Leave it to Robert Osborne to articulate something I’ve been struggling with for years: that is, why are old movies better than new ones?
Osborne puts it down to the “positive note” that concludes most classic films—even some of the most hardboiled.
Take Raoul Walsh’s 1941 gangster drama High Sierra. By the end, Osborne recalls, “The leading man has been killed, his dog has no hand to lick, but you leave the theater feeling good!”
And, just to prove his point, Osborne gave us a quick impression of Ida Lupino’s huskily ecstatic “He’s free…” delivered over Bogie’s bullet-riddled body.
Today, uplifting but thoughtful escapism is harder to come by, perhaps because the public doesn’t crave it like they used to. “We wanted bigger-than-life personalities then. Today we want the people onscreen to be just like real people,” says Osborne. Blame a growing atmosphere of cynicism: “The world has changed. Morality is different. We don’t have heroes anymore.”
Which makes TCM’s cache of classics all the more important—despite the fact that plenty of people expect old movies to be stale and creaky. Still, the attitude toward classic cinema has certainly improved since the network was born, “When Ted Turner bought that library from the MGM-United Artists-Warner Brothers library, they all said it was a stupid thing to do…. For so many years, they sat in a vault and nobody thought they had any value at all.”
Education, Osborne believes, is key to helping audiences access and enjoy the films of the past: “Take a movie that you don’t know. If you understand the context in which it was made, that makes it a more interesting movie.”
As he explains, “If you ask people to see a movie like In the Heat of the Night or Singin’ in the Rain or whatever, you’re not asking them to take medicine that’s unpleasant. You’re suggesting they see something that may really add to their lives.”
Though classic films are no bad-tasting tonic, Osborne knows how healing they can be from years of having fans tell him about all the hardships that TCM got them through. Smiling at the thought of TCM Therapy, Osborne says, “I never knew being a nurse was part of the job.”
Osborne also opened up about his career and discussed two great ladies of the screen who mentored him: Jane Darwell and Lucille Ball. Darwell, best known for her resilient, earnest performance as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, helped Osborne get a studio contract. He met Darwell in Seattle for a stage production of Night Must Fall, in which she starred in the Dame May Whitty role, terrorized by Osborne, playing the psychopathic Robert Montgomery role. (Now that I’d pay to see!)
When the young actor asked Darwell for advice about possibly moving to New York City, she advised him to stay on the West Coast rather than make a big jump. Offering him her contacts and linking him up with her agent, Darwell enabled Osborne to work at 20th Century Fox. “She was very instrumental in my life,” he remembers.
Osborne cited Lucille Ball—who signed him and 11 other young actors under personal contract—as another formative influence in his career. “She was an incredible person and I’m so lucky to have met her,” He said. “I learned from her discipline, because she was very disciplined.”
In her early days as a starlet, Ball herself had received a valuable training under the studio system; Osborne explained that Leila Rogers (the formidable mother of Ginger) had coached Ball at RKO and shaped her comic gifts. The experience taught Ball the importance of supporting the next generation with advice and networking opportunities. Through Lucille Ball, Osborne also got the chance to meet such classic stars at Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, and Joseph Cotten.
Listening to Osborne, you begin to realize how much of his vast knowledge of film, and the personalities that shaped it, doesn’t just come from research, but from first-hand experience. While at 20th Century Fox, he recalls that the studio executives gave him license to explore the studio: “When you weren’t doing work, they’d encourage you to watch.” Osborne witnessed Orson Welles providing uncredited direction to courtroom scenes in Compulsion. He also sneaked into a supposedly closed set to watch Marlon Brando filming The Young Lions.
Although most of us can never boast the sort of direct links to film history that Osborne has, well, don’t let’s ask for the moon—we have the stars and many of the wonderful films they made on the network. As Osborne says of TCM’s film library, “It’s like having a shelf of great books. You’ll never be lonely.”
The Family Business (Sort Of)
Ben Mankiewicz thinks that his great-uncle, legendary screenwriter and director Joseph Mankiewicz, would’ve been impressed by his TCM gig—though not in the way you might imagine. Assuming his uncle’s drily witty persona, he exclaimed, “They’re paying you X amount of dollars to talk about other people’s movies? You’re a genius!”
Mankiewicz is grateful for his family legacy, but he knew it would take more than a name from Hollywood history to impress TCM’s loyal viewers. “Our fans care about TCM… it took them a while to warm up to me, but they did, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.” For him, being a TCM host implies a significant responsibility to fans: “Their hearts and souls are connected to these movies…. I take this very seriously.”
While he takes his fans’ admiration to heart, he won’t let it go to his head. Mankiewicz revealed a self-deprecating streak at Press Day, laughing about the aftermath of getting treated “like a rock star” at TCMFF. It always comes as a letdown, he jokes, when he doesn’t get recognized in line for a premiere at the TCL Chinese Theater the week after the festival. And he has to restrain himself from automatically greeting everybody on Hollywood Boulevard.
When asked about his many interviews with screen legends, Mankiewicz confided that “tons” of classic-era actors leave him starstruck, mentioning his jitters over interviewing Max von Sydow and Jerry Lewis. Still, he’s managed to hold his own. As he says of his interview tactics, “You want to make them a little uncomfortable in their seat, but you don’t want to knock them off their chair.”
Looking back on his memorable roster of interviewees, Mankiewicz fondly remembered talking with the recently departed Mickey Rooney. After an initially rowdy first interview with the opinionated star at TCMFF, Rooney and the TCM host developed a mutual respect which paid off in a series of friendly, engaging interviews on the TCM Classic Cruise. “He was incredibly sweet and kind and legitimately happy to be there” among the fans. Mankiewicz lamented the star’s loss and praised his enormous screen presence: “You see him on the screen and you can’t take your eyes off him—whoever’s on the other side of that screen.”
In addition to celebrating stars of the past, Mankiewicz hopes that TCM will open doors for future legends. Today’s young filmmakers, often working on limited resources, could draw helpful inspiration from the movies screened on the network, in Mankiewicz’s opinion, “What they have is a treasure trove of movies that are all story-driven, that are all character-driven.”
And in case you’re worrying that TCM will change into something unrecognizable, let Ben Mankiewicz put your mind to ease: “We’re never going to stop showing the movies we’re showing right now.”
Getting with the Program
At TCM, “Every night’s a different film festival,” Says Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming. According to Tabesh, the network, which shows over 400 films per month, provides ample opportunity for programming obscure gems as well as big-name classics.
TCM Classic Film Festival director Genevieve McGillicuddy revealed the effort that goes into the network’s seamless presentation of classics. “Virtually everything you see us do takes time,” She noted, explaining how programming research is divided among the TCM team. “When we assign a theme or star, the programmer really needs to dig in. It’s a lot of work.”
However, McGillicuddy is the first to admit that doing the job is its own reward for a true film buff: “You have a job where you get to talk about Greta Garbo!”
Organizing the TCM Classic Film festival requires additional levels of planning due to the network’s commitment to showing 35mm prints along with digital at the festival. “Film prints are harder and harder to come by, especially in good condition,” Says McGillicuddy. At least she can rely on state-of-the-art audio-visual firm, Boston Light & Sound, which installs “changeover systems” to accommodate both film and digital at several of the festival’s venues and provides beautiful projections of old movies.
Looking forward, McGillicuddy said, “We want to do as much as we can to connect new and old Hollywood.” Both at the festival and on television, they hope to attract big names in the industry to discuss why classic films are so important and rewarding. Tabesh and McGillicuddy also suggested that they would like to open up the scope of cinema on TCM to include more international selections, such as the spotlight on Australian cinema in April. Tabesh believes that TCM’s programming has opened up to a wider range of “classics,” admitting, “We probably have become more adventurous.”
When asked whether TCM worries about competition, McGillicuddy replied that the network prefers to follow its own trajectory rather than get caught up in what its rivals are doing. “We want to be the channel for hardcore film fans. We want to go deep into the libraries. We’re very focused on what we want to do.”
Indeed, Tabesh told the press that the true challenge—and joy—of his job lies not in outdoing competition, but in out-geeking the film geeks: “The greatest pleasure is when someone really hardcore says, ‘I saw a movie I’ve never seen before, and I loved it.’”