Friday, August 03, 2007


Since watching the TCM broadcast of Richard Schickel's Spielberg on Spielberg, and my subsequent fortune of conversing with Schickel regarding his documentary, I've been admittedly infatuated with Schickel's strategy of structural absence; of eliding the questions and going straight to the answers. So after trying it out with John Waters's Midnight Mass appearance, I now offer up the exercise with Robert Osborne, gleaned from a recent roundtable with Charlie Tabesh, Sarah Hamilton, Andrea Chase and Tim Sika.

On Lucille Ball's Advice

When I first started out, my first boss was Lucille Ball at Desilu. She said, "You shouldn't be an actor. You love history. You should be a writer and the first thing you should do…"—because I was a journalism major in school—"the first thing you should do is write a book. It doesn't even have to be a good book; but, people will look at you differently if you're trying to get a job if you've written a book. Because everyone says they want to write a book and few people have the discipline to sit down and write it."

She was so smart and I knew she was smart although she didn't think she was smart because she didn't finish high school; but, she had great street smarts. So I looked around and the subject—you could always find out who won the Oscars but at that point you could never find out who was nominated—so I thought, well, that's the basis for a book. So I wrote this book [Academy Awards Illustrated] and it came out and it did help me. People looked at me differently when I was trying to get a job. I think it's mainly because there were so few books done about movies at that time and people gravitated towards that. To this day people come to me and say, "This book really meant something to me." It's so interesting how that was just a little Mom n' Pop book that I did and how many people that meant something to. It's amazing.

On Lucille Ball in Mame

That was a big heartbreaker for her because Lucy grew up in an era when being a movie star was the important thing and television wasn't that important. I don't think she ever really felt being in television was a very important thing that she was doing. She'd be totally shocked today to know how still revered she is and how those movies are revered and those TV episodes. Her great desire was to go out with one great movie role and she thought Mame was going to be that and be an Oscar winner and all that. It broke her heart when it wasn't. But it was so badly conceived, the whole thing. Number one, she shouldn't have done it in the first place. Number two, right off the bat she shouldn't have been photographed through filters the way she was, which automatically set up that she was trying to hide how old she was. The whole thing was a disaster.

One time somebody had interviewed Lucy years after and talked about Mame and she said, "I didn't want to do it but they wanted me to do it." She had said, "I shouldn't do it; Angela Lansbury should do it because she had the great success in New York but they told me Angela wasn't interested in doing it so I went ahead and did it." Then somebody later interviewed Angela Lansbury and she said, "That's not true at all. I wanted to do it in the worst way possible." Somebody wrote in the week after that to the newspaper and said, "Isn't it interesting that Angela Lansbury said she wanted to do Mame in the worst way possible because that's exactly how Lucille Ball did it."

Lucille Ball was a very talented lady. She was a talented dramatic actress in films like The Big Street. But the problem was she was also competing with the ghost of Rosalind Russell who did Auntie Mame in the best way possible. It's very hard doing a part that someone else has their stamp on. You try to do it differently, different line readings, but Rosalind Russell did the line readings correctly so—in trying to do it differently—[Lucy] wasn't doing it as well.

On Getting Started In Television

Interestingly, the thing that got me started in television, remember when Dinah Shore used to have a daily talk show? She was really wonderful at doing it. She had me on the show one time because I knew the guy who worked at the PR firm that was handling the show, knew I had this book [Academy Awards Illustrated], and he was booking a show for Dinah that all had to do with the Academy Awards. Olivia de Havilland was in L.A. at that point on a visit. And Shelley Winters. They had Shirley Jones. They had Eve Marie Saint and somebody else who had won an Oscar. And me. So these great ladies were talking and I was not about to jump in except Dinah asked me—to pull me into the conversation—"How did you get started doing this book?" And I said, well, actually it was Shelley Winters who was responsible and [Shelley] said, "Oh? I was?" I said, yes, as a matter of fact, you used to go on talk shows all the time and talk about when you were nominated for Best Supporting Actress for A Double Life and it made me wonder who else was nominated that year and I could never find that information. [Shelley] was preening and I said, "So I wrote this book and—in doing research—I realized you were not nominated for that movie." She went, "What? What?!" and caused this big [curfuffle] and the producers liked that and they asked me to come back as a regular on the show. That got me started in television.

On How Movies Became His Life

Movies are my life. I've been accused that I wouldn't know there was a war in Vietnam if John Wayne hadn't made The Green Berets and that's almost true. I grew up in a small town and movies were my escape. I loved people in the films. When I started working in the industry, I found them fascinating to be around. No one who worked in films was anything like any of the people in the small town I grew up in. The more I learned about movies, the more interesting they were too.

I love my job because—if I wasn't being paid to do it—this is what I would want to do as a hobby. But the thing I love about film is you can travel anywhere in the world and if there's a television set and you turn it on and Cary Grant's there or Irene Dunne or Judy Garland or Fred Astaire, you're among friends. You're never lonely anywhere you go in the world and it's all because of film and how we react to the people in the films.

I really didn't [want to be an actor]. That came from sheer stupidity growing up in a small town. In those days there were no film schools. Nobody talked about how to be a film editor or anything like that so I thought that—if you wanted to be around films—you had to be an actor. That's all I saw in movies. So I started doing some plays in Seattle, Washington. In those days if you could walk and talk at the same time you could get a studio contract for a few months. I got under contract to 20th Century Fox and, after that, Desilu. It was Desilu that changed my life because Lucille Ball was my boss and she gave me great career advice about not being an actor and why it would be better and why it would also make me happier to be something else. She read me right. It had a big effect on my life. Then I realized I really didn't want to be an actor at all because I was never comfortable doing lines that other people had written. But I was always comfortable talking about movies. That was something that came out of my own head and that I knew about so I didn't have to be responsible to somebody else and what they'd written. I could really talk about what I was most interested in talking about and that's movies.

On His Brief Casting In The Beverly Hillbillies

I thought that was the dumbest idea I'd ever heard. The Beverly Hillbillies? That sounded like such a low-ranking idea. It was just like how we laughed at Beverly Sills when she came along because her name sounded like Beverly Hills. We thought that was a big joke. But now, of course, both The Beverly Hillbillies and Beverly Sills are part of the history of America. That was actually at the time when I had the chance to either stick with that or go with Lucy. And I don't think it would have developed anywhere for me on The Beverly Hillbillies. I was a part that was standing around in a suit carrying a briefcase and that was about all that was ever going to go.

On Being Challenged With Trivia By the Public

Do a lot of people come up to me and say, "Ha! I bet I've got one that you've never heard of before"? Always. People love to come up and try to challenge you. What's interesting is that it's usually a question almost anyone could answer. It's never anything like, "What day did Mr. Blandings build his dream house? Or open at the Astor in New York?" It's something like, "I bet you don't know who was Judy Garland's leading man in Easter Parade?" That kind of thing. Anyone who goes to the movies would probably know that; but, people love to challenge you.

On Discovering "New" Classic Movies

I'm always discovering new things about movies. [Turner] has just acquired a lot of Columbia pictures to show and there's a movie called My True Story with an actress I've always liked named Helen Walker that's in it. Aldo Ray is in it in a bit part. I didn't realize that; but also, what I didn't realize until I watched the movie, it was directed by Mickey Rooney. Who knew? I didn't know Mickey Rooney [had] directed [that film]. I knew he'd directed a couple of movies later for Albert Zugsmith, really "B" pictures, but who knew that he would be at Columbia Pictures in the '50s directing a movie called My True Story, which is actually the title of what was a famous woman's magazine? So, yeah, I'm always learning new things about [movies] and finding it fascinating.

The interesting thing about the new RKO movies was that they weren't Herbert Long movies from Britain; these had Ginger Rogers in them, Irene Dunne, William Powell, Richard Dix, Mary Astor. These were films that had fallen through the cracks. One hadn't been seen in 70 years! And most of the others were 50 years. I think there was one showing on television of them. It's fabulous to be able to see those movies again, particularly [because] of the people involved—Ginger Rogers is a major name in films and Irene Dunne—and to be able to see a movie that maybe didn't even exist in most people's minds.

On the Print Quality Of Old Films

[Bad 16mm prints with terrible sound and splices seen in obscure art museums], weren't they wonderful? When you're a movie buff, it was a great thing [to be able to see a film]. Somebody had a projector. We never had any money so you'd get some spaghetti and some bad tomato sauce, pull a bunch of people together, and you'd watch this print of Born to Dance with Eleanor Powell that had so many splices in it and fuzzy and all of that and it was wonderful. Because you were discovering something you hadn't seen.

You talk about splices and bad sound? I remember one time when Cover Girl was going to be shown on TV for the first time. It was before color television so, already, you were not going to be able to see it in color. I remember one person had a TV set and we gathered, Cover Girl was shown, and all the musical numbers were cut out. It was just the story. Now, Cover Girl without the music is not the best way to see that movie. They fit it into a time slot so they could also get commercials in but they cut all the numbers out because they weren't relevant. They didn't advance the story in any way. Movies were cut a lot in those days, which is another thing we don't do [at TCM]. People often say at the end of the movies, "Why did you cut the credits off at the end of the movie?" I say, "We never cut credits off." [They say], "Yeah, but I remember there used to [be] credits." Yes, they did some movies but there was never a law that said you had to have credits at the end of a movie so some films did and some didn't. But we don't tamper with that at all. We're very careful about that.

The other question that people ask most often, "I saw Jezebel the other night; why don't you show the color print? Why is it in black and white?" We say, "It was never in color." [They say,] "Oh yes. She went to the ball and she had this red dress on. I saw and remember it so vividly." You don't want to tell them that they're a total idiot. But you also say, "How fabulous that they were able to conjure up in people's minds the image of that dress so vividly that people swore they saw it in color [when] it never was."

On Which Contemporary Films Will Become Tomorrow's Classics

That's a hard question because I think you can't tell at the time whether something's going to last or be great. I might look at, say, Away From Her with Julie Christie and say, "That's something that's going to be a really important performance 10 years from now." Some of our most celebrated movies—Lady From Shanghai was a total disaster when it came out in 1948; Beat the Devil, the Bogart film, was a total disaster when it came out—there are a lot of films that it takes a while to look back on them and see how wonderful they are. By the same token, some movies that I saw when I was younger and thought were fabulous, I look at them now and don't think they're so great. So it's really hard to say. It's a matter of time and acting styles. The original Oceans 11 when it came [out], I thought was wonderful but it looks dumb today. It doesn't hold up well at all. It's hard to know. Certainly, when Lawrence of Arabia came out, we all knew that was a great film then, and it was, and it still is. Bridge on the River Kwai. But I don't think that people were quite sure in 1965 when The Sound of Music came out that it would still look so wonderful as it does today. I saw it recently on a big screen with a full audience and they reacted just as enthusiastically as in 1965.

On How and When He Shoots His Introductions and Wrap-ups

I live in New York City and I go down to Atlanta once a month for a week. We shoot about 150 intros and 150 exits; about a month's worth of films. If I don't write them, I rewrite them because sometimes other people do it and get the structure for a script but then I take it and put in my own words or—if I happen to know a story about that film or the filmmaker—I'll take a certain section of that script out and write in myself. I spend about two weeks doing that.

We try to change them. Brad Segal said at the beginning, "Don't make them too long. You don't have to tell everything every time because we'll be showing each of these movies a lot of times so save some for later ones." We try to change them as much as possible and get new material. I'm always reading books and cutting out papers to try to find new material. But also, you have to realize that—each time we show them—we show them in a different context. If you're showing Philadelphia Story as part of a series of George Cukor movies, it's going to be a different intro than the night of Cary Grant movies and a different intro than if you're talking about Broadway comedies that were turned into movies or if you're talking about films from 1940. We have a whole team that [keeps that straight] and I am knowledgeable about that stuff so it helps that a lot of that material is already in my head. We have a whole team working on that. We have expert fact checkers to make sure that what we say is absolutely accurate because, again, if you make one mistake—and it's been done—if you make one mistake, people have a reason to not believe what you say about anything else. We try to be as accurate as possible.

On Pronouncing Names Correctly

The other thing for me is to try to pronounce the names correctly and to try to say it in a way so that people don't think you're making a mistake. Every time I can if I get anywhere near the person or the widow or the whatever, I try to find out how it's pronounced. It's EH-LEE-A Kazan, not ELEE Kazan; it's Edward D-MYT-ryk, not Edward D-ME-tryk; it's Thelma Schoon-MAKER instead of Schoon-MOCKER. They each have their own way of saying these and because they're spelled in regular ways, you don't quite know. So I do my best to try to learn. It's Martin Scor-SEZEE, not Martin Scor-SAYZEE. But every now and then I have to say, "That's the way they pronounce it" so that people don't think I'm making a mistake. We try to be as accurate on that as possible as well. Stephen Sondheim keeps calling me up to correct my pronunciations. He's a great fact checker. He's got a mind; a master of detail. He'll call up and tell me about a pronunciation.

On Being A Film Enthusiast, Not A Film Critic

I think any movie is interesting, even a bad movie, if you know something about it or when it was made or what was going on in the studio at that time or in the lives of the actors. I think it's highly offensive to have somebody there telling you this is a bad movie and it's a movie I happen to love. My job is not to be a critic and say what is or what isn't good; but, I'll certainly say after the movie's over that it didn't do well at the box office or it was not successful.

There was a book that came out on movie musicals. I didn't know who the author was and he kept saying that this movie was the best musical ever made and that one was not good and everything and I thought, "Wait a minute. I liked that movie. How dare he say that?" If Fred Astaire had written a book, then it would have been different because I'd say, "That's interesting. Fred Astaire thinks that's the most important musical ever and that one's not very good." Our position is that we have to respect that people have their own opinion and what may be a movie that I don't like is something that somebody else loves. Who am I to say that it's not a good movie? So all I try to do is present the facts that—if somebody doesn't know that film—it may intrigue them to stay around and watch the film or give it a chance.

There's one great example. There's a movie called Desire Me, an MGM movie from 1947 with Greer Garson and Robert Mitchum. This was a movie that at that time was considered so bad that the director would not have his name on the film. Nor would the man who replaced him. George Cukor being the original director; Mervyn LeRoy the other director. So it's the only major studio film that's ever gone out with no director credited. If you tell that going in and what it did to Greer Garson's career and Mitchum's career and everything, you'll watch that movie in a totally different way than if that movie just comes on without any background on it at all. Then you might just say, "What's all this about?" But if you look at it, analyzing why it did all that damage to those careers, then you think, "This isn't so bad. Isn't that interesting how that affected her career? Hmmmm. The director wouldn't put his name on it." So that's my job, to try and intrigue people, but not to be a critic and not to tell some people that some movie they like is not a good movie. That's insulting to the audience.

On the Pleasures and Perils Of Having Too Much Inventory

There are no perils for me. I think it's great that you can show the most obscure films in the world and—because you don't have advertisers that you have to please—you can show, as we have, a Joe E. Brown film in primetime. Even though there's only going to be a certain amount of people that will watch it or will want to watch it, those people will be so grateful they get to see it.

The only other peril I can imagine would be the fact that some great films you don't have time to show more than once a year or twice a year. But then, that again is a big plus of our channel; that you're not going to be seeing the same thing over and over again.

On "Aha!" Moments Watching Early Films

Certainly an "Aha!" moment was Small Time Crooks, a Woody Allen movie, which is—without giving any credit—the same plot as in an Edward G. Robinson movie from 1942 called Larceny, Inc. Same idea and story. It gets to that thing, though, that there's no really new ideas that come along. Shakespeare told us that years ago. But it is interesting how they're often presented as terribly original ideas.

Ethnic Representation in Silent Films

[Ethnic representation] changed enormously [with talking pictures], but then again, once sound came in, everything changed, not only processing the films but doing the films. Again, [talking pictures] cut off all the foreign markets. In foreign markets before [with] a silent film all you had to do was change the title cards and the dialogue cards inbetween. They hadn't gotten into dubbing yet. We often show the German version of Anna Christie with Greta Garbo that they made at the same time they made the other one but with a different supporting cast, different director, and a whole concept that was actually different, costumes and everything; but, [Garbo] was very popular in the German market and they didn't want to cut her off from that once she was speaking in English. As I say, they hadn't yet learned how to dub. So [talking pictures] changed distribution; [they] changed everything, certainly for actors.

There was a time when people did not mind having Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young in a movie called The Hatchet Man made up in Oriental make-up and there was a time when Katherine Hepburn could do Dragonseed, the Pearl S. Buck story, made up as an Oriental. Now, having an Oriental lady be Katherine Hepburn speaking with a Bryn Mawr accent in a rice field in China did stretch it a bit; but, at least they were actors acting different parts. Now that's not allowed so much.

For instance, there's a movie Tortilla Flat with Hedy Lamarr, Spencer Tracy and John Garfield and they're all Portuguese people living in Northern California in a fishing village. They're all Portuguese: John Garfield who's Jewish from New York; Hedy Lamarr who's an Austrian; and Spencer Tracy from Milwaukee. People didn't mind that then; but today they would want real people from that ethnic society playing [those roles]. But you have to realize also that they wouldn't have made Tortilla Flat at MGM if they didn't have parts for those famous actors they already had under contract. Everything changes, people evolve, and people change back. The thing that I'm sorry about is that they don't let actors act more. They don't let somebody who's not Oriental play an Oriental without a lot of criticism. I think that's what the acting profession is all about: people pretending to be something they're not. That's not allowed so much at the moment as it was in the past and may be again in the future.

On The Allure of the Tragic Lives Of Actors

Some of the great stars—John Gilbert being one of them; Ava Gardner being one of them; Sinatra, others—[their] career is as much based on their personal life as their real life. Sinatra is a great singer—we knew that—but, what makes his songs stand out is when you know, "Is he singing that about Ava?"—because she's walked out on him—"Is he singing about Mia? Is he singing about Nancy?" John Gilbert became a great star not only because of when he was on screen but because Dietrich loved him, Garbo loved him, Virginia Bruce loved him, Ina Claire, all these great women, and he was flamboyant and all of that. Valentino's the same thing. He's a legend because he died, like James Dean. If he'd lived to be an old man, we might not be as fascinated by either one of those. So personal lives have a lot to do with our fascination with people, including John Gilbert, because he certainly did have an interesting life.

Also, we're somehow always attracted to destructive people as well. We love Judy Garland because we know [her] horrendous end; it makes that whole story so fascinating. Jean Harlow's fascinating to us not just because she was a dish at the time but because she died tragically at a very young age. It makes them more interesting when we see the whole arc of their lives and John Gilbert's the same way. The fact that he was such a great star and then was so unimportant and all of that.

We love Rita Hayworth because there's that great story of a girl dancing in the streets of Tijuana who becomes a big movie star, marries Orson Welles, then marries a prince so she's a princess, then has a tragic third act; but, that makes her fascinating whenever we watch her films when we know what's going to happen.

On When Nostalgia and Film Preservation Hit

One thing that changed everything was when That's Entertainment [1974] came out. I had always been passionate about [old movies], but that's when I noticed that people first started thinking, "Gaw. Eleanor Powell. Never heard of her. She can really dance." People started, at that point in time, having a great affection for old films. That's when collecting started on a big basis, not just the fans, but when people started collecting movie posters. I've always thought the whole nostalgia thing really started with That's Entertainment—the first one—when it came out.

On Separating Journalistic Detachment From A Fan's Enthusiasm

I've always been in awe of movie stars and movie people and I can stand at a premiere and see famous people enter—Sophia Loren, [let's say]—but, when I'm talking to them in person, I recognize they're people and that all came from my early experience with Lucille Ball. Because I knew her. I was not impressed with the whole television thing. I was in school at that point. We didn't have a TV set at home for a long time. Then I was at college and study rules [said] you couldn't be watching television, so I missed the whole Lucy era. When I met her she was to me an actress who had been in movies but she wasn't a movie star. Because she was a human being and I knew her, I got into the habit of realizing she was a human being and that [all movie stars] were really human beings. I could see her and talk to her but I could then later be at some event and she would walk in the door over there as a star and I could feel, "That's very exciting." But I was always able to separate the two. That was a gift that was given to me because I'm certainly one that should be tongue-tied at any time around someone famous because I am a great movie fan; but, I never was. I was always able to, luckily, separate the two.

On Interviewing

I do a lot of preparation when I'm going to interview someone. I try to learn as much as I can about them when I don't know and read [up] on them because it's very important in an interview to not let your eyes go away from them, to not look down at papers, because you get the best material probably about a half an hour in when they have forgotten it's an interview and they're sitting just talking to a friend. If you're constantly looking at notes, you're reminding them that it is an interview. I do have notes, but only to look at when there's a break to make sure I'm on track; but, I try to know enough about them that wherever they go in the interview, I can go with them. It's immersing yourself but, again, that's a pleasure for me because I love all that. I love research and I love that history so it's a pleasure to be doing it.

The one I was not that anxious to do was Jane Fonda because she's very political and she's very much into that world. I thought she'd maybe feel that movies were kind of unimportant in the big picture. She rarely talked about them and didn't write much about them in her book. So I said to her early on, "This is going to be about your films." She said, "I'm so pleased. No one ever asks me about my films." She knew everything about them. She was one of my favorite interviews after we did it because she was so on target and had so many interesting things to say about it; but, I wasn't expecting that. I thought she might think, "No, this is small potatoes for me. I'm interested in much more important things." Of course, what she is interested in is terribly important; but, so is the entertainment value of her films. Klute. Barefoot in the Park. Coming Home. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? She's done so many really good things.