Movie greats help ground-breaking NFT celebrate its 50th anniversary

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Two of the most famous faces of 20th-century cinema, Alec Guinness and James Stewart, are to top the bill during the 50th anniversary celebrations for the National Film Theatre.

The London institute has lined up a year-long programme of TV and film screenings and galas to mark its half-century on the South Bank. There will be performances by legendary jazz artists on television, a programme of music in silent films and retrospectives on the careers of Guinness, perhaps England's finest comedy actor, and Stewart, whose filmography spanned thrillers such as Vertigo and gunslinging Westerns.

There will also be specials on present-day performers such as Julianne Moore, directors including Eric Rohmer and the silent movie director Erich von Stroheim, whose career had a retrospective in the NFT's very first season.

The NFT was established by the British Film Institute in 1952 in the building that housed the Festival of Britain's Telekinema exhibit, which showed commissioned 3D films. Maurice Micklewhite (later known as Michael Caine) was on the first page of the members' register.

In 50 years, the NFT has played a key role in promoting the appreciation of film, though it has not always achieved as high a public profile as film aficionados would have liked, and its offshoot, the Museum of the Moving Image, closed in 1999.

But the NFT has never fought shy of exposing audiences to controversial work. Notable examples once deemed unshowable include: The Wild One (Marlon Brando in motorcycle gang-fights), War Games (Peter Watkins' realistic portrayal of the effects of a nuclear war), Empire of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima's powerful sexual drama), Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl's paean to Nazi ideals) and latterly titles such as Crash (David Cronenberg's sex and car-accidents shocker), The Idiots (Lars von Trier) and Romance (Cathar-ine Breillat).

In the Sixties and early Seventies, a vogue for all-night screenings resulted in multi-hour homages to Humphrey Bogart, W C Fields, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Will Hay. In 1971, the underground film-maker Otto Muehl wanted to kill an animal ritually on stage and pour blood over the naked bodies of two women as a film was being screened. A chicken was confiscated by the house manager and retained as lost property.

Another note in the archives shows that Francois Truffaut was prevented from entering a screening of his own film, Les Quatre Cents Coups, at the NFT because he had no ticket and he didn't speak English.

From the start the NFT was operated as a club cinema, free from censorship and able to import films without paying duty. Its first season of films included Norman McLaren's experimental and stereoscopic animation films, a personality review of clips of Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Eric von Stroheim, Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier and others, and a revival of Anthony Asquith's feature Pygmalion.