LAST month, when the American Film Institute announced its list of the nation's top 50 film stars, some movie critics complained that the list was nothing more than a crass, commercial venture designed to promote a TV special and sell video tapes of old movies. Stamp officials at the U.S. Postal Service, however, could not have been more delighted.

The AFI's listing validated one of their newest stamp series, the five-year-old "Legends of Hollywood" stamps. James Cagney, who will appear Thursday (July 22) in the fifth stamp in the series, was No. 8 among the AFI's top 25 male stars.

Humphrey Bogart, who appeared on the 1997 stamp, topped the list as No. 1 and James Dean, who appeared on the 1996 stamp, was No. 18. Marilyn Monroe, who appeared on the first stamp in the series in 1995, was No. 6 among the 25 female stars. Alfred Hitchcock, who appeared on last year's stamp, failed to make AFI's list, but he was chosen as a director, not an actor.

Regardless of what the film critics thought of the list, it probably is a good gauge as to what stars might appear on future stamps in the series. To be selected for the AFI list, a star had to have debuted on screen in or before 1950 or have appeared after 1950 and be dead. That matches up well with the Postal Service's requirement that any individual must have been dead 10 years before appearing on a stamp.

A number of the stars on the AFI list meet that criteria. Among them: Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Charles Chaplin, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. All have a good shot at joining the stamp series.

Cagney, who died in 1986, appears on the 1999 stamp dressed in a brown pin-striped suit. It's not the look of a bad guy or a song-and-dance man, the screen roles for which the New York City native is best known.

A photo print on the sheet of 20 stamps shows him as the dancing star of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the musical role that won him an Oscar. In all he appeared in more than 60 films, but his gangster roles are the ones most people remember.

Veteran stamp artist Thomas Blackshear of Colorado Springs painted the portrait of Cagney who is being honored on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Sennett Security Products of Chantilly printed 75.5 million of the gummed stamps on gravure presses in Wisconsin.

The stamp will be dedicated at a ceremony on a Warner Bros. sound stage in Burbank. The event is closed because there is not enough room there to accommodate the public, a rare occurence for an agency that is planning ways to create greater public participation in stamp events.

Another Hollywood figure finally will be getting a stamp next year, according to postal sources. World War II hero Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of the conflict, is to be honored next year. After the war, Murphy went on to added fame in Hollywood, starring in 30 movies.

Until now, veterans groups and Murphy's fans have been frustrated in their efforts to win a commemorative stamp honoring him. Next year, with Murphy fan Einar V. Dyhrkopp sitting as chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, postal officials have decided the Medal of Honor winner will get his stamp.

THE BLOCK Island Lighthouse, the tallest such structure in New England, will be honored July 24 on a new postal card. The card, which sells for 21 cents, is the latest in the Scenic America series of postal cards. The Government Printing Office has produced 1 million of the cards. Like the Cape Hatteras, N.C., Lighthouse, the Block Island light had to be moved from an eroding shoreline to be saved.

THE BUREAU of Engraving and Printing is making a bid for money from currency collectors. The Treasury Department agency recently began selling a series of "innovative collectable products" built around the new $20 bills. What should make the bills sell at a premium is that they will have low serial numbers, "generally below AA 00003300A."

For $135, the bureau is offering its premium historical portfolio that contains a low-numbered $20 bill and one of the last old $20 bills, the ones with the smaller, centered portrait of Andrew Jackson. The portfolio comes with certificates of authenticity signed by the treasurer of the United States, the bureau's director. More economical is the "deluxe single note," which sells for $35 and comes in a special folder.

If you're into currency, consider the "premium Federal Reserve set" for $695. It contains 12 $20 notes, one from each Federal Reserve Bank with matched serial numbers (except for the bank prefix.) This one comes in a book.

For information: call 800/456-3408 or visit

THE METROPOLITAN Washington Numismatic Association Inc. holds its 34th annual convention and coin show Friday from 2 to 7, Saturday from 10 to 7 and Sunday from 10 to 4 at the Ernst Community Cultural Center at the Northern Virginia Community College, 8333 Little River Turnpike, Annandale. Admission is free. For information, call 703/281-7053.

INDIVIDUALS seeking first-day cancellations of the James Cagney stamps should purchase the stamps at their local post office and place them on addressed envelopes. These should be mailed in a larger envelope to: James Cagney Stamps, Postmaster, 2140 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank CA 91505-9991. Requests should be postmarked by Aug. 20. Addressed Block Island postal cards should be mailed to: Block Island Cards, Postmaster, 32T Water St., Block Island, RI 02807-9991 by Aug. 23.

Next week in this space: Photography columnist Frank Van Riper.

CAPTION: James Cagney's "Legends of Hollywood" stamp will be released Thursday in Burbank, Calif.