Now’s the time to vote! For a few weeks a year, the National Film Preservation Board opens up voting for the National Film Registry to the public. The National Film Registry is a list of films that the Library of Congress deems culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Unfortunately, just like declaring a building a historic landmark doesn’t mean it’s demolition-proof, adding a film to Registry doesn’t guarantee it will be preserved. However, if properly used, the list can be a great way of highlighting at-risk films.
Many films that we love are safely (for now) protected by copyright laws that make the films valuable to the studios. Film preservation can often be driven by profit; if the studio or archive can make a money re-releasing a film, then they will take the necessary steps to preserve and/or restore it. If the copyright on the film has lapsed, nobody is going to make much money on its restoration, so it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. With that difficulty in mind, here are my five films for the National Film Registry, each of which presents a unique challenge to archives.
The Broken Oath (1910) – You may have heard of her: Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl,” the First Movie Star. Carl Laemmle (remember him?) was the first to bill her by her actual name, since up to this point actors were considered insignificant. The Broken Oath was Lawrence’s first film with Laemmle, and as such, it’s a huge milestone in the cultural history of Hollywood and the Studio System. It also seems to have disappeared. Please, everyone. Check your attics, and give Florence Lawrence a vote!
The Squaw Man (1914) – I’m honestly surprised this hasn’t ended up on the National Film Registry yet. Most know that it’s the first feature film shot in Los Angeles, but it’s also the first feature shot in the United States. (Australia beat us to the punch on that one.) Currently Warner Bros. owns the copyright, and they do a fantastic job preserving their films, but it’s worth it to get some double protection on a film this important. A vote for The Squaw Man is a vote for US pride!
The Gulf Between (1917) – This is the first Technicolor feature. Folks familiar with this blog know that I am a big fan of Technicolor history, but I’m not the only one. Currently the few frames known to have survived are carefully guarded not only at the George Eastman House, but also at the Smithsonian. This is a film important for the development of color technology. Naming The Gulf Between to the National Film Registry might give archives the push they need to go through some of those old nitrate Technicolor prints and see what hidden gems may be hiding from view.
The Abyss (1989) – “What is this? 3 films from the 1910s, and you end with a James Cameron movie??” I hear you query. Yes, folks. Here’s the problem with profit-driven preservation: since the emphasis is on what will sell, often things that look ugly are “fixed.” This was the case when Ted Turner colorized classic films (a practice which has mostly faded). Computer generated imagery has progressed so rapidly, that often films made only 5 years ago will look ugly to present day audiences. Because of this, sometimes filmmakers will “fix” CGI. Lucas is the most egregious example (step away from Star Wars, George), but considering that Cameron digitally “fixed” the night sky in Titanic during its re-release last year, it’s not too outlandish to think that other films may be “fixed” later on. The Abyss is the first near-seamless use of CGI in live-action film, and was a herald for the special effects to come. In order preserve its importance as a historic landmark, no matter how dated the CGI looks now, vote for The Abyss!
If you don’t want to take my word for it, there are many other folks to listen to! As always, The Film Experience has weighed in with a great article. If you want to do some hunting for yourself, here is the list of films on the National Film Registry, and the list of films missing from the it. Voting is open until the end of the week, so vote early and vote often!