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13 Amazing Cartoons from the National Film Registry

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Every year since 1989, the National Film Preservation Board declares a selection of movies to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," and therefore worthy of being recognized as national treasures. This National Film Registry boasts movies like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind, but there are also 32 animated films that have been deemed significant. Here's a sampling of the stories behind 13 of these amazing examples of America's animated heritage.

Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

Winsor McCay was a revolutionary newspaper comic strip creator, but was also a pioneer in animation, creating techniques and methods that are still in use 100 years later. His first production, Little Nemo, has an impressive two minutes of color animation featuring characters from his Little Nemo comic strip that were set in motion by 4,000 drawings created over a span of 30 days. The artwork is notable for being more refined than earlier animated films, which starred little more than stick figures, setting a new standard for animation that is extraordinary even today.

McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur introduces what many consider to be the first cartoon character. Before Gertie, an ornery Brontosaurus, early animated characters didn't have much in the way of personality.

In contrast, Gertie danced and even scuffled with a mastodon, but McCay also made her part of an expertly timed interactive performance. Standing next to the movie screen, McCay would talk to Gertie, who would react according to his commands. Then, at the end of their schtick, McCay would walk behind the screen, an animated version of him would appear in the film, and the two would ride off into the sunset together. Later versions of the film had McCay's dialog placed onto title cards and featured additional live-action scenes so the film could tour without being a live show, but it was still as effective for audiences who marveled at the "living" dinosaur on the screen.

Steamboat Willie (1928)

Although most people know Steamboat Willie as the debut film of Mickey Mouse, it's also notable for being the first cartoon with fully synchronized sound. There had been earlier attempts at synchronized sound cartoons before, but the audio never quite stayed on track with the animation. In fact, the first recording of the audio for Willie didn't stay perfectly synchronized either, but Walt sold his beloved roadster to fund a re-recording. His sacrifice was worth it – the film became a huge hit and helped kick start the Disney animated empire.

The film has also gained notoriety for never lapsing into the public domain. Oddly, every time Steamboat Willie's copyright is about to expire – in 1956, in 1976, and in 1998 – Congress has changed copyright laws to grant extensions for historical works. Whether this is just coincidence or the result of lobbying by Disney is up for debate. Either way, some opponents called the 1998 extension the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act." Unless another extension is granted, Steamboat Willie will finally pass into the public domain in 2023, nearly 100 years after its debut.

Snow White (1933)

Although Disney's version of the classic fairytale is also on the Film Registry for being the first American animated feature-length film, this cartoon, starring squeaky-voiced flapper Betty Boop, is included because of its extensive use of rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is a technique where the cartoon images are drawn over individual frames of film from a human actor's recorded performance, making the animation very fluid and realistic. In this case, a character named Koko the Clown was animated using dance footage of jazz great Cab Calloway, who also provided the voice. The film is also unusual because it's the work of a single animator, Roland Crandall, who was given the opportunity to make his own movie by Fleischer Studios as a reward for many years of loyal service.

Rotoscoping went on to be used for films like 1978's The Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, which use computer rotoscoping to surreal effect. Of course, rotoscoping is also the precursor to today's motion-capture technology that helped bring the simian stars of Rise of the Planet of the Apes to life.

Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

United Productions of America (UPA) was a little-known but very influential studio in the 1950s and '60s. Their Oscar-winning short film, Gerald McBoing-Boing, a Dr. Seuss story about a boy who can speak only in sound effects, introduced "limited animation," a process that uses fewer drawings, simpler character designs, and repetitive, sparse background art. UPA employed limited animation to artistically distance itself from the more realistic style of Disney. However, the technique was widely adopted by television animation studios in the 1960s, most notably Hanna-Barbera for shows like The Flintstones and other cartoon staples, because it was much cheaper to produce than traditional cartoons.

Before The Tell-Tale Heart, based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name, theatrical cartoons were strictly kid's stuff. But this 8-minute short, produced by UPA and narrated by James Mason, was deemed so disturbing that it became the first cartoon to be rated X by the British Board of Film Censors. That didn't prevent the Academy from nominating the film for Best Animated Short, though it lost to Disney's music education short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, which, oddly enough, uses very sparse and stylized background art like the type typically found in limited animation productions.

Duck Amuck (1953), One Froggy Evening (1956), and What's Opera, Doc? (1957)

With three famous Warner Bros. cartoons, director Chuck Jones is the most represented single animator in the National Film Registry. The selected shorts aren't necessarily technically innovative, but there's no doubt they're culturally significant.

Duck Amuck is a surreal, Fourth Wall-breaking cartoon of Daffy Duck being agitated by an unseen animator (SPOILER: It's Daffy's rival, Bugs bunny). Over the course of the short, his voice changes, the scenery changes, and his physical form becomes everything from a duck to a cowboy to a strange flower-headed creature with a screwball flag for a tail. Jones has said that the film was meant to show audiences how a cartoon can instill a character with personality, changing Daffy in drastic physical measures but never altering the cantankerous wit that he is best known for.

One Froggy Evening tells the story of a frog found inside the cornerstone of a building that is being torn down. The construction worker that discovers him is astonished to learn that the frog is a top hat-wearing, one-amphibian Broadway act... but only when no one else is looking. The cartoon is most likely based on the story of Ol' Rip, a lizard that was allegedly buried in the cornerstone of a Texas courthouse in 1897, only to be found alive and well when the building was demolished in 1928. (There's no indication Rip could carry a tune, though.) In the original cartoon, the frog has no name, and the man who provides his "Hello! Ma Baby" singing voice goes uncredited. However, in the years since, Jones named the frog Michigan J. Frog, and the singer is now credited on DVD releases as Bill Roberts, an obscure nightclub singer from the 1950s.

Most people mistakenly think this famous cartoon is called Kill the Wabbit, but its title is actually What's Opera, Doc? Based upon the works of composer Richard Wagner, the cartoon features Elmer as a Viking and Bugs Bunny disguised as the Valkyrie he is trying to woo. The short didn't offer much in the way of innovation, but it's so funny and creative that it's clearly the work of a director at the top of his game. It's no surprise this was ranked the best cartoon of all time in 1994 by 1,000 professional animators.

Tin Toy (1988)

Today, Pixar is a household name, but in 1988, only a few animation studios had heard of them. In an effort to sell its new PhotoRealistic RenderMan software, which later became the first computer program to win an Oscar, director John Lasseter created Tin Toy, a short film about a wind-up one-man band trying desperately to hide from its new owner, a destructive baby. In 1989, it became the first computer-animated film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short, helping put Pixar on the map. After the win, a half-hour TV Christmas special sequel was considered but, at the urging of Disney, Pixar decided to focus on developing a feature length spin-off idea instead. That idea became Toy Story, which was inducted into the Film Registry in 2005.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Aside from being a fan favorite, Beauty and the Beast received six Oscar nominations in 1992, including the first animated film up for Best Picture. That honor wasn't bestowed on another animated film again until the Academy expanded the field from five to ten nominees in 2010, when Pixar's Up received a nod. Beauty and the Beast didn't win the Best Picture that year – 2011 Film Registry inductee The Silence of the Lambs did – but it didn't go home empty-handed either, winning for Best Original Score and Best Original Song.

Bambi (1942) and A computer Animated Hand (1972)

2011 saw the induction of two more animated films, both significant in their own right.

At the behest of Walt, Bambi was a major shift away from the cartoony artwork Disney Studios was known for to a much more realistic style. This was accomplished by having the animators draw using live animals as models, which were shipped to a temporary zoo at Disney Studios. Unfortunately, it was this realism that hurt the film among critics, who preferred the more fantastic style they were used to. The movie was also a financial flop upon its initial release, most likely because the European markets were closed off due to World War II. it would make its money back with subsequent re-releases, of course, and the critics came around as well, eventually making it one of the most beloved of all of Disney's films.

The one-minute film A Computer Animated Hand might not seem impressive, but when you consider the technological movement this short clip has spawned, it could be one of the most influential animated films in history. In 1972, two University of Utah students, Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke, made a digital model of Catmull's left hand, which they were able to manipulate on the screen, creating one of the world's first 3-D computer animated sequences. Catmull and Parke also later animated a human face using the same techniques to creepy, but similarly groundbreaking, results. After college, Parke became a professor at Texas A&M, while Catmull went on to change computer animation forever by founding a little company called Pixar.

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14 Not-So-Dirty Facts About Dirty Dancing
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Released on August 21, 1987, no one—not even stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey—could have predicted the phenomenon that Dirty Dancing would turn into. Today, 30 years later, we’re still talking about the dance-musical-romance’s sensual choreography, its oldies soundtrack, and not putting Baby in a corner. Here are some not-so-dirty facts about the iconic movie, which grossed nearly $215 million worldwide.

1. PATRICK SWAYZE BELIEVED DIRTY DANCING ENDURED BECAUSE OF ITS HEART.

In an interview with AFI, Swayze explained why he thought Dirty Dancing has stuck around for so long. “It’s got so much heart, to me,” he said. “It’s not about the sensuality; it’s really about people trying to find themselves—this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things. On a certain level, it’s really about the fabulous, funky little Jewish girl getting the guy because [of] what she’s got in her heart.”

2. THE FILM GAVE NEWMAN HIS FIRST BIG MOVIE ROLE.

Before starring as Stan, the resort’s social director, Wayne Knight had small roles in a few TV movies, including an uncredited role in the nuclear holocaust drama The Day After. Dirty Dancing showcased his talents, which in 1992 led him to be cast as Newman on Seinfeld.

3. BILL MEDLEY THOUGHT HE WAS BEING HIRED TO RECORD A SONG FOR A “BAD PORNO.”

Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes sang the vocals to the Oscar-winning song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Medley told Songfacts that Dirty Dancing music supervisor Jimmy Ienner called him and mentioned he was gathering music for the movie. “It sounds like a bad porno movie,” Medley said. Medley’s wife was expecting a baby, so he turned the song down. A few months later Ienner convinced him to do the song, even though Medley didn’t think the movie would be popular.

“We just went in to work together, to sing together, and little did we know it was going to be the biggest movie of the year. Just unbelievable,” Medley said. The song ended up selling more than 500,000 copies, and Medley ended up titling his own memoir The Time of My Life. (Note: The film was actually the 11th highest grossing film of the year; Three Men and a Baby took the top spot for 1987.)

4. PAUL FEIG STARRED IN A DIRTY DANCING TV SHOW SPINOFF.

Dirty Dancing the TV series lasted for only 11 episodes beginning in the fall of 1988, but it gave us then-unknown actors Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks and director of Bridesmaids) and Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson of The Office). Hardin played Baby but her last name on the show was Kellerman because her dad was Max Kellerman, not Dr. Houseman. CBS even used “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” for the show’s opening credits.

5. A DIRTY DANCING REALITY SHOW AIRED OVERSEAS.

For two seasons between 2007 and 2008, the UK’s Living network aired a reality show called Dirty Dancing: The Time of Your Life, in which groups of dancers competed for a year-long contract with Bloc, a Los Angeles-based dance agency. The series took place at Virginia’s Mountain Lake Lodge, where much of the original movie was filmed. Couples danced in front of three judges, including Miranda Garrison, who played Vivian Pressman in the movie and was also an assistant choreographer on the film.

6. MOUNTAIN LAKE LODGE REGULARLY HOSTS DIRTY DANCING WEEKENDS.

The Pembroke, Virginia resort where many of the Kellerman’s scenes were filmed hosts regular Dirty Dancing­-themed weekends a year. Dinners, a sock hop, a screening of the movie, a watermelon toss, group dance lessons, and a Dirty Dancing scavenger hunt are just some of the many activities on the agenda.

7. ELEANOR BERGSTEIN WROTE ANOTHER DANCE MOVIE AFTER DIRTY DANCING.

Bergstein wrote the script to Dirty Dancing, and in 1995 she had the opportunity to direct as well. She wrote and directed Let It Be Me, starring Jennifer Beals and Campbell Scott. To this day, she hasn’t written or directed any other movies, but she did adapt Dirty Dancing into a successful stage show.

8. ACCORDING TO BERGSTEIN, EASTERN EUROPE WATCHES A LOT OF DIRTY DANCING.

In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Bergstein talked about the movie’s popularity with people in the former Eastern Bloc. “And in Russia, it’s policy in the battered women’s shelters, when a woman comes in for help. First, they wash and dress her wounds, then they give her soup. Then they sit her down and show her Dirty Dancing. When the Berlin Wall came down, there were all these pictures of kids wearing Dirty Dancing T-shirts; they were saying, ‘We want to have what they have in the West! We want Dirty Dancing!'”

9. PENNY BRIEFLY TRANSFORMED INTO A POP STAR IN THE LATE 1980s.

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Cynthia Rhodes made a name for herself as dancer Tina Tech in 1983’s Flashdance and starred as John Travolta’s dance partner/love interest in Staying Alive that same year. But it was her role as Johnny Castle’s dancing partner, Penny, that garnered her the most notice. A couple of years after Dirty Dancing, she married singer Richard Marx (they’ve since divorced), and she briefly filled in as the lead singer of L.A. pop group Animotion, known for their hits “Room to Move” and “Obsession.”

10. JENNIFER GREY PLAYED A VERSION OF HERSELF ON THE SITCOM IT’S LIKE, YOU KNOW...

The short-lived ABC sitcom (1999-2000) featured Grey as a member of a Seinfeld-like gang, except the show swapped out New York City for Los Angeles. She allowed herself to be self-deprecating, even poking fun at her nose job and her Dirty Dancing celebrity. Arthur (Chris Eigeman) meets “Jennifer Grey” and goes, “Oh, like the actress. Dirty Dancing. You spell it the same way as her?” “I am Jennifer Grey,” she responds, then she does a dance to prove it. “You look different,” he says. “Nose job!” She blurts. “Just one?” he retorts. (She had two of them.)

11. GREY WAS SHOCKED TO BE A PART OF THE MOVIE CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.

During a scene in the 2012 rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love., Ryan Gosling uses the famous Dirty Dancing lift to woo Emma Stone into bed with him. As she watched the movie, Grey got an unexpected surprise. “I’m such a fan of Ryan Gosling and all of a sudden he’s saying my name [in the movie],” she told Yahoo!. “I’m just in the theater with my husband and I look at him like, ‘Oh my God, Ryan Gosling just said my name. What’s going on?’ I was so scared. I was like, ‘Oh, no. What are they about to do?’ All of a sudden there I was, part of their movie.”

12. BORSCHT BELT RESORTS LIKE KELLERMAN’S ARE DISAPPEARING.

The area in the Catskills and upstate New York where many resorts like Kellerman’s were located is referred to as the Borscht Belt, because of the area’s popularity with Jewish-American families from the 1920s to the 1980s, with the height of their popularity being in the 1950s and ’60s. Comedians such as Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld got their starts at these resorts. Since the 1990s, hundreds of these resorts have shuttered.

13. TWO FILMMAKERS PRODUCED A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE RESORT THAT SUPPOSEDLY INSPIRED KELLERMAN’S.  

For over 100 years, the Monticello, New York-based Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club welcomed Jewish-American families every summer. Wilt Chamberlain worked there as a bellhop, and according to Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg, the husband-and-wife filmmakers behind Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort, it’s also part of the inspiration behind Dirty Dancing.

“Perhaps Hollywood had taken sort of what was true for the Catskills and was using it for their own purposes, but ... [Hollywood] was just copying what was already here,” Rosenberg told ABC News. One of the last bastions of the Catskills’ Borscht Belt, Kutsher’s closed in 2013 and was sold to a billionaire who plans on replacing the resort with a $250 million yoga and wellness center. At least the doc acts as a relic to the halcyon days of dancing and escapism.

14. A DIRTY DANCING REMAKE WAS RELEASED EARLIER THIS YEAR.

Talk of a Dirty Dancing remake had been floating around Hollywood for a few years, and earlier this year it finally came to fruition. The film, which starred Abigail Breslin as Baby, was not met with great reviews. "Somehow, this earnest, anodyne remake has managed to surgically extract the magic—leaving the story and signature lines intact while suctioning out all the subtlety, charm, and lead chemistry that defined the iconic 1987 original," wrote Entertainment Weekly of the remake.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

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Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually broke away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying, “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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