Protecting America's Film Legacy

Host Scott Simon speaks with Daniel Eagan about his book, America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. It's a comprehensive guide to 500 significant American films that are being archived and preserved at the National Film Registry.

At our request, Eagan prepared the list below of "Five Unknown Oscar Winners." All these recommended titles are drawn from the Registry.

Five Unknown Oscar Winners

The Oscars may have missed some films we now regard as classics. Neither Raging Bull nor E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial won Best Picture, for example. But generally the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences comes pretty close to reflecting popular taste. Here are five films (and a ringer) you may not have known won Oscars. All of the titles are part of the National Film Registry.

Sunrise (1927). F.W. Murnau's romantic melodrama about a farmer, his wife and the city woman who threatens their marriage marks the full flowering of silent cinema as an art form. Justly famous on its own terms, the film is also notable as the only title ever to win an Oscar for "Best Artistic Production." In a parallel to the recent Oscar battle between The Hurt Locker and Avatar, voters at the first awards ceremony in 1928 handed Best Picture to the big-budget blockbuster Wings, but gave Sunrise — a movie filmmakers and critics loved, but which did poorly at the box office — an award purely for merit.

The Music Box (1932). The only Oscar ever given to the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy was for this Short Subject. It was actually a remake of sorts, of the silent film Hats Off (1927), one of the few lost films by the team. The Music Box takes place mostly on Vendome Street in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. (Stan) Laurel and (Oliver) Hardy are delivery men charged with carrying a piano up the 131 steps of a narrow outdoor staircase. Picture Sisyphus as a comedy, with surly cops, insolent nannies and a belligerent professor who hates music.

Dodsworth (1936). I slipped this onto the list even though it only won a consolation prize, an Oscar for Best Art Direction. But the combination of William Wyler's direction; Sidney Howard's adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel; and superb acting by Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor makes this one of the most compelling and mature films of the 1930s. It's the study of a marriage falling apart during a European vacation, and Lewis for one thought, "I do not see how a better picture could have been made." On the other hand, producer Sam Goldwyn complained, "I lost my goddamn shirt. I'm not saying it wasn't a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves."

Pinocchio (1940). Walt Disney put all the resources of his studio into Fantasia, which also came out in 1940, but for my money Pinocchio is the best animated feature he ever released. Based on stories by Carlo Collodi, the film won Oscars for its score and for the song "When You Wish Upon a Star." Featuring fine vocal talent from former vaudevillians Cliff Edwards and Walter Catlett, Pinocchio also boasted animation that ranged from delightful and intricate (such as the number "I've Got No Strings") to terrifying, like Monstro the whale and the horrific Pleasure Island.

A Time Out of War (1954). Made for $2,000, this Civil War drama won for Best Short Subject, Two Reels. It's also the first student film to win an Oscar. Denis Sanders based his UCLA thesis project, a tense, realistic account of a confrontation between Northern and Southern soldiers along an isolated river, on the short story "Pickets" by Robert W. Chambers. Denis's brother Terry was in charge of the evocative cinematography. Both Denis and Terry would go on to win additional Oscars.

Tin Toy (1988). The fourth cartoon released by Pixar, and its first to win an Oscar, for Best Short Film, Animated. A five-minute comedy about a baby and a terrorized wind-up one-man-band, Tin Toy marks the beginning of an amazing streak of masterpieces from the most consistent studio of the last 20 years. The ideas behind Tin Toy would evolve into Toy Story, a franchise so successful that a 3D sequel is being released this spring.

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