I’m sad to report that film historian and author Robert Osborne died Monday at 84. While he worked on many projects promoting film appreciation and history, he was best known as the longtime host of Turner Classic Movies. He would introduce films with behind-the-scenes trivia or set them in context so that younger viewers would understand why they were considered classics. His love of Hollywood’s golden era was contagious, and I’m sure many a young film nut caught the bug from watching him on TCM.
As I’ve traveled around America, I can’t even count how many people have told me that they love movies but no longer go to theaters; they just stream old movies and watch TCM. Today’s critics might look down on studio films of the ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘50s, but what modern filmmaker could produce anything as well-written as “All About Eve” or “Double Indemnity,” as romantic as “An Affair to Remember” or “Casablanca,” as epic as “Gone With The Wind,” as enchanting as “The Wizard of Oz” or “Top Hat,” or as funny as “Duck Soup” or “Some Like It Hot”? Frankly, there just isn’t the talent now that there was then. These days, “La La Land” is hailed for saluting old movie musicals, even though the leads can’t sing or dance very well. When Hollywood wanted to salute old musicals back in the 1950s, we got “Singin’ In The Rain.”
In the era of the studio system, producers wanted to entertain Americans, not lecture them or insult them by depicting them sexist, racist and homophobic. The recent Oscar telecast devoted almost as much time to upbraiding Americans for how they voted as it did to handing out awards to politically-correct art house flicks hardly anyone wanted to see. Their reward: one of the lowest ratings in history (second only to the time they picked Jon Stewart to host during Obama’s 2008 election year). Hollywood’s motto used to be, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” In “Sullivan’s Travels,” Preston Sturges made that point well by showing that Walt Disney did more to help the poor by giving them Mickey Mouse than any pretentious “serious filmmaker” ever did.
How ironic that those “superficial audience pleasers” are still being watched and enjoyed by new generations on TCM, while most Americans couldn’t even name the movie that won Best Picture last year, or even 10 days ago. Meanwhile, John Wayne has remained in the Harris Poll of Americans’ Top 10 Favorite Movie Stars every year for over two decades (last year, he was #4), and he died in 1979. But the Duke still rides on just about every day on TCM. No wonder so many people prefer that channel to today’s movies.