Just in Time for the Holidays: The 2012 National Film Registry Inductees

19 Dec

Just in time for the holidays, Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story has been selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. This registry dates all the way back to the National Film Preservation Act of 1988, the goal of which was and is to recognize, and, again, preserve, films which hold  cultural, aesthetic or historical value. Since 1989, 25 films have been singled out for recognition each and every year. To be considered for such honor, a given film must be at least 10 years old and must be American in origin; after all, this is the National Film Registry and is designed to honor our own cinematic heritage. To illustrate, consider Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a 1991 inductee: sure the movie was filmed in such locations as Jordan, Morocco, and Spain, and, yes, the director was English; the main character, T.E. Lawrence, was born in Wales, and the actor who played him, Peter O’Toole, was Irish, so how is that in any way an American production? Well, simple: ultimately the movie was made possible by a production/distribution deal between American based Columbia Pictures and producer Sam Spiegel’s Horizon Pictures. That’s how.

Furthermore, many of the films in the registry are probably lost on the average American as the selections are not even necessarily feature films but include documentaries, experimental films, industrial training films, propaganda pieces, public service announcements, etc. All of these have either documented, or have made some kind of contribution to, our society (and that isn’t always a “good” thing, but it is what it is).  One of the best examples I can think of is Abraham Zapruder’s home movie footage of the Kennedy assassination (a 1994 inductee), a mere 30 seconds or less of footage, right, but who could deny its historical significance?

A_Christmas Story

^ The original poster for A Christmas Story was clearly inspired by vintage Saturday Evening Post covers designed by Norman Rockwell. Though set in Indiana, it was filmed in Ohio and Canada. It was even nominated for 9 Genie Awards, the Canadian Oscar equivalent, including Best Picture. It won Best Screenplay, and Clark shared Best Director honors with David Cronenberg (Videodrome). The screenwriting trio of Clark, Brown, and Shepherd were nominated for a WGA award as well. Now, not only has A Christmas Story become a classic, it has also inspired a stage musical currently playing on Broadway with original cast member Peter Billingsley (Ralphie) on board as one of the producers.

All of this brings us back to Bob Clark’s offering, which was released with little or no fanfare in November of 1983.  Darren McGavin, two time Oscar nominee Melinda Dillon, and child star Peter Billingsley (best known at that time for TV’s Real People), starred in the adaptation of stories culled from Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories).  Shepherd co-wrote the screenplay with Leigh Brown and Clark (hot at the time thanks to the raunchy Porky’s movies) and even provided the off-camera narration.  The movie is a loosely connected series of vignettes set during a 1940s era Christmas in which young Ralphie (Billingsley) dreams–and schemes–of owning a Red Ryder air rifle.  That’s pretty much it. There are no angels out to rescue potential suicide victims, no question of whether a jolly old man might be the real Santa Claus, and no children left home alone to defend their beautifully appointed houses from buffoonish burglars. A Christmas Story is just light, pleasant, and, yes, sweet (at least, bittersweet). That’s the charm, the timelessness, of it. After all, who among us doesn’t have a memory of yearning for a particular item as either a  holiday or birthday gift?  (I think the simplicity of this particular movie is something it has in common with the evergreen A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

Anyway, while A Christmas Story initially appeared to be a dud during its theatrical release, without much assist from the critics, it turned out to be a sleeper of sorts as it slowly found its audience,  holding on in some theaters through early January of 1984 and ultimately earning $ 19 million dollars at the box office, which doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but considering that it only cost 4 million to make, well, that’s quite a tidy return.  I can remember reading reports at the time about how its longevity seemed to take everyone by surprise after its initial lukewarm reception, thereby reaffirming the power of word-of-mouth. Clark, for his part believes the movie could have made even more money had exhibitors not given up on it so quickly (meaning after its first few weeks during the post-Thanksgiving lull), but then it wouldn’t have become such a great Cinderella story either.  Of course, it found an even bigger audience when it was released on video (more word-of-mouth), and now it is, and has been for at least a decade, a Christmas staple, airing in marathon fashion on either TBS or TNT every year, beginning on Christmas Eve and continuing through Christmas Day.  A Christmas Story is a perfect addition to the National Film Registry because it endures as a piece of Americana, touching multiple generations of moviegoers, inspiring a few well known catch-phrases (“You’ll shoot your eye out” and “frah-gee-lay”) , and throwing a spotlight on America’s past, such as children listening to serialized adventures on the radio, etc.  It also proves that a movie does not have to be box office blockbuster in order to have lasting value.

All my admiration for  A Christmas Story aside, I am most pleased that Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own (1992), a fictionalized account of the short-lived–yet real-life–All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the height of America’s involvement in World War II, is a new National Film Registry title.  Good for Marshall. Again, even though her film is not a true story, per se, it does indeed throw a spotlight on an interesting chapter in our nation’s history: when woman were called upon to help boost morale by keeping professional baseball alive while all the men were overseas engaged in battle. Of course, women were doing more than playing baseball during that time. They were also working in factories, aiding the war effort, etc.–and that’s the point. A League of Their Own showcases the changing nature of women’s roles in society–and it does so with wit and wisdom in such a way as to appeal to both men and women, not to mention boys and girls.  Plus, it’s a reminder of Marshall’s excellence as a director, working with a large cast (Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, Jon Lovitz, and David Strathairn, among at least a dozen other actors in key speaking roles) assembling complicated sports sequences, shooting on location, veering from comedy to drama and back again, etc.  Furthermore, this was only Marshall’s fourth studio feature film–and her second to gross over $100 million at the box office. To clarify: with Big (1988), actress-turned-director Marshall became the first woman to direct a feature film with earnings of over 100 million,  and that in itself is noteworthy. Between Big and A League of Their Own, she helmed  Awakenings (1990), which earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor (Robert DeNiro), with no recognition accorded its director.

^ Geena Davis in A League of Their Own. The movie was  a huge hit (I think we played it for 16 weeks back in the day), and Davis earned a Golden Globe nomination, but the movie was ignored by the Academy.

^ Geena Davis was fresh from the triumph of the landmark Thelma & louse when she joined the cast of A League of Their Own, a late in the game sub for  Debra Winger  who reportedly departed  over what was described as  the “stunt” casting of pop-star tuned actress Madonna in a saucy supporting role. Another story is that Winger was forced out due to injuries sustained during training. The movie was a huge hit (I think we played it for 16 weeks back in the day), and Davis earned a Golden Globe nomination as did Madonna and Shep Pettibone’s song, “This Used to be My Playground,”  but the movie was ignored by the Academy.

Even though A League of Their Own made lots of money and earned enthusiastic reviews, it was shut-out by the Academy, which has bummed the shit out of me for right at 20 years.  Besides not recognizing Marshall’s achievements on A League of Their Own, the next most glaring omission was that of Geena Davis’s wondrous leading performance as “Dottie Hinson,” the reluctant star of the Rockford Peaches.  Oh the idiocy of it all as critics and actresses alike harped about the dearth of strong–award worthy–roles for women that year even though Davis was right there in a much-loved movie as the so-called “Queen of Diamonds” (as her character was known) in all her 6 foot glory.  Not only is Davis convincing as an athlete, she also creates an interesting portrait of a complicated woman who has to learn to deal with a sexist, hard drinking manager (Hanks) while putting up with the shenanigans of a jealous–and less talented–younger sister. Not only that, she’s a wife who just wants her husband to return from war safely even though her teammates look to her as their true leader.   It’s a marvelous performance (one of my two favorite by leading actresses of that year), and the Academy, well, dropped the ball on that one, so I’m glad to see the Library of Congress honoring the movie. (Oh, and let’s not ignore the contributions of well-known screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel–with story credit to Kim Wilson and Kelly Candaele–who gave us the much quoted, “There’s no crying in baseball,” pegged by the American Film Institute as #54 on the list of 100 most memorable lines of movie dialogue in a 2005 AFI retrospective. )

Okay, before we get to the list, I also want to acknowledge a few more films that have personal interest for me: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Matrix (1999), Slacker (1991), and The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), Of course, with Audrey Hepburn’s iconic–and Oscar nominated– performance as stylish party-girl Holly Golightly and Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer’s enduring, Oscar winning “Moon River” as its love theme, it’s hard to imagine that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is only now being recognized by the National Film Registry, but there are only 25 entries a year, so better late than never. Hmmmm…oh, yes…Breakfast at Tiffany‘s also has inadvertent cultural significance as Mickey Rooney’s no doubt unintentionally racist portrayal of Holly’s funny “Oriental” neighbor serves as a powerful reminder of what NOT to do when casting a flick. The Matrix, of course, won four out of four Oscars back in the day for its cutting edge audio/visual and editing effects, both raising the bar for years to come while also being endlessly parodied,  though it suffered a bad rap after–its alleged influence on–the Columbine High School shooting incident. On the other hand, the movie, which borrows from René Descartes (among others), still pops up for discussion/debate in college classrooms. Keep in mind, that I only graduated from college three years ago, and The Matrix was right there in philosophy class,  cultural studies, and a course in semiotics entitled “Empires and Apocalypse.”  The LOC’s recognition of Slacker is a great, great, thing for Texas-based indie filmmaker Richard Linklater, whose micro-budgeted first feature (filmed in Austin) paved the way for such subsequent successes as Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995), School of Rock (2003), Before Sunset (2004– with an Oscar nominated screenplay by Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Kim Krizan), and this past summer’s Bernie, starring Golden Globe nominee Jack Black.  Finally, while we’re all glad that Sean Penn won an Oscar for playing the late Harvey Milk in 2008’s Milk, which also won an Oscar for Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay, there is still a charge in watching the real-deal, a powerful reminder not only about the ongoing struggle for equality in this country, but a testament to the power of individuals to inspire change and make a difference in people’s lives: “… you have to give them hope.” Thanks, Harvey.

The following is only a list of this year’s inductees. Some of the titles, such as 3:10 to Yuma, Anatomy of a Murder, Born Yesterday, and Dirty Harry will likely be familiar to dedicated moviegoers; however, the reasons those films were selected for this honor might not be as readily apparent. Likewise, some of the titles (Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia) might be pretty obscure.  To read more about all the films, please refer to the official National Film Registry website: http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2012/12-226.html

  1. 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
  2. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
  3. The Augustas (1930s-1950s)
  4. Born Yesterday (1950)
  5. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
  6. A Christmas Story (1983)
  7. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Title Fight (1897)
  8. Dirty Harry (1971)
  9. Hours for Jerome: Parts 1 and 2 (1980-82)
  10. The Kidnappers Foil (1930s-1950s)
  11. Kodachrome Color Motion Picture Tests (1922)
  12. A League of Their Own (1992)
  13. The Matrix (1999)
  14. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939)
  15. One Survivor Remembers (1995)
  16. Parable (1964)
  17. Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia (1990)
  18. Slacker (1991)
  19. Sons of the Desert (1933)
  20. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
  21. They Call It Pro Football (1967)
  22. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
  23. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
  24. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914)
  25. The Wishing Ring; An Idyll of Old England (1914)

A Christmas Story at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085334/?ref_=sr_1

A Christmas Story at the Turner Classic Movies Database: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/2099/A-Christmas-Story/

A Christmas Story at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=christmasstory.htm

A League of Their Own at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104694/

Penny Marshall at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/people/chart/?id=pennymarshall.htm


2 Responses to “Just in Time for the Holidays: The 2012 National Film Registry Inductees”

  1. Dale 19 December 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    Many Excellent Posts, You’ve Been a Busy Gal during school break! Happy Holidays to You and Michael ! -D

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