King Kong made it, but Greta Garbo was left out. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were treated like wallflowers. No one smiled at Buster Keaton, and critics across the country were shouting foul.
The American Film Institute's widely ballyhooed list of the 100 greatest American films found its share of critics Wednesday, a day after it was unveiled on a three-hour television special.Some critics, like the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan, were scathing. He called the omissions on the list a "scandal," and compared the project to making a list of the 100 greatest Americans novels and "forgetting about Hemingway and Fitzgerald."
No one quarreled much with the top 10 choices, which gave the impression that the people who picked them had rounded up the usual suspects and assigned each a number.
"Citizen Kane" was No. 1, followed by "Casablanca," "The Godfather," "Gone With the Wind," the very British "Lawrence of Arabia," the purely American "The Wizard of Oz," "The Graduate," "On the Waterfront," "Schindler's List" and "Singin' in the Rain."
But as critics and film experts tore through the rest of the list, they started asking questions. Why no films by women? Why no films by black directors? Why no works by the great master of romantic comedy, Ernest Lubitsch? Or those other masters of comedy, Preston Sturges and Buster Keaton?
And why was "King Kong" No. 34 and Garbo's "Ninotchka" nowhere to be found?
"Not to be found are any of the transporting dance films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, not to mention the dazzling choreography of Busby Berkeley. Not to be found are any of the of the films of Greta Garbo, arguably the greatest actress of all time, not even her heartbreaking `Camille,' " wrote Turan, a critic so acerbic that the director of "Titanic" recently suggested he be fired for calling his film a wash.
Leonard Klady, a film expert at Daily Variety, said he thought the omissions came from the nature of the 1,500 people whose votes produced the canon. Most were Hollywood professionals, with a sprink-ling of politicians and film critics.
Klady noted that more than half the films selected were produced between 1950 and 1979, indicating that voters were plumping for films they had seen and been influenced by rather than ones whose importance they should have known about. There were four silent films picked, and three were by Chaplin.
Critic Roger Ebert said in the Chicago Sun-Times that the selection was clouded by limiting the finalists to American films, selecting the voters somewhat arbitrarily and asking them to judge according to "a murky formula involving critical recognition, major award winners, popularity over time, historical significance and cultural impact."
Robert Denerstein, a critic at the Rocky Mountain News, wondered why the entries were limited to American productions and films with American financing. "It seems to me that a list that's confined to American films doesn't do justice to film history, which belongs to the world," he wrote.
Of the 10 top choices, Denerstein asked: "Would I fight to the death for these choices? Not all of them."
Miami Herald film critic Rene Rodriguez, who contributed to the poll, said "Citizen Kane" certainly deserved the top honor. But he lamented the absence of other pictures, saying Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" was "as provocative and intelligent an examination of race relations as anyone ever put on film."
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which made the list, was not as good, he said, adding, "Generally speaking, there's no denying the AFI's list is worthwhile. But how could they have left off `Deliverance' or `The Last Picture Show' or `Strangers on a Train'?"
San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle panned the AFI's selection, saying "the only surprise is that it's a bigger joke than expected."
Among the the films LaSalle felt should have been included were King Vidor's "The Crowd" (1928) and Howard Hawks' "Red River" (1948).