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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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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers Movies
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Gramercy Pictures

Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. John Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’s 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS' WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating, “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen at the Oscars
Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, and Joel Coen celebrate their Oscar wins in 1997.
KIM KULISH/AFP/Getty Images

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen brothers' 'The Man Who Wasn't There' (2001)
© 2001 - USA Films

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that features a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

A still from the Coen Brothers' 'The Ladykillers.'
Melinda Sue Gordon, SMPSP - © 2004 - Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination).

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

A photo of Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013).
© 2013 - CBS Films

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. “The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, ‘Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that.”

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen brothers are plenty fond of The Dude; after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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Brush Up on Your Film Trivia With This Website Dedicated to First and Last Lines From Popular Movies
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Castle Rock Entertainment

Few elements of a film are more important than its opening and closing lines. In some cases, they divulge pivotal truths or serve as bookends to establish the movie’s overall tone. In others, they provide important context or reveal key information about the lead characters.

No matter which purpose these snippets of dialogue serve, the most iconic establishing or concluding film lines are perhaps the most quotable ones. (After all, how many Citizen Kane fans can hear the phrase “Rosebud” without being reminded of Kane’s favorite childhood sleigh?) But if you can’t remember the openers and closers from your own favorite flicks, a new website is here to help you brush up on your pop culture knowledge.

Made by the team over at AT&T Internet, the fun reference site takes iconic blockbusters and presents their first and last lines of dialogue using typography and the occasional illustration. The site “is a way to recap the last 50 years of movies into a slideshow,” communications manager Alex Thomas tells Mental Floss.

You can check out AT&T Internet’s online slideshow of first and last lines—featuring bits from 1972’s The Godfather, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, and more—here.

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