In 2009 I was asked to contribute reviews to a book celebrating the National Film Registry. I was pleased, and indeed honored, to submit entries for Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), King Kong (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Heiress (1949), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Night of the Living Dead (1968), all of which fit the bill as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.”
Like a lot of book projects it went nowhere. And I’m afraid if it does come back my work will have to be reassigned, as I’m about to unload on the registry, for one of this year’s chosen feature films.
Which one? Certainly not Otto Preminger’s masterwork, Anatomy of a Murder (1959). (His other film of 1959, Porgy and Bess, made it in last year, and we’re waiting for its rumored restoration.) Slacker (1991) is a nice surprise. Can’t complain about the iconic Dirty Harry (1971) or the newest movie so enshrined, the visually stunning The Matrix (1999), though I’m sure the organization isn’t keen on the timing regarding these gun-happy flicks. There are worthier Westerns than the not-unworthy 3:10 to Yuma (1957); still, OK. I’ve never really warmed to Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) or A Christmas Story (1983), but as critic Edward Copeland reminded me, the public has a say in the selection process, and a lot of people like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and A Christmas Story.
Who, though, likes A League of Their Own? I mean, really likes it, much less loves it enough to want to see it in our national pantheon? There are now 600 films of various kinds in the registry, and based on a scan of the list it’s the only one I find indefensible.
What does the registry have to say about it? “Director Penny Marshall used the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954) as a backdrop for this heartfelt comedy-drama featuring an ensemble cast that includes Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. A League of Their Own not only illuminates this fascinating, under-reported aspect of American sports history, but also effectively examines women’s changing roles during wartime. Rich with period detail and equally complex performances—especially Davis as a team ringer and Hanks as the down-on-his-luck coach—Marshall and her company delivered an enjoyably nostalgic film about women’s choices and solidarity during World War II that was both funny and feminist.”
The registry has described the movie I hoped to see when it was released in the summer of 1992. The heavily fictionalized movie I saw was crude, and mawkish, an insult comedy full of putdowns and hijinks that cheapens and dishonors the history it purports to retell. “Complex performances”? They’re all one-dimensional, stereotypes–sluts, farm girls, fat girls, etc., and far from “funny and feminist.” The Bad News Bears (1976) has more nuanced characterizations and gets a more interesting male-female dynamic going; so, too, does the saltier, and earthier, Bull Durham (1988). Where are these films in the registry, not to mention, for Goldwyn’s sake, The Pride of the Yankees (1942)? John Sayles’ history of the “Black Sox,” Eight Men Out (1988)? Or, if we the people must speak, Field of Dreams (1989)? Why this coarse and uninspired product, successful though it was in its day? It’s a shame that a “fascinating, under-reported aspect of American sports history” got the shaft by Hollywood (I recall that some of the actual players were miffed, too) and worse to see it placed among the majors of American filmmaking as represented by the National Film Registry. If the thinking was to pay homage to the league by means of this dim-witted movie, that’s a pity.
What can we do to prevent such mistakes from happening again? If you want to throw in your two cents, you might want to consult this registry list—very carefully. (If the 2002 Time Machine is somehow chosen before the 1960 classic, the registry is null and void, pointless.) Better yet, skip the last two or three decades, which are clogged with losers of their own, and go back to You Only Live Once (1937) or The Sea Wolf (1941) or On Dangerous Ground (1952)–great films that belong in the registry, and could use your support to get there. The good news about this debacle it that it’s inspired me to vote (Spartacus isn’t in there? Really?); the bad news is that while there’s no crying in film criticism, A League of Their Own is in the National Film Registry, and that is a crying shame.