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How Turner Classic Movies Redefines The Idea of Classic Film

How Turner Classic Movies Redefines The Idea of Classic Film

What is classic film? A few may shout “Clark Gable!” but even more would ask, “Do you mean the ‘80s?”

Neither are wrong, but before you guffaw too loudly, neither are entirely right. Something classic may be old, but not all old things are classic, and vice versa. Between recent findings of thought-to-be-long-lost reels (from Rooney to Welles) to the growing record-keeping of YouTube, we’re lucky to live in an era where films and footage, no matter how niche or raggedly outdated, have become exceedingly accessible for casual viewers and film buffs alike. That said, with great amounts of information comes great responsibility to peruse and watch wisely.

When Turner Classic Movies — aka TCM — debuted nearly 20 years ago (April 14, 1994, to be exact), the channel began as an expansion of the Turner media empire and a rival to AMC (American Movie Classics). Both channels aired uncut, uncensored and untampered with films, most predating 1970. By 2002, AMC decided to go in another direction (thumbs up for “Mad Men,” thumbs down for incessant commercial breaks) and TCM stepped up as the top cable outlet for stickler (ahem) discerning classic film fans.

For those with very few film retrospectives in their area, let alone a non-megaplex theater, TCM is a reasonably priced way to revisit favorite films and rediscover regularly looked-over classics. For many, the channel is their first introduction to classic film, or even just to films beyond blockbusters and gossip rag fuel. For a burgeoning number of 20-something classic film fan-turned-bloggers, host Robert Osborne is their equivalent of Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael.    

From the very beginning, Osborne has stood as the face of TCM, warmly welcoming watchers of all ilks, acting as critic, historian, interviewer extraordinaire and even as a fellow fan himself. As the years have passed, the channel has seen a few changes, including the addition of weekend host Ben Mankiewicz and a plethora of guest programmers (including Drew Barrymore, Cher and Illeana Douglas) and branching off with a cruise, film festival and bus tour.

Along the way, its programming has evolved from focusing on “Classic Hollywood” (or what Film 101 students would remember as that week with the Hays Code talk) to a more-embracing definition of classic film, exemplified by the Peabody-winning series “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” which combined the 15 installments of Mark Cousins’ documentary with 119 complementary films ranging from Thomas Edison shorts to “The 400 Blows” and “Reservoir Dogs.” This redefinition of “classic film,” which incorporates superlative films from various world cinemas, genres and ages, has parlayed itself into the TCM Classic Film Festival, where past special guests have included Jean-Paul Belmondo, Peter O’Toole and Max von Sydow and has screened films including “Badlands,” “Gimme Shelter” and “The Seventh Seal.”

Classic film fans up early enough on Saturday morning will be swerving past the actors dressed as Charlie Chaplin on Hollywood Boulevard to watch the real article onscreen when “City Lights” screens at L.A.’s Chinese Multiplex. In the afternoon, the still flame-haired Maureen O’Hara will be introducing “How Green Was My Valley” (which won the 1941 Academy Award for Best Picture, beating out “Citizen Kane”) at El Capitan Theatre. Near-simultaneously at the Egyptian Theatre, Richard Dreyfuss will be introducing “The Goodbye Girl,” (the first romantic comedy to exceed $100 million at the box office and for which Dreyfuss won the 1978 Academy Award for Best Actor). Around the same time over at the Chinese Multiplex, Leonard Maltin hosts a tribute to Hubley Animation while the all-black musical “Stormy Weather” (highlighted by Lena Horne’s career-making performance) and the noir version of “The Great Gatsby” (with Alan Ladd, not DiCaprio or Redford, in the lead) are screened in adjacent theaters.

Other film screenings during the day include recent restorations of “Godzilla” (the 1954 Japanese original), “Mary Poppins” and “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.” And for those eager to take a breather, there are talks with Time critic Richard Corliss, Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Disney composer-lyricist Richard Sherman.

In the early evening, fans will be torn between Kim Novak introducing “Bell, Book and Candle,” Alec Baldwin introducing “Hard Day’s Night,” and Jerry Lewis introducing “The Nutty Professor.” Later in the evening, they will be torn even further between William Friedkin introducing “Sorcerer” (his favorite of all his films), Quincy Jones introducing “The Pawnbroker,” and Anna Kendrick introducing “The Women.” There’s only one midnight screening to choose from — Todd Browning’s “Freaks.” All of the above events and screenings are merely a slice of what’s going on (check out the full schedule here).

The central theme of this year’s festival is family. While one might assume this would lead to a more conservative line-up (especially when you remember that the T in TCM stands for Ted Turner), you may be surprised to learn that alongside their “Discoveries” and “Essentials” sections are the Sundance-worthy themed program titles of “Aging Parents,” “Dysfunctional Families,” and “Single Mothers.”

Although it’s a far cry from “An Ode to Camp” or a discussion of the African diaspora onscreen, this year’s programming challenges the outdated notion of the traditional family while celebrating all kinds of classic film. From a critical standpoint, you’ll find more in-depth curation from the likes of BAM, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA (whose Film Collections Manager and Associate Curator are featured as TCMFF special guests), but you won’t find such quality and breadth in the course of four days anywhere else (from Harold Lloyd to Orson Welles to Woody Allen).   

While TCM continues to redefine classic film, TCMFF redefines the classic film experience. As a film festival, TCMFF combines the re-appreciation of a retrospective film series with the thrill of festival atmosphere and a hint of Hollywood glamour (there’s even a red carpet for the Opening Night screening of “Oklahoma!” and all that entails). For attendees, it will be filled with cherished once-in-a-lifetime events from greeting stars of today and yesteryear to watching classic films in all of their big screen glory to meeting like-minded classic film fans. The overall TCM community consists of impassioned film fans of all ages (as evidenced by the sometimes trending hashtag #tcmparty), with interests ranging from the preservation of early silents to obsessions over “Golden Age” matinee idols to modern day criticism and their own filmmaking.

In its inaugural broadcast, TCM showed “Gone With The Wind” and now that very same film will be shown alongside the likes of “The Lodger,” “Grey Gardens” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” at this year’s festival. As time passes by, TCM will be there, standing as a testament to the ever-evolving definition of classic film and with a more expansive film catalogue to keep up with it. Who wants to place bets on “Pulp Fiction” making the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival line-up?

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