National Film Registry’s 2016 selections focus on performers

ScreenerBlog

For almost three decades now, the Library of Congress has chosen 25 movies a year to add to its National Film Registry. Originally formed to draw attention to film preservation, with this year's list the Registry has grown to encompass 700 "culturally, historically or esthetically significant" titles across many genres and formats.

This year's selections include cartoons, documentaries, silents, home movies and commercial blockbusters. Returning to the list are filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock (for his late-career thriller The Birds), Elia Kazan (the James Dean-starrer East of Eden), Lewis Milestone (the World War II adventure A Walk in the Sun) and the silent comedy genius Buster Keaton (Steamboat Bill, Jr.).

Through a strange convergence, several of this year's titles deal with performance, from vaudeville and burlesque to punk rock and "voguing."

In Funny Girl, an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, director William Wyler recreated routines performed by Fanny Brice, a fixture in vaudeville, the famous "Ziegfeld Follies," and later on radio and in movies. In the film Barbra Streisand performed "Second Hand Rose" in an approximation of Brice's style; the soundtrack also includes "People," one of Streisand's biggest hits.

Ball of Fire, directed by Howard Hawks and written by the team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, cast "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" with Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), an "exotic dancer" on the run from gangsters and toying with doddering college professors led by Gary Cooper. Vicky Wilson, author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, gives a vivid description of the tone of film: "Stanwyck is sexy as all get-out in Ball of Fire...the moment when she's on the lam and rings the doorbell of Professor Potts' brownstone, with her 'hiedy-ho' and breezy salute, her lips and eyes shimmering in full sexual command, is worth the price of the full drum boogie..."

Stanwyck, who excelled at hard-bitten women, would explore a tawdrier version of burlesque in The G-String Murders. Hawks remade Ball of Fire a few years later as A Song Is Born with Danny Kaye and a who's-who of jazz all-stars.

Even Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a groundbreaking melding of animation and live action directed by Robert Zemeckis, dips into burlesque-style torch songs from the sultry Jessica Rabbit.

For a look into real vaudeville, The Beau Brummels (1928) captures Palace headliners Shaw & Lee recreating their act before the cameras. Sporting a surprisingly contemporary tone, the show-business veterans started working together in 1911. (Mary Mallory wrote this excellent biographical sketch on the team.) They perfected a deadpan, flat-affect style for their song-and-dance act, reflected in the no-frills presentational style used in early Vitaphone shorts.

"I've been showing The Beau Brummels for twenty years," Film Forum repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein wrote in an e-mail. "With an audience, it comes alive. They come alive. Vaudeville comes alive. With Lambchops [an earlier Registry selection starring Burns & Allen], it’s the ne plus ultra of vaudeville shorts."

The Vitaphone Project is dedicated to finding, preserving and restoring Vitaphone shorts, some 2,000 in number. The movies were originally produced via a sound-on-disk method. Project editor Ron Hutchinson screened a newly restored print of The Beau Brummels at this year's Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. He was also able to show the movie to the team's grandsons.

"There are currently 52 1926-30 Vitaphone shorts in the funded restoration pipeline right now, with 16 of them completed in 2016," Hutchinson wrote in an e-mail. "There are about another 70 that can be restored in the future, as both picture and sound (currently separated) survive."

Ironically, Vitaphone helped hasten the decline of vaudeville. Shaw & Lee and scores of other acts would soon be scrambling for work.

From vaudeville to punk rock and drag balls may be a stretch, but performers in the three groups had a go-for-broke ethos in which style and attitude could count for more than skill. And in Paris Is Burning, nothing meant more than attitude. The Jennie Livingston documentary examined New York City ball competitions that took place in drag. Part of its significance is Livingston's interviews with members of the New York City African-American, Latino, gay and transgender communities who participated in the events.

Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles chief of police, tried to ban The Decline of Western Civilization when it opened in 1981. Featuring interviews and performances from seminal bands like Black Flag, X, and the Circle Jerks, this raw, penetrating documentary took a deep dive into a milieu that was either scorned or ignored by the mainstream. Within months of the release of the film, punk had percolated throughout pop culture.

Director Penelope Spheeris waited tables to work her way through film school, then formed the first production company in Los Angeles to specialize in music-videos.

"When I saw the punk-rock scene take hold here in Los Angeles, I felt absolutely compelled to document it," Spheeris wrote by e-mail. "Even though I had been a music fan my entire life, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I somehow knew it was a profoundly important cultural shift. I became obsessed with it and immersed myself in it."

The anarchy and antagonism of punk rockers made shooting for Spheeris and her crew especially difficult. "The music, the styles, the punks, their philosophy, attitudes and behavior were so refreshing that the difficulties didn’t matter. The scene was total chaos and I set about to organize and make sense of that chaos. Having the film seen by audiences was difficult."

Spheeris went on to direct mainstream films like Wayne's World, but writes that "The Decline taught me a new way of life and it reflects my heart and soul to this day. I am very grateful it has had such a lasting impact. Fans worldwide still embrace it as affectionately as they did over 35 years ago. The Decline series [including Part II: The Metal Years in 1988 and a third part in 1998] is the work of which I am most proud."

The Registry board tries to include experimental and "orphan" films in each year's selections. In 1969, Robert Downey Sr., tested the boundaries of taste with his advertising satire Putney Swope. But the two most experimental films on the 2016 list are also its oldest.

In 1903's Life of an American Fireman, director Edwin S. Porter composed a narrative from seven separate scenes and nine shots. For years it was also thought that he developed cross-cutting with this film, although historians now believe that the editing was introduced by someone else in a later version.

D.W. Griffith was one of the first directors to perfect cross-cutting, and in 1912's The Musketeers of Pig Alley he introduced gangsters to cinema. With a cast that included Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Jack Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, the movie offers in embryonic form many of the characters and themes still in use in crime stories on film and in television.

Filmmaker Abigail Child used to screen a "shot order" version from the Museum of Modern Art, one that showed Griffith and cinematographer G.W. "Billy" Bitzer working out the story in camera. They took the wide shots first, then the two-shots and inserts, and finally, at the end of the day, a hypnotic close-up of a gangster peering around an alley corner and then stalking right up to the camera lens. To coincide with Musketeers' addition to the National Film Registry, MoMA has made the entire film available on its website; their restoration comes from an original camera negative acquired in 1939 by Iris Barry, the first curator of MoMA's Film Library.

Registry titles are proposed by board members but also by the public. You can cast your vote now for next year's selections.

The complete list of 2016 entries:

1.   The Atomic Cafe (1982)

2.   Ball of Fire (1941)

3.   The Beau Brummels (1928)

4.   The Birds (1963)

5.   Blackboard Jungle (1955)

6.   The Breakfast Club (1985)

7.   The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

8.   East of Eden (1955)

9.   Funny Girl (1968)

10. Life of An American Fireman (1903)

11. The Lion King (1994)

12. Lost Horizon (1937)

13. Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

14. Paris Is Burning (1990)

15. Point Blank (1967)

16. The Princess Bride (1987)

17. Putney Swope (1969)

18. Solomon Sir Jones films (1924-28)

19. Rushmore (1998)

20. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

21. Suzanne, Suzanne (1982)

22. Thelma & Louise (1991)

23. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

24. A Walk in the Sun (1945)

25. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)