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Largely forgotten today, actor John Bunny merits significant historical importance as the American film industry's earliest comic superstar. A stage actor prior to the start of his film career, Bunny starred in over 150 Vitagraph Company productions from 1910 until his death in 1915. Many of his films (affectionately known as "Bunnygraphs") were gentle "domestic" comedies, in which he portrayed a henpecked husband alongside co-star Flora Finch. "A Cure for Pokeritis" exemplifies the genre, as Finch conspires with similarly displeased wives to break up their husbands' weekly poker game. When Bunny died in 1915, a New York Times editorial noted that "Thousands who had never heard him speak...recognized him as the living symbol of wholesome merriment." The paper presciently commented on the importance of preserving motion pictures and sound recordings for future generations: "His loss will be felt all over the country, and the films, which preserve his humorous personality in action, may in time have a new value. It is a subject worthy of reflection, the value of a perfect record of a departed singer's voice, of the photographic films perpetuating the drolleries of a comedian who developed such extraordinary capacity for acting before the camera."Expanded essay by Steve Massa (PDF, 625KB)
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One of the Registry's more unusual entries, this film was created to demonstrate technological advancements by Theodore Case, a scientist specializing in recording sound on film. In 1926, Case joined forces with Fox Films which purchased the rights to one of his systems and began making short sound films. As Case made improvements to his processes, he would test them by recording popular vaudeville acts, including Gus Visser and "The Original Singing Duck." In this film, probably made as a demonstration for Fox investors, Visser warbles the Eddie Cantor song "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" with the help of a duck who Visser physically "prompts" to quack on cue. Within the year, Warner Bros. would beat Fox as the first producer of a feature-length sound film, and this short film may give some indication why.Expanded essay by Scott Simmon for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (PDF, 239KB)
This is one of American cinema's most famous examples of the "woman's picture," melodramas which focused on the emotions, problems and concerns of women. This John Stahl film adaptation of Fannie Hurst's novel has an innovative theme involving a white widow (Claudette Colbert) who starts a business partnership with her African-American maid (Louise Beavers). It is arguably the first Hollywood studio film to treat African-American characters in a dignified fashion by casting them in richly developed roles, not merely as comics or entertainers.Expanded essay by Ariel Schudson (PDF, 384KB)
This sci-fi classic about a man (Grant Williams) who starts to shrink after being exposed to a strange cloud while on vacation is notable for its intelligent script and imaginative special effects which seem simplistic by modern standards. Jack Arnold's sparse direction and Richard Matheson's poignant script allow the tension to build naturally in a world where a house cat and common spider become the ultimate threat to existence and leave an indelible mark on the audience's consciousness. Part of the film's brilliance is its bad-news ending, a surprising -- but effective -- choice for Universal Studios, and its haunting final line of dialogue "I still exist."Expanded essay by Barry Keith Grant (PDF, 358KB)
In this screwball comedy from director Frank Capra, spoiled socialite Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) elopes without her family's approval and consequently finds herself stuck with out-of-work journalist Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on her journey back to her new husband. Based on a short story called "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams, "It Happened One Night" faced a difficult start, with actor after actor rejecting the lead roles. Eventually Claudette Colbert took on the role of Ellie and Clark Gable was loaned from MGM to play Peter. Although now considered a classic, "It Happened One Night" opened to only so-so reviews. Despite the initial reaction, the film performed well in smaller towns and ended up winning every Oscar for which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Writing (Adaptation), marking the first time in history that one film swept the top five Oscar categories. "It Happened One Night" was also Columbia Pictures' first Best Picture Academy Award win.Expanded essay by Ian Scott (PDF, 513KB)
"Safety Last" may be Harold Lloyd's finest film, and from it comes the most recognizable image in silent comedy: the man dangling from a clock. Joining forces with Hal Roach in 1915, the former movie extras started a company to produce Lloyd's films, and the comedian was soon the highest paid actor and biggest box-office draw. Bolstered by his success with a few early "thrill" shorts and inspired by a popular stunt performer known as "the human fly," Lloyd was eager to make a feature-length film that would give audiences the same excitement. In the film, Lloyd's country boy seeks fame and fortune in the big city and ends up as an unwitting human fly forced to scale a tall building. The studio built sets on the rooftops of several downtown Los Angeles buildings to enhance the illusion, although Lloyd still risked danger with his antics, thus delivering on his recipe for a successful thrill picture: "a laugh, a scream and a laugh."Expanded essay by Richard W. Bann (PDF, 425KB)