When Turner Classic Movies first opened for business 15 years ago, I was heartbroken. My cable provider, a wretched outfit called Cencom Cable, didn't carry the channel.
By definition, TCM was a movie lovers' celluloid dream -- a commercial-free outlet with unfettered access to the pre-1948 MGM and Warner Bros. film libraries and the RKO library. TCM was the reason that Ted Turner went into hock up to his eyeballs to buy the MGM library in the mid-1980s.
Not only would it showcase classics from the Golden Age but as my husband was quick to point out, there would be skads of '30s and '40s films that we'd never had the chance to see -- never even heard of before. The cabler launched on April 14, 1994 (hard to believe what a different era for media that was) with an epic that we've all heard of, "Gone With the Wind."
We weren't deprived for long. Our cable provider, which by this time I believe had changed, offered us a movie-channel upgrade that included TCM. When we finally flipped the switch,TCM was better than we'd ever imagined. A classy presentation, knowledgeable host in veteran Hollywood Reporter columnist Robert Osborne (he put AMC's Bob Dorian to shame -- and out to pasture) and best of all, the programmers clearly had an appreciation for the treasure trove at their disposal.
Pictured above, Turner Classic Movies' launch event in Times Square, April 14, 1994. From left, Arthur Hiller, Arlene Dahl, Jane Powell, Celeste Holm, Ted Turner, Van Johnson and Robert Osborne.
TCM showcased the gems and the oddities with equal reverence. They made good use of the time between film starts with "One Reel Wonder" showcases of short subjects from the MGM and Warner vaults, from Robert Benchley's erudite silliness to "Pete Smith Specialties" to trenchant public service-type programs "Bootlegging! Is it Harmful?"
One of the greatest finds we came across in those early days of TCM was half-hour silent tour of MGM studios from 1925. It's an incredible document of the legendary studio and the people who made it so, shot just a few years after Metro Goldwyn and Mayer came together and a few years before they became the town's dominant shop.
The actors, directors, executives and producers (King Vidor, Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning, William Wellman, Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, Zasu Pitts, Lucille LeSueur, Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer, to name a few) and who mug for the cameras and assemble for the class-portrait shot at the end are still hungry and hustling for the astounding successes that are just around the corner.
TCM's "Silent Sunday Nights" showcase, initiated in 1995, was also a can't-miss date in our house -- features, docus, Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and "Nanook of the North." A real highlight was the presentation in 1999 of the long-lost, lovingly restored serial from 1915-16, "Les Vampires" -- a real potboiler of a fantasy-mystery involving a woman running around in a black costume that looked more like a mouse than a vampire ... but that only added to its charm.
Pictured above, TCM's 15th anniversary party in Atlanta on April 9. From left, Turner Entertainment chief Steve Koonin, TCM execs Tom Brown and Charles Tabesh, Robert Osborne and Turner Broadcasting boss Phil Kent.
Over the years, the cabler has poured a lot of money and resources into docus, retrospectives and restorations of all kinds, worthy projects that will go a long way toward preserving the art form. Ars Gratia Artis, indeed. TCM's latest original programming venture is a 10-part series on the Hollywood's founding moguls,"Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood," set to bow next year.
TCM in recent years has become a little too contempo-film focused for my liking, but I do understand why. It's still the safest haven for movie lovers on the dial. It deserves the Peabody kudo that it earned earlier this month.
So happy birthday, big fella...and thanks Ted.
In recognition of its 15th anniversary, TCM issued its tally of the "15 most influential films of all time." Not too much to argue with here, though I can think of a few omissions.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
During a time when Europe seemed to have a monopoly on feature films, D.W. Griffith struck out to make an epic that would help define American cinema. The Birth of a Nation also became one of the greatest outrages in film history, introducing destructive stereotypes of black men and women and glorifying the Ku Klux Klan.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
The “Odessa Steps” sequence in Battleship Potemkin may be the most influential scene in film history. Drawing on montages in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Sergei Eisenstein used mini-stories and repeated shots of specific characters and groups to humanize his story.
Arguably the most influential science fiction film ever made, Metropolis has inspired everything from video games to rock videos to comic books. The film’s futuristic sets helped spread the popularity of art deco, while the gadget-filled lab of mad scientist Rotwang became a sci-fi staple.
42nd Street (1933)
Although musicals helped launch talkies, the genre was box office poison by 1933. Visionary producer Darryl F. Zanuck had the idea for a backstage story that would capture the effect of the Depression on hard-working chorus girls. He was smart enough to put Busby Berkeley in charge of the dance routines, and his geometric patterns and dazzling camera movements both revitalized musicals and saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy.
It Happened One Night (1934)
The surprise success of It Happened One Night made Frank Capra one of the screen’s top directors and provided the prototype for a decade of screwball comedies. Romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and The Sure Thing draw on the rapid banter, outrageous comic situations and sexy road trip of It Happened One Night. The movie even provided inspiration for one of the screen’s most enduring characters, Bugs Bunny.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
“Disney’s Folly” was the name most Hollywood insiders gave to the dream of producing the nation’s first animated feature. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs didn’t just look better than any previous Disney film. It looked better than most major studio productions. For better or worse, Snow White set U.S. animation in pursuit of a more realistic look for decades to come.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
If one film epitomizes the Hollywood blockbuster, it is Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara has inspired a legion fiery females caught in the sweep of history, most notably Kate Winslet in Titanic. For decades, filmmakers have drawn on David O. Selznick’s work to create and sell romantic dreams writ large on the screen.
John Ford’s mixture of character depth and hard-riding action reminded audiences that the winning of the West was more than just popcorn fodder. Ford’s work inspired Orson Welles, who screened the film 40 times while shooting Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Working with a level of control rare in Hollywood, Orson Welles paved the way for director-centric cinema that has produced some of the screen’s greatest achievements and worst excesses. By combining deep-focus photography, directional sound, overlapping dialogue and a fragmented narrative assembled from several different viewpoints, he created a film audiences experienced as they did the real world.
Bicycle Thieves (1947)
Director Vittorio De Sica was part of a movement to take cinema back to the streets. Shot on real locations with a factory worker in the leading role, Bicycle Thieves (also widely known as The Bicycle Thief) was among several post-war Italian films that provided an alternative to Hollywood’s big-budget studio productions.
Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking film put Japanese cinema on the international map. His editing techniques gave it a sensual power that attracted audiences to the emotionally charged story. Kurosawa transcended the challenges of a low budget and censorship to create a new cinematic world that would inspire filmmakers like George Lucas and Martin Scorsese.
The Searchers (1956)
Almost 20 years after revitalizing Westerns with Stagecoach, director John Ford pointed the genre in a new direction. The Searchers offers one of the screen’s first attempts to depict racism underlying U.S.-native relations. Ford views the problem from both sides, showing how John Wayne’s obsessed Indian hunter Ethan Edwards and the equally obsessed Comanche chief, Scar, have been shaped by violent acts of the past.
With jarring cuts between scenes, jump cuts within them and long takes filled with dizzying camera movements, Breathless made the movies move as never before. Director Jean-Luc Godard created a cinema of reinvention, shooting as if the medium had only just popped into existence.
Following big-budget productions like North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock found inspiration in a low-budget, black-and-white horror. Psycho re-defined the genre with major surprises, like killing star Janet Leigh a third of the way into the movie. The crazed-killer character became a horror film staple, leading to slasher flicks like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
Star Wars (1977)
With Star Wars, Hollywood discovered new markets for merchandising – not just toys, but novels, comics, television series and eventually video games. These constituted the “Star Wars Expanded Universe,” which included a series of sequels unlike any ever seen. Lucas later re-titled the film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.