We’re just now catching up with a terrific book that came out late last year: Daniel Eagan’s America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry (Continuum Press).
Instituted in 1988, the National Film Preservation Act was conceived in part to curtail the then popular practice of colorizing black-and-white films. The bill authorized the Library of Congress to select twenty-five films a year for preservation in archival prints. Today, there are more than five hundred movies in the National Film Registry, encompassing popular features, avant-garde films, propaganda, travelogues, animated films, and promotional shorts. In this entertaining and thorough 848-page tome, Eagan—a former researcher and story analyst for Warner Bros., MGM, and other Hollywood studios, as well as a journalist whose work has appeared in the Hollywood Reporter and the Nation—writes at length about each of those works in meaty, extensively researched entries, gracefully highlighting the registry’s cultural and historical significance as well as charting its formation and reception.
Eagan’s multifaceted writing elevates his book to something more provocative than a mere reference guide. It’s refreshing that he doesn’t treat all the films as equally deserving of masterpiece status (the occasional David Thomson–esque toppling of a sacred cow gives the book some bite). America’s Film Legacy is a handy, portable archive in its own right, rich in trivia. And it’s certainly a convenient way to brush up on some classic Criterion titles, including Nanook of the North, Trouble in Paradise, The Emperor Jones, My Man Godfrey, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Notorious, The Killers, The Naked City, All That Heaven Allows, Shadows, Shock Corridor, Dog Star Man, Salesman, A Woman Under the Influence, Harlan County USA, Days of Heaven, El Norte, This Is Spinal Tap, Stranger Than Paradise, Do the Right Thing, and Hoop Dreams, as well as the upcoming The Last Command and The Docks of New York.