Thinking of the US film industry tends to bring up Hollywood blockbusters or a favorite Disney princess, but America’s film identity is a vastly diverse body of work, with hidden gems still left for the public to discover.
Ensuring that happens, each year the Library of Congress selects 25 films to be archived in the country’s National Film Registry. Based on thousands of nominations from everyday viewers, these films, from box office hits to independent documentaries, are at least 10 years old and chosen based on “their cultural, historic or aesthetic importance” to American cinema. The selection for 2015— includes films from as far back as 1894 with Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, to more recent pieces like The Shawkshank Redemption– is whittled down by the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB), with a final choice made by the Librarian of Congress.
“Our take is that it’s a title we feel is important to the American film industry for whatever reason," Steve Leggett, NFPB Program Coordinator, tells The Creators Project. “Taken as a whole, we want the registry to reflect American society — its history, its problems, its success — to give a good snapshot of the country and its history.”
Leggett points to the 2015 selection of The Story of Menstruation, a 1946 educational video produced by Disney for school health classes. He says, “People kind of snickered at, but it was a very important film because it was shown to young girls in classes in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Probably 100 million people saw it. It was a very influential education film.”
Other 2015 entries into the archive consist of Ghostbusters (1984), Black and Tan (1929) and silent films A Fool There Was (1915), The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Humoresque (1920), to name just a few. The films elected are then preserved, with additional aims to provide greater public access to viewing.
“We’re still keen on film preservation,” explains Leggett, citing the high cost of preservation for those falling outside big studio productions. “If you digitally preserve something, you have to put it onto another format every five years or so. If you actually preserve a film onto film and store it properly, those last for centuries.”
The National Film Registry made its first selections in 1989, amid controversy surrounding the colorization of films. Aiming to make black and white movies like Casablanca more appealing to a younger generation, TV studios and video distributors were met with disapproval from directors, who called for Congress to outlaw the coloring process.
“They said it violated the nature of their work,” says Leggett. “A lot of the times, the black and white was essential to the film they shot. And when you start slapping on colors to Humphrey Bogart, or some of the scenes in Casablanca, you really take away from what the cameraman and director was trying to achieve.” While colorization never became illegal, Congress created the registry, passing a law that any film “materially altered, or a black and white film that has been colorized” must be labelled as such—like the “this film has been modified from its original version” disclaimer you ignore at the beginning of a DVD.
Providing a sensory record of the American film industry’s first 100 years, the National Film Registry’s eclectic mix still has a long way to go.
“People constantly argue over whether films from the 20s were better than films from the 50s, and whether films from the 2000s are better than films from the 50s,” says Leggett. “They’re just different. The culture is different and the technologies are different. But I think if this thing is still going 15 or 20 years from now there are certainly some films produced today that would be worthy of the collection and stand up to the classics that were produced back in the 30s.”
Think you know your American films? There are now 675 films preserved through the National Film Registry. See the Library of Congress’ full list here and if you think there’s a film missing —regardless of your citizenship —you still get to vote!