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Robert Osborne

Though I had known he was ill and he hadn’t been hosting Turner Classic Movies (TCM), yesterday’s news that Robert Osborne died hit me hard. I read the sad news in an e-mail subject line from TCM as the screening room lights went down before opening credits rolled for a new Warner Bros. movie, an irony I think he would have appreciated (Warner Bros. and TCM are owned by the same company).

Robert Osborne

We met years ago when I started writing about film and Robert O., as he called himself on TCM, encouraged me to cover classic movies, which I did. Over the years, I interviewed him about several TCM programs, movie stars and topics. We talked about his work, career and life, mostly for this blog and for other sites, too. Those are fond memories. Of course, we talked about Hollywood’s Golden Age—read transcripts of our interviews about Lizabeth Scott, John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn—and we talked about Ernest Borgnine, Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford. We celebrated Barbara Stanwyck during an event he hosted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—I interviewed him about Stanwyck for the centenary of her birth, which I plan to publish—and we talked about Hollywood, New York, Atlanta, TCM, the motion picture press and the Hollywood Reporter, Ayn Rand and the Oscars. I always found him to be candid and unpretentious.

Robert Osborne was a treasure. Readers often asked what he was like and I always answered with the truth; that he was exactly like he is on Turner Classic Movies. He didn’t self-censor, conceal or soften his thoughts as so many people do. He had a command of the facts about movies and he knew it. He spoke and acted like he knew it, too. This, more than anything else, including his work as an actor and as a journalist, explains his success as host of Ted Turner’s channel for uncut and commercial-free classic movies. The man who was a seasoned reporter, actor and confidante to the stars, including Olivia de Havilland and Lucille Ball, was foremost one who loved movies and knew that life is and ought to be as it is in the movies. This I know firsthand.

Passion did not scare him as it scares so many working these days in journalism, especially movie journalism, movies and television. Passion stirred and invigorated him. He wrote that way, strong, clear and simple, every month in TCM’s Now Playing and in books about the Oscars. Robert Osborne had studied and mastered facts about movies since he was a farm boy in the Pacific Northwest. He nourished that knowledge as a young man. He fed and kept it active and never let it go until, when TCM debuted in 1994, he traded on a lifetime of insights and introduced TCM’s first motion picture, Gone With the Wind—which he embraced without equivocation—the 1939 epic based upon Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant novel, a deep, serious movie which was revered by TCM’s creator, a larger than life figure himself, a capitalist who’d once bought billboards emblazoned with black letters on white space asking “Who is John Galt?”, founded CNN, married a movie star and lived on a ranch in the West.

Robert Osborne had a connection to that movie, too; he was friends with the actress who’d played Melanie. But being well connected alone wasn’t what gave Robert O. the confidence, command and mastery that viewers noticed and relished for 20 years. Nor is his ability merely a byproduct of the sum of his movie knowledge. He was much more than a charming ex-actor who ingratiated himself to Hollywood legends, more than a man with vast knowledge. He spoke as if he was as in love with the movies as you are. Robert Osborne’s mastery of TCM’s archive was richer than stately charm through an assuring voice, manner and gray hair conveying a grasp of facts. Robert Osborne mastered TCM with an enduring series of short, sharply crafted words enticing viewers before pictures because he had been the child who dreams. He had been the kid who works in the movie theater—the college student who stays in the library—the actor who studies his lines—the writer who thinks before he writes—the observer who dares to make the objective observation—and, above all, Robert O. was the gentleman who insists on living large and with glamor—just like life in classic movies.

This is what Robert Osborne brought to each introduction or interview—the ability to identify the movie’s ideal and a sense that one should bridge the real and romantic and realize the dream—and this is what he added to Ted Turner’s showcase for classic movies. It’s the greatest compliment I can give: that Robert O. affirmed the sense that wanting your life to be grand, larger than life and sublime is perfectly natural and fabulous. By framing each film with an upward glance, not a downward tone, by stressing the essential as the to-be-expected, the host made what happens in movies look wonderful, important and easy—and fully accessible to you.

As one who had the privilege of knowing Robert Osborne, I know that he lived with grace, passion and vitality. He was a marvelous host and, like one of his favorite movies, he left the audience satiated, enticed and wanting more. I hope for his sake and for those he leaves behind that his was a happy ending.

Roundup: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

Classic movies tend to linger. Last month, TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and wrote about here, offered a range of marvelous movies.

I covered festival events, discussions and interviews and watched or reviewed films from every decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. Besides my blog, reports and articles appeared elsewhere online. I’m also writing articles for a new, independent film source for future publication. 80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbThis year, I was finally able to see a 40-year-old past Best Picture Oscar winner at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, a film I had never seen in any format. Now, I think every adult should see it. What an inspiring movie.

Besides the new Rocky review, my other TCM festival reviews also include thoughts on the live interviews as applicable. Among the new reviews: thoughts on Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s powerful Boyz N The Hood (1991) featuring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and Vincente Minnelli’s lively, inventive The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire.

Happily, I’ve also discovered Frank Borzage’s restored, Rachmaninoff-themed I’ve Always Loved You (1946), Josef von Sternberg’s striking Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, and I enjoyed seeing Elia Kazan’s insightful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire on the big screen for the first time.

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy-themed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), about an assassination plot to control the United States of America by a global Communist cabal, was an incredible moviegoing experience—also at the Chinese. It was introduced by Angela Lansbury.

In addition to the interesting discourse on journalism in movies and composer Michael Giacchino’s audio-visual presentation on making the musical score for film, I had the pleasure of watching Faye Dunaway, who’d previously introduced an anniversary screening of another still-timely picture, Sidney Lumet’s satire Network, interviewed at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. Dunaway, a glamorous movie star whom I found intelligent and discriminating about her career, did not disappoint. At that point, I’d already run into the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, who was there for a screening of All the President’s Men, and met fellow movie bloggers and buffs, including TCM curator Charles Tabesh after a press conference. Socially, the best aspect was trading thoughts with moviegoers from across the world.

Classic film fans might also be interested in new Western critiques of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) co-starring Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck and the 1946 version of The Virginian starring Joel McCrea, both screened at the Autry Museum of the American West.

As much as I enjoy seeing new movies, and I do, I must say that I appreciate the classics more on the larger screens and I think they get better with age. I was filled with a similar rush last year with the TCM-screened movies—film noir Too Late for Tears with Lizabeth Scott, George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music—and, afterwards, the same sense of motion picture withdrawal.

Good movies leave me wanting more.

Movie Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Controlled by Frank Sinatra, directed by John Frankenheimer, adapted by George Axelrod from Richard Condon’s 1959 novel of the same name, shot in black and white and released before President Kennedy‘s 1963 assassination, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate‘s reputation is probably better than the movie deserves.

Yet as a piece of cinematic paranoia, the assassination-themed picture strangely and certainly applies to its time and continues to be relevant as a kind of warning against a subversive foreign takeover for dictatorship of the United States of America.


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The story begins in North Korea. The year is 1952. Sound and image converge with whirling helicopters and the American motto in Latin, E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) and quickly, clearly, the audience sees that something is terribly wrong with the world in the picture. Indeed, pictures of mass murdering Communists Mao Tse-Tung and Josef Stalin appear with U.S. Army soldiers intermixed with scenes from a ladies’ gardening club. Thus the notion of Americans being brainwashed—”a new American term”, according to one of the Communist perpetrators—sets the movie’s plot, characters and action into play.

The Manchurian Candidate lingers in this unsettling Communist torture chamber, interspersed with the garden club from the soldiers’ warped perspectives, depicting an act that captures the horrifying potential and power of the operation. Besides signalling the diabolical plot to come, this setup allows Frankenheimer to indulge the movie in a particular brand of paranoia that indicts the entire country because, as will become evident, the culprit in this conspiracy theory in action is really the American people.

From Sinatra’s Army Major Marco, who blindly salutes early in the film, the U.S. Army, politicians and the media to a black Army corporal (James Edwards), principled U.S. senator (John McGiver) and the senator’s daughter (Leslie Parrish), everyone is either plagued or near powerless to conjure, question or stop the scheme to turn the nation into a Communist puppet state. In this sense, the movie’s rather bleak, heavy and empty.

Every character is flawed, damaged or out to end America. No one is entirely sympathetic. There are no heroes here.

The person most contaminated by the enemy is also the person most likely to co-opt an unhappy ending, presumed Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, BUtterfield 8), who was programmed by the Reds to do the dirty deed. Some might claim that Sinatra’s Marco also acts admirably and heroically and he does, to a certain extent, though he, too, is ultimately powerless. Marco is the film’s detective, having vague, nagging nightmares about captivity, doubting the unit’s blind allegiance to the war hero Raymond Shaw and discovering what triggers the secret agent’s sinister acts.

Major Marco has to contend with a love interest (Janet Leigh, Psycho), whom some see as an innocent loner on the train and I see as an apparently unresolved possible Communist agent, or at least a character that could go either way. Any woman so quick to ditch her fiance for Sinatra’s disoriented Army major—and with such practiced recitation of her address and number—is suspect in this movie.

Powerlessness and paranoia are The Manchurian Candidate‘s themes—Americans are both helpless to combat evil and too paranoid to identify what evil must be stopped—and certainly the Korean War, the first of many American post-World War 2 wars to neither be acknowledged as war and declared nor won, is the perfect backdrop for a seamless, insidious spread of totalitarianism in our midst. This spread emanates from recognizably monstrous Soviet, Red Chinese and North Korean agents, such as houseboy Chunjin (Henry Silva) and an evil doctor (Khigh Dhiegh, who went on to play the Communist-friendly Wo Fat villain in Hawaii Five-O), with the doctor pronouncing the movie’s moral theme with glee, calling out what he refers to as the “uniquely American symptoms [unearned] guilt and [irrational] fear”. By now everyone knows that the real source of the Communist threat in America is dim-witted anti-Communist Sen. Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), apparently patterned after Republican Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, propped up by his nagging wife, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), war hero Raymond Shaw’s mother, a role originally intended for Lucille Ball.

Much has been made of Iselin’s resemblance to McCarthy and it’s a legitimate point. But McCarthy’s flaws never included collaborating with the enemy and his basic theory that Communists had infiltrated the highest levels of state and industry was proven true. So, while The Manchurian Candidate delivers on the left’s bogeyman, McCarthy, it also validates the right’s more salient contention that American ignorance, evasion and appeasement of Communists all but opened the door wide open to a Communist plot to take over the country; Sen. Iselin’s character merely projects what’s actually happening on the film’s terms.

In skewed angles, in black and white, with an incestuous psychological underpinning that forecasts the rise of both the shrill, domineering female and the authoritarian who’s a “clown and buffoon”, with decent soldiers and statesmen taken in by the Reds, always one step behind and never acting to defend the republic in time, The Manchurian Candidate spirals to a tense, exciting conclusion.

By the time end credits roll, the good has been breached beyond repair and one medal of honor may yet be earned. All of this sounds more important than it is in the movie’s context strictly due to what tragedies, wars and despair coincided with this October 1962 United Artists release, which screened during the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (see notes below) with co-star Angela Lansbury. This is because the movie never fully identifies or names, let alone resolves, its cryptic conflict of an American republic gone bad or struck dumb, really dim, through neglect or brainwashing. The cast is excellent, so far as the characters allow, and the creepy feeling pervades.

And, while this may never have been Condon’s or anyone else’s original purpose, the 50 years since The Manchurian Candidate (don’t bother with the awful anti-capitalist remake in 2004) was made only affirm that the worst of this movie’s outcomes is coming true. As one character threatens in the movie’s most prophetic line, eerily happening here and now with the rise to power of Donald Trump: “[It’s easy to] rally a nation of TV viewers into hysteria that will make martial law seem like anarchy.”

At an exclusive, pre-screening Hollywood interview sponsored by Turner Classic Movies for its TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the actress who plays Raymond Shaw’s mother, Mrs. Johnny Iselin, Angela Lansbury (Gaslight, Sweeney Todd, Murder, She Wrote, All Fall Down, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Shootdown, Beauty and the Beast, The Picture of Dorian Gray) in The Manchurian Candidate talked about the movie, her life and career.

LansburyTCMFF2016In a conversation with Alec Baldwin for TCM, Ms. Lansbury, who glided out into the sold out theater looking tall, sensible and grand, started by saying that she’d read Richard Condon’s novel, which she described as “very serious” in preparation for the shocking role of the incestuously villainous mother of the Manchurian candidate’s would-be assassin. Declining to take full credit for the Oscar-nominated performance, Angela Lansbury added that she thinks the writer gives the character its essential meaning. Hosts and moderators often fawn over the movie or performance that’s about to be shown and this showing of The Manchurian Candidate was no exception. However, to her credit, 91-year-old Angela Lansbury refused to go along; when Baldwin prompted her for a moment of eternal and overdone praise for the film, she correctly pegged the movie as “a unique piece of work.” Thanks to her chilling performance, it is.

Speaking of her movie career, which included roles in The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland, Frank Capra’s State of the Union with Tracy and Hepburn and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, she sounded somewhat embittered when she lamented that “directors all saw me in a different way” and kept casting her as various types of characters in pictures, which grew tiresome, so she stopped making as many movies and went to work on stage in productions such as Sweeney Todd and on television as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher in the CBS hit Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996).

Movie Review: I’ve Always Loved You (1946)

With restoration funded for the UCLA Film and Television Archive by a government grant to the American Film Institute and privately by Republic Pictures and the David and Lucile Packard Program, the 117-minute I’ve Always Loved You recently screened at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. The 1946 picture is filled with romantic notions, scenes and music and it’s as melodramatic as any other mid-Forties romance.


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But something is different about this movie. Based on a Borden Chase (Red River) short story titled “Concerto” about Chase’s pianist wife (and their daughter, the audience learned before the screening, later danced with Fred Astaire), I’ve Always Loved You features two stunning performances of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto—both played as a duel between a female pianist and her male conductor—by artists entangled in a toxic affair. This rarely seen classic was directed for Republic Pictures, a small studio known for low-budget Westerns, by Oscar-winning director Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm, A Farewell to Arms, Stage Door Canteen). The $2 million budget bought Technicolor for the first time and Arthur Rubinstein playing the piano.

A fresh-faced young pianist named Myra (Catherine McLeod) falls in love with an alpha male maestro (Philip Dorn) named Leopold Goronoff, who insists that music at its finest is for men to play and women to experience. This does not dissuade Myra either from pursuing her passion for learning music from the master—nor him from tutoring and hiring the young farm woman—or prevent Myra from falling for the handsome but eccentric conductor. Myra knows her talent but utters “yes, master” over and again in order to gain new knowledge and practice, childlike in her confidence that he will see her for the perfect pupil—and devotee—she is. Theirs is a student-teacher storm warning.

This is not completely lost on the strong, wholesome farm hand (William Carter) back home who has a thing for Myra and has no problem expressing himself. Borzage contrasts these two men as counterparts caught between Myra’s escalating unease with her emerging musical skill, her unrequited love for Goronoff and the unrequited affection of the man who runs her father’s idyllic Pennsylvania farm. Maria Ouspenskaya (Dodsworth, Waterloo Bridge, The Mortal Storm) stars as the maestro’s rational, knowing grandmother in one of her last roles before she died.

As Myra, McLeod captures the character’s worship, intensity and confusion, making her most rash or shocking choices more plausible, which is pivotal in a picture this loaded with sweeps, turns and gloriously romantic music. Dorn, too, makes his neurotically masculine master appealing enough to see why women swoon over him. Ouspenskaya, too, as a grandmother tenderly taking to Myra and calling her “Butterball”, and Carter as the simple outdoorsman pining for a woman musician, are convincing. Add the mad, swirling sense of something ominous that seeps into the concerts and I’ve Always Loved You culminates at Carnegie Hall.

Though by the time this picture was released, both The Seventh Veil and Brief Encounter had already used Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, here performing music is integral to plot and character development and achieve an unusually engaging effect. I’ve Always Loved You manages under Borzage’s direction to be both highly romantic and conflicted without being totally shameless in execution and Rubinstein’s piano playing, however flawed its depiction (so I’m informed by someone who knows about these things), furiously plays into a rewarding final deliverance.

Movie Review: Shanghai Express (1932)

Civil war provides the context for Universal’s Shanghai Express (1932), Josef von Sternberg’s pre-Code star vehicle for his wife, actress Marlene Dietrich, which screened last week at the Chinese Theaters at TCM’s 2016 Classic Film Festival (read more on the festival here and scroll down for a note on the program). This Depression-era box office hit offers 82 minutes of strange, lavish costumes and pictures and sinister acts based upon a 1923 event on the Peking-Shanghai railroad line.

The fourth of six movies teaming Dietrich with Von Sternberg features better style than substance, though Shanghai Express, centrally the story of a fallen woman (Dietrich, of course) redeeming herself for the man she loves, broadly stands for romanticism against cynicism in the wartime Orient. Moviegoers may recognize Warner Oland, the Swedish actor who played the title character in 16 Charlie Chan movies, as one of the passengers.

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“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” Dietrich’s slick, mysteriously overdressed passenger tells her ex-lover, played by Clive Brook, in one of the crackling lines by screenwriter Jules Furthman (based on a story by Harry Hervey) before returning to her compartment with an equally mysterious companion played by Anna May Wong. German expressionist Josef von Sternberg tracks the entire picture to Dietrich’s relationship with Brook’s British military surgeon, who’s taking the train to perform brain surgery on a high-ranking Chinese government official.

After government officials seize a top rebel agent on the express, anti-government bandits halt the train, which is then commandeered by a warlord who kidnaps the surgeon for a prisoner exchange with the Chinese. None of this is especially clear in Shanghai Express, which includes among its passengers an opium dealer, an old hag with a boarding house and a smuggled little dog, a Christian missionary, a gambler, a French major and a mysterious Eurasian named Henry Chang. None of them warm to the two painted ladies down the hall and each has his own motives.

But from the moment the old woman smuggles the dog onto the express in “Peiping” (the Chinese city now known as Beijing has had several English language incarnations) and Marlene Dietrich’s seductive, androgynous traveler slowly draws the shades of her dark, shared compartment, the sexual Shanghai Express is about her, her gal and her ex-lover and what her Shanghai Lily might be willing to do for love.

The train clicks, rolls and steams, as passengers size one another up and down, with satire of British imperialist culture and not before the plot turns with rape, murder and a thematic device tipping that war robs lovers of precious seconds. As one character warns in the highly and memorably stylized Shanghai Express: “Time and life have no value in [wartime] China.”

Director Josef von Sternberg’s son, Nicholas von Sternberg, graciously talked about his father and stepmother, Marlene Dietrich, with Turner Classic Movies writer Jeremy Arnold (author of TCM’s The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter) during the pre-world premiere restoration interview at TCM’s 2016 Classic Film Festival. He confirmed that Von Sternberg added the “von” in 1921 and explained that Shanghai Express was the couple’s most commercially successful motion picture. But Nicholas von Sternberg, who also had kind words for Marlene Dietrich, pointed out that his father’s exhaustive effort—his application of techniques using different planes of focus on the foreground, the middleground and the background, for instance—earned Josef von Sternberg the nickname “Midnight Joe” for long nighttime hours of filming. The director’s son said that one shot in Shanghai Express which was filmed in Morocco took 90 takes.