Dec 19, 2012

PARABLE and other neglected films on National Film Registry

The Library of Congress today announced the 25 films added to National Film Registry for 2012.

Many in archiving, preservation, and orphan film circles are particularly amped about this year's list. Librarian of Congress James Billington, offered up a quite diverse set of American films, the most eclectic group of 25 in his 24 years of being the sole arbiter of all 600 titles now on the Registry.

Among those with an orphan or non-Hollywood status (15 as I count them), there are riches. So too among the Hollywood 10 (if I may). Classics enshrined on the Registry cover a variety of genres and eras. "Just in time for Christmas," the LOC gives us the boomer touchstone A Christmas Story (1983), followed by the Delmer Daves-directed Western drama 3:10 to Yuma (1957), the iconic Siegel-Eastwood cop drama Dirty Harry (1971), a George Cukor comedy remembered as Judy Holliday's best, Born Yesterday (1950), a Blake Edwards comedy absolutely owned by Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961; map the novella and movie here!), the Penny Marshall-directed comedy best remembered for a man's line (Tom Hanks: "There's no crying in baseball!"), A League of Their Own (1992), a William Seiter-directed Hal Roach comedy starring Laurel & Hardy, Sons of the Desert (1933), and the franchise/zeitgeist movie about which nothing more need be said here because it's all around us all the time, The Matrix (1999).

Add to the Hollywood-distributed titles two features we might call "independent" in today's sense. Otto Preminger, truly a trouble-making independent supported by the studio system, made Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with a Duke Ellington score, Saul Bass titles (great poster!), and a cast of big name actors. The New Yorker published Lillian Ross's long and memorable profile of Preminger in 1966, when he was suing distributor Columbia Pictures and Screen Gems for -- get this -- cutting up his 160-minute movie so that commercials could be inserted during television broadcasts of Anatomy of a Murder! Much lower down the fiscal chain of command comes Monte Hellman's low-budget ($800,000) road movie cum cult picture, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Our leading men? James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson! -- who don't play music, sing, or score the film! Shot on stretches of Route 66, from California to Tennessee, it works on a time-capsule level as well. 
AND it's about to be released on BluRay by Criterion.  See also "Ten (sixteen, actually) Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop," by Richard Linklater, another 2012 Registry honoree.

The 15 other films are a great gumbo.

Of the silent-era picks, the entry listed as The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Title [sic] Fight (1897) is by far the oldest. I don't know how the stray word Title got into the Library of Congress press release. But there it is. And so more than 2,000 websites have already repeated this little error. The Veriscope Company's moving-picture recording of the heavyweight prizefight between Jame J. Corbett and challenger Robert Fitzsimmons is not exactly an unknown film in histories in cinema -- where it is conventionally known as The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight everywhere from Wikipedia to the Internet Movie Database. Actually, there was no official title for the work, so far as I know. No copyright record exists (although the Veriscope Company claimed to have filed for copyright. And there was likely no on-screen title printed into the celluloid in 1897. Newspaper ads used varying descriptive titles.

Thanks: Daniel Dempsey.
In terms of preserving the Veriscope film, the BFI's National Film and Television Archive and the Museum of Modern Art have preserved copies on 35mm, but neither is anywhere close to complete. Fight film collectors Jim Jacobs and William Cayton's salvaged the knockout portion of the recording from a brittle print in their Big Fights, Inc. collection (sold to ESPN/ABC).

Other fragments of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight exist elsewhere. Just this year I received a note from someone who found his father owned a six-frame clipping of an original print.

As you can see from this scan the collector sent, the image was of an unconventional dimension. The film stock was 63mm wide (rather than 35mm) and the wider aspect ratio about 1.66:1 (rather than 1.33:1). All told, Enoch Rector's ability to capture the entire event -- 14 three-minute rounds with one-minute breaks, plus action before and after the bout -- on his unique format was unprecedented. Three cameras were said to have exposed some 10,000 feet of film. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was the only film made using this technology. The investors made a fortune on the roadshow exhibition and left the show business.

There's more about this in my book Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema (2008). Corbett-Fitz gets its own chapter.

Grant Lobban (
offers this detail:    
In 1983 the National Film Archive undertook the task of copying the original 63mm footage onto 35mm film. Using some material available from their archives together with extra reels provided by Jim Jacobs.... [The NFA] rephotographed the positive print cartoon style using a light box and register pins. Each frame being advanced by hand. The final 35mm print was of the masked frame type with an aspect ratio of about l,66:1 with the normal space being provided for a future sound track. . . [T]he fight film had also been copied by Karl Malkames Inc. in New York. In this case the printing was done using a special variable-pitch printer movement designed by Karl Malkames A.S.C. The final copy negative had a larger image extending the full width between the perforations.

The other silent movies on the 2012 Registry are from 1914: Uncle Tom's Cabin and Maurice Tourneur's The Wishing Ring. This version of the Harriet Beecher Stowe story was no doubt selected to stand on the Registry for the many film adaptations of what was 19th-century America's most popular theatrical production. Sam Lucas, who plays Uncle Tom, was the first African American actor to perform the role on film, and had been the first on stage as well. This arguably also made him the first black actor to play the lead role in a feature film. I've not seen The Wishing Ring, but it's an idyll of old England filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, by a newly arrived (and talented) French director.

Both 1914 films came from the new producer-distributor World Film Corp., co-founded by William A. Brady. Brady also headed Shubert Pictures, which produced The Wishing Ring. I doubt the coincidence was noted before both were selected to the Registry. (Or is this a Brady conspiracy? For Mr. Brady was the showman who managed the ring/stage/screen career of Gentleman Jim Corbett, making him a principal in the production of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight  too!) Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to find William Aloysius Brady's fingerprints all over early cinema history. He was, after all, president of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry from 1916 to 1921. In other words, Brady was the immediate predecessor of Will Hays, tsar of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (1922-1945).

In the next posting, we'll take up the un-Hollywood additions to the National Film Registry:

  • Kodachrome Color Motion Picture Tests (1922)
  • The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939) Prelingeriana
  • The Kidnappers Foil  (1930s-1950s) an amazing legacy of itinerant productions
  • Parable (1964) religious allegory made for the World's Fair
  • They Call It Pro Football (1967) from NFL Films, whose founder died this year
  • The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973, Ivan Dixon) wow!
  • Hours for Jerome: Parts 1 and 2 (1980-82) by maestro Nathaniel Dorsky
  • Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia (1990) Ellen Bruno's thesis documentary
  • Slacker (1991) Richard Linklater's low-low-budget indie that sparked a scene
  • One Survivor Remembers (1995) Oscar-winning documentary by Kary Antholis
  • The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) finally. . .

For now we can end with a tease:

Earlier this year, Mark Quigley (UCLA) and videographer Farzad Nikbakht recorded an interview with Rolf Forsberg, the veteran filmmaker responsible for the controversial but acclaimed Parable.