Today is a milestone day for The Horse’s Head: I have watched and written about all 25 of the films selected for the National Film Registry’s inaugural Class of 1989! Now you may be thinking, “What was stopping you from watching and writing about these films at the beginning and getting them all out of the way early?” That’s a great question, I’ll look into it.
To mark the occasion, I’d like to take a quick look back at these iconic films and their place in the list. As a refresher course, here are the original 25, plus what I said about them in my write-ups.
- Intolerance (1916) [“worth a watch for all you serious film buffs, but once is enough.”]
- Nanook of the North (1922) [“take what you will from this landmark film, and keep at least one critical eye open.”]
- The General (1926) [“the total package, a great encapsulation of [Buster Keaton]”]
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) [“possibly the best silent film ever made.”]
- The Crowd (1928) [“a B+ effort lost on the initial list of A+ movies.”]
- Modern Times (1936) [“an essential choice…but if I had to pick one essential Chaplin film for the initial 25…I’d go with ‘City Lights‘”]
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) [“about as perfect as animation gets.”]
- Gone with the Wind (1939) [“I wouldn’t be surprised if future generations don’t revere it as much as filmgoers past.”]
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) [“one of the true classic films that this list would not be complete without.”]
- The Wizard of Oz (1939) [“a cultural touchstone…possesses a magical quality beyond the wizardry on the screen.”]
- The Grapes of Wrath (1940) [“never anyone’s pick for Greatest Movie Ever Made, [but] consistently ranks among the greatest”]
- Citizen Kane (1941) [“just so fucking engaging…a remarkable accomplishment …a strong contender for [Greatest Movie]”]
- The Maltese Falcon (1941) [“a thoroughly entertaining movie from beginning to end.”]
- Casablanca (1942) [“effortlessly timeless…succeeds on each front.”]
- The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) [“an all-around fine film.”]
- Sunset Boulevard (1950) [“the epitome of greatness in film.”]
- High Noon (1952) [“a well-crafted Western…but [it] didn’t connect with me.”]
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952) [“the greatest musical ever made…Doctors should start prescribing it as an anti-depressant”]
- On the Waterfront (1954) [“a compelling watch despite the shades of gray hanging over it.”]
- The Searchers (1956) [“the greatest western for people who love studying and analyzing films.”]
- Vertigo (1958) [“Hitchcock in his prime elevating the art form of the movies.”]
- Some Like It Hot (1959) [“a remarkable film comedy…a well-oiled machine”]
- Dr. Strangelove (1964) [“filmdom’s definitive black comedy.”]
- The Learning Tree (1969) [“not perfect, but it’s an important stepping-stone for depicting African-Americans on screen”]
- Star Wars (1977) [“THE game changer…the perfect blend of every great fairy tale, sci-fi story, and classic movie.”]
This class was announced on September 20th, 1989 by then-Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. The announcement of this first batch of films came on the heels of the National Film Preservation Act, passed by Congress in 1988 to combat a rise in film altering, such as colorizing black-and-white movies or pan-and-scanning widescreen images. It comes as no surprise that the main topic of conversation at the time was how these films would be preserved and protected. While many of these films would still be altered over the years (most famously by one of its own directors), they at least now had to carry the legal disclaimer “This film has been modified from its original version.”
- Having only started really studying this list when it was 700 strong, I find it odd to think of the Registry as just these 25 movies. While they are all undoubtedly essential films in our history, it is impossible for them to represent all that American film has to offer. Billington at the time stressed that this was not a “best of” list, and that more films would be added over the next two years (The initial Preservation Act was only good until 1992, but has been reauthorized several times since then, currently through 2026).
- Although I couldn’t find the NFR’s official press release, I did find two quotes from some of the surviving filmmakers. Billy Wilder told the New York Times he was “absolutely thrilled and delighted” by the inclusion of two of his films, and Gordon Parks wrote this letter to James Billington saying he was “very thankful” that “The Learning Tree” made the cut.
- When the Class of 1989 was announced, future NFR entries “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sex Lies and Videotape” were playing in theaters (“Do the Right Thing” and “Field of Dreams” had completed their runs, and “The Little Mermaid” and “Roger & Me” would open in the fall).
- Over 40 artists are “double-dippers” with contributions to at least two of these 25 films. Among them: the aforementioned Billy Wilder, actors Humphrey Bogart, James Earl Jones, Buster Keaton, and James Stewart, directors Victor Fleming and John Ford, composers Bernard Hermann and Max Steiner, and costume designer Edith Head.
- Unsurprisingly, my write-ups on these films are overly positive, with little to no questioning of their place on this first list (words like “essential” and “untouchable” come up a lot). A few titles wouldn’t have made my personal top 25 (“The Crowd”, “Best Years of Our Lives”) but are important nonetheless. “The Learning Tree” was a surprise inclusion even then, but I find it telling of the NFR’s push to include films by people of color. That spot could have gone to anything from “In the Heat of the Night” to “Carmen Jones“, but having a movie about Black characters directed by a Black person is the right choice. While people of color are still underrepresented on the list, “Learning Tree” is a promise that the NFR won’t just consist of the preordained classics you see on every “Best of” list.
- My favorites of my own subtitles: Keaton’s Laws of Locomotion, Charlie and the Clockwork Factory, Graft Dodger, Hearst Hassle, Follow That Bird, Pier Pressure, Scottie Doesn’t Know, Girls Gone Wilder, and Monomyth…. In…. Spaaaaace!
More of these retrospectives to come as we cross more inductees off the list (the Class of 1990 should be next). In the meantime, thanks for sticking with it, and keep taking care of each other.