Quick: name your favorite movie. Can you imagine how you would feel if that movie were lost, never to be watched again by you or anyone else?
Now, what do The Matrix, Citizen Kane, This Is Spinal Tap, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Singin’ in the Rain have in common? The answer is that they’re all included on the National Film Registry, a list of the most important American movies.
These Amazing Shadows, a new documentary by filmmakers Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, chronicles the history of the National Film Registry and explores the impact of its films on American culture, as well as what is being done to protect our film heritage for future generations. One of the film’s stars is George Willeman, a 1988 graduate of Wright State’s motion pictures program and the nitrate film vault manager for the Library of Congress.
Since 1989, the Librarian of Congress has announced 25 titles each year to be added to the National Film Registry for preservation. To be selected, films must be at least 10 years old and be deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Librarian of Congress, based on recommendations by the National Film Preservation Board.
The Registry represents a diverse array of American films. In addition to features and documentaries, it also includes newsreels and home movies. In 2009, Michael Jackson’s Thriller became the first music video listed on the Registry.
“It’s saying to America and to the world: these films matter,” said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin in These Amazing Shadows. “It’s saying that your film has stood the test of time.”
Inclusion on the National Film Registry does more than simply certify a work’s importance; it also ensures that a film’s original materials will be conserved by the Library of Congress. If need be, the Library will also oversee that it is physically preserved, often with painstaking care.
“For a variety of reasons—neglect or basic deterioration especially—many of our early films, and actually some more recent ones, are lost forever. There’s nothing left,” said Willeman. “I know of one Academy Award–winning film called The Patriot. All that survives from it are a few trailers and stills.”
Preservation is particularly important for the nitrate films that Willeman is responsible for overseeing. Though nitrate film was used extensively from the late 1800s up until the 1950s, the product is highly flammable and must be kept in climate-controlled vaults. “It’s the plastic version of gunpowder,” said Willeman. With many of the early 20th century’s most beloved films in danger of literally “going up in flames,” it’s up to Willeman to rescue and safeguard these movies for future generations.
Growing up in Springfield, Ohio, Willeman was bitten by the film bug at a young age. He started by bringing movies home from the library and then moved on to collecting silent 8mm reels from Blackhawk Films. Eventually, he saved up enough paper route money to buy a print of the 1927 futuristic classic Metropolis. Willeman still remembers watching it in his basement with friends.
That love of movies led Willeman to enroll in Wright State’s motion pictures program. “It was like living in a hippie commune of filmmakers and it was so wonderful,” he said of his time spent in the department’s film labs, located then in Millett Hall. “We’d be there all hours of the day. There were so many talented people in the program and we had this great time.”
He had thought that he’d become a filmmaker, perhaps focusing on comedy or horror features. But fate had other plans.
At that time, the Library of Congress’ film preservation laboratory and nitrate film vaults were housed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. Willeman took a part-time student job there as a collections attendant. He inspected cans of the highly flammable nitrate film for four hours a day. “You have to love film to work there,” he said. “Otherwise it’s just nasty cans of rotting plastic that could catch on fire and do horrible damage.”
Willeman stayed with the Library of Congress even after graduation. He became a nitrate film specialist, identifying and classifying each individual film that came in. When the nitrate collection was moved to the new Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia, Willeman relocated as well. Today, he’s the nitrate film vault manager, responsible for the more than 150,000 cans of nitrate film in the Library’s collection.
One of the most exciting aspects of Willeman’s job is discovering pieces of film history previously thought to be lost forever. “When I started at the nitrate vault, I was one of the few who had any kind of education in film,” he said. “So I started finding things that had been there, but nobody knew what they were.”
Willeman identified the original negative of Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 western The Great Train Robbery. He also discovered the original, uncensored negative of the notorious 1933 film Baby Face, starring Barbara Stanwyck as an attractive woman who uses her sexuality to get ahead. “It had all the naughty bits still in it,” said Willeman. “That was just the find of a lifetime.”
His Baby Face discovery is just one of the many stories Willeman tells in These Amazing Shadows. When filmmakers Mariano and Norton approached him about appearing in the documentary, Willeman never imagined that he’d share the screen with Hollywood legends like George Takei, Rob Reiner, John Waters, and Debbie Reynolds. Nor did he think that the experience would take him to Sundance and other prestigious film festivals. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me that I have the most screen time in the film, especially with some of the other folks in it,” he said. “And I gave the film its title. That’s pretty exciting.”
Yet even after the excitement of appearing in a film himself, Willeman describes himself as “blessed” to have his day-to-day job: “It’s really nerdy, but I just love being around these reels of film and being a part of making sure that they’re preserved so that people can see them later on.”
To learn more, visit the YouTube channel for These Amazing Shadows