For me, Robert Osborne WAS the movies.
Movie makers are storytellers, and no one knew or shared more stories about the movies than Robert Osborne, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host who died yesterday at age 84.
He worked on the small screen but he realized the power of the silver screen. While “The Donna Reed Show” was one of the staples many of his baby boomer fans had grown up on, Osborne knew that without Donna Reed “It’s a Wonderful Life” might not be the classic it’s become.
Robert Osborne knew what connected Cary Grant with Orson Welles and Jean Arthur and Jean Harlow and John Garfield and Ava Gardner and the man who portrayed Chauncey Gardiner, Peter Sellers. None of them won an acting Oscar, but Osborne told us wonderful stories about their acting, essential and otherwise.
No critic or movie historian has been more self-assured — and almost always right — about his opinions about movies than Osborne, while at the same time being so appealingly personable and soothingly friendly. When TCM debuted on April 14, 1994, Osborne was there, introducing “Gone With the Wind.” It was clear from that beginning that instead of spending the next four hours with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable and Olivia De Havilland and Leslie Howard and Hattie McDaniel and everyone else in that enormously talented cast, we could just as easily have spent the four hours listening to Osborne tell us stories about them.
He was Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel and Richard Roper and Leslie Halliwell and Pauline Kael and Bosley Crowthers and David Thomson and Aljean Harmetz and James Agee and Andrew Sarris and Lillian Ross and Ephraim Katz and Molly Haskell and J. Hoberman and Peter Bogdanovich and Leonard Maltin, all rolled into one.
Robert Osborne could not run a studio like Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Sherry Lansing, Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Howard Hughes, or Jack Warner. He could not produce a picture like Hal Wallis, David O. Selznick, Darryl Zanuck or Hunt Stromberg. He could not direct a movie like William Wyler or Spike Lee or Ida Lupino or David Lean or David Lynch or David Miller, or David Butler or Mervyn LeRoy.
But he could mesmerize us for hours telling stories about all of these people. If movies are one of our great art forms, Robert Osborne was one of the great chroniclers of our time.
I was lucky enough to know Bob Osborne, but I wish I knew him better. I hadn’t talked to him for many years. I worked at The Hollywood Reporter for a brief time in the 1980s, and we were colleagues there. When I moved to New York in 1990, every so often we’d go see an old movie at the old Biograph movie theater on West 57th , which was operated as a revival movie house at the time (it’s no longer there). This was before TCM started, and half the fun even then was having Bob tell me stories about the films we had just seen.
As a tribute to Osborne, here’s part of a piece he wrote for the Daily Beast back in April 2012. It was published on the opening day of the Turner Classic Film Festival in Hollywood that year, and the article was about some of his favorite movies that he was going to introduce at that year’s festival:
“Variety is what’s lacking in theaters today. The movies I’ve chosen here are the kinds I think are gems — the ones people don’t know a lot about. … Whenever we can program these on TCM I’m happy, because it introduces them to people.”
The Big Clock (1948)
“A psychological thriller from 1948 with Ray Milland, directed by John Farrow, and a great performance by Charles Laughton. What I love about it is it’s a very gripping story; you wouldn’t necessarily suspect from the cast or the title that it’s anything special, but it is. It was remade in 1987 with Gene Hackman and it was called No Way Out. The remake was OK, but it wasn’t what this one was. The original is in black and white. It’s a story about a man who gets framed for murder by his employer. It’s very suspenseful right to the very end. One of these gems among murder mysteries that everybody should try to have a look at.”
Hobson’s Choice (1954)
“Hobson’s Choice is another gem. This one’s by David Lean, whom everyone knows from big epics like Lawrence of Arabia, but this is a small film with John Mills about a family in England. The patriarch of the family is played by Charles Laughton, and it’s about his daughter and the lengths she has to go to to get out from under his control. It’s a witty movie, it’s a very touching movie, and it’s another great example of what a great director David Lean is. People should see it not only to be entertained by it, but to see work by the great Laughton and Lean.”
My Name Is Julia Ross (1945)
“This is a very little movie, and it’s a perfect example of a B film made by Columbia Pictures in the 1940s. It’s one of those big mistakes: It turned out to be a really terrific, psychological thriller with Nina Foch and Dame May Whitty — wonderful character actors. It’s a well-crafted, short, suspenseful film. People can’t believe it when they see it because it’s not anything they’ve ever heard of before and yet it is as good as any A picture you’ll ever see.”
“Directed by William Wyler, who is, if not the best director, one of the best. It’s got a dull title and a cast that no one particularly knows — Walter Huston stars in it, Anjelica Huston’s grandfather. It’s an absolutely riveting story about a very successful man who retires and takes a trip to Europe with his wife, and the wife is someone who decides she doesn’t want to grow old. It’s about the conflict of what it does to their life together. It’s an amazing film to me, because not only is it fascinating, but for something made in 1936, it is so up to date, and so modern. It could be a movie made today and people would like it. I actually introduced it once with the son of the man who produced it, and the crowds were so large for this 1936 film that they had to show it three times, which shows the grip that it can have on an audience today. Anyone can relate to the problem of getting older, the problem of not wanting to be dismissed by people. It’s that line we all come to eventually when you’re no longer young, but you don’t want to be old, and you haven’t made the adjustment of the fact that you’re not 25 anymore.”
“Dodsworth,” especially, is one of my favorite movies as well. The other movies that Osborne talks about in the article are “Indiscreet” (1958), “The Mating Season” (1951), “The Narrow Margin” (1952), “Remember the Night” (1940), “Roughly Speaking,” (1945), “The Tall Target” (1951) and “Vacation from Marriage” (1945). And he’s right — all of these films he talks about in his piece are indeed gems. To read the complete piece he wrote for The Daily Beast, please click here.
Here are two videos I’d also recommend you watch. We found both of these on YouTube. In the first one, about 8 minutes long, from 2009, Osborne talks about hosting movies on TCM. In the second video, from 2011 and which lasts about a half-hour, Bob is on a City University of New York (CUNY) TV show talking about movies that are about the theater, and the connections between the theater and movies.