brontë's her first and only published novel. Producer Samuel Goldwyn always claimed credit for the film, reportedly once saying: "I made "Wuthering Heights;" Wyler only directed it." Gregg Toland's deep-focus cinematography deftly creates the moody, ethereal atmosphere of haunted love in a film acclaimed as one of cinema's great romances.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Ostensibly a biopic about jingoistic songwriter-performer George M. Cohan (portrayed with buoyant enthusiasm by James Cagney), the film's patriotic message, celebratory musical numbers and sentimental family saga were aimed at bolstering morale during the early months of World War II. Directed by Michael Curtiz, best known for swashbucklers, Cagney's performance was complemented by Walter Huston as his father, Rosemary DeCamp as his mother, real-life sister Jean Cagney as his sister, and Joan Leslie as his perky champion and wife.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Mel Brooks followed up his success with "Blazing Saddles" by directing and co-scripting (with the film's star Gene Wilder) this stylish spoof of the Universal Studios horror franchise. In addition to Wilder, Madeline Kahn also reteamed with Brooks following her unforgetable performance as Lili Von Shtupp in "Blazing Saddles." The director added Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr and Kenneth Mars to the cast creating a formidable comedic ensemble. Clever writing and performances aside, the true star of the picture may be its overall look which captured the feel of the 1930s films with its black-and-white cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld, vintage costumes by Dorothy Jeakins, and gothic set design by Dale Hennesy, complete down to the original creepy laboratory artifacts Brooks rented from former Universal prop master Ken Strickfaden who personally saved the equipment for decades.
Expanded essay by Brian Scott Mednick (PDF, 377KB)
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Director John Ford had a banner year in 1939 with the release of the iconic Western "Stagecoach," the technicolor extravaganza "Drums Along the Mohawk," and the folksy "Young Mr. Lincoln." The Oscar-nominated original story by Lamar Trotti spotlights the future president's early years as a clerk eager for learning, then as a pragmatic lawyer trying his first court case. Ford guides Henry Fonda in his most significant role up to that point, and the two would work together six more times during their careers.
Zapruder Film (1963)
When Abraham Zapruder scaled a concrete parapet in Dallas, Texas to get a better view of President John F. Kennedy's motorcade on November 22, 1963, the 58-year-old clothing manufacturer could not foresee that he would capture 26 seconds of film that would be scrutinized for decades to follow. As the president's limousine passed in front of Zapruder, the amateur photographer was already following the motorcade with his 8mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic camera and recorded the fatal rifle shot that struck the president. Though other amateur film of the assassination exists, the Zapruder footage is considered the most authoritative record of the event.
Special thanks to Anjuli Singh for her assistance in writing the brief descriptions for the films above.