WASHINGTON — With none of the fanfare of televised awards shows, Librarian of Congress James Billington announced Tuesday that such classics as the first best picture Oscar winner “Wings,” “The Hustler” and “Rear Window,” as well as more arcane fare including 1928 film “The Life and Death 9412 — A Hollywood Extra,” and the 1942 George Pal Puppetoon “Tulips Shall Grow” will be among 25 films added to the National Film Registry — putting those pics on the nation’s most wanted list when it comes to film preservation.
“Life and Death” tells the story of a regular American who comes to Hollywood with dreams of stardom, but instead finds bitterness and failure. The 14-minute silent short was written, directed and produced by Robert Florey.
In naming “Life and Death” to the registry, Billington credited it as the first avant garde film made in America. It was certainly the first to gain wide release. It opened in 700 theaters and won Florey a deal at Paramount, where he went on to direct several features, including the Marx Brother’s “The Cocoanuts” and a 1936 feature remake of his avant garde short called “Hollywood Boulevard.”
“This selection process should not be seen as the Kennedy Center Honors, the Academy Awards, the People’s Choice Awards or even America’s Most Beloved Films,” said Billington.
“The films we choose are not necessarily either the best American films ever made or the most famous; but they are films that continue to have … significance, and in many cases represent other films deserving of credit,” he added.
This is the Registry’s ninth year, bringing the total number of films targeted for preservation to 225. Congress instructed the Library to pick films based on their “historical, cultural or aesthetic significance.” Members of the public and the National Film Preservation Board make their recommendations to Billington, but it is the nation’s top librarian who makes the final call.
This year’s list was the first to include newsreel footage, with film of the Hindenburg explosion and riots during the Republic Steel strike making the cut. In both cases, the Library is targeting raw newsreel footage shot in 1937.
Also added to the Registry this year is “Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life,” — a documentary about nomadic herders in Eastern Russia shot in 1925, and “Motion Painting” (1947), abstract animation by Oskar Fischinger.**sbMajors make grade
While there are plenty of obscure films on the list, Hollywood is also well represented this year with “West Side Story” (1961), “The Thin Man” (1934), “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and Laurel and Hardy’s “The Music Box” (1932).
There was also a nod to indie filmmaking with both 1953’s “The Little Fugitive” — an early seminal work — and John Sayles’ 1980 “The Return of the Secaucus 7,” which was among the first pictures in the contemporary new wave.
John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock are the directors most frequently represented on the registry, with at least five films each, but Martin Scorsese is catching up. In addition to “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980), Billington this year added Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973).
“The Big Sleep” (1946) was also added to the list this year, but the film tagged for preservation by the Library is not the one most people are familiar with. After some initial previews, the film was recut to give Lauren Bacall a larger role than was originally planned. But Congress’ instructions are clear on the matter, and it dictates the Library focus its efforts on the original version in which Bacall played a relatively minor role, said Billington.
TV classics eyed
Billington also used Tuesday’s announcement to push for a similar program for television programming. In October, the Library of Congress issued a report calling on Congress to recognize that television footage deserves the same kind of curatorial care as original films.
In the meantime, Billington said he will continue his efforts to expand the library’s archival facilities. The latest progress on that front came earlier this month when Congress approved the purchase of a 140,000 square-foot facility in Culpepper, Va., which Billington hopes to convert into an archive and laboratory for preserving films.