20 years ago, in 1995, the BBC decided to celebrate the centenary of the Lumière brothers’ invention of moving pictures with a year-long series of significant films from the sound era, covering the period from 1930 until 1994.
The list itself, at the end of this post, is intriguing. How many of these films are still well-known? When was the last occasion they were screened on television?
I remember some of the BBC’s screening strategy. They showed Citizen Kane as the series opener in the afternoon of one of the first days of the year. Then they screened some of the 1930s films on Saturday afternoons on BBC2, a place and time where you might still sometimes find Hollywood movies of a certain vintage.
However, by February, the sequence had become less predictable. It seemed to be felt that some films’ content was more suitable for late-night screening. Also, that some of the project’s potential audience wouldn’t be prepared to wait for months until the more modern fare appeared. So films appeared out of chronological order and in midweek as well as at weekends.
1995 was a busy year for me for various reasons and I don’t recall watching many of the Cinema Century presentations. Although some films I had seen before and others since, there are many I missed that year which have never, to paraphrase Keats, swum back into my ken. With changing TV fashions and a whole younger generation of TV executives and schedulers, will they ever come around on the small screen again?
Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, for example. Like many Eastern European directors, his work is felt to be irrelevant since the Warsaw Pact collapsed. Similar attitudes seem to apply towards politically engaged films of the 1960s and 1970s like Godard’s Weekend, Resnais’ La Guerre Est Finie, Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Strategem and Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
A selection like Cinema Century always leaves itself open to affectionate criticism, so a few more seconds can be spent doing that. About the rationale behind the picking of Mildred Pierce and The Nutty Professor, of Man of the West as an Anthony Mann Western instead of his classics with James Stewart, of Kiss Me Stupid to represent Billy Wilder rather than Some Like it Hot, of choosing two 1980s films of such similar tone as American Gigolo and the remake of Breathless.
However, almost certainly, the BBC didn’t ever claim these films represented the very best of the century’s film-making, but merely a representative selection from that century. Equally certainly, it would have been seen as a decent enough selection because most of the films were acknowledged as excellent both at the time of original release and afterwards. Films which were omitted from the list – say, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves or Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups – were possibly simply ones which the BBC had no screening rights for at the time.
The list does point towards the areas of industry creativity at particular times: the Hollywood studios in the 1930s, Europe and Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, the younger US and Australian directors in the 1970s and 1980s. By picking five out of six films from the 1990s from Africa and Asia, did someone expect that films from those regions would in the future become widely shown in the UK? Perhaps some thrillers and animation from the Far East have been, but mostly the screenings from these regions are still hugely outnumbered by those from the USA. In that sense, in the sense of a period of time, this century continued as it began.
The Cinema Century films were :
1930 Morocco 1932 A Farewell to Arms 1933 King Kong 1933 42nd Street
1935 The 39 Steps 1935 Top Hat 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein 1936 Fury
1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938 Bringing Up Baby 1939 Dark Victory 1939 Stagecoach
1939 The Wizard of Oz 1939 La Règle du Jeu 1941 Citizen Kane 1941 The Maltese Falcon
1942 The Palm Beach Story 1942 Casablanca 1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
1943 I Walked with a Zombie 1944 Meet Me in St Louis 1944 Les Enfants du Paradis
1945 Mildred Pierce 1945 Brief Encounter 1946 Great Expectations 1946 My Darling Clementine
1947 Build My Gallows High 1947 Black Narcissus 1947 Hue and Cry 1949 They Live By Night
1949 On The Town 1950 Gun Crazy 1950 La Ronde 1950 The Life of O-Haru
1953 Tokyo Story 1954 On the Waterfront 1955 The Night of the Hunter 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night
1956 The Seventh Seal 1956 Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 1956 The Searchers 1957 Wild Stawberries
1957 Written on the Wind 1958 Vertigo 1958 Man of the West 1958 Ashes and Diamonds
1959 North by North-West 1960 Rocco and his Brothers 1961 El Cid 1962 Sanjiro
1962 Viridiana 1963 The Servant 1963 The Nutty Professor 1963 Billy Liar
1964 Kiss Me Stupid 1965 Gertrud 1965 The Sound of Music 1966 Closely Observed Trains
1966 Andrei Rublev 1966 La Guerre Est Finie 1967 Weekend 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West
1968 Witchfinder General 1969 Easy Rider 1970 Performance 1970 Claire’s Knee
1970 The Spider’s Stratagem 1971 Death in Venice 1972 Aguirre Wrath of God
1972 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 1973 The Spirit of the Beehive 1973 Scenes from a Marriage
1973 Amercord 1973 The Long Goodbye 1973 Badlands 1975 Picnic at Hanging Rock
1976 Taxi Driver 1979 Wise Blood 1980 Raging Bull 1980 American Gigolo
1983 Rumble Fish 1983 Breathless 1984 Brazil 1985 Desperately Seeking Susan
1985 Ran 1986 Blue Velvet 1986 Platoon 1986 Down by Law
1987 A Short Film about Killing 1987 Chocolat 1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
1988 Dead Ringers 1989 Do the Right Thing 1989 Sweetie 1990 Tilai
1991 A Brighter Summer’s Day 1992 The Player 1993 Farewell My Concubine
1994 The Days 1995 Sonatine