Today I had the great opportunity to interview Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. We spoke of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars, Gene Tierney, the qualities that make a film “essential”, the merits of GWTW, and of course, the one and only Vivien Leigh.
V&L: Hi, this is Kendra from vivandlarry.com, and today I’m on the phone with Mr. Robert Osborne: film connoisseur, historian, and host of Turner Classic Movies. Good morning, Robert, and thank you for your time.
RO: Thank you, my pleasure to be here.
V&L: Oh good! Okay, I’d like to start off by saying congratulations on 8 years of Summer Under the Stars.
V&L: This is a feature that so many viewers (myself included) look forward to every August.
RO: Well thanks, I mean, I’m glad you look forward to it, I think I do, too. I love to see–the thing I think is particularly interesting about it for is the fact that you can see, in 24 hours, kind of an overall range of a lot of careers, and kind of see, you know, if you have a Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn or Henry Fonda, people that have been around a long time, you kind of see them grown and change, and see them when they were starting out and a little later. We have like Robert Stack this year, and we have the second movie he ever made when he was 20 years old, all the way up to things like Airplane! and beyond, so it’s great to be able to see a whole range like that of a career.
V&L: Right, and it looks like you guys have a great line-up this year with quite a few actors and actresses such as John Mills, Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and Gene Tierney being featured for the first time alongside regulars like Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Paul Newman. Do you have any particular favorites being featured this year that you think viewers should definitely tune in for?
RO: Well I, you know, Gene Tierney has always been a great favorite of mine. We don’t have many of her films because she mainly made her films at FOX, and FOX is not a basic–you know, we don’t have a lot of FOX films in our library. And she made a particularly great film in 1945 called Leave her to Heaven that she won an Academy Award nomination for. That is a sensational film, it was a big hit at our TCM film festival last April in Hollywood, and we’re bringing it for the first time to TCM people, and I think that’s going to be a great treat, and I’m particularly thrilled about that. Plus, we have a lot of other Gene Tierney films we’ve never shown on TCM before, so, looking forward to that. Also, you know, we’ve never honored–as you mentioned–John Mills before, we’ve never honored Walter Pidgeon, and I love the fact that we can bring attention to some of these people that always have contributed so much to the movies, that are really interesting to watch, but have never kind of been on that list like the super famous people that keep getting honored quite often–the Cary Grants, and Jimmy Stewarts, and Clark Gables of the world.
RO: So, it’s a treat to be able to bring focus, and also, someone that’s kind of obscure to people is Woody Strode. You know, Woody Strode was a character actor for many years in movies, stood out particularly in Spartacus–he had a very small part but really stood out–and only had one film that he ever was the focus of and that was John Ford’s movie Sergeant Rutledge that he made, but we’re doing a whole 24 hours of Woody Strode to kind of show his career , and I think that’s going to be terribly interesting, and I’m glad we can do those sort of things like that. I love the Flynns, and the Bergmans, and the Clint Eastwoods, and the Hepburns, and Elizabeth Taylors and all that. I also love the fact when we kind of show a career of someone who maybe hasn’t gotten the focus they should have gotten.
V&L: Right, and the films you guys are choosing to represent this year for each star range from pretty well known to rather obscure. And some of the stars being featured made upwards of a hundred films during their careers. So, how difficult is it to narrow down the films that are screened, and what criteria is used to select them?
RO: Well, you know, I don’t do the programming, Charlie Tabesh does that and he was kind enough to let me program a few this year. I programmed Gene Tierney, and Basil Rathbone, and Lauren Bacall, and I think Ann Sheridan, and I think what I did is I just wanted to–there were particular favorites that I wanted to give particular attention to, so I made sure I programmed them in the primetime hours, and then to try and make it a strong day, it was great fun being selective of what you should show and what you shouldn’t; to try, as you said, to mix some in there that people have never seen before, and then some of those that are the real essentials. If you’re going to talk about somebody’s career, such as Olivia DeHavilland–if you’re going to talk about her career you have access to To Each His Own, that she won her first Oscar for, The Heiress that she won her second Oscar for, and The Snake Pit, which was one of her great films–then you’ve got to show those films. And so, you’re not going to leave those films off the list.
V&L: Right, and one of her biggest films is Gone with the Wind, but that’s not being shown.
RO: No, we show that quite often, and also, that does eat up a four hour time period where you can have two movies in there, so if it’s a movie we hadn’t shown that often, I think that we would probably certainly have had that in there. And we’re showing it when we salute Vivien Leigh as our star of the month, so that’s right around that same time. So, that’s why we’re not having it with Olivia.
V&L: Oh, okay, well as you mentioned, one of the stars being screened this year is Gene Tierney, and one of my personal favorite films is Leave Her to heaven, which is also being shown as part of The Essentials, alongside Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O’Toole, The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn, and The Sting with Paul Newman. And Leave her to heaven is not as well known to today’s audiences as a film like Lawrence of Arabia. So, in your opinion, what makes a film “essential”?
RO: Well, I think a film, to be an essential, is a film that if you really want a well-rounded knowledge of film, and a well-rounded education in film, there are certain films you have to see. You have to see Sunset Boulevard, you have to see All About Eve, you have to see The Adventures of Robin Hood, you have to see Lawrence of Arabia. And I certainly I think Leave Her to Heaven is in there because I think it’s kind of a quintessential film of the 40s, it’s beautifully photographed in incredible Technicolor, Gene Tierney is, you know, so gorgeous in it, and you’ve got beautiful people that don’t look like the people next door and that’s kind of what movies were based on for many years before we got into this reality kind of mode that we’re kind of in with films today where you want everyone to kind of look like the person next door. And it’s beautifully told, it’s got incredible cinematography–much of it done around Sedona, Arizona–and it’s got a great music score, and a really good cast; Vincent Price is in the supporting cast and other wonderful people, and I just think that it’s also a very good story–a very strong story–maybe the best movie ever about obsession, somebody who’s obsessed with somebody, and it’s told in a very good way, and it was a very successful film of the 40s. So, all those are reasons to watch it because it’s a movie you’re gonna enjoy, it’s going to visually delight you, and the story’s going to move you, but it’s also going to give you an indication of the kind of films that people went to see in the 40s, and kind of put you in that time period. And I just think it’s a great film, and I think it’s an essential film because I think it’s one that everyone should see because I think they’re gonna like it.
V&L: I think so, too.
RO: I’m glad you like it so much.
V&L: Yeah, I do.
RO: It was interesting, because when we were getting ready to do our Essentials for this year with Alec [Baldwin], you know, they give us each a list and we pick out the films–the 50 films we’d like most to talk about, and then they match the two lists up, and the one that I really insisted on that we have was Leave her to Heaven, and one that he insisted on was one that I wasn’t that crazy about. And so I was talking to him and I said, “Well…” He said, ‘Well, I don’t know Leave her to Heaven, I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say it’s an essential.” So I said, “Well, just trust me on this one, and if you do, I’ll go along with that one you want, and we’ll talk about it. I just don’t want to say that I love it, but we can talk about the good points and what I think are the bad points about it.” And so, we did, and when we did the taping he said, “I’m so glad you told me to see that film. I’d never seen it and I think it is an essential movie.” So I was very pleased about that, and I said well hopefully this will introduce it, as it did to Alec, to other people.
V&L: Yeah, I mean, I just saw it for the first time a couple years ago when I first discovered Gene Tierney, so…but what was the film that he chose?
RO: It was actually the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando and I think the 1935 version is an essential film, and we’ve already talked about that.
RO: And so, he told me why he thinks it’s an essential film and I told him why I thought it wasn’t. But that’s the only time we’ve kind of disagreed on one film.
V&L: Oh, really?
RO: It made for an interesting discussion.
V&L: Well, why do you think so many films–or certain films from Hollywood’s Golden Age have remained so popular with audiences and critics after all this time?
RO: Well, because I think they’re well made, I think many of them have stories that are timeless, and I think that the actors in them were particularly good. You can always also hear everything they say, people didn’t mumble in movies like they do today, and I just think they’re terribly well made. I think that what I love about our channel is more and more people–it’s getting more and more people to realize that just because a movie is old, doesn’t mean it’s a movie you shouldn’t watch. Lauren Bacall said it very well, she said, “You know, if you haven’t seen Brief Encounter, made in 1945–“
V&L: That’s my favorite movie; it’s one of my favorites.
RO: “Yeah, she said if you haven’t seen it then it’s not an old film.” So, we’re not asking anybody to take medicine that is going to be painful for them, even though it might be good for them. All we’re asking for them is to look at these films that may show them a really wonderful time. And so, that’s what i think these films are all about, they give you a good time, entertain you, and just because they were made a long time ago doesn’t mean that they’re old.
V&L: Right, and certain films like, you know, Gone with the Wind, or The Wizard of Oz, or, you know, Casablanca, big films like that, I mean they have really resonated with audiences for generations.
RO: Yes, absolutely. And it’s amazing because those films–you talk about Gone with the Wind made almost 72 years ago and it’s frozen on film, and yet people react to it the same way today that they did back then. And everything about our world today has changed from the world back then. The film hasn’t changed, everybody’s changed, but there’s something about that film that is absolutely timeless.
V&L: What do you think that something is?
RO: Well, because the emotions it covers are things that are universal, that happen at any age and to people at any time. I mean, every emotion in Gone with the Wind is an emotion that everybody has felt. Everybody has been crazy about somebody that wasn’t that crazy about them, everybody’s had people be crazy about them that they’re not that crazy about, everybody has lost somebody, everybody has been–had to survive turmoil and all of that. It’s a great story about survival and about relationships, and some people survive the change, some people don’t survive the change. Scarlett O’Hara survived it, Ashley Wilkes didn’t, and I just think that every emotion in there is something people go through, particularly since war is involved. It seems like every generation in America since the Civil–or not Civil War, actually since the first World War–has been involved in a war of some kind: either the second World War, or the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the war in Iran, whatever.
V&L: Well, I was a film student in college, and so it’s always interesting to me to kind of look at these older films and see kind of what the social constructs were, what was going on in the environment at the time that they were made to see the effects of how these films were made, the content, and how people received them. So, shifting the topic slightly, vivandlarry.com is the website that I run and it’s dedicated to preserving the memories of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Neither of them will be featured on this year’s Summer Under the Stars, but Vivien will be featured as TCM’s star of the month in September, and I’m curious as to why she was chosen.
RO: Well, because she’s Vivien Leigh.
V&L: Well, of course.
RO: I mean, you can’t do better than that, and we have enough films of hers with Gone with the Wind in order to do a salute. She made so few films, which is amazing that she was such a great star, but the films she made, of course, are such enduring–most of them such enduring classics. She was always very selective about what she did, and I’m thrilled that we’re able to bring people to movies like That Hamilton Woman, and Waterloo Bridge, and The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, the whole thing because she was terrific. She was a really great actress and I think she’s the most beautiful actress we’ve ever had on film, and a great actress besides, and those two qualities didn’t always go together. A lot of times here were great beauties but they weren’t the greatest actresses. She had both. I’m actually–I love Gone with the Wind, everybody loves Gone with the Wind, but I really think she’s at the peak of her beauty, actually, in That Hamilton Woman.
V&L: Same here, or Waterloo Bridge, I think.
Unfortunately, we ran out of time at this point and had to cut the interview short, which is a shame because I could have gone on for hours. However, it was a great honor to be able to discuss cinema with Mr. Osborne because he is one of the most well known film historians out there today (and of course, he has my dream job) and he knows so much about film history. I just wanted to thank him once again for taking the time to speak with me, and I also want to thank Cassie from TCM for setting up the interview. I’m sure I speak for everyone who visits vivandlarry.com when I say we’re very excited for this year’s Summer Under the Stars (which kicks off on August 1) as well as seeing Vivien Leigh as star of the month on TCM in September.
Thanks for tuning in/reading and I hope you all enjoyed it!