Arts & Entertainment

The National Film Registry keeps curtain from dropping on old films

George Gershwin's
George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" (1959) is one of 25 motion pictures that were chosen in 2011 to be preserved as historical treasures in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

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It’s not a golden statue, but making the National Film Registry can be much more valuable than an Oscar. Patrick Loughney is chief of the new Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Virginia. "This is not an effort to sort of bring a public honor on either a filmmaker or his or her film," according to Loughney. It’s made "to call attention to the need to preserve these films for future generations at a high quality, at an archival level." Since President Ronald Reagan signed the 1988 National Film Preservation Act, 575 films have been named to the registry. The first selections were easy picks, among them “Gone With the Wind," “Citizen Kane," and “High Noon."

"Faces" John Cassavetes (1968)
"Hester Street" Joan Micklin Silver (1975)
"Stand & Deliver" Ramon Menendez (1988)

But over the years, the registry has grown to include films that are lesser known but no less important such as the 1956 Puerto Rican short film “Modesta,” about a woman who rebels against her husband. Those responsible for recommendations to the Library of Congress registry are typically film critics, theater owners and film professionals from the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild. This time around, they included the 1934 classic about an actress and the producer who made her a star: “Twentieth Century.” "It’s an example of a film that’s added to the registry because it’s endured," Loughney explained. "It’s always at the top of people’s evaluations and critical lists and again that has an influence on the selection." But, he's quick to add, movie fans get their say, too. And they've been campaigning to include “Forrest Gump” and “Silence of the Lambs" for going on three years. Loughney says even modern films like these deteriorate. But older films made of highly flammable nitrate stock are the most fragile. The Library of Congress estimates three out of four films made between 1912 and 1930 have been lost to fire or neglect...or to opportunists looking to harvest the silver. "It’s a little known fact that by 1920, the Kodak Company was using four tons of silver per week in the manufacture of motion picture and other film products. So that was a real economic incentive to burn film or to recycle it in some way. That caused the loss of many film prints." The Library of Congress is storing more than 145 million feet of nitrate film in its underground facility. It has a fulltime film preservation lab that works to preserve America’s cinematic heritage. For each film on the Registry list, the Library acquires an archival quality copy to add to its enormous library.