TCM at 20

The TCM (Turner Classic Movies) cable channel celebrated its twentieth anniversary yesterday. It did so in grand style, rebroadcasting movies from its first day on the air (Gone With the Wind and It Happened One Night). After GWTW, TCM broadcast an interesting interview with host-for-life Robert Osborne conducted by Alec Baldwin.

I have been a high volume consumer of TCF roughly since day one. I am a little vague on Ted Turner’s acquisition of the rights to just about every worthwhile movie ever made, but with TCM, he is putting them to good — even ingenious — use. The films are broadcast on basic cable uncut and uninterrupted, usually with a knowing introduction by Osborne or colleague Ben Mankiewicz. Incidentally, other than the fact that Mankiewicz’s grandfather wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane, I don’t know how he qualifies for the job, and his limited repertoire of hand gestures is distracting.

TCM regularly features silent films as well as classic foreign films with subtitles. It draws on a library that is deep and wide.

Terry Teachout declares TCM’s milestone “an important cultural anniversary.” He saluted TCM in a good Wall Street Journal column over the weekend. In the column he raises reasonable concerns about TCM’s future.

Before reading the column, concerns about the viability of TCM had never crossed my mind. Such threats to TCM had never come close to making my worry list. TCM was the refuge from my worry list! Now I’ve got one more thing to worry about. Thanks, Terry!

Looking back on the past 20 years with TCM, I find that one movie I discovered on TCM stands out for me: Christmas in July, written and directed by Preston Sturges, starring Dick Powell. It provides a brilliant, hilarious, thought-provoking insight into the relationship between talent and opportunity, among other things.

When I fantasize that TCM has invited me to join Robert Osborne for a gig as a guest programmer, I draw attention to a few underappreciated films that I have enjoyed several times over on TCM:

1. Cool Hand Luke: A funny, moving, audacious American film full of great lines.

2. Two For the Road: Written by Fredric Raphael, directed by Stanley Donen, maybe the wittiest film ever made.

3. My Favorite Year: Peter O’Toole enters the world of Your Show of Shows and its famous writers’ room. O’Toole, of course, saves the day.

4. The Man Who Would Be King: Directed by John Huston, starring Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer Sean Connery, a magnificent piece of storytelling.

5. High and Low: Akira Kurosawa adapted one of Ed McBain’s pulpy 87th Precinct novels into a work of high art and profound humanity.

6. Smiles of a Summer Night: Ingmar Bergman does romantic comedy. The film served as the source of the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music. I omit Bergman’s many other masterpieces from this list only because they aren’t underappreciated.

In his column, Terry Teachout doesn’t reckon with a future for TCM after Robert Osborne. The day will inevitably arrive when Osborne moves on. It seems to me that he has added much to the channel over the past 20 years. His eventual retirement must count as a threat to the channel up there with the shifting demographics Teachout writes about.

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