Simply put: the Joker is the greatest comic book villain of all time.
But before I get into the whys, let’s define “great”.
The greatest villain doesn’t need to defeat all other villains in a hypothetical fight. The greatest villain doesn’t need to have superpowers or gadgets to threaten more than their primary antagonist. The greatest villain isn’t the craziest of them all. The greatest villain doesn’t have to be the most ambitious with the largest plans for (yawn) world domination. Most of those things only matter if your definition of “great” is “most powerful”, which isn’t the case when people describe Joker as the greatest villain (it’s also one of the most literal and banal interpretations of the word).
In this context, “great” refers to the quality of the character. It refers to the Joker’s ability to challenge Batman to push him beyond his limits and to produce the most exciting stories for us readers to enjoy. It refers to many things that Joker possesses that I’ll explain in this piece.
Even though the stories themselves can be as dull as they can be amazing depending on the writer involved, the fact that Joker has endured for 70+ years, regardless of the varying stories, and remain as popular as ever, speaks to the undeniable brilliance of the character that has sustained his existence for so long.
There’s a reason why if you ask people who don’t read comics, to name a comic book supervillain, chances are they’ll say Joker – he’s become iconic and culturally vital enough to surpass his primary comic book audience.
And. Here. We. Go!
Obviously it’s subjective as to whether or not clowns scare you but it’s fair to say that they creep out a great many people. The inversion of the clown as an avatar of innocence, comedy and joy to deranged psychopathic killer and incarnation of chaos is an arresting image. Joker’s appearance has actually become iconic, an instantly recognisable character across the globe who has cemented the clown persona in comics so firmly that no-one else can attempt it without being seen as completely derivative of Joker. His appearance has made him unique in comics.
Other cultural touchstones have only strengthened Joker’s horrifying image and made him more terrifying. To name just a few, there’s Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT, Rorshach’s chilling anecdote about Pagliacci from Watchmen (made all the more disturbing by Rorshach’s clipped manner of speaking), and the real life horror of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy aka Pogo the Killer Clown, all of which are well-known in popular culture and more than add to the scary nature of the clown for many people.
But there’s more to his appearance than just twisting a playful image – he’s not just being the scary clown, though that’s perfectly fine in itself.
Joker was one of Batman’s earliest foes and over time has evolved an opposite to him that the imagery plays upon. His appearance is colourful and he is evil; Batman’s appearance is dark and he is good. It harks to the idea of Batman and Joker as opposites (though interestingly both outfits inspire fear).
The adjective nearly everyone will say when you ask them to describe the Joker is CRAZY. Of course he’s crazy: he dresses like a clown, he’s obsessed with Batman, he spends most of his time locked up in Arkham Asylum (a prison for the criminally insane) – in every way, the guy is nuts!
Or is he?
Labelling Joker as crazy is just too easy. It’s dismissive of the darker undertones that sanity implies. If he were crazy, he wouldn’t be responsible for his actions – they would be a by-product of his mental illness. He didn’t really mean to kill all those people, he was in thrall to his defective brain!
Sanity is a more sinister angle for Joker. It would mean that he is 100% aware of his actions and that he dresses, talks, acts and thinks the way he does by choice. He prefers to behave this way to the way the rest of us are. He chooses to disregard life as valuable. He wants to be viewed as crazy (maybe finding freedom in that image?). He wants to be the villain and loves it. He is a man with nothing to lose and nothing to fear. Because we as readers can’t possibly relate to such extreme behaviour we label it as craziness, mistaking it for what it really is: pure evil.
How dark would such an individual be – a man so far gone as this? How endless is that abyss? Nobody could relate to this extreme mind-set. Joker wants us to dismiss him as crazy as, in a way, crazy is predictable, giving him the advantage to do the unexpected. Joker has gone beyond crazy. He’s become something else, something unique.
If we as readers go along with the shallow interpretation of the character as “crazy”, it undermines the complexity of the character and halts deeper thought about his behaviour. Not to mention how a crazy person, completely unaccountable for their actions, could never pull off so many sophisticated plans as Joker has over the years.
His behaviour doesn’t make him great but that ambiguity is part of what makes him the greatest villain.
Joker would lose in a hypothetical fight with more powerful villains like Darkseid/Thanos/Galactus/etc. – but so what? He is still by far the most dangerous character in Gotham (and by extension, one of the most dangerous in the DCU) as his actions MATTER in a way those other, more powerful characters don’t.
Looking at Batman’s Rogues Gallery (and it is extensive!), there are a number of famous villains, all of whom have had multiple tangles with the Dark Knight. But how many lasting changes have any of them had? What has Penguin/Two Face/Poison Ivy/Mr Freeze/Solomon Grundy etc. etc. done to Batman that has had the same effect as Joker’s actions? None.
When Joker appears, he does terrible things – and those terrible things stick. When Joker killed Jason Todd, Jason remained dead. When he crippled Barbara Gordon, she remained crippled. When he killed Jim Gordon’s wife, she remained dead.
Ok, Jason Todd came back 20 years later as the Red Hood, Barbara got her legs back in 2011, and Jim’s wife reappeared in the New 52, but that’s just the nature of comics – it’s all constantly evolving middle story and nothing is ever permanent (except for Uncle Ben’s death!).
But the fact that Joker’s actions lasted as long as they did is remarkable in itself and shows how much Joker can influence things in the DCU. Permanent change is very rare in comics. No other villain has this effect – only Joker is capable of altering Batman’s landscape in this way. He is the dark agent of change and infinitely interesting as a result. The Penguin and the Riddler can have their day in court but the Joker is the only one who burns the court down.
That he’s not the most powerful supervillain or the most well-equipped makes this feat all the more impressive.
Joker is the greatest villain because he’s the most suited to his opposite, the hero, who also happens to be the greatest superhero: Batman.
Villains are rarely created without a hero in mind and Joker was created to challenge Batman specifically, a non-powered superhero, hence Joker’s lack of superpowers as well. Joker wasn’t created to challenge Darkseid or Galactus or whoever – a great villain need only challenge their hero, and Joker does exactly that with Batman. He is the ideal opposite. Joker doesn’t need to pose a threat to Superman or Wonder Woman or anyone else because he wasn’t created for that purpose.
Looking at a character like Doctor Doom in a similar way, Doom has created power armour and developed magical abilities because his primary antagonists are the Fantastic Four, a group of super-powered individuals who need to be challenged by someone challenging – hence why Doom has been elevated to that level of power. He wasn’t made more powerful because his creators wanted him to beat the Joker or other villains in a fight!
Batman and Joker have the most unique and interesting relationship in all of comics. Their core conflict is a philosophical one. Joker wants Batman to break his rule and become like him: a killer. Batman knows Joker is the reflection in the mirror of what might be – if he crosses that line where he takes lives, he becomes Joker (Mark Millar explored this in his comic, Nemesis, where the title character is Batman if he were like the Joker). The mirror metaphor continues in their attire that I mentioned earlier: Batman the hero wears black and looks like a villain; Joker the villain wears colours in an image traditionally associated with innocent amusement.
Batman would arguably not be the world’s most popular hero without Joker, whose presence and actions have forced the Dark Knight to go above and beyond his skill set to superhuman levels in order to stop the Joker. Without Joker, Batman’s morals mean nothing because they wouldn’t be tested so intensely and so often. Batman doesn’t kill but because he doesn’t kill the worst person in the world – despite the countless opportunities – it makes him all the more the better person and a true hero.
Great villains are great characters and great characters are more complex than the sum of their parts. As much as Joker is a great villain, he’s also a great character too thanks to his many layers including his mysterious origins, his weird motivations, and his adaptability to cause havoc in any situation.
Joker is the only major villain whose origins are unknown. Some writers – most famously Alan Moore in The Killing Joke – have written origins for him but all have been retconned and, in terms of canon, Joker’s true origins remain a mystery. We don’t know where he came from, his real name, how or why he’s chosen this path – and that mystery heightens our interest in the character. Not knowing anything about him makes everything possible – that mystique and potential is an utterly compelling quality to have in a villain and extremely rare. We know every other villains stories but not Joker’s.
Joker’s motivations have evolved over time from the early days where he did standard villain stuff like robbing banks, to the increasingly abstract in modern times where everything he does revolves around Batman in some way, testing his credo to try and make Batman fall. He’s a fascinating character who doesn’t want to boringly conquer the world or even kill Batman (he’s had numerous opportunities for that and declined to follow through each time) but whose goal is more conceptual and challenges the core of his nemesis. His motivations make him unique, exciting and extraordinary all by themselves.
For a great villain – and a great hero – to remain relevant over several decades they have to be adaptable and Joker is the most adaptable villain. He has posed all kinds of threats to Gotham City and Batman from poisoning the Gotham reservoir, to gassing the populace, from planting nuclear bombs, to setting up timed sniper rifles and picking off Gotham’s officials, to even managing to capture all of the Bat family. He is capable and he is dangerous. That he doesn’t have superpowers or have the most gadgets only means people underestimate him, which he wants in order for his plans to succeed. Crucially, the one person who doesn’t underestimate him is Batman, who is the point of Joker’s existence.
How do other villains threaten heroes? The Phoenix Force for example does so in the same way every time. Ditto Thanos, Darkseid and Apocalypse: with absolute force. The Joker has variety, and that variety gives us great stories. All-powerful characters are dull. Take for example the latest Thanos mini-series, Thanos Rising, which was an absolute bore. The more powerful a character, the duller they are to read about. And so what if Darkseid could easily kill Joker? That’s not the point. The villain is there to create a great story which the Joker manages to do the best.
A great villain is not one note and Joker is definitely not that. He has changed remarkably over the years to suit the era and the increased sophistication of the stories. This is why he is one of the few villains who features in his own books as well as appearing in hundreds more besides.
He is the most popular villain but he’s popular for all the right reasons: because readers respond to smart, well-written characters. This is why Joker is one of the greatest characters in comics history – and the greatest villain.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brief descriptions of each Registry title can be found here, and expanded essays are available for select titles. The authors of these essays are experts in film history, and their works appear in books, newspapers, magazines and online. Some of these essays originated in other publications and are reprinted here by permission of the author. Other essays have been written specifically for this website. The views expressed in these essays are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Library of Congress.
In most cases, the images linked to Registry titles listed below were selected from the Library's Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, however some are drawn from other Library collections.
View a list of all expanded essays
7th Heaven (1927)
"Seventh Heaven" (also referred to as "7th Heaven"), directed by Frank Borzage and based on the play by Austin Strong, tells the story of Chico (Charles Farrell), the Parisian sewer worker-turned-street cleaner, and his wife Diane (Janet Gaynor), who are separated during World War I, yet whose love manages to keep them connected. "Seventh Heaven" was initially released as a silent film but proved so popular with audiences that it was re-released with a synchronized soundtrack later that same year. The popularity of the film resulted in it becoming one of the most commercially successful silent films as well as one of the first films to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. Janet Gaynor, Frank Borzage, and Benjamin Glazer won Oscars for their work on the film, specifically awards for Best Actress, Best Directing (Dramatic Picture), and Best Writing (Adaptation), respectively. "Seventh Heaven" also marked the first time often-paired stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell worked together.
Expanded essay by Aubrey Solomon (PDF, 694KB)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Special-effects master Ray Harryhausen provides the hero (Kerwin Mathews) with a villanous magician (Torin Thatcher) and fantastic antagonists, including a genie, giant cyclops, fire-breathing dragons, and a sword-wielding animated skeleton, all in glorious Technicolor. And of course no mythological tale would be complete without the rescue of a damsel in distress, here a princess (Kathryn Grant) that the evil magician shrinks down to a mere few inches. Harryhausen's stunning Dynamation process, which blended stop-motion animation and live-actions sequences, and a thrilling score by Bernard Herrmann ("Psycho," "The Day the Earth Stood Still") makes this one of the finest fantasy films of all time.
Expanded essay by Tony Dalton (PDF, 900KB)
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Considered to be one of the best westerns of the 1950s, "3:10 to Yuma" has gained in stature since its original release as audiences have recognized the progressive insight the film provides into the psychology of its two main characters that becomes vividly exposed during scenes of heightened tension. Frankie Laine sang the film's popular theme song, also titled "3:10 to Yuma." Often compared favorably with "High Noon," this innovative western from director Delmer Daves starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in roles cast against type and was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.
12 Angry Men (1957)
In the 1950s, several television dramas acted live over the airways won such critical acclaim that they were also produced as motion pictures; among those already honored by the National Film Registry is "Marty" (1955). Reginald Rose had adapted his original stage play "12 Angry Men" for Studio One in 1954, and Henry Fonda decided to produce a screen version, taking the lead role and hiring director Sidney Lumet, who had been directing for television since 1950. The result is a classic. Filmed in a spare, claustrophobic style—largely set in one jury room—the play relates a single juror's refusal to conform to peer pressure in a murder trial and follows his conversion of one juror after another to his point of view. The story is often viewed as a commentary on McCarthyism, Fascism, or Communism.
Expanded essay by Joanna E. Rapf (PDF, 258KB)
13 Lakes (2004)
James Benning's feature-length film can be seen as a series of moving landscape paintings with artistry and scope that might be compared to Claude Monet's series of water-lily paintings. Embracing the concept of "landscape as a function of time," Benning shot his film at 13 different American lakes in identical 10-minute takes. Each is a static composition: a balance of sky and water in each frame with only the very briefest suggestion of human existence. At each lake, Benning prepared a single shot, selected a single camera position and a specific moment. The climate, the weather and the season deliver a level of variation to the film, a unique play of light, despite its singularity of composition. Curators of the Rotterdam Film Festival noted, "The power of the film is that the filmmaker teaches the viewer to look better and learn to distinguish the great varieties in the landscape alongside him. [The list of lakes] alone is enough to encompass a treatise on America and its history. A treatise the film certainly encourages, but emphatically does not take part in." Benning, who studied mathematics and then film at the University of Wisconsin, currently is on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
Expanded essay by Scott MacDonald (PDF, 316KB)
42nd Street (1933)
At a little less than 90 minutes, "42nd Street" is a fast-moving picture that crackles with great dialogue and snappily plays up Busby Berkeley's dance routines and and the bouncy Al Dubin-Harry Warren ditties that include the irrepressably cheerful "Young and Healthy" (featuring the adorable Toby Wing), "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the title number. A famous Broadway director (Warner Baxter) takes on a new show despite his ill health, then faces disaster at every turn, including the loss of his leading lady on opening night. The film features Bebe Daniels as the star of the show and Berkeley regulars Guy Kibbee, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler, whom Baxter implores, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick's landmark epic pushed the envelope of narrative and special effects to create an introspective look at technology and humanity. Arthur C. Clarke adapted his story "The Sentinel" for the screen version and his odyssey follows two astronauts, played by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, on a voyage to Jupiter accompanied by HAL 9000, an unnervingly humanesque computer running the entire ship. With assistance from special-effects expert Douglas Trumbull, Kubrick spent more than two years creating his vision of outer space. Despite some initial critical misgivings, "2001" became one of the most popular films of 1968. Billed as "the ultimate trip," the film quickly caught on with a counterculture audience that embraced the contemplative experience that many older audiences found tedious and lacking substance.
Expanded essay by James Verniere (PDF, 691KB)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)
Directed by Stuart Paton, the film was touted as "the first submarine photoplay." Universal spent freely on location, shooting in the Bahamas and building life-size props, including the submarine, and taking two years to film. J. E. Williamson's "photosphere," an underwater chamber connected to an iron tube on the surface of the water, enabled Paton to film underwater scenes up to depths of 150 feet. The film is based on Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and to a lesser extent, "The Mysterious Island." The real star of the film is its special effects. Although they may seem primitive by today's standards, 100 years ago they dazzled contemporary audiences. It was the first time the public had an opportunity to see reefs, various types of marine life and men mingling with sharks. It was also World War I, and submarine warfare was very much in the public consciousness, so the life-size submarine gave the film an added dimension of reality. The film was immensely popular with audiences and critics.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Freight handlers Bud Abbott and Lou Costello encounter Dracula and Frankenstein's monster when they arrive from Europe for a house of horrors exhibit. After the monsters outwit the hapless duo and escape, Dracula returns for Costello whose brain he intends to transplant into the monster. Lon Chaney Jr. as the lycanthropic Lawrence Talbot, Bela Lugosi in his final appearance as Dracula and Glenn Strange as the Monster all play their roles perfectly straight as Bud and Lou stumble around them. Throughout the film, Dracula and the Monster cavort in plain view of the quivering Costello who is unable to convince the ever-poised and dubious Abbott that the monsters exist. until the wild climax in Dracula's castle, where the duo are pursued by all three of the film's monstrosities.
Expanded essay by Ron Palumbo (PDF, 424KB)
Ace in the Hold (aka Big Carnival) (1951)
Based on the infamous 1925 case of Kentucky cave explorer Floyd Collins, who became trapped underground and whose gripping saga created a national sensation lasting two weeks before Collins died. A deeply cynical look at journalism, "Ace in the Hole" features Kirk Douglas as a once-famous New York reporter, now a down-and-out has-been in Albuquerque. Douglas plots a return to national prominence by milking the story of a man trapped in a Native American cave dwelling as a riveting human-interest story, complete with a tourist-laden, carnival atmosphere outside the rescue scene. The callously indifferent wife of the stricken miner is no more sympathetic: "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons." Providing a rare moral contrast is Porter Hall, who plays Douglas' ethical editor appalled at his reporter's actions. Such a scathing tale of media manipulation might have helped turn this brilliant film into a critical and commercial failure, which later led Paramount to reissue the film under a new title, "The Big Carnival."
Adam's Rib (1949)
With an Oscar-nominated script by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, "Adam's Rib" pokes fun at the double standard between the sexes. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play husband and wife attorneys, each drawn to the same case of attempted murder. Judy Holliday, defending the sanctity of her marriage and family, intends only to frighten her philandering husband (Tom Ewell) and his mistress (Jean Hagen) but tearfully ends up shooting and injuring the husband. Tracy argues that the case is open and shut, but Hepburn asserts that, if the defendant were a man, he'd be set free on the basis of "the unwritten law." As the trial turns into a media circus, the couple's relationship is put to the test. Holliday's first screen triumph propelled her onto bigger roles, including "Born Yesterday," for which she won an Academy Award. The film is also the debut of Ewell, who would become best known for his role opposite Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch", and Hagen, who would floor audiences as the ditzy blonde movie star with the shrill voice in "Singin' in the Rain."
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
When Richard the Lion-Hearted is captured and held for ransom, evil Prince John (Claude Rains) declares himself ruler of England and makes no attempt to secure Richard's safe return. A lone knight, Robin Hood (Errol Flynn), sets out to raise Richard's ransom by hijacking wealthy caravans traveling through Sherwood Forest. Aided by his lady love, Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), and band of merry men (including Alan Hale and Eugene Pallette) Robin battles the usurper John and wicked Sheriff of Nottingham to return the throne to its rightful owner. Dashing, athletic and witty, Flynn is everything that Robin Hood should be, and his adversaries are memorably villainous, particularly Basil Rathbone with whom Flynn crosses swords in the climactic duel. One of the most spectacular adventure films of all time, and features a terrific performance by the perfectly cast Flynn. Only a spirited and extravagant production could do justice to the Robin Hood legend; this film is more than equal to the task. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score won an Oscar, as did the editing and art direction.
The African Queen (1951)
Adapted from a novel by C.S. Forester, the film stars Humphrey Bogart in an Oscar-winning portrayal of a slovenly, gin-swilling captain of the African Queen, a tramp steamer carrying supplies to small African villages during World War I. Katharine Hepburn plays a prim spinster missionary stranded when the Germans invade her settlement. Bogart agrees to transport Hepburn back to civilization despite their opposite temperaments. Before long, their tense animosity turns to love, and together they navigate treacherous rapids and devise an ingenious way to destroy a German gunboat. The difficulties inherent in filming on location in Africa are documented in numerous books, including one by Hepburn.
"Airplane!" emerged as a sharply perceptive parody of the big-budget disaster films that dominated Hollywood during the 1970s. Written and directed by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the film is characterized by a freewheeling style and skewered Hollywood's tendency to push successful formulaic movie conventions beyond the point of logic. One of the film's most noteworthy achievements was to cast actors best known for their dramatic careers, such as Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, and provide them with opportunities to showcase their comic talents.The central premise is one giant cliche: a pilot (Robert Hays), who's developed a fear of flying, tries to win back his stewardess girlfriend (Julie Hagerty), boarding her flight so he can coax her around. Due to an outbreak of food poisoning, Hays must land the plane, with the help of a glue-sniffing air traffic controller (Bridges) and and his tyranical former captain (Stack). Supporting the stars is a wacky assemblage of stock characters from every disaster movie ever made.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 477 KB)
This film's appeal may lie in its reputation as "a haunted house movie in space." Though not particularly original, "Alien" is distinguished by director Ridley Scott's innovative ability to wring every ounce of suspense out of the B-movie staples he employs within the film's hi-tech setting. Art designer H.R. Giger creates what has become one of cinema's scariest monsters: a nightmarish hybrid of humanoid-insect-machine that Scott makes even more effective by obscuring it from view for much of the film. The cast, including Tom Skerritt and John Hurt, brings an appealing quality to their characters, and one character in particular, Sigourney Weaver's warrant officer Ripley, became the model for the next generation of hardboiled heroines and solidified the prototype in subsequent sequels. Rounding out the cast and crew, cameraman Derek Vanlint and composer Jerry Goldsmith propel the emotions relentlessly from one visual horror to the next.
All About Eve (1950)
Scheming ingénue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) ingratiates herself with aging Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) moving in on her acting roles, her friends and her stage director beau. The dialog is often too bitingly perfect with its sarcastic barbs and clever comebacks, but it's still entertaining and quote-worthy. The film took home Academy Awards for best picture, best director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), best screenplay (Mankiewicz) and costume design (Edith Head and Charles Le Maire). George Sanders won a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as the acid-tongued theater critic Addison DeWitt. Thelma Ritter as Margo's maid, Celeste Holm as Margo's best friend, and Marilyn Monroe, in a small role as an aspiring actress, give memorable performances.
All My Babies (1953)
Written and directed by George Stoney, this landmark educational film was used to educate midwives throughout the South. Produced by the Georgia Department of Public Health, profiles the life and work of "Miss Mary" Coley, an African-American midwife living in rural Georgia. In documenting the preparation for and delivery of healthy babies in rural conditions ranging from decent to deplorable, the filmmakers inadvertently captured a telling snapshot at the socioeconomic conditions of the era that would prove fascinating to future generations.
Expanded essay by Joshua Glick (PDF, 391KB)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
This faithful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's classic pacifist novel is among the greatest antiwar films ever made, remaining powerful more than 80 years later, thanks to Lewis Milestone's inventive direction. Told from the perspective of a sensitive young German soldier (Lew Ayres) during WWI, recruited by a hawkish professor advocating "glory for the fatherland." The young soldier comes under the protective wing of an old veteran (Louis Wolheim) who teaches him how to survive the horrors of war. The film is emotionally draining, and so realistic that it will be forever etched in the mind of any viewer. Milestone's direction is frequently inspired, most notably during the battle scenes. In one such scene, the camera serves as a kind of machine gun, shooting down the oncoming troops as it glides along the trenches. Universal spared no expense during production, converting more than 20 acres of a large California ranch into battlefields occupied by more than 2,000 ex-servicemen extras. After its initial release, some foreign countries refused to run the film. Poland banned it for being pro-German, while the Nazis labeled it anti-German. Joseph Goebbels, later propaganda minister, publicly denounced the film. It received an Academy Award as Best Picture and Milestone was honored as Best Director.
Expanded essay by Garry Wills (PDF, 713KB)
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
The rich visual texture, using glorious Technicolor, and a soaring emotional score lend what is essentially a thin story a kind of epic tension. A movie unheralded by critics and largely ignored by the public at the time of its release, All That Heaven Allows is now considered Douglas Sirk's masterpiece. The story concerns a romance between a middle-aged, middle-class widow (Jane Wyman) and a brawny young gardener (Rock Hudson)—the stuff of a standard weepie, you might think, until Sirk's camera begins to draw a deeply disturbing, deeply compassionate portrait of a woman trapped by stifling moral and social codes. Sirk's meaning is conveyed almost entirely by his mise-en-scene—a world of glistening, treacherous surfaces, of objects that take on a terrifying life of their own; he is one of those rare filmmakers who insist that you read the image.
All That Jazz (1979)
Director/choreographer Bob Fosse takes a Felliniesque look at the life of a driven entertainer. Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, channeling Fosse) is the ultimate work (and pleasure)-aholic, as he knocks back a daily dose of amphetamines to juggle a new Broadway production while editing his new movie, an ex-wife Audrey, girlfriend Kate, young daughter, and various conquests. Reminiscent of Fellini's "8 1/2 ," Fosse moves from realistic dance numbers to extravagant flights of cinematic fancy, as Joe meditates on his life, his women, and his death. Fosse shows the stiff price that entertaining exacts on entertainers (among other things, he intercuts graphic footage of open-heart surgery with a song and dance), mercilessly reversing the feel-good mood of classical movie musicals.
All the King's Men (1949)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren and directed by Robert Rossen, "All the King's Men" was inspired by the career of Louisiana governor Huey Long. Broderick Crawford won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Willie Stark, a backwoods Southern lawyer who wins the hearts of his constituents by bucking the corrupt state government. The thesis is basically that power corrupts, with Stark presented as a man who starts out with a burning sense of purpose and a defiant honesty. Rossen, however, injects a note of ambiguity early on (a scene where Willie impatiently shrugs off his wife's dream of the great and good things he is destined to accomplish); and the doubt as to what he is really after is beautifully orchestrated by being filtered through the eyes of the press agent (Ireland) who serves as the film's narrator, and whose admiration for Stark gradually becomes tempered by understanding. In addition to its Oscars for Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, the film won the Best Picture prize.
All the President's Men (1976)
Based on the memoir by "Washington Post" reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about uncovering the Watergate break-in and cover up, "All the President's Men" is a rare example of a best-selling book transformed into a hit film and a cultural phenomenon in its own right. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, the film stars Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, and features an Oscar-winning performance by Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee. Nominated for numerous awards, it took home an Oscar for best screenplay by William Goldman (known prior to this for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and after for "The Princess Bride"). Pakula's taut directing plays up the emotional roller coaster of exhilaration, paranoia, self-doubt, and courage, without ignoring the tedium and tireless digging, and elevating it to noble determination.
Called the master of "cosmic cinema," Jordan Belson excelled in creating abstract imagery with a spiritual dimension that featured dazzling displays of color, light, and ever-moving patterns and objects. Trained as a painter and influenced by the films of Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren, and Hans Richter, Belson collaborated in the late 1950s with electronic music composer Henry Jacobs to create elaborate sound and light shows in the San Francisco Morrison Planetarium, an experience that informed his subsequent films. The film, Belson has stated, "was probably the space-iest film that had been done until then. It creates a feeling of moving into the void." Inspired by Eastern spiritual thought, "Allures" (which took a year and a half to make) is, Belson suggests, a "mathematically precise" work intended to express the process of becoming that the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin has named "cosmogenesis."
America, America (1963)
"My name is Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, Turk by birth, American because my uncle made a journey." So begins the film directed, produced and written by Elia Kazan, and the one he frequently cited as his personal favorite. Based loosely on Kazan's uncle, Stavros dreams of going to America in the late 1890s. Kazan, who often hired locals as extras, cast in the lead role a complete novice, Stathis Giallelis, whom he discovered sweeping the floor in a Greek producer's office. Shot almost entirely in Greece and Turkey, Haskell Wexler's cinematography evokes scale and authenticity that combines with Gene Callahan's Oscar-winning art direction to give the film a distinctly European feel. Intended as the first chapter of a trilogy, the epically ambitious "America, America" also earned Oscar nominations for best director, best screenplay and best picture.
American Graffiti (1973)
Fresh off the success of "The Godfather," producer Francis Ford Coppola weilded the clout to tackle a project pitched to him by his friend, George Lucas. The film captured the flavor of the 1950s with ironic candor and a latent foreboding that helped spark a nostalgia craze. Despite technical obstacles, and having to shoot at night, cinematographer Haskell Wexler gave the film a neon glare to match its rock-n-roll soundscape. Lucas' period detail, co-writers Willard Huyck's and Gloria Katz's realistic dialogue, and the film's wistfulness for pre-Vietnam simplicity appealed to audiences amidst cultural upheaval. The film also established the reputations of Lucas (whose next film would be "Star Wars") and his young cast, and furthered the onset of soundtrack-driven, youth-oriented movies.
An American in Paris (1951)
Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Georges Guetary, (The film was supposed to make Guetary into "the New Chevalier." It didn't.) The thinnish plot is held together by the superlative production numbers and by the recycling of several vintage George Gershwin tunes, including "I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," and "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Highlights include Guetary's rendition of "Stairway to Paradise"; Oscar Levant's fantasy of conducting and performing Gershwin's "Concerto in F" (Levant also appears as every member of the orchestra). "An American in Paris," directed by Vincente Minnelli, cleaned up at the Academy Awards, with Oscars for best picture, screenplay, score, cinematography, art direction, set design, and even a special award for the choreography of its 18-minute closing ballet in which Kelly and Caron dance before lavish backgrounds resembling French masterpieces.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Director Otto Preminger brought a new cinematic frankness to film with this gripping crime-and-trial movie shot on location in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where the incident on which it was based had occurred. Based on the best-selling novel by Robert Traver, Preminger imbues his film with daring dialogue and edgy pacing. Controversial in its day due to its blunt language and willingness to openly discuss adult themes, "Anatomy" endures today for its first-rate drama and suspense, and its informed perspective on the legal system. Starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick, it also features strong supporting performances by George C. Scott as the prosecuting attorney, and Eve Arden and Arthur O'Connell. The film includes an innovative jazz score by Duke Ellington and one of Saul Bass's most memorable opening title sequences.
Animal House (1978)
(see "National Lampoon's Animal House")
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen's romantic comedy of the Me Decade follows the up and down relationship of two mismatched New York neurotics. "Annie Hall" blended the slapstick and fantasy from such earlier Allen films as "Sleeper" and "Bananas" with the more autobiographical musings of his stand-up and written comedy, using an array of such movie techniques as talking heads, splitscreens, and subtitles. Within these gleeful formal experiments and sight gags, Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman skewered 1970s solipsism, reversing the happy marriage of opposites found in classic screwball comedies. Hailed as Allen's most mature and personal film, "Annie Hall" beat out "Star Wars" for Best Picture and also won Oscars for Allen as director and writer and for Keaton as Best Actress; audiences enthusiastically responded to Allen's take on contemporary love and turned Keaton's rumpled menswear into a fashion trend.
Expanded essay by Jay Carr (PDF, 302KB)
Antonia: Portrait of the Woman (1974)
Directed by Jill Godmillow and Judy Collins, this Oscar-nominated documentary chronicles the life of musician-conductor Antonia Brica and her struggle to become a symphony director despite her gender. Told by many that it was ridiculous for a woman to think of conducting, she admits, "I felt that I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try." And the pain and deprivation which she has known all her life are over-shadowed in this film by her ebullient, forthright warmth. The narrative of her life alternates with glimpses of her at work—rehearsing or teaching. She also reflects on the emotional experience of conducting— including the acute separation pangs that follow a concert.
The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder is purported to have hung a sign in his office that read, "How Would Lubitsch Do It?" Here, that Lubitsch touch seems to hover over each scene, lending a lightness to even the most nefarious of deeds. One of the opening shots in the movie shows Baxter as one of a vast horde of wage slaves, working in a room where the desks line up in parallel rows almost to the vanishing point. This shot is quoted from King Vidor's silent film "The Crowd" (1928), which is also about a faceless employee in a heartless corporation. Cubicles would have come as revolutionary progress in this world. By the time he made this film, Wilder had become a master at a kind of sardonic, satiric comedy that had sadness at its center. Wilder was fresh off the enormous hit "Some Like it Hot," his first collaboration with Lemmon, and with "The Apartment" Lemmon showed that he could move from light comedian to tragic everyman. This movie was the summation of what Wilder had done to date, and the key transition in Lemmon's career. It was also a key film for Shirley MacLaine, who had been around for five years in light comedies, but here emerged as a serious actress who would flower in the 1960s.
Expanded essay by Kyle Westphal (PDF, 428KB)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The chaotic production also experienced shut-downs when a typhoon destroyed the set and star Sheen suffered a heart attack; the budget ballooned and Coppola covered the overages himself. These production headaches, which Coppola characterized as being like the Vietnam War itself, have been superbly captured in the documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Despite the studio's fears and mixed reviews of the film's ending, Apocalypse Now became a substantial hit and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Duvall's psychotic Kilgore, and Best Screenplay. It won Oscars for sound and for Vittorio Storaro's cinematography. This hallucinatory, Wagnerian project has produced admirers and detractors of equal ardor; it resembles no other film ever made, and its nightmarish aura and polarized reception aptly reflect the tensions and confusions of the Vietnam era.
This early sound-era masterpiece was the first film of both stage/director Rouben Mamoulian and cabaret/star Helen Morgan. Many have compared Mamoulian's debut to that of Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" because of his flamboyant use of cinematic innovation to test technical boundaries. The tear-jerking plot boasts top performances from Morgan as the fading burlesque queen, Fuller Mellish Jr. as her slimy paramour and Joan Peters as her cultured daughter. However, the film is remembered today chiefly for Mamoulian's audacious style. While most films of the era were static and stage-bound, Mamoulian's camera reinvigorated the melodramatic plot by prowling relentlessly through sordid backstage life.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
John Huston's brilliant crime drama contains the recipe for a meticulously planned robbery, but the cast of criminal characters features one too many bad apples. Sam Jaffe, as the twisted mastermind, uses cash from corrupt attorney Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to assemble a group of skilled thugs to pull off a jewel heist. All goes as planned — until an alert night watchman and a corrupt cop enter the picture. Marilyn Monroe has a memorable bit part as Emmerich's "niece."
Atlantic City (1980)
Aided by a taut script from playwright John Guare, director Louis Malle celebrates his wounded characters even as he mercilessly reveals their dreams for the hopeless illusions they really are. Malle reveals the rich portraits he paints of wasted American lives, through the filter of his European sensibilities. He is exceptionally well served by his cast and his location--a seedy resort town supported, like the principal characters, by memories of glories past. Burt Lancaster, in a masterful performance, plays an aging small-time criminal who hangs around Atlantic City doing odd jobs and taking care of the broken-down moll of the deceased gangster for whom Lou was a gofer. Living in an invented past, Lou identifies with yesteryear's notorious gangsters and gets involved with sexy would-be croupier (Susan Sarandon) and her drug-dealing estranged husband.
The Atomic Café (1982)
Produced and directed by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty, the influential film compilation "The Atomic Cafe" provocatively documents the post-World War II threat of nuclear war as depicted in a wide assortment of archival footage from the period (newsreels, statements from politicians, advertisements, training, civil defense and military films). This vast, yet entertaining, collage of clips serves as a unique document of the 1940s-1960s era and illustrates how these films—some of which today seem propagandistic or even patently absurd ("The House in the Middle")—were used to inform the public on how to cope in the nuclear age.
The Augustas (1930s-1950s)
Scott Nixon, a traveling salesman based in Augusta, Ga., was an avid member of the Amateur Cinema League who enjoyed recording his travels on film. In this 16-minute silent film, Nixon documents some 38 streets, storefronts and cities named Augusta in such far-flung locales as Montana and Maine. Arranged with no apparent rhyme or reason, the film strings together brief snapshots of these Augustas, many of which are indicated at pencil-point on a train timetable or roadmap. Nixon photographed his odyssey using both 8mm and 16mm cameras loaded with black-and-white and color film, amassing 26,000 feet of film that now resides at the University of South Carolina. While Nixon's film does not illuminate the historical or present-day significance of these towns, it binds them together under the umbrella of Americana. Whether intentionally or coincidentally, this amateur auteur seems to juxtapose the name's lofty origin—'august,' meaning great or venerable—with the unspectacular nature of everyday life in small-town America.
View this film at Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina External
The Awful Truth (1937)
Leo McCarey's largely improvised film is one of the funniest of the screwball comedies, and also one of the most serious at heart. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are a pair of world-weary socialites who each believe the other has been unfaithful, and consequently enter into a trial divorce. The story began life as a 1922 stage hit and was filmed twice previously. McCarey maintained the basic premise of the play but improved it greatly, adding sophisticated dialogue and encouraging his actors to improvise around anything they thought funny. "The Awful Truth" was in the can in six weeks, and was such a success that Grant and Dunne were teamed again in another comedy, "My Favorite Wife" and in a touching tearjerker, "Penny Serenade." The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Baby Face (1933)
Smart and sultry Barbara Stanwyck uses her feminine wiles to scale the corporate ladder, amassing male admirers who are only too willing to help a poor working girl. One of the more notorious melodramas of the pre-Code era, a period when the movie industry relaxed its censorship standards, films such as this one led to the imposition of the Production Code in 1934. This relative freedom resulted in a cycle of gritty, audacious films that resonated with Depression-battered audiences.
Expanded essay by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (PDF, 819KB)
Back to the Future (1985)
Writer/director Robert Zemeckis explored the possibilities of special effects with the 1985 box-office smash "Back to the Future." With his writing partner Bob Gale, Zemeckis tells the tale of accidental time-tourist Marty McFly. Stranded in the year 1955, Marty (Michael J. Fox)—with the help of his friend eccentric scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (played masterfully over-the-top by Christopher Lloyd)—must not only find a way home, but also teach his father (Crispin Glover) how to become a man, repair the space/time continuum and save his family from being erased from existence. All this, while fighting off the advances of his then-teenaged mother (Lea Thompson). The film generated a popular soundtrack and two enjoyable sequels.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Vincente Minnelli directed this captivating Hollywood story of an ambitious producer (Kirk Douglas)as told in flashback by those whose lives he's impacted: an actress (Lana Turner), a writer (Dick Powell) and a director (Barry Sullivan). Insightful and liberally sprinkled with characters modeled after various Hollywood royalty from David O. Selznick to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, witty, with one of Turner's best performances. Five Oscars include Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame), Screenplay (Charles Schnee). David Raksin's score is another asset.
Stark, brutal story based on the Charles Starkweather-Carol Fugate murder spree through the Midwest in 1958, with Martin Sheen as the killer lashing out against a society that ignores his existence and Sissy Spacek as his naive teenage consort. Sheen is forceful and properly weird as the mass murderer, strutting around pretending to be James Dean, while Spacek doesn't quite understand what he's all about, but goes along anyway. Director Terrence Malick neither romanticizes nor condemns his subjects, maintaining a low-key approach to the story that results in a fascinating character study. The film did scant box office business, but it remains one of the most impressive of directorial debuts.
Ball of Fire (1941)
In this Howard Hawks-directed screwball comedy, showgirl and gangster's moll Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) hides from the law among a group of scholars compiling an encyclopedia. Cooling her heels until the heat lets up, Sugarpuss charms the elderly academics and bewitches the young professor in charge (Gary Cooper). Hawks deftly shapes an effervescent, innuendo-packed Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett script into a swing-era version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or "squirrely cherubs," as Sugarpuss christens them. Filled with colorful period slang and boogie-woogie tunes and highlighted by an energetic performance from legendary drummer Gene Krupa, the film captures a pre-World War II lightheartedness.
One of Walt Disney's timeless classics (and his own personal favorite), this animated coming-of-age tale of a wide-eyed fawn's life in the forest has enchanted generations since its debut nearly 70 years ago. Filled with iconic characters and moments, the film features beautiful images that were the result of extensive nature studies by Disney's animators. Its realistic characters capture human and animal qualities in the time-honored tradition of folklore and fable, which enhance the movie's resonating, emotional power. Treasured as one of film's most heart-rending stories of parental love, "Bambi" also has come to be recognized for its eloquent message of nature conservation.
Expanded essay by John Wills (PDF, 360KB)
Original drawing of Bambi
The Band Wagon (1953)
Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan star in this sophisticated backstage toe-tapper directed by Vincente Minnelli, widely considered one of the greatest movie musicals of all time. Astaire plays a washed-up movie star (in reality he'd been a succesful performer for nearly 30 years) who tries his luck on Broadway, under the direction of irrepressible mad genius Buchanan. Musical highlights include "Dancing in the Dark" and "That's Entertainment" (written for the film by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz) and Astaire's sexy Mickey Spillane spoof "The Girl Hunt" danced to perfection by Charisse. Fred Astaire would only make three more musicals after "The Band Wagon," before turning to a film and television career that included the occasional turn as a dramatic actor.
The Bank Dick (1940)
Perhaps more than any other film comedian in the early days of movies, W.C. Fields is an acquired taste. His absurdist brand of humor, at once dry and surreal, endures for the simple reason that the movies bear up under repeated viewings; in fact, it's almost a necessity to watch them over and over, if only to figure out why they're so funny. In his second-to-last feature, The Bank Dick (which he wrote under the moniker "Mahatma Kane Jeeves"), Fields as unemployed layabout Egbert Souse -- Soosay, if you don't mind -- replaces drunk movie director A. Pismo Clam on a location shoot in his hometown of Lompoc, California before chance lands him in the job of bank detective -- after which the movie becomes a riff on the comic possibilities of his new-found notoriety. The stellar comic supporting cast includes future Stooge Shemp Howard as the bartender at Fields' regular haunt, The Black Pussy, and Preston Sturges regular Franklin Pangborn as bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington.
Expanded essay by Randy Skretvedt (PDF, 401KB)
The Bargain (1914)
After beginning his career on the stage (where he originated the role of Messala in "Ben-Hur" in 1899), William S. Hart found his greatest fame as the silent screen's most popular cowboy. His 1914 "The Bargain," directed by Reginald Barker, was Hart's first film and made him a star. The second Hart Western to be named to the National Film Registry, the film was selected because of Hart's charisma, the film's authenticity and realistic portrayal of the Western genre and the star's good/bad man role as an outlaw attempting to go straight.
Expanded essay by Brian Taves (PDF, 1692KB)
The Battle of San Pietro (1945)
John Huston's documentary about the WW II Battle of San Pietro Infine was considered too controversial by the U.S. military to be seen in its original form, and was cut from five reels to its released 33 minute-length. powerful viewing, vivid and gritty. Some 1,100 men died in the battle. scenes of grateful Italian peasants serve as a fascinating ethnographic time capsule. Filmed by Jules Buck. Unlike many other military documentaries, Huston's cameramen filmed alongside the Army's 143rd regiment, 36th division infantrymen, placing themselves within feet of mortar and shell fire. The film is unflinching in its realism and was held up from being shown to the public by the United States Army. Huston quickly became unpopular with the Army, not only for the film but also for his response to the accusation that the film was anti-war. Huston responded that if he ever made a pro-war film, he should be shot. Because it showed dead GIs wrapped in mattress covers, some officers tried to prevent troopers in training from seeing it, for fear of morale. General George Marshall came to the film's defense, stating that because of the film's gritty realism, it would make a good training film. The depiction of death would inspire them to take their training seriously. Subsequently the film was used for that purpose. Huston was no longer considered a pariah; he was decorated and made an honorary major.
Expanded essay by Ed Carter (PDF, 423KB)
View this film at National Film Preservation Foundation External
The Beau Brummels (1928)
Al Shaw and Sam Lee were an eccentrically popular vaudeville act of the 1920s. In 1928 they made this eight-minute Vitaphone short for Warner Bros. The duo later appeared in more than a dozen other films, though none possessed the wacky charm of "The Beau Brummels." As Jim Knipfel has observed: "If Samuel Beckett had written a vaudeville routine, he would have created Shaw and Lee." Often considered one of the quintessential vaudeville comedy shorts, the film has a simple set-up—Shaw and Lee stand side by side with deadpan expressions in non-tailored suits and bowler hats as they deliver their comic routine of corny nonsense songs and gags with a bit of soft shoe and their renowned hat-swapping routine. Shaw's and Lee's reputation has enjoyed a recent renaissance and their brand of dry, offbeat humor is seen by some as well ahead of its time. The film has been preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is an animated, musical retelling of the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince du Beaumont. The film follows Belle (voiced by Paige O'Hara), an intelligent and rebellious young French woman, who is forced to live with a hideous monster, the Beast (voiced by Robby Benson), after offering to take her father's place as the Beast's prisoner. Unaware that the Beast is actually an enchanted prince, Belle falls in love with him. "Beauty and the Beast" was the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category. Alan Menken won an Oscar for his original score, and he and lyricist Howard Ashman (posthumously) earned Oscars for the film's theme song "Beauty and the Beast."
Being There (1979)
Chance, a simple-minded gardener (Peter Sellers) whose only contact with the outside world is through television, becomes the toast of the town following a series of misunderstandings. Forced outside his protected environment by the death of his wealthy boss, Chance subsumes his late employer's persona, including the man's cultured walk, talk and even his expensive clothes, and is mistaken as "Chauncey Gardner," whose simple adages are interpreted as profound insights. He becomes the confidant of a dying billionaire industrialist (Melvyn Douglas, in an Academy Award-winning performance) who happens to be a close adviser to the U.S. president (Jack Warden). Chance's gardening advice is interpreted as metaphors for political policy and life in general. Jerzy Kosinski, assisted by award-winning screenwriter Robert C. Jones, adapted his 1971 novel for the screenplay which Hal Ashby directed with an understatement to match the subtlety and precision of Sellers' Academy Award-nominated performance. Shirley MacLaine also stars as Douglas's wife, then widow, who sees Chauncey as a romantic prospect. Film critic Robert Ebert said he admired the film for "having the guts to take this totally weird conceit and push it to its ultimate comic conclusion." That conclusion is a philosophically complex film that has remained fresh and relevant.
Expanded essay by Jerry Dean Roberts (PDF, 118KB)
Adapted from General Lew Wallace's popular novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" published in 1880, this epic featured one of the most exciting spectacles in silent film: the chariot race that was shot with 40 cameras on a Circus Maximus set costing a staggering (for the day) $300,000. In addition to the grandeur of the chariot scene, a number of sequences shot in Technicolor also contributed to the epic status of "Ben-Hur," which was directed by Fred Niblo and starred Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. While the film did not initially recoup its investment, it did help to establish its studio, MGM, as one of the major players in the industry.
Expanded essay by Fritzi Kramer (PDF, 254KB)
This epic blockbuster stars Charlton Heston in the title role of a rebellious Israelite who takes on the Roman Empire during the time of Christ. Featuring one of the most famous action sequences of all time -- the breathtaking chariot race -- the film was a remake of the impressive silent version released in 1925. Co-starring Stephen Boyd as Judah Ben-Hur's onetime best friend and later rival, it also featured notable performances by Hugh Griffith and Jack Hawkins. Directed by Oscar-winner William Wyler, who found success with "Mrs. Miniver" "The Best Years of Our Lives" and others, "Ben-Hur" broke awards records, winning 11 Oscars, including best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, and score. Famed stuntman Yakima Canutt was brought in to coordinate all the chariot race stunt work and train the driver The race scene alone cost is reported to have cost about $4 million, or about a fourth of the entire budget, and took 10 weeks to shoot.
Expanded essay by Gabriel Miller (PDF, 499KB)
Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)
In 1913, a stellar cast of African-American performers gathered in the Bronx, New York, to make a feature-length motion picture. The troupe starred vaudevillian Bert Williams, the first African-American to headline on Broadway and the most popular recording artist prior to 1920. After considerable footage was shot, the film was abandoned. One hundred years later, the seven reels of untitled and unassembled footage were discovered in the film vaults of the Museum of Modern Art, and are now believed to constitute the earliest surviving feature film starring black actors. Modeled after a popular collection of stories known as "Brother Gardener's Lime Kiln Club," the plot features three suitors vying to win the hand of the local beauty, portrayed by Odessa Warren Grey. The production also included members of the Harlem stage show known as J. Leubrie Hill's "Darktown Follies." Providing insight into early silent-film production (Williams can be seen applying his blackface makeup), these outtakes or rushes show white and black cast and crew working together, enjoying themselves in unguarded moments. Even in fragments of footage, Williams proves himself among the most gifted of screen comedians.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
A moving and personal story directed by real-life veteran William Wyler, the film depicts the return to civilian life by three World War II servicemen, portrayed by Dana Andrews, Fredric March and Harold Russell. Adapted by Robert Sherwood from MacKinlay Kantor's novel "Glory for Me," Gregg Toland's deep-focus cinematography is memorable for emotionally evokative long dolly shots. It also starred Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Cathy O'Donnell, and Virginia Mayo. The film won nine Oscars including Best Picture, as well as two awards for Russell, who lost his hands in the war.
Expanded essay by Gabriel Miller (PDF, 319KB)
Big Business (1929)
As gifted in their repartee as they were in their physical antics, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were the perfect team for the transition from silent film comedy to sound. Their legendary career spanned from 1921 to 1951 and included more than 100 films. This two-reeler finds the duo attempting to sell Christmas trees in sunny California. Their run-in with an unsatisfied customer (played by James Finlayson) lays the groundwork for a slapstick melee eventually involving a dismantled car, a wrecked house and an exploding cigar. The film was produced by the team's long-time collaborator, Hal Roach, the king of no-holds-barred comedy.
Expanded essay by Randy Skretvedt (PDF, 308KB)
The Big Heat (1953)
One of the great post-war noir films, "The Big Heat" stars Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame. Set in a fictional American town, the film tells the story of a tough cop (Ford) who takes on a local crime syndicate, exposing tensions within his own corrupt police department as well as insecurities and hypocrisies of domestic life in the 1950s. Filled with atmosphere, fascinating female characters, and a jolting—yet not gratuitous—degree of violence, "The Big Heat," through its subtly expressive technique and resistance to formulaic denouement, manages to be both stylized and brutally realistic, a signature of its director Fritz Lang.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
From the unconventional visionaries Joel and Ethan Coen (the filmmakers behind "Fargo" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") came this 1998 tale of kidnapping, mistaken identity and bowling. As they would again in the 2008 "Burn After Reading," the Coens explore themes of alienation, inequality and class structure via a group of hard-luck, off-beat characters suddenly drawn into each other's orbits. Jeff Bridges, in a career-defining role, stars as "The Dude," an LA-based slacker who shares a last name with a rich man whose arm-candy wife is indebted to shady figures. Joining Bridges are John Goodman, Tara Reid, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi and, in a now-legendary cameo, John Turturro. Stuffed with vignettes—each staged through the Coens' trademark absurdist, innovative visual style—that are alternately funny and disturbing, "Lebowski" was only middling successful at the box office during its initial release. However, television, the Internet, home video and considerable word-of-mouth have made the film a highly quoted cult classic.
Expanded essay by J.M. Tyree & Ben Walters (PDF, 354KB)
The Big Parade (1925)
One of the first films to deglamorize war with its startling realism, "The Big Parade" became the largest grossing film of the silent era. From a story by Laurence Stallings, director King Vidor crafted what "New York Times" critic Mordaunt Hall called "an eloquent pictorial epic." The film, which Hall said displayed "all the artistry of which the camera is capable," depicts a privileged young man (John Gilbert) who goes to war seeking adventure and finds camaraderie, love, humility and maturity amid the horrors of war. Along the way he befriends two amiable doughboys (Karl Dane and Tom O'Brien) and falls for a beautiful French farm girl (Renée Adorée). Vidor tempered the film's serious subject matter with a kind of simple, light humor that flows naturally from new friendships and new loves. A five-time nominee for Best Director, Vidor was eventually recognized by the Academy in 1979 with an honorary lifetime achievement award. Both stars continued to reign until the transition to talking pictures, which neither Gilbert nor Adorée weathered successfully. Their careers plummeted and both died prematurely.
The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks directed this Raymond Chandler story featuring private eye Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart. Appearing opposite him in only her second film was a former model named Lauren Bacall, with whom Bogart had fallen in love (and vice versa) during filming of "To Have and Have Not" earlier that year. Hawks and his writers attempted to untangle the threads of Chandler's complicated plot which caused frequent production delays. More than a month behind schedule and about $50,000 over budget, the film was ready in mid-summer1945, and that version was distributed to servicemen overseas. Shortly thereafter "To Have and Have Not" was released, and audiences loved the Bogart-Bacall chemistry, so the wide release of "The Big Sleep" was further delayed the wide release by rewriting scenes to heighten the chemistry and bring out Bacall's "insolent" quality that audiences found so appealing the pair's earlier film. The pre-release cut is only two minutes longer, but contains 18 minutes of scenes missing from the final picture. The first "draft" was discovered at the UCLA Film and Television Archive where both versions have since been preserved.
The Big Trail (1930)
This taming of the Oregon Trail saga comes alive thanks to the majestic sweep afforded by the experimental Grandeur wide-screen process developed by the Fox Film Corporation. Audiences marveled at the sheer scope of the panoramic scenes before them and delighted in the beauty of the vast landscapes. Hollywood legend has it that director Raoul Walsh was seeking a male lead for a new Western and asked his friend John Ford for advice. Ford recommended an unknown actor named John Wayne because he "liked the looks of this new kid with a funny walk -- like he owned the world." When Wayne professed inexperience, Walsh told him to just "sit good on a horse and point."Wayne's starring role in "The Big Trail" did not catapult him to stardom, and he languished in low-budget pictures until John Ford cast him in the 1939 classic "Stagecoach."
Expanded essay by Marilyn Ann Moss (PDF, 375KB)
The Birds (1963)
"The Birds" was the fourth suspense hit by Alfred Hitchcock—following "Vertigo," "North by Northwest" and "Psycho"—revealing his mastery of his craft. Hitchcock transfixed both critics and mass audiences by deftly moving from anxiety-inducing horror to glossy entertainment and suspense, with bold forays into psychological terrain. Marked by a foreboding sense of an unending terror no one can escape, the film concludes with its famous, final scene, which only adds to the emotional impact of "The Birds."
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
This landmark of American motion pictures is the story of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Director D.W. Griffith's depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes stirred controversy that continues to the present day. But the director's groundbreaking camera technique and narrative style advanced the art of filmmaking by leaps and bounds. Profoundly impacted by the novel "The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan," Griffith hired its author Thomas F. Dixon Jr. to adapt it as a screenplay. At the heart of the story are two pairs of star-crossed lovers on either side of the conflict: Southerner Henry B. Walthall courts Northerner Lillian Gish, and the couple's siblings, played by Elmer Clifton and Miriam Cooper, are also in love. The ravages of war and the chaos of reconstruction take their toll on both families. The racist and simplistic depictions of blacks in the film is difficult to overlook, but underneath the distasteful sentiment lies visual genius.
Expanded essay by Dave Kehr (PDF, 599KB)
Black and Tan (1929)
In one of the first short musical films to showcase African-American jazz musicians, Duke Ellington portrays a struggling musician whose dancer wife (Fredi Washington in her film debut) secures him a gig for his orchestra at the famous Cotton Club where she's been hired to perform, at a risk to her health. Directed by Dudley Murphy, who earned his reputation with "Ballet mécanique," which is considered a masterpiece of early experimental filmmaking, the film reflects the cultural, social and artistic explosion of the 1920s that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Ellington and Washington personify that movement, and Murphy—who also directed registry titles "St. Louis Blues" (1929), another musical short, and the feature "The Emperor Jones" (1933) starring Paul Robeson—cements it in celluloid to inspire future generations. Washington, who appeared with Robeson in "Emperor Jones," is best known as "Peola" in the 1934 version of "Imitation of Life."
The Black Pirate (1926)
This swashbuckling tour-de-force by Douglas Fairbanks, king of silent action adventure pictures, is most significant for having been filmed entirely in two-strip Technicolor, a process still being perfected at the time, and the precursor to Technicolor processes that would become commonplace by the 1950s. Fairbanks plays a nobleman who has vowed to avenge the death of his father at the hands of pirates, and once upon the pirates' vessel, protects a damsel in distress (Bessie Love)taken hostage by the band of thieves. Fairbanks wrote the original story under a pseudonym, and Albert Parker directed.
Expanded essay by Tracey Goessel (PDF, 356 KB)
The Black Stallion (1979)
When a ship carrying young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and a black Arabian stallion sinks off the coast of Africa, Alec and the horse find themselves stranded on a deserted island. Upon their rescue, Alec and horse trainer/former jockey Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney) begin training the horse to become a formidable racer. Directed by Carroll Ballard and based on the Walter Farley novel of the same name, the film was executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola who finally persuaded United Artists to release the film after shelving it for two years. The film's supervising sound editor, Alan Splet, received a Special Achievement Award for his innovations including affixing microphones around the horse's midsection to pick up the sound of its hoof beats and breathing during race sequences. "The Black Stallion" was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Best Supporting Actor for Mickey Rooney and one for Best Film Editing for Robert Dalva.
Expanded essay by Keith Phipps (PDF, 375 KB)
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
In a 1983 interview, writer-director Richard Brooks claimed that hearing Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" in 1954 inspired him to make a rock & roll-themed picture. The result was "Blackboard Jungle," an adaptation of the controversial novel by Evan Hunter about an inner-city schoolteacher (played in the film by Glenn Ford) tackling juvenile delinquency and the lamentable state of public education— common bugaboos of the Eisenhower era. Retaining much of the novel's gritty realism, the film effectively dramatizes the social issues at hand, and features outstanding early performances by Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow. The film, however, packs its biggest wallop even before a word of dialog is spoken. As the opening credits roll, Brooks' original inspiration for the film – the pulsating strains of "Rock Around the Clock" – blasts across theater speakers, bringing the devil's music to Main Street and epitomizing American culture worldwide.
Blacksmith Scene (1893)
Not blacksmiths but employees of the Edison Manufacturing Company, Charles Kayser, John Ott and another unidentified man are likely the first screen actors in history, and "Blacksmith Scene" is thought to be the first film of more than a few feet to be publicly exhibited. The 30-second film was photographed in late April 1893 by Edison's key employee, W.K.L. Dickson, at the new Edison studio in New Jersey. On May 9, audiences lined up single file at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences to peer through a viewing machine called a kinetoscope where glowed images of a blacksmith and two helpers forging a piece of iron, but only after they'd first passed around a bottle of beer. A Brooklyn newspaper reported the next day, "It shows living subjects portrayed in a manner to excite wonderment."
National Film Preservation Foundation - Blacksmithing Scene External
Blade Runner (1982)
A blend of science fiction and film noir, "Blade Runner" was a box office and critical flop when first released, but its unique postmodern production design became hugely influential within the sci-fi genre, and the film gained a significant cult following that increased its stature. Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, a retired cop in Los Angeles circa 2019. L.A. has become a pan-cultural dystopia of corporate advertising, pollution and flying automobiles, as well as replicants, human-like androids with short life spans built for use in dangerous off-world colonization. Deckard, a onetime blade runner – a detective that hunts down rogue replicants – is forced back into active duty to assassinate a band of rogues out to attack earth. Along the way he encounters Sean Young, a replicant who's unaware of her true identity, and faces a violent confrontation atop a skyscraper high above the city.
Expanded essay by David Morgan (PDF, 358 KB)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
This riotously funny, raunchy, no-holds-barred Western spoof by Mel Brooks is universally considered one of the funniest American films of all time. The movie features a civil-rights theme (the man in the white hat (Cleavon Little ) turns out to be an African-American who has to defend a bigoted town), and its furiously paced gags and rapid-fire dialogue were scripted by Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg and Alan Unger. Little as the sheriff and Gene Wilder as his recovering alcoholic deputy have great chemistry, and the delightful supporting cast includes Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, and Madeline Kahn as a chanteuse modelled on Marlene Dietrich. As in "Young Frankenstein," "Silent Movie," and "High Anxiety," director/writer Brooks gives a burlesque spin to a classic Hollywood movie genre.
Expanded essay by Michael Schlesinger (PDF, 662 KB)
Bless Their Little Hearts (1984)
Part of the vibrant New Wave of independent African-American filmmakers to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, Billy Woodberry became a key figure in the movement known as the L.A. Rebellion. Woodberry crafted his UCLA thesis film, "Bless Their Little Hearts," which was theatrically released in 1984. The film features a script and cinematography by Charles Burnett. This spare, emotionally resonant portrait of family life during times of struggle blends grinding, daily-life sadness with scenes of deft humor. Jim Ridley of the "Village Voice" aptly summed up the film's understated-but- real virtues: "Its poetry lies in the exaltation of ordinary detail."
The Blood of Jesus (1941)
Also known as "The Glory Road," this was among the approximately 500 "race movies" produced between 1915 and 1950 for African-American audiences and featuring all-black casts. In this film, a deeply devout woman (Cathryn Caviness) faces a spiritual crossroads after being accidentally shot, and is forced to choose between heaven and hell. Spencer Williams, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, produced the film in response to a need for spiritually-based films that spoke directly to black audiences. Long thought lost, prints were discovered in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas, in the mid-1980s.
Expanded essay by Mark S. Giles (PDF, 256 KB)
View this film at Southern Methodist University Central University Libraries External
The Blue Bird (1918)
Maurice Tourneur's beautiful expressionist adaptation of Maurice Maeterlink's play remains one of the most aesthetically pleasing films. The film is a sumptuously composed pictorial entrance into a fantasy world, which tries to teach us not to overlook the beauty of what is close and familiar.
Expanded essay by Kaveh Askari (PDF, 445 KB)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Setting filmmaking and style trends that linger today, "Bonnie and Clyde" veered from comedy to social commentary to melodrama and caught audiences unaware, especially with its graphic ending. The violence spawned many detractors, but others saw the artistry beyond the blood and it earned not only critical succes which eventually showed at thebox office. Arthur Penn deftly directs David Newman and Robert Benton's script, aided by the film's star and producer Warren Beatty, who was always eager to push the envelope. Faye Dunaway captures the Depression-era yearning for glamour and escape from poverty and hopelessness.
Expanded essay by Richard Schickel (PDF, 530KB)
Born Yesterday (1950)
Judy Holliday's sparkling lead performance as not-so-dumb "dumb blonde" Billie Dawn anchors this comedy classic based on Garson Kanin's play and directed for the screen by George Cukor. Kanin's satire on corruption in Washington, D.C., adapted for the screen by Albert Mannheimer, is full of charm and wit while subtly addressing issues of class, gender, social standing and American politics. Holliday's work in the film (a role she had previously played on Broadway) was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actress and has endured as one of the era's most finely realized comedy performances.
Expanded essay by Ariel Schudson (PDF, 394KB)
Boulevard Nights (1979)
"Boulevard Nights" had its genesis in a screenplay by UCLA student Desmond Nakano about Mexican-American youth and the lowrider culture. Director Michael Pressman and cinematographer John Bailey shot the film in the barrios of East Los Angeles with the active participation of the local community (including car clubs and gang members). This street-level strategy using mostly non-professional actors produced a documentary-style depiction of the tough choices faced by Chicano youth as they come of age and try to escape or navigate gang life ("Two brothers...the street was their playground and their battleground"). In addition to "Boulevard Nights," this era featured several films chronicling youth gangs and rebellion — "The Warriors" (1979), "Over the Edge" (1979), "Walk Proud" (1979) and "The Outsiders" (1983). The film faced protests and criticism from some Latinos who saw outsider filmmakers, albeit well-intentioned, adopting an anthropological perspective with an excessive focus on gangs and violent neighborhoods. Nevertheless, "Boulevard Nights" stands out as a pioneering snapshot of East L.A. and enjoys semi-cult status in the lowrider community.
Boyz N the Hood (1991)
In his film debut, John Singleton wrote and directed this thought-provoking look at South Central L.A.'s black community. A divorced father (Larry Fishburne) struggles to raise his son, Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in a world where violence is a fact of life. Tre is torn by his desire to live up to his father's expectations and pressure from friends pushing him toward the gang culture. Roger Ebert praised the film for its "maturity and emotional depth," calling it "an American film of enormous importance." The lead players are backed by strong supporting performances from Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Tyre Ferrell, Angela Bassett and Nia Long.
Brandy in the Wilderness (1969)
This introspective "contrived diary" film by Stanton Kaye features vignettes from the relationship of a real-life couple, in this case the director and his girlfriend. An evocative 1960s time capsule—reminiscent of Jim McBride's "David Holzman's Diary"—this simulated autobiography, as in many experimental films, often blurs the lines between reality and illusion, moving in non-linear arcs through the ever-evolving and unpredictable interactions of relationships, time and place. As Paul Schrader notes, "it is probably quite impossible (and useless) to make a distinction between the point at which the film reflects their lives, and the point at which their lives reflect the film." "Brandy in the Wilderness" remains a little-known yet key work of American indie filmmaking.
This article by director Paul Schrader originally appeared in the Fall 1971 issue of "Cinema Magazine." (PDF, 1764KB)
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Truman Capote's acclaimed novella—the bitter story of self-invented Manhattan call girl Holly Golightly—arrived on the big screen purged of its risqué dialogue and unhappy ending. George Axelrod's screenplay excised explicit references to Holly's livelihood and added an emotionally moving romance, resulting, in Capote's view, in "a mawkish valentine to New York City." Capote believed that Marilyn Monroe would have been perfect for the film and judged Audrey Hepburn, who landed the lead, "just wrong for the part." Critics and audiences, however, have disagreed. The Los Angeles Times stated, "Miss Hepburn makes the complex Holly a vivid, intriguing figure." Feminist critics in recent times have valued Hepburn's portrayals of the period as providing a welcome alternative female role model to the dominant sultry siren of the 1950s. Hepburn conveyed intelligent curiosity, exuberant impetuosity, delicacy combined with strength, and authenticity that often emerged behind a knowingly false facade. Critics also have lauded the movie's director Blake Edwards for his creative visual gags and facility at navigating the film's abrupt changes in tone. Composer Henry Mancini's classic "Moon River," featuring lyrics by Johnny Mercer, also received critical acclaim. Mancini considered Hepburn's wistful rendition of the song on guitar the best he had heard.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
John Hughes, who had previously given gravitas to the angst of adolescence in his 1984 film, "Sixteen Candles," further explored the social politics of high school in this comedy/character study produced one year later. Set in a day-long Saturday detention hall, the film offers an assortment of American teen-age archetypes such as the "nerd," "jock," and "weirdo." Over the course of the day, labels and default personas slip away as members of this motley group actually talk to each other and learn about each other and themselves. "The Breakfast Club" is a comedy that delivers a message with laughs. Thirty years later, the movie's message is still vivid. Written and directed by Hughes, the film's cast includes Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Director James Whale took his success with "Frankenstein," added humor and thus created a cinematic hybrid that perplexed audiences at first glance but captivated them by picture's end. Joined eventually by a mate (Elsa Lanchester), the Frankenstein monster (Boris Karloff reprising his role and investing the character with emotional subtlety) evolves into a touchingly sympathetic character as he gradually becomes more human. Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious is captivatingly bizarre. Many film historians consider "Bride," with its surreal visuals, superior to the original.
Expanded essay by Richard T. Jameson, (PDF, 672KB) examines "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" in a single entry.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
At the heart of David Lean's antiheroic war epic about a band of British POWs forced to build a bridge in the wilds of Burma is the notion of men clinging to their sanity by clinging to military tradition. The film's cast, which reflects a broad spectrum of acting styles, includes Alec Guinness as the British commanding officer and Sessue Hayakawa as his Japanese counterpart, and William Holden as an American soldier who escapes from the camp and Jack Hawkins as the British major who convinces him to return and help blow up the bridge. Lean elects to keep the musical score to a minimum and instead plays up tension with nature sounds punctuating the action. For many film critics and historians, "Bridge on the River Kwai" signals a shift in Lean's directorial style from simpler storytelling toward the more bloated epics that characterized his later career.
Sessue Hayakawa and Alec Guinness in a scene from "The Bridge On The River Kwai"