Talking Classic Movies and the Golden Age of Hollywood:
Behind the Scenes of Turner Classic Movies’ Film Fest with Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz
By Tom Snyder, Editor
What you see is what you get.
That’s the vibe that Robert Osborne, the longtime erudite, amiable host of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Channel on Cable TV, sends when meeting him in person.
Movieguide® got a chance to interview Osborne and the other main host of TCM, Ben Mankiewicz, at the beginning of their Fourth Annual TCM Film Festival, which opens today (Thursday, April 25) in Hollywood.
TCM has amassed a huge popular following throughout America, and now the world, because of their policy of showing classic movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood commercial free, in the best light possible.
Osborne (a close friend of beloved comedienne Lucille Ball and a longtime writer for The Hollywood Reporter) has been introducing the movies during primetime on TCM ever since the channel began operating in 1994. Now, Ben Mankiewicz, the grandson of Herman J, Mankiewicz who co-wrote CITIZEN KANE with Orson Welles, and the great nephew of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning movie ALL ABOUT EVE with Bette Davis, shares hosting duties with Osborne.
Movieguide® asked both men about the old Production Code of Decency and the old studio system. These institutions couldn’t have been all that bad, could they, since they resulted in such great classic movies as THE WIZARD OF OZ, CASABLANCA and MILDRED PIERCE?
“It’s kind of proven,” Osborne said,” even people, who were around at that time who complained about it, now say it was a great system. It worked. It worked for actors – they didn’t have to worry about anything except being cast. It wasn’t so great if the studios didn’t like you, but then they’d get rid of you. It was a factory but it worked very well.
“And, I also think that some of the great movies were made because there was [the Code]. They went way overboard, but it also made people be more devious, cleverer, not so overt. I don’t think it seems an improvement if you can do or say anything on the screen you want to say. Because, it’s a lot of time in the hands of people who don’t have any taste, who don’t know where the limits should be. If you see something like THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, with Lana Turner and John Garfield, made at the height of the Production Code, it’s much sexier than the one [Jack] Nicholson and Jessica Lange did [in 1981]. That wasn’t really as interesting.
“So, in looking back, there were certainly bad things about the studio system, bad things about [the Code], but some good things came out of it too. And, I think they made better movies than they have [now]. I don’t think there’s anything like wit on film anymore. You see films made back in the 30s or 40s, comedies like WOMAN OF THE YEAR and LIBELED LADY, they had great wit in them. They weren’t so hammered-over-the-head comedy of bodily fluid jokes and things like we have today. There’s no ceiling on it [today], so people just go hog wild. But, I think that having caps on some of that stuff makes people sneak around it, makes them a little more cleverer.”
Ben Mankiewicz agreed with Osborne that the Production Code forced filmmakers to be more creative.
“I don’t think the Code made CASABLANCA good,” he said. “It did force wildly creative filmmaking. But, these guys were already creative.”
Of course, Movieguide® sides more with Osborne than Mankiewicz. And, you can find out what we think about the issue and about the moral, spiritual, and socio-political content of movies by reading Movieguide® Publisher Dr. Ted Baehr’s books THE CULTURE-WISE FAMILY and THE MEDIA-WISE FAMILY.
Perhaps the biggest thing that’s surprised Osborne over the years about TCM is its ability to brighten the lives of sick people and the elderly.
“That’s something I didn’t realize was going to happen with this channel,” he said, “that we were going to be nurses to people and help people get through things. I’ve heard that about people in hospitals and getting through cancer, and getting people through a divorce, or getting people through unemployment. That’s a whole aspect of the thing that I didn’t know would be part of the job. It’s such a pleasure to know that.
“I also love the fact that it is a master class in film for people to be able to view these movies.”
What about TCM’s annual film festival pleases Osborne the most?
“The thing about the festival that I’m particularly pleased about,” he replied, “is the fact that, after the first year, we started selling out almost before we even announced our programming. Now this year, we did basically sell out before the programming. . . which meant that they’re trusting Charlie Tavich, who does the basic programming, with suggestions from other people. It gives him the latitude he doesn’t have to pick marquee titles necessarily. He just picks the best movies he can find, and people will come to the festival and be able to see that the movies we’re showing are going to be something they want to see. That’s fabulous. I love the fact that people come to the festival without even knowing what’s going to be here.”
Mankiewicz said the most he’s ever learned while being a host at TCM is when they recently programmed a block of movies about people with disabilities.
“Just seeing [movies] in a different manner with different eyes” was an educational experience, he said.
“I learned more talking with Lawrence Carter-Long (of Inclusion in the Arts) than anybody else I experienced in the 10 years that I’ve been there,” he added. “Independent of his knowledge and passion as an advocate for people with disabilities, he’s just a huge, huge, huge film fan.”
Movieguide® asked Mankiewicz if, since he comes from a Hollywood family, he ever gets jaded about screening the classic movies and interviewing Hollywood celebrities.
He said the arrival of his new baby girl, who’s one-month-old now, reminds him not to lose his sense of wonder. A similar thing occurred when his mother recently came to Los Angeles for a visit.
“She’s just blown away by everything,” he explained. “It’s a reminder not to be cynical. Everything excites her. So, it’s a nice reminder that this is exciting to people.”
Mankiewicz also mentioned the friendship he had with the late actor Ernest Borgnine (MARTY, THE DIRTY DOZEN and TV’s MCHALE’S NAVY).
“You want Ernest Borgnine to be a regular guy because he played regular guys,” he said, “but you realize he’s an Oscar winner and a big movie star with a lot of money. . . . But no, it turns out he’s a regular guy and I just had a nice, warm connection to him, that I was able to call someone like him my friend, and to have dinner with him.
“You know that if [a movie star] reaches out to you, something special happened. I’m grateful for that.”
The TCM Classic Film Festival doesn’t just have celebrities like Mickey Rooney and Tippi Hedren and classic movies like a new restoration of FUNNY GIRL, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, MILDRED PIERCE, BEN-HUR, LADY AND THE TRAMP, MY FAIR LADY, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, SHANE, THE BIRDS, ON THE WATERFRONT, and IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. It also has panel discussions and hour-long interviews. Finally, attendees will be able to stay up until midnight each evening discussing their favorite movies with each other, with TCM staff, and maybe even with some movie stars and filmmakers.
To find out more about the film festival, visit the festival website at http://filmfestival.tcm.com.
Both the festival website and TCM’s regular website at www.tcm.com welcome suggestions from the public about future programming.