TCM Therapy: Highlights from TCMFF Press Day

RobertOLeave 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.”

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Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks.

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.”

Living History

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.”

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Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks.

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.”benmank1

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.”

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Photo credit: Tyler Golden/Turner Entertainment Networks.

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!”

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Charles Tabesh and Genevieve McGillicuddy on the red carpet for the opening night screening of “Oklahoma!” Photo credit: John Sciulli/WireImage.

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.’”

Maureen O’Hara Is Still Magical—Whether She Thinks So or Not

With a mischievous smile, Maureen O’Hara confided to a tightly-packed audience in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, “You get me talking about movies and about people I worked with in movies and it’s very hard to shut me up. We’d be here for weeks.”

Needless to say, she fit right in with the crowd of diehard cinephiles that made up the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival.

Regally beautiful at 93, O’Hara expressed her joy over the fact that her fans are still clamoring for her—and that the Almighty isn’t. “He’s shoved me back onto the stage, and I love it!”

O’Hara, though wheelchair-bound, insisted on traveling to Los Angeles to make appearances for her admirers. I can’t begin to convey my gratitude for the privilege of seeing the Queen of Technicolor in person not once, but three times: briefly on the red carpet, then before a screening at the El Capitan, and finally at the Roosevelt Hotel on the last day of the festival.

It was an indescribably moving experience to set eyes on an actress I have worshipped since childhood—and TCMFF was evidently a poignant homecoming for O’Hara as well. Before the showing of How Green Was My Valley, O’Hara entered the stage of the El Capitan with misty eyes as the full house reacted with thunderous applause.

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - Conversation With Robert Osborne and Maureen O'Hara

Robert Osborne opened by asking O’Hara about John Ford. Her response? “I thought we were here to talk about me!” She did, however, confess to the audience that she felt Ford is looking out for her in the hereafter. Years ago he’d told her and his close-knit stock company that “when there was the next call for Hell, he’d see to it that we didn’t answer. And, you know, I still think about it, and I hope he still believes it.”

The following day at the Roosevelt lobby, Osborne engaged O’Hara in a more extended interview about her life and career. Asked what Charles Laughton meant to her, she replied, “What more can someone do for you than start you off in life?” O’Hara remembered that she was “very honored and thrilled” to be mentored by Laughton, who personally signed her and brought her to Hollywood to star in her first American film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “He was my first teacher in my theatrical profession,” She said. “I was taught to act and I was taught to appreciate what I was being taught. You couldn’t find anyone more wonderful to work for than Charles Laughton.”

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - Conversation With Robert Osborne and Maureen O'HaraAlthough O’Hara hinted that the terms and conditions of all her contracts weren’t as uniformly pleasant—“they can be absolutely wonderful or absolutely awful”—she painted an overall positive picture of the people who managed her career. “Anybody who is talented and good at their job, 90 percent of the time they’re kind and good and treat you well.”

On the subject of her many famous love scenes, she revealed that the kisses we all vicariously enjoy actually proved a major source of frustration for her. “Many times, you hated it, because the person you had to kiss was a horrible, nasty person…. Sometimes you’d have to kiss some jerk, and you didn’t get paid enough!” As for the offending leading men, O’Hara, ever the lady, refused to name the ones she didn’t respect, though it sounds like there were plenty.

But there was no such silence on the subject of her favorite leading man, “Could anyone compare with John Wayne?” O’Hara only wished she could have worked earlier in her career with the Duke, who would become a lifelong friend. “Unfortunately, I didn’t meet him until later.”

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - Conversation With Robert Osborne and Maureen O'Hara

O’Hara also discussed her fondness for stunt work. At the peak of her career, she mastered complex swordplay and brawling routines, swashbuckling with such aplomb that she won the nickname ‘The Pirate Queen.’ She recalled, “I was a real tomboy. I loved doing the stunts.” As additional incentive, she explained, “The rest of the cast and crew do appreciate that you’re doing something dangerous. You stand ten-feet-tall in their eyes…. You do get scared, but you love showing off.”

Indeed, while O’Hara’s fencing days are behind her, that fiery Celtic spirit, which made her so compelling to watch in classics like The Quiet Man, flared up occasionally during her interviews. I will never forget the amused—but formidable—look on her face when she exclaimed to the audience, about Robert Osborne, “Boy, he’s nosey!” She didn’t hesitate to cut to the chase, interjecting, “You’re talking a heap of rubbish,” when the compliments grew too flowery for her taste.

Most memorably, at the El Capitan, she humbly downplayed her status as one of Hollywood’s living legends: “Don’t be fooled into thinking that I do magical things!” Well, like Robert Osborne, I must respectfully disagree with her.

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Thank you to Turner Classic Movies and Getty Images for providing all photos of O’Hara from TCMFF.

Mel Brooks Gets Serious (Almost) at TCMFF

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Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne…” seems like a pretty traditional opener for a discussion at TCM Classic Film Festival.

Unless, of course, it’s Mel Brooks saying it. And then following that up by blowing a raspberry into his microphone.

At the age of 87, Brooks shows no signs of mellowing; his madcap personality was in full salute yesterday in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel as he spoke to Robert Osborne about his career.

Although Brooks will introducing his hilarious parody Blazing Saddles at the festival tonight, the discussion took a somewhat different path. Rather than focusing solely on Brooks’s vocation as a funnyman, Osborne brought out some details about his more serious side. Brooks opened up about the surprising range of films that he produced, including the classic melancholy comedy My Favorite Year and the gruesome horror drama The Doctor and the Devils, about famous grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

I am the producer of very dark and important films, but I have always kept my name and my face away from them.” Brooks worried that his image as a comedian would skew audience expectations: “If you go to see Mel Brooks in The Elephant Man, you’d expect to see me with a trunk!”

elephantBrooks might’ve tried to keep his participation in The Elephant Man on the down-low, but he contributed to the film’s triumph with his fine-tuned story sense. The original screenplay offered a more cheerful ending, with Queen Victoria stepping in like a deus ex machina to assure Merrick’s medical treatment. It was Brooks who insisted on the cyclical structure of the plot and believed that the tragic title character had to die in the hospital to bring the film to an emotional conclusion. As he explains, “If movies don’t end right, they don’t work.” Brooks also recounted how, after seeing Eraserhead, he chose David Lynch as the right man to bring the macabre, but moving story to live.

(Note to self: write a book about thematic and narrative overlaps between The Elephant Man and Young Frankenstein.)

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The comedian told a crowd-pleasing anecdote about  Cary Grant who happened to occupy the bungalow next to Brooks’s during the days of his early success. After watching the dapper Cary come and go in his Rolls Royce with yellow flowers in his buttonhole, Brooks couldn’t get up the courage to speak to the icon—let alone ask for an autograph. Well, who should come up to Brooks in the commissary a few days later, calling out, “Why, Mel Brooks! I’ve got your ‘2000 Year Old Man’ Record!” but Cary himself.

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At first, Brooks had to get over the impression that Grant must’ve been “a mirage”: “You can’t be real!” However, it sounds like the unlikely pair of Mel and Cary were on the way to becoming BFFs.  Alas, the comedian noticed that, at each of their costly breakfast chats, notoriously parsimonious Cary never paid his share. Finally, Brooks had no choice but to cut him loose: “‘—Cary Grant called…’ ‘—I’m not in!'”

And so we must weep for a bromance unfulfilled.

tbontbWhen Osborne asked what it was like for Brooks working with real-life wife, the astounding Anne Bancroft, in To Be or Not to Be, he elicited howls of laughter from the audience by exclaiming, “It was terrible!” Bancroft would constantly push Brooks to do another take, insisting that he could do better. Still, he admits that she was a perfect lifeline for his rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”—in Polish!—helping him memorize the words and leading him in the performance.

Finally, when asked which films had made the greatest impact on him, Brooks mentioned the elegant escapism of the Astaire-Rogers movies. “They took me to a different world… I wanted to live in that place!” he explained with uncharacteristic reverence. That’s right, folks: at TCMFF, we’re all classic movie geeks—especially the movie stars themselves.

The discussion yielded some good news for hardcore Brooks fans, so start filling out your wish lists. Later this year, a limited edition boxed set of his films—only about 1000 of them—will be released, each signed by Brooks himself.