How Ray Allen Billington Picks the Movies Listed as Historic by the Library of Congress

Roundup: Talking About History

Randy Kennedy, writing in the NYT (Feb. 5, 2004):

It is a little strange to listen to James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, as he sits in his office with its commanding view of the United States Capitol and talks of his affection for "National Lampoon's Animal House," the movie that immortalized toga parties and throwing up on the dean's desk."It's an enormously funny movie," said Dr. Billington, a distinguished historian who taught at Princeton and who looks vaguely like the movie's beleaguered Dean Wormer.

As a smile stole across his face, Dr. Billington, 74, added,"Belushi going down that food line sort of spoofed a whole way of life."

This praise wasn't meant to impress his grandchildren. Instead, in a recent interview, Dr. Billington brought up"Animal House" to try to explain why he had accorded it a singular honor, one he has also given to other American movies as varied as "Casablanca," "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," "Citizen Kane," "Lassie Come Home," "Gone With the Wind," "This Is Spinal Tap" and "On the Waterfront."

At first glance they are films you might never expect to see mentioned on the same list, maybe even in the same breath. But over the years all have been named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, in essence landmarking them much in the way that the government has landmarked the Hoover Dam or the Brooklyn Bridge, the primary aim being to help to ensure they are preserved.

The library recently added another 25 movies to the registry — an eclectic list that includes "Young Frankenstein," "Patton," "Tarzan and His Mate" and "Tin Toy," an early Pixar short — bringing the total number to 375. It is also in the final stages of a multimillion-dollar plan to consolidate, by next year, all of its film preservation efforts and film and television holdings — the world's largest, with more than a million items — in a huge underground bunker near Washington originally built to shelter federal bureaucrats during a nuclear attack.

As it enters its 16th year of giving a stamp of government approval to pieces of cinematic history, the library is also seeking greater public understanding of how it decides to declare a movie a"national treasure." So a day was spent recently with Dr. Billington and his staff, watching them watch movies, talk about movies, obsess over movies and try to demystify the yearly process, often painful, of winnowing the names of hundreds of movies down to just 25.

It is a job in which they are helped by a board of professional movie lovers from around the country, including academics, critics, cinematographers, producers and archivists who sort through the possibilities, many submitted in letters and e-mail messages from ordinary taxpaying movie buffs.

Ultimately the decisions come down to Dr. Billington and his staff, who must face the inevitable Monday-morning-quarterback questions, sometimes in the halls of Congress: O.K., so "High Noon" and "The Godfather," sure. But "Night of the Living Dead" ?

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Walter D. Kamphoefner - 2/8/2004

So what does the guy in the headling, frontier historian Ray Allan Billington, have to do with James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress?