SALIVATING OVER THE AFI CHALLENGE: PICKING THE 100 BEST MOVIES EVER

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As bob hope might say it, "Thanks for the memory. . ."

You know how nuts Americans are about movies? Maybe the French are even more so. But we're pretty good. The motion picture is 100 years old (101 actually by now). And with the Golden Globe awards having just been handed out (still something of a joke but quite often harbingers of Oscars to come) and with the Academy Awards nominations due to be released next week, I thought it might be time to do a column about the flicks. And for once, having a little actual info on hand.

Just before Thanksgiving, I ran into former CBS chief Gene Jankowski and a woman named Jean Picker Firstenberg having lunch at Michael's restaurant in Manhattan. Ms. Firstenberg is CEO of something called the American Film Institute and, as you may already know, they've cut a deal with CBS for a three-hour special on June 16 sponsored by General Motors Corp. That would be followed by 10 one-hour specials on TNT over the subsequent 10 weeks.

The subject? An irresistible one for motion picture buffs and especially those who (like me) derive their jollies from esoterica and the pursuit of trivia: just which are the 100 greatest American movies of all time?

It was Jean Firstenberg who sent along the ground rules and back office information. A master list of some 400 titles has been put together, movies dating back to "Richard III" in 1912 and to "The Birth of a Nation" three years later and continuing into last year. To cull the 400 nominated films down to 100 pictures AFI got some 1,500 industry figures plus President and Mrs. Clinton and some 50 ordinary popcorn-eating moviegoers to vote. They claim the results will be held secret until June but in a country where even the identity of the unknown soldier can't be kept quiet, who knows?

Anyway, here are a few of the nominated titles starting with the 400th greatest movie ever made, at least according to AFI's roster, "Jerry Maguire." Also nominated from the current decade, such hits as "Schindler's List," "Babe," "The Lion King," "Unforgiven," "Forrest Gump," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Thelma & Louise."

Of course as you run through the listings by decade, the usual suspects have been rounded up. "Citizen Kane" from 1941, "Dr. Strangelove," 1964, "The Third Man," 1949, "My Man Godfrey," 1937, "The Godfather," "Boys Town," "A Star Is Born," "Ben-Hur," "Shane," "Easy Rider," "2001," "High Noon."

Some decades are more vintage than others. In the '70s we had: "Patton," "M*A*S*H," "Star Wars," "Manhattan," "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Chinatown," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Last Picture Show" and "Dirty Harry." On AFI's list, the '30s were prime: "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Little Caesar," "Frankenstein," "City Lights," "King Kong," "The Thin Man," "Snow White" and "Lost Horizon."

The 1940s were pretty fair. Just consider these nominees: "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Bank Dick," "Sergeant York," "Laura," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "The Lost Weekend," "The Best Years of Our Lives." Remember Dana Andrews sitting in the cockpit of the scrapped plane? What was the name of that boy with no hands? Can't you see even now the look on Myrna Loy's face when Frederic March came marching home?

Think back to the '50s if you're old enough. "Sunset Boulevard," "The Quiet Man," "East of Eden," "Mister Roberts," "Marty," "12 Angry Men," "North by Northwest," "On the Beach. . ."

The fun part of reading through lists is jogging memory. Just writing that title down, "On the Beach," I hear again the haunting strains of "Waltzing Matilda" as the submarine and its crew pull out of their last sanctuary in Australia to head back to a nuclear-dead America, wanting as most of us do, to die at home.

In the '60s we fell in love with Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment," we shivered through "Psycho," we were stunned by the rustic audacity of bank robbers in "Bonnie & Clyde," we hummed the tunes of Si & Gar along with Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," danced to "West Side Story," and tuned in an Austrian nun in "The Sound of Music."

Those were the years when we met a "Funny Girl" named Barbra and traveled to "The Planet of the Apes" (remembering that chilling fade as Chuck Heston and the girl slowly passed a destroyed Statue of Liberty?) and rode with Butch and Sundance. "Who are those guys?"

The "guys" on AFI's list are pretty unforgettable, too. Crosby and Hope, Kate Hepburn, Welles, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Chaplin, Bette Davis, Coop, Bogie, Lana Turner, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Burt, Monty Clift, Donna Reed, Pacino and de Niro and Nicholson and Rita Hayworth, Ginger & Fred and Gene Kelly. . .

And how about the fade of "Strangelove," as a world incinerates, we hear the voice of Vera Lynn, promising despite everything, "we'll meet again."

Powerful stuff, memory; powerful stuff, movies.

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