Two dozen of the greatest American films of all time, playing at Baltimore's greatest movie house -- going to the movies doesn't get any better than this.
Beginning tonight, Baltimore's venerable Senator Theatre will spend a week playing host to films that have been delighting audiences for generations. There's Laurel and Hardy selling Christmas trees in July in "Big Business," John Wayne waging war on both Indians and his own prejudices in "The Searchers," Greta Garbo smiling in "Ninotchka," Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in the back seat of a cab debating honor in "On the Waterfront," Robert De Niro boxing for his life in "Raging Bull."
Great movies all, so great they're among 200 placed on the National Film Registry, a 10-year-old effort by the Library of Congress to identify and preserve the greatest works of American movie-making. The films chosen for the festival, which opens tonight with a screening of Orson Welles' classic 1958 study of corruption in a Mexican border town, "Touch of Evil," are part of a traveling exhibition put together by the library three years ago.
The purpose of the National Registry Tour is twofold, says Felisa Kazen, who coordinates it for the Library of Congress. For one thing, in a world where seeing a movie is often a matter of plunking down three bucks for a videotape rental, people may have forgotten how much better it is to see a film -- even an old one -- in a theater.
"We want to re-create the experience of movie-going, as these films were intended to be seen," Kazen says, "people sitting together and expressing emotions together in the dark, looking together at a large single screen."
True enough. The Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup," with Groucho as head of the mythical kingdom of Freedonia and Chico and Harpo as two of history's most inept spies, is a comedic masterpiece no matter where it's seen. But laughing along with an audience of several hundred turns it from a film into an event, one not to be missed or forgotten.
"We are film buffs, and we are students of the history of the industry," Senator owner Tom Kiefaber says. "The idea that good prints are available of these films is exciting to us. When it was explained to us that the mandate is to take this tour to one historic theater in every state, I immediately concluded that the Senator was the one stop for Maryland."
But the people behind the registry tour also hope to raise awareness of the need for film preservation. More than 80 percent of all the films made before 1920 -- half the films made before 1950 -- are presumed lost, Kazen says, falling to the twin evils of neglect and chemical deterioration. Perhaps nowhere is there a more extensive collection of rare, often unique films than at the Library of Congress, but government belt-tightening and budget cuts have hampered preservation efforts.
"What we're hoping for," Kazen says, "is that people will enjoy the films, seeing them in their newly restored and preserved state, and then [become involved] in the movement to preserve films. It really is a race against time."
Also on tap for tonight: "What's Opera, Doc?" with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd offering their own unique take on Wagner's Ring cycle (complete with the classic aria, "Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit").
Tomorrow's offerings begin at 1 p.m. with director Gordon Parks' "The Learning Tree" (1968), the coming-of-age story of an African-American teen-ager in 1920s Kansas; star Kyle Johnson will answer questions afterward.
Three silent classics follow at 5 p.m.: "Gertie, the Dinosaur" (1914), an animated cartoon -- one of the first -- drawn by Winsor McCay; "The Great Train Robbery" (1903); and "Within Our Gates" (1919), from pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
At 8 p.m., it's "The Battle of San Pietro" (1945), a U.S. Army documentary on the World War II battle, followed by Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston in the 1948 epic of greed and duplicity, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." The day closes with a 10: 30 p.m. screening of Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" (1974).
More silent films are on the schedule for Sunday, beginning with a 1 p.m. double-feature of "Big Business" (1929), starring Laurel and Hardy and some woefully out-of-season Christmas trees, and "The Cheat" (1915), director Cecil B. DeMille's take on sex and scandal in high society, starring the legendary Sessue Hayakawa. At 5 p.m., it's director F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" (1927), by near-universal acclaim one of the most beautiful films ever made. At 8, it's back to sound with the first screen version of "Showboat" (1936), which includes the immortal Paul Robeson's "Old Man River."
Monday's films include "Gigi" (1958) at 2 p.m.; a 1938 newsreel, "The March of Time: Inside Nazi Germany," plus "Salt of the Earth" (1954), a gripping account of a miners' strike, at 6 p.m.; and "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964) at 8: 30 p.m.