"Rocky," "Fargo" join National Film Registry

WASHINGTON (Hollywood Reporter) - As Rocky Balboa makes his big-screen comeback, the movie that launched the franchise 30 years ago and made Sylvester Stallone a household name was among the 25 films named to the National Film Registry on Wednesday.

“Rocky,” the Oscar winner for best picture in 1976, joined two-time Academy Award winner “Fargo” (1996) from the Coen brothers, Mel Brooks’ outrageous comedy “Blazing Saddles” (1974), John Carpenter’s slasher classic “Halloween” (1978) and Steven Soderbergh’s groundbreaking “sex, lies and videotape” (1989) on this year’s selection of treasures that are guaranteed to be preserved forever.

This year’s entrants span the years 1913-1996 and feature performances by Clark Gable (“Red Dust”), Greta Garbo (“Flesh and the Devil”), Bill Murray (“Groundhog Day”), Ingrid Bergman (“Notorious”), John Wayne (“The Big Trail”), and late soul great James Brown (“The T.A.M.I. Show”).

The National Film Registry list, begun in 1989, now numbers 450 works.

While the choices by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington spotlight some well-known films, the list also features many lesser-known lights of the filmmakers’ art, including the only film recording of pioneering blues artist Bessie Smith; a 1913 exploitation film about the white slave trade; one of the first rock concert movies; and even a home movie.

“The annual selection of films to the National Film Registry involves far more than the simple naming of cherished and important films to a prestigious list,” Billington said. “The Registry should not be seen as the Kennedy Center Honors, the Academy Awards or even America’s most beloved films. Rather, it is an invaluable means to advance public awareness of the richness, creativity and variety of American film heritage and to dramatize the need for its preservation.”

Billington made his selections from more than 1,000 titles nominated by the public after lengthy discussions with the library’s motion picture division staff and members of the National Film Preservation Board.

Congress created the registry in 1989 to preserve films of cultural, historical and artistic significance. Selection in the National Film Registry singles out films for preservation either in the Library of Congress’ own archive or facilities elsewhere.

Big studio releases are usually cared for by their own archives or other variants of public and private film archives. Entry in the registry often puts a priority on the films named; if they aren’t being preserved, their inclusion often moves them up on the list.

“Rocky” also won Oscars for best director (John Avildsen) and film editing and received 10 nominations. Stallone was nominated as best actor and for his original screenplay. “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth film in the franchise, opened last week.

“‘Rocky’ is an important film,” National Film Preservation Board staff coordinator Steve Leggett said. “And it’s a great story (in real life). An out-of-work actor watches a fight on TV and whips out a screenplay, and there you go.”

While Billington has already picked a pair of Brooks films, “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein,” for the list, he said the registry wouldn’t be complete without “Blazing Saddles.”

“It’s an iconic film,” Leggett said. “(Brooks is) an equal opportunity basher. He bashes everyone, and there are a lot of very funny scenes. It’s over-the-top comedy with a civil rights theme. It would be very difficult movie to make today. Just look at what’s happened with the Kazaks (and “Borat”). Mel Brooks had a small window of opportunity.”

“Halloween” might not have the artistic chops of two other films on this year’s list -- “The Last Command,” director Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 story that starred Emil Jannings in an Oscar-winning performance, or 1946’s “Notorious,” arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s best black-and-white American film -- but it launched a genre, Leggett noted.

“‘Halloween’ launched Carpenter’s career and started the slasher genre,” he said. “Some people may say that’s good or bad, but it’s really a good film.”

Von Sternberg’s silent drama, about an exiled Russian general who is reduced to working as a Hollywood extra, is seen by film critic Leonard Maltin as another genre-making film.

“It shows that even in the ‘20s, people were interested in the inner workings of Hollywood and (seeing) Hollywood mythicize itself,” said Maltin, a member of the library’s film preservation board. “Eventually, (Jannings’ character) finds himself in a battle scene wearing his old uniform. It sounds contrived, but it works out.”

The bulk of the choices are obscure films like Harry Smith’s avant-garde “Early Abstractions #1-5,7,10”; “St. Louis Blues,” the 1929 RKO sound experiment that captured Smith singing in a two-reeler; or “Think of Me First as a Person,” a home movie about a child with Down syndrome that was put together over 15 years.

Billington noted that films like these, as well as documentaries and silent movies, are disappearing at an alarming rate as nitrate deterioration, color fading and the recently discovered “vinegar syndrome” (which threatens the acetate-based “safety film” stock) take its toll.

“This key component of American cultural history is an endangered species,” he said.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter