The Library of Congress preserves countless films and has kept a National Film Registry since 1988. In my early blogging days, I tried to review every single one of of them. This task soon proved itself to be too challenging for one writer with limited time. As of now, there are 727 films considered by Congress to be “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”.
Recently, the LOC has created an online “screening room” to showcase a small (relatively speaking) selection of films currently preserved, many of which claim a spot on the registry. They range from early kinetoscope footage shot in Edison’s studio to rare gems from the golden age of Hollywood. The silent and experimental short films, alone, are a fascinating and worthy expenditure of your time. I’d recommend looking for yourself, but if you want a place to start, here are the titles I consider noteworthy. I’ve put asterisks next to ones on the Registry.
Edison kinetoscopic record of a sneeze, January 7th 1894 (Fred Ott’s Sneeze)*
Dickson experimental sound film*
May Irwin Kiss*
These are some of the earliest film recordings done on the Kinetoscope (patented by Thomas Edison). They last only a few seconds and function primarily as experiments. They capture brief but very human moments— a sneeze, a couple playfully cooing at each other before sharing a kiss, and two men playfully dancing to the tune of a violin. Many turn of the century photographs are rigid and stoic, making it hard to relate to the subjects. These films depict their subjects with charming and humanizing candidness as they excitedly interact with the new, amazing technology.
The first time-lapse video? Maybe. Certainly one of the first. Over a month, cameraman F.S. Armitage recorded the Star Theater in New York City being slowly dismantled and demolished. While the Edison films capture extremely brief moments of individuals, the Star Theater footage gives a month-long snapshot of New York City traffic in two minutes. A comprehensive and extremely watchable glimpse into the past.
The Great Train Robbery*
Up until now I’ve only mentioned non-fiction “actuality” films—precursors to documentary. Although The Great Train Robbery is by no means the first narrative film, it does represent the culmination of newly implemented filmmaking methods. It contains one of the earliest examples of parallel editing (where the filmmaker cuts back and forth between two events occurring simultaneously in the story). Also included is a shot of a train arriving in a back window accomplished via an early and impressive use of compositing (combining two separate shots into one to achieve a desired illusion) and nearly unprecedented use of real locations for a fictional film (the actors are actually on a moving train). Considered the first true western, this simple shoot-em-up is likely one of the oldest examples of movies as we think of them today. Modern filmmakers even reference it. If you remember the last shot of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, you’ll know what I mean!
Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th St. to 42nd St.*
Existing as a record of New York transit at its birth, although seen today on aged celluloid, this film plays with your sense of time. The Biograph camera used primitive technology and lacked the ability to capture authentic light and detail. The resulting image is impressionistic if anything, or maybe even expressionistic, as the camera’s defects yields a murky, sketch-like rendering of the industrial setting. Shot from a moving train with a single light to illuminate the cage-like walls, the footage mesmerizes and seems fit to be used in an art installation.
The Films of D.W. Griffith
Sometimes titans and geniuses, especially in art, come with a stain. That stain might reflect personal misdeeds, destructive character flaws, or problematic worldviews. A product of his time and place, D.W. Griffith was a confederate apologist whose racist iconography culminated in the infamy that is his notorious 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation*. Though many of his films contain offensive elements—a reflection of the ignorance in the time of early motion pictures— they hold enormous significance in the realm of cinematic innovation. If you watch shorts from the last decade of the 19th century, and then follow Griffith’s from then until about 1915, you can actually see how the look of films evolved into how they are today through his work.
Among many things credited to Griffith are the refinement of editing techniques showcased in previous films (The Great Train Robbery), especially in the sense of associative editing. One of his most famous shorts, A Corner in Wheat*, cuts back and forth between aristocratic wheat barons and struggling farmers to illustrate class disparity. This technique would go on to inspire the Soviets in creating montage, or an assembly of images in editing which communicates an idea or abstract concept. Both Birth of a Nation and his follow-up Intolerance* were studied by Russian film students, frame-by-frame, in order to emulate his method of emotional and intellectual storytelling through editing.
A Corner in Wheat also contains a well-known shot of a horse-drawn plow trekking a long and barren field, a composition which not only illustrated poverty but was innovative in its use of depth. Many films before this staged their shots in a theater-like proscenium, with every actor at equal distance from the camera, as if you were watching a recorded play. D.W. Griffith deliberately untethered the camera from theatrical traditions in order to explore how the use of film could tell stories in new ways, specifically how photographic images could convey things no stage ever could— the true depth and vastness of a location and the subtleties of an actor’s performance via close-ups, etc. Among the many shorts he made for Biograph that are on the website, A Corner in Wheat is most notable. His first feature length film (at 60 minutes), Judith of Bethulia, is also on the website. If you are interested in D.W. Griffith’s best (and least offensive) works, I’d advise you to look outside of the site for his longest feature Intolerance, and two of his best shorts The Musketeers of Pig Alley* and The Lonedale Operator.
The Bargain* & The Italian*
One of the earliest and most beloved genres in cinema would be the western. The Bargain not only showcases the most popular silent western star, William S. Hart, but also stands as an early example of a Paramount release. The famous logo can be seen in the title cards. The opening credit sequence stands out due to the actors bowing and the camera then fading to them in full costume to show who they would be playing. Thomas Ince, the screenwriter, died on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in what became one of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history. Was it heart failure? Poison? Did William Randolph Hearst mistake him for Charlie Chaplin and shoot him in the head? Why would he do such a thing? In all likelihood, he did probably just die of natural causes, but the story and its theories get crazier and crazier the more you read.
Ince and director Reginald Barker also collaborated on The Italian, which comes right after The Bargain on the screening room list and paints a picture of immigrant life in the early 1910’s. The film has received very positive modern assessments, specifically regarding the lead performance by George Beban.
The Sinking of the Lusitania*
This is one of the most famous and well done examples of early animation. In this case, the short was meant to be used as a news reel. It depicts the bombing of the passenger ship RMS Lusitania by a German torpedo and the subsequent sinking and loss of life that resulted. Huge when it came out, the film is often cited as the first serious, dramatic animated work. Creator Winsor McKay may be known to some as the creator of the tremendously illustrated Little Nemo in Slumberland comics, but also combined his experience in vaudeville to introduce the first cartoons, most notably Gertie the Dinosaur*.
Within Our Gates*
Oscar Micheuax was one of the first black filmmakers in history, and his seminal film, Within Our Gates, set the stage for nearly every black filmmaker to come. Taking place in the 1920s Dixie south, he produced the film as a response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The story depicts an educated black woman who attempts to reform a struggling school for black youth. It truly holds up today not only as a moving work of silent cinema, but as a portrayal of racial violence, inequality, and the struggle to reclaim black dignity and independence.
St. Louis Blues*
Featuring Bessie Smith and an all-black cast, St. Louis Blues not only represents an oft overlooked demographic, but also elevates the city’s namesake in the world of blues legends and cinema. The short consists of only two reels and lasts sixteen minutes, but is lively, quirky, and just as essential as any other pre-code Hollywood musical. A personal favorite.
You’ve drunk the liquid, now see the film!
Really, though, H2O has the power to hypnotize. The shots of water start out as conventional and gradually become close-up and expressionistically lit, looking as if they come straight from a dream. Sometimes you forget you’re looking at plain water and think you’ve stumbled into some psychedelic animation from the 60s. Experimental cinema at its simplest and finest!
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor*
With Disney and Warner Bros. garnering the majority of praise in the world of animation, the studios that contributed smaller but no less important innovations are often forgotten. Creators of the Popeye shorts, the Fleischer brothers, were renowned for their ability to create extremely realistic movement through the technique of “rotoscoping”, where live motion picture is drawn over frame-by-frame. This short stands out due to the immense amount of work that can be observed, from the color, backgrounds, and combination of realistic movement with extravagant cartoony physics. The Fleischer cartoons have a very unique style, keeping them relevant and entertaining today.
Jerry Pulls the Strings
While not likely holding much historical significance, I still find this one very interesting. First of all, it tells the story of the goat farmer Kaldi and his discovery of coffee. You know, the one painted on the wall at Kaldi’s Coffee down the street. Secondly, this film would be fairly mundane if not for the inexplicable fact that it’s told by marionettes. Really well-made, well-puppeteered marionettes. I’ve always had a minor fascination with puppets, though, despite having no experience in the craft. The ones in this film are kinda creepy.
Under Western Stars*
Anyone familiar with the archetype of the singing cowboy? Well this hits the nail right on the head. Charming, dashing, and full of humor, Roy Rodgers leads this very brief western comedy with the voice of an angel. With his genuine, western spirit and ability to sell a song, Rogers saves his town from a drought by running for congress. You are sure to be reminded of O Brother Where Art Thou (or even the Coen Brothers’ most recent film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).
A short advert explaining the modern miracle of television. The image of a well-dressed suburban family gathering around a tiny wooden box with a cathode ray tube inside. The snappy voice of a newsman narrator explains how images and sound travel across the sky via airwaves and go straight into their living room. Interesting and full of that old-fashioned PSA charm!
The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress
While there are many WWII era documentaries, few have the esteem of being directed by some of Hollywood’s finest. In this case, William Wyler did a short on his own field, the Air Force. Wyler may not sound familiar, but he’s responsible for such classics as Roman Holiday, The Best Years of Our Lives, Dodsworth, and The Big Country, among others. The war ended up costing Wyler his hearing, but never his remarkable mind. Other notable directors who served were Billy Wilder and John Huston. Huston directed another notable WWII documentary— Let There Be Light.
The House I Live In*
While America fought against the Third Reich in WWII, there still existed ignorance among the population and hostility towards Jews. This short, educational film features a young Frank Sinatra confronting a group of children after a recording session who are chasing a young Jewish boy through the streets. A beacon of social relevance at the time, the film shines a light on hypocritical prejudice and reflects the type of progressivism celebrities began to advocate for as the star system gave them platforms.
Let’s Go to the Movies!
A simple, behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process, with lots of neat footage from the Hollywood studio back lots and a short section on how celluloid is made. Pretty cool!
Adventure in Telezonia
Another weird puppet movie! This time, very strange looking marionettes teach a boy how to use the phone when he loses his dog. The film credits the puppets to one Bil Baird, who I found out made the puppets for the “Lonely Goatherd” sequence in The Sound of Music. I swear, I’m not a weird puppet guy.
Albert in Blunderland
A hyperbolic anti-communism cartoon which, politics aside, is pretty funny. You don’t have to agree with the arguments to enjoy the humor, although I’m sure those who did at the time found it all the more comedic. Of course, the world portrayed is undoubtedly a nasty one, just not necessarily representative of all non-capitalistic societies. I, for one, just enjoy a good MGM cartoon (especially Tom and Jerry). As you can imagine, several of the short films from this time deal with communism, as they take place in the midst of the Red Scare.
Duck and Cover
For those who went to school in the 50s, this film might be familiar. When fear of nuclear bombs permeated the United States during the cold war, a number of these educational shorts played in classrooms. Of course, the films often functioned more as propaganda than mere safety advisories. The “duck and cover” strategy often receives ridicule because it seems so futile as a response to a nuclear attack. However, recent science actually supports the practice. That’s right. If you see the flash of a nuclear bomb, duck and cover. It could actually save your life!
Kenneth Anger, one of America’s most famous, prized, and controversial experimental filmmakers shot Eaux d’Artifice (a play on Feux d’artfice—French for “Fireworks”, the name of his preceding film) in 1953. In it, a masked, 18th century figure in masquerade attire runs through the fountains of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy. By using extremely low light, the images mostly depict shadows, with only the highlights of the fountain’s edges and stone planes of walkways visible, aside from the luminous splashes and cascades of water. The figure always remains out of focus and hard to make out, creating a mildly unsettling yet beautiful sense of mystery. Some critics remark that the pleasurable, impressionistic images set to the music of Vivaldi represent a sense of freedom that applies to Anger’s sexuality, being one of the few openly gay artists of his time. Regardless, the piece has a mystifying and hypnotic allure that separates it from the rest on this list. Another personal favorite.
This film falls into the category of “film noir”, or “black film”. French critics coined the term after studying the rise in hardboiled U.S. crime cinema during the 40s and 50s. While containing enough elements to be considered a noir, The Hitchhiker also sets itself apart from the genre in a number of ways, such as the non-urban setting and everyman main characters (as opposed to criminals, cops, or detectives). The film also carries the distinction of being one of few of the time to be directed by a woman, in this case the actress Ida Lupino; known for such films as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and High Sierra. Lupino happened to be one of the most prolific female filmmakers of her time, and a talented one to boot! Again, a personal favorite.
Design for Dreaming
A weird car commercial-musical combination with surrealist elements, this film features a dancer attending a General Motors car show at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in her dream. All of the dialogue is sung (although the actors don’t move their lips), and the plot makes almost no sense. I really only recommend this one because it’s so bizarre that you have to see it to believe it. The song lyrics, alone, are so literal and badly written that I feel the need to quote them.
Since it’s just a dream and involves no money,
which one would you like me to buy you, honey?
They’re all so beautiful, I really don’t know
So let me goooo down, get the loooow down
And look at each one much cloooseeeeeeer!
Wow, these lyrics are terrible. I’m listening to them as I write this.
The Wikipedia page lists it as a “cult industrial film”. Have you ever heard of an industrial film with a cult following?
Oh, so apparently Mystery Science Theater 3000 did an episode on it.
And it showed up on a BBC documentary. And Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. And David Fincher’s The Game. And the remake of The Stepford Wives.
And it’s in a Peter Gabriel music video. And a Rush music video. And in a Gameboy commercial. And in a Power Macintosh commercial. And during a Nine Inch Nails performance.
What’s this? It’s being turned into a Netflix miniseries!?
Just kidding about that last one.
The Ordeal of Thomas Moon
The titular Thomas Moon is played by a very young Dom DeLuise, and revolves around an overweight man struggling with his health. Although well intentioned, the message comes off a bit blunt. Especially since DeLuise is far from his biggest in the short, and wouldn’t even be considered obese by today’s standards.
Peace, Little Girl
A pretty brutal campaign ad about nuclear annihilation that helped Lyndon B. Johnson win the presidency.
[LC Performance. Interview. Conversation With Rod Sterling]
A very, very thought provoking conversation between Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, a TV critic, and a poet shot by the Library of congress. Their points still stand today in terms of the nature of storytelling on television and the challenge of transposing drama and literary content to a mass visual medium. Think “Talking Bad” or “Talking Dead” on AMC, just for the 60s.
The Second Largest Minority & Gay and Proud
The Second Largest Minority and Gay and Proud both document early gay rights groups and their demonstrations. To see these men and women speaking out so brazenly in the late 60s culture is amazing to see. You get both a look at the culture during the time, and also the reactions of the bystanders, many of whom had never had to openly acknowledge the issue.
-It seems when the motion picture camera was invented, the first things people wanted to point it at were boats. Lots and lots of boats.
-It’s really terrifying to see turn-of-the-century automobile traffic mixing with foot traffic. Obviously crosswalks were not a thing, yet. Every time I see a busy city street (especially in A trip down Market Street before the fire*) I’m holding my breath the entire time.
-When the D.W. Griffith shorts come up, you see a lot of Lillian Gish, one of the most recognizable silent film stars who kept working well into the sound era (you might know her from Night of the Hunter*).
-Towards the end, a bunch of films on dealing with mental illness show up. Weird how concern for certain issues comes in waves.
Well, that’s it, folks! I’ve taken up enough of your time. Be sure to keep exploring the little pieces of lost culture!