First of all, thank you. I’ve spent the last 4 1/2 years watching almost 600 movies deemed “significant” by a panel of experts, and many of you have stuck it out with me the whole time. I’ve been fortunate to hear from a few of you (including two of the filmmakers on this list!) and I appreciate the support.
As I slowly start to figure out what “normal” looks like in these crazy times, and in the interest of upholding a certain level of quality on this blog, I have chosen to take a break from “The Horse’s Head” for the rest of the summer. Rest assured that this journey is far from over, as there are still 212 movies left to cover, and I got another 25 coming in December!
In the meanwhile, you can always reach out to me via email: email@example.com. Additionally, please check out my fellow NFR bloggers: I’ve covered “The Film Patrol” and “The NFR Completist” in a previous post, and since then I’ve learned about two more! “Registering the Registry” and “Merry Watches Movies” are out there and also worth a read. Obviously, none of us are close to watching every movie on the NFR, but I figure this break will be a good time for my colleagues to catch up 🙂
Thanks again for taking the time to read this, as well as everything else we’ve covered on “The Horse’s Head”. As Jerry Springer used to say, “Take care of yourself, and each other.”
Last week would have been Robin Williams’ 70th birthday. Like many of my generation, I grew up watching and admiring the man: my childhood hearing his voice-work in “Aladdin” and “Ferngully”, my teenage years enjoying his talk show appearances and raunchy stand-up, and my adult years discovering his more serious fare such as “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poets Society”. From his high energy comedy to his subtle dramatic chops, and everything in between, Robin Williams left his mark on the world, and I am one of many who miss him immeasurably.
For someone so ingrained in our popular culture, it’s amazing that Robin Williams doesn’t have a single movie on the National Film Registry. Here are a few of Robin Williams’ more significant movies that I feel would fit right in on this list of noteworthy American films:
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987): Yes, there’s “Popeye” and “The World According to Garp” if you want an early Robin appearance, but “Vietnam” is when Robin Williams went from stand-up/sitcom actor trying to be in the movies to bona-fide movie star. Playing real life Armed Forces DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams is offered the perfect vehicle to display his rapid-fire comedy style on the big screen. Plus, an NFR designation for “Vietnam” would serve as representation for director Barry Levinson, also conspicuously absent from the list (and God help us all if “Rain Man” makes the cut)
Dead Poets Society (1989): This is where all that Julliard training comes in handy. With “Dead Poets Society”, Williams still gets to do funny voices and era-appropriate impressions (at last, an excuse for his Brando in “Julius Caesar”), but he also effectively highlights his dramatic skills as an unorthodox professor who inspires a group of prep school students, including Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Josh Charles. “Dead Poets Society” still resonates with anyone who ever had a great teacher, and “carpe diem” is the only Latin most people will ever know.
Aladdin (1992): While not quite at the same level of “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Lion King“, “Aladdin” is still an undeniable classic from the Disney Renaissance of the early ’90s, and a lot of that credit goes to Robin Williams. The marriage of Williams’ energetic voice-over and Eric Goldberg’s Hirschfeld-inspired animation is truly one of the holiest matrimonies, and makes this movie a rewatchable experience for multiple generations, even if your kids don’t know who William F. Buckley was.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993): The last of the truly great classic drag comedies, “Mrs. Doubtfire” is another great showcase for Robin Williams, this time as a divorced, unemployed voice-over actor who poses as an elderly Scottish woman and gets a job as his kids’ nanny. Williams’ improvisational energy carries over to the rest of this strong ensemble (even the usually serious Sally Field is hilarious), and “Doubtfire” is still one of the funniest, and most quotable, movies ever made. And if that weren’t enough, at its core “Doubtfire” is also a genuinely sweet movie that destigmatizes the impact divorce has on a family.
The Birdcage (1996): Like “Doubtfire”, “Birdcage” is an instantly quotable comedy classic (“Sweetie, you’re wasting your gum.”). Unlike “Doubtfire”, it takes the drag comedy to its next evolutionary step, where the drag isn’t a comic device, but rather a way of life for these characters. The film is a plea of tolerance for our LGBTQ+ community, and while Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria have the showier parts, Williams is the straight man (if you will) in the center keeping it all together. With a sharp script from Elaine May, “Birdcage” may not be the most nuanced take on homosexuality in American film, but it is an important (and hilarious) stepping stone.
Good Will Hunting (1997): You like apples? How about the movie that finally nabbed Robin Williams his Oscar, made overnight stars of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and gave Gus Van Zant the confidence to remake “Psycho”? How do you like them apples?
Other Robin Williams movies I would consider NFR worthy, but only after the above movies make the cut:
The World According to Garp (1982)
NFR worthy movies that Robin Williams appears in, but that I wouldn’t label a “Robin Williams Movie”:
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)**
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
The Aristocrats (2005)
Bonus Consideration: Equally shocking, Robin Williams isn’t on the National Recording Registry either! In a list that includes stand-up recordings from Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Steve Martin, any of Williams’ albums would feel right at home in the NRR. His 1979 debut album “Reality…What a Concept” is a natural choice, and I have a fondness for his “Live 2002” recording, but 1986’s “A Night at the Met” is the definitive Robin Williams stand-up performance.
As always, you – yes YOU – can be the change you want to see in this scenario. It is your God-given right as a human with internet access to submit movies for National Film Registry consideration (as well as the National Recording Registry). Once you’ve submitted all of Robin’s great work, check out this list of notable movies not yet on the list and see if any of your other favorite stars could use some representation. As Robin Williams once said, “God gave men a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time.” I know that has nothing to do with any of this; I just really like that line.
** “To Wong Foo” actually predates “The Birdcage” in its appreciation of drag culture, but for our purposes here “Birdcage” works better as a Robin Williams NFR contender.
Written by Joss Whedon and Andrew Stanton and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow. Story by Lasseter & Stanton & Pete Docter & Joe Ranft.
Class of 2005
This is a revised and updated version of my original “Toy Story” post, which you can read here.
The Plot: “Toy Story” is, well, a story about toys, specifically the ones who belong to Andy (voice by John Morris), and come alive when he’s not around. Led by pull-string doll Sheriff Woody (voice by Tom Hanks), the toys are anxious when Andy receives a new toy for his birthday: spaceman Buzz Lightyear (voice by Tim Allen), a somewhat delusional action-figure who quickly surpasses Woody as Andy’s favorite. Woody’s jealousy causes him and Buzz to become stranded in the outside world, falling into the hands of Andy’s sadistic neighbor Sid (voice by Erik von Detten). Together, Woody and Buzz must set aside their differences, return home to Andy, and finally answer the question “What if toys had feelings?”
Why It Matters: The NFR gives “Toy Story” its credit as the first full-length computer animated feature, and that it “changed animation’s face and delivery system”.
But Does It Really?: I always forget just how great a movie “Toy Story” is. There’s a certain high-level of quality that we’ve become accustomed to with Pixar, but it all started here, with a creative story that tapped into our collective imagination, aided by a clever script, some outstanding performances (both vocal and animated), and some major breakthroughs in computer technology. Not since “Snow White” has one animated film been such a big game changer, and “Toy Story” hits all of the NFR’s requirements for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
Everybody Gets One: Among those making their only NFR appearance are Pixar mainstays Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, screenwriter Joss Whedon (yes, that Joss Whedon), actors Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Laurie Metcalf and Penn Jillette, and – most surprisingly – composer Randy Newman.
Wow, That’s Dated: Mostly the early CGI look of the mid-90s, and the plug for the film’s CD-ROM tie-in during the end credits. Also: themed restaurants, remember those?
Seriously, Oscars?: The highest-grossing film of 1995 at the US box office, “Toy Story” received three Oscar nominations: Best Original Song, Original Musical or Comedy Score, and Original Screenplay (the first animated film to receive a writing nomination). While it lost all three awards (two to Disney’s “Pocahontas”), John Lasseter received a Special Achievement Oscar for “the development and inspired application of techniques” that created “Toy Story”.
The success of Lasseter’s short “Tin Toy” caught the attention of Disney, whom Lasseter had worked for a decade earlier. Through a series of tense negotiations between the two companies (exacerbated by Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg’s self-confessed “tyrant” behavior), an agreement was made for Disney to distribute a film made by Pixar. With computer technology finally reaching a point in the ’90s where a feature length film was feasible, a proposed “Tin Toy” TV special morphed into what became “Toy Story”. While Katzenberg was the one who suggested the film be an odd-couple buddy picture, he also pushed for edgier humor, and for Woody to be more mean-spirited. This culminated in a disastrous November 1993 screening dubbed the “Black Friday Incident” by those in attendance. Production was shut down, and the next three months were spent extensively re-working the movie more to Lasseter’s original version. Pixar’s then-owner Steve Jobs (yes, that Steve Jobs) funded production with his own money during the shutdown.
For starters, “Toy Story” succeeds on sheer premise alone. Stories of toys coming to life are nothing new (even Hans Christian Andersen wrote about them), but “Toy Story” brings it into a modern setting. There’s no “Once Upon a Time” or magic spell; it’s 1995 and toys are alive, let’s go.
If Randy Newman’s songs seem out of place, that’s because they stemmed from a compromise Pixar made with Disney. Disney wanted the film to be a full-blown musical (they were in the midst of the Disney Renaissance after all), but Pixar felt that it would feel out of place for these characters to sing. An agreement was reached in which Randy Newman would compose and perform songs that would comment on the action, a la Simon & Garfunkel in “The Graduate“. Apparently Newman wrote the film’s most iconic song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” in one day.
Yeah, you can definitely see the Katzenberg influence on this movie. With its share of wordplay and adult innuendo (most of it involving Annie Potts’ Bo Peep), “Toy Story” acts as a presage to the kind of animation Dreamworks would be cranking out in a few years time.
All of the supporting roles are cast with performers whose typecasting is played to the movie’s advantage: Wallace Shawn as a neurotic, R. Lee Ermey as a drill sergeant, Jim Varney as a well-meaning redneck, John Ratzenberger as a vaguely-Bostonian know it all, Don Rickles as…Don Rickles (I barely get the hockey puck reference).
It’s funny how many little references in this movie that were put in for world building now read as foreshadowing to the sequels: Mrs. Potato Head, Al’s Toy Barn, and Combat Carl come to mind.
“Toy Story” also succeeds in its presentation of scope. There’s plenty of POV shots and wide angles to suggest that the toys’ world is far larger than just a kid’s bedroom.
Wow, Woody really is a jerk in this movie. You’re lucky Tom Hanks is so charming, smoothing out the character’s envy to make him more the Salieri to Buzz’s Mozart.
We have a Wilhelm! “Toy Story” is one of at least eight films on the NFR to feature the famous Wilhelm Scream.
It’s so odd trying to watch this movie as its own entity, and not part of a larger franchise. Even the aliens in the claw machine are iconic!
I’ve known my share of kids who were similar to Sid, and while they’re not as goody-two shoes as Andy, they’re more fun to hang out with.
Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyer drunk on Darjeeling is possibly my favorite moment in the movie: “You see the hat? I am Mrs….Nesbitt!”
It’s so interesting to watch a Pixar movie that hasn’t quite fallen into the tropes. There’s no big ugly cry moment, though Woody’s impassioned “You are his toy” monologue comes close, as does the cathartic climax of our two leads flying.
Honestly, I didn’t take a lot of notes towards the end, mainly because I was just enjoying the movie. The screenplay is so well constructed. The stakes are always clearly conveyed (typically through inventive visuals), and once we hit the third act it starts rainin’ payoffs!
Thanks to his duet with Randy Newman in the closing credits, this counts as an NFR appearance for Lyle Lovett. Also noteworthy in the credits: Pixar’s tradition of listing “Production Babies”, who are now all Gen Z-ers in their mid-20s.
“Toy Story” exceeded all expectations, becoming a runaway hit with audiences and critics, and plans for a sequel began immediately. Like many Disney sequels at the time, “Toy Story 2” was going to be released direct-to-video, but early story reels (as well as the return of the original cast) indicated that this should be a theatrical release. The result is one of the rare sequels arguably better than the original.
Like every Disney product (then and now), “Toy Story” was placed in the Mouse House’s perpetual synergy machine, with tons of merchandise and promotional tie-ins upon its release. In the ensuing quarter century, the “Toy Story” characters have continued to appear in a countless array of theatrical shorts, TV specials, theme park attractions, video games, and other media. The phrase “To infinity and beyond!” has also endured as a catchphrase and popular movie quote.
The contentious relationship between Pixar and Disney (specifically Steve Jobs and Disney CEO Michael Eisner) continued until the mid-2000s, when Pixar announced that it would no longer distribute its films through Disney. When Eisner stepped down and Bob Iger became Disney’s President and CEO, one of Iger’s first tasks was to patch things up with Jobs, culminating in Disney’s purchase of Pixar in 2006. These business deals delayed “Toy Story 3” for several years, with Disney’s original version being scrapped entirely.
2010’s “Toy Story 3” and 2019’s “Toy Story 4” both did the impossible and were sequels worthy of their successors. And I’m willing to admit that both of them made me ugly cry upon my first viewing.
Pixar is still thriving today (albeit without John Lasseter after some sexual misconduct allegations in 2017), cranking out plenty of high-quality animated movies that continue in the “Toy Story” vein of good characters, strong writing, and making you feel all the feels.
No need for a remake, because in 2012, Jonason Pauley and Jesse Perrotta made a shot-for-shot fan recreation of “Toy Story” using real toys. An impressive feat two years in the making!
And thank god, in 2022 we will receive a Buzz Lightyear movie, specifically the Buzz Lightyear movie in the “Toy Story” universe that the action figure was created for. Hollywood has officially run out of ideas.
The Plot: San Francisco gets the city symphony treatment in “Notes on the Port of St. Francis”. As Vincent Price narrates Robert Louis Stevenson’s various musings of The City, Frank Stauffacher’s camera captures the many natural and manmade wonders of San Francisco: from waves splashing against the coastline to the impressive structures of the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower, from the old world charm of North Beach to the celebrated traditions of Chinatown. Together, Stevenson’s words and Stauffacher’s images paint a well-rounded portrait.
But Does It Really?: I’m always biased towards San Francisco footage on this list, but if the NFR can devote entry after entry to New York City, they can throw SF a bone every once in a while. While not as monumental in the history of experimental film as some of his successors, Frank Stauffacher is still an important part of that history, and there’s plenty of room for his well crafted love letter to Fog City on the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Frank Stauffacher spent the late ’40s and early ’50s at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as the head of “Art in Cinema”, an organization he ran with the hopes of not only educating the Bay Area on experimental film, but also encouraging a continuation of said experimentation. Inspired by Steiner and Van Dyke’s “The City”, Stauffacher wanted to make a “City Symphony” about San Francisco. He also made a film about Sausalito, but who cares about them?
Everybody Gets One – Source Material Edition: I didn’t realize how big a role San Francisco played in the life of Robert Louis Stevenson. By the late 1870s, the future “Jekyll & Hyde” author was romantically involved with Frances “Fanny” Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman living in Grez-sur-Loing, France after a separation from her unfaithful husband. When Fanny returned to the Bay Area in 1879, Stevenson made the trek out to her; the extensive traveling doing wonders for his creativity, but little for his lifelong bronchiectasis. Within six months of his arrival, Stevenson’s health had greatly improved, Fanny’s divorce was finalized, and the two married, honeymooning in Napa Valley. Stevenson wrote about San Francisco with some regularity for the rest of his life, including the short essays “A Modern Cosmopolis” (1883) and “The Old and New Pacific Capitals” (1880).
Wow, That’s Dated: The one main giveaway in Stevenson’s text is the “wooden houses” he saw in San Francisco. Most of the wooden houses were destroyed in the fires that followed the 1906 earthquake.
Other notes on the Port of St. Francis
At this point in Vincent Price’s career he had already made a splash in such ’40s noir as “Laura” and “Leave Her to Heaven”, and was oscillating between the lead roles in the B-pictures and the supporting roles in the A-pictures. Price was also a regular on serial radio dramas at this time, so it’s no surprise that he would lend his smooth voice to this film. It’s Vincent’s second best piece of narration on the Registry, behind, of course, “Thriller“.
It is nice to see San Francisco represented on this list in footage that wasn’t taken immediately before or after an earthquake. It’s also nice to see picture perfect 1950s San Francisco without it serving as a backdrop to Jimmy Stewart stalking Kim Novak.
“Notes” gives thanks in its credits to the Maritime Museum, which I’m happy to say is still around, tucked away right next to Aquatic Park. I went there once for a wedding!
Ah, bumper to bumper traffic and 1 Hour Parking signs. Some things never change.
There’s a montage of a car trying to drive up a steep hill, intercut with children sliding down a street on little cars, as well as a cable car careening down another street. I don’t know what it means, but it looks great!
At one point Stevenson writes of the “mingling of races” as one of the city’s unique qualities. Within the context of this film the – wait what!? “Mingling of races”!? Oh noooooo. Just say “diversity”. That’s all you had to do.
The MacDonald essay mentions the film’s segment on “Fisherman’s Wharf when it was a fisherman’s wharf”. Touché, MacDonald. You’re just lucky you weren’t there when Bushman was alive.
There’s mention of an indigenous legend that San Francisco rose from the ocean and may sink again. Brother, you don’t know the half of it.
It’s a shame the film doesn’t explore the rest of the city, staying mostly in the downtown/North Beach/Chinatown area. Though to be fair, that is where the ports are. Stevenson didn’t write “Notes on the Avenues”.
At one point Stevenson describes the streets of San Francisco as “the narrow arteries of the city”, which is maybe the best description I’ve ever heard in regards to navigating this damn town.
If Robert Louis Stevenson had lived to the 1930s he could have come back to San Francisco to visit Treasure Island.
Tragically, Frank Stauffacher died in 1955 at the age of 38 from a brain tumor. According to the MacDonald essay, Stauffacher was an influence on a number of Bay Area experimental filmmakers. Among them, Bruce Baillie, Nathanial Dorsky, Larry Jordan, and Gunvor Nelson; all of whom have their own films on the National Film Registry.
Robert Louis Stevenson also died tragically young, in 1894 of a possible cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 44 in Samoa. San Francisco was one of the last places Stevenson travelled to prior to settling down in Samoa, and there are still plenty of memorials and tributes to a man who fell in love with “the most interesting city in the Union”.
The Plot: Little Betty Davis is kidnapped, and her father offers a $1,000 reward. Determined to get that money, a group of kids band together to foil the kidnappers. After a successful rescue mission, Betty’s sister Jean expresses her gratitude by throwing a party/talent show for all the kids. But wait, it gets better. “The Kidnappers Foil” was remade literally hundreds of times over the years by the same filmmaker, in different towns throughout the south, with a new cast of local children every time. Together these films paint one of the more fascinating pictures on this list of significant movies.
Why It Matters: The NFR rundown is mostly a plot synopsis and the overall history of this film project.
But Does It Really?: I’m always looking for films on the NFR that stand on their own unique piece of ground, and “The Kidnappers Foil” is hands down one of the weirdest, most unique films on the list. Part amateur home movie, part avant-garde experiment, part local talent show, there is truly nothing like “The Kidnappers Foil” on this list. The films alone are an interesting watch, and the history behind them is even more fascinating. I was simultaneously baffled and delighted by every second of “The Kidnappers Foil”, and it’s this distinctive quality that solidifies the film’s place on the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Not much is known about Melton Barker, other than he was born in Mississippi in 1903, and was raised in various towns across Texas. Barker claims he worked for a number of Hollywood studios, and was responsible for discovering Spanky McFarland, though these claims are disputed (there is, however, a photo of him and McFarland). With home movies still being an expensive hobby, Barker saw the money-making potential of traveling to different towns, casting local children for his film, charging for acting lessons, and screening these films at the local movie house for the community to enjoy. While Barker made a handful of other movies in his lifetime, his legacy was and is “The Kidnappers Foil”.
Wow, That’s Dated: These films have the same ’30s kids vibe I would attribute to an “Our Gang” short (which does lend Barker’s Spanky story a little credence). Also, did every kid in the ’30s have to wear a whoopee cap (aka a Jughead hat)?
The earliest versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” date back to 1933 in Ardmore OK, Miami OK and Madison WI, while the last “Foil” appears to be from 1976 in Honey Grove TX. Over the years, Barker filmed at least 287 versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” across 28 states, primarily in the south, but stretching out from California to Rhode Island, Minnesota to Florida. Of the handful that are known to still exist, 21 of these films can be found on the Melton Barker site, and you bet your bottom dollar I watched all of them.
Since my viewing of these films, I enjoy explaining “The Kidnappers Foil” to friends because it always sounds like a scam. In fact, what Barker was doing here is similar to the scheme Harold Hill pulls in “The Music Man“: A stranger comes to town, sells its citizens on a plan that involves their kids, culminating in a performance that, despite their lackluster talent, earns raves from the parents.
Yes, that’s right, the lead character in this movie is named Betty Davis. By 1933, Bette Davis was getting started at Warner Bros., and was still waiting for her breakout role. It’s possible Barker had never heard of her before naming his leading lady, and never bothered to change it over the years.
Betty’s sister Jean has her big acting moment when she realizes Betty has been kidnapped, and most of Jean’s actors use their natural southern accents to turn “dad” into the multisyllabic “Da-yud! Da-yud!”. Speaking of, in most versions of “Kidnappers”, Betty & Jean’s father is played by Melton Barker himself, though in later versions the character is eliminated entirely.
Adjusted for inflation, the $1000 reward in 1933 would be about $20,000 today. Go, kids, go!
The joy of watching these films is that you get to observe the seams; the stilted acting, the kids pausing before receiving their cues, the ambient noises picked up on the mikes. It gives you the sense that these movies were filmed fast and cheap, no time for retakes! Added bonus: Watch these films with earbuds to hear Barker give off-screen directions.
It’s weird to think that a decent amount of these kids are theoretically still alive.
If I was a kid in one of these towns where “Kidnappers” was being filmed, I would have begged my parents to be in this, and would probably be deeply embarrassed by my own performance as an adult. But alas, I was born too late, and the closest I ever got was being an extra in some superhero short that filmed at the abandoned Stockton Airport.
The talent shows are always the best part of “Kidnappers”, though most of the talents are either tap dancing or singing a popular tune off-tempo. One kid earns points for originality by doing stunts on their swing set.
I know they’re kids, but some of this singing is giving me some serious John Daker flashbacks.
Viewing these shorts in sequential order highlights how Barker streamlined the process as he went along. By the late ’40s, Barker starts filming each individual line rather than trying to capture a whole scene in one take. Around this time Barker also stopped filming the talent shows, shooting only the first reel with the local talent and reusing the best talent shows from previous versions, splicing in new reaction shots. I watched the same performances of “Beautiful Dreamer” and “The Wise Old Owl” five times! These versions all end with the local children singing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”.
One girl in Shawnee, OK sings “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me”. It’s been done.
Ooh, the 1951 Las Cruces, New Mexico version has a Waylon Jennings-esque narrator. Was the plot that hard to follow?
Stick around for the Pine Bluff, Arkansas version from 1952, featuring the town’s annual Easter egg hunt. I hope someone finds the E.T. cameo in “Phantom Menace”.
If there’s one thing I appreciate about these movies, it’s that they teach kids to practice vigilante justice at an early age.
After reaching its peak in the early ’50s, productions of “The Kidnappers Foil” lessened throughout the decade, no doubt due to the increasing accessibility of home movie cameras, as well as the rise of television, and therefore local stations. According to Melton Barker’s website, he died in 1977 at age 74 while on the road.
Despite his prolific filmography, it appears that Barker did not hold onto any copies of “Kidnappers”, and roughly 90% of them are lost. Once again, my extreme thanks to the Barker website, as well as the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, who have spent years archiving and cataloging the surviving prints, as well as preserving related newspaper articles and conducting interviews with surviving performers.