Happy 20th, TCM

Today marked the 20th anniversary of a cable network.   Who would give a damn about a network anniversary?  Frankly, my dear, the rabid fans of Turner Classic Movies do.  In fact, this past weekend thousands of them from all over the country descended on Hollywood to attend a film festival hosted by said network.  Not even Fox News or MSNBC can boast of that kind of partisan dedication.

TCM festival

Kicked off by media mogul Ted Turner on April 14, 1994, the Atlanta-based network has shown uncut, uncensored, un-reformatted (as in aspect ratio, a touchy subject with classic movie buffs) classic movies ever since.  Interspersed between the movies are fascinating shorts from back in the day (the studios made a lot of shorts, ranging from comedy to news reels), along with TCM’s own mini-documentaries on related topics.

Missing from their lineup?  Commercials.  That’s right, TCM is totally ad-free.  Take that, AMC!  When TCM says their movies are uncut, they mean it.  Watching TCM, you will never have the delicately calibrated flow of a story ruined by a Life Alert commercial.  And unlike AMC, they don’t consider movies like Alien vs. Predator or The Core to be classics.  Most of the movies TCM airs were made in the ’30s-’70s.  Watching TCM is like taking a film history class but with the cool professor, the one who holds class on the lawn on really nice days.

Which leads to my theory about why some people don’t like old movies.  Classic film is an acquired taste, like fine wine, abstract art, or Belgian porn.  A mind steeped in nothing but contemporary fare will find the switch jarring, even off-putting.  It’s a different mindset, pace and tone.  As the English novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

My Man Godfrey

So, you have to ease yourself in gently.  Start with a crowd-pleaser, preferably a comedy.  One of my favorite starting courses for classic-movie novices is My Man Godfrey.  Nobody I know (or want to know) doesn’t love My Man Godfrey.

And then you have to immerse yourself in the world of classic films.  The first one or two will probably seem strange.  Watch enough of them, however, and you’ll begin to get it.   The strangeness will wear off, and you’ll begin to notice that these odd people with their quaint customs actually have the same emotions and hopes and fears and desires that we do.

The more you watch old movies, the more you’ll realize that human nature is universal and immutable.  And that’s an important lesson that everyone ought to learn.

But not all classic movie eras were created equal.  My favorite film decades are the ’30s and ’40s.  And then I jump over to the ’70s.  Most people, however, when they attempt to watch an old movie, might sample something from the ’50s or early ’60s.  Although there were some fine films made during that era, this is usually a mistake. The movies went through an awkward phase then.  It was the dawn of the Age of Television, and the movie industry was desperately trying to lure people back into theaters in the same droves as before TV.

So they kept trying to be bigger, brasher, than ever before.  They were going through a mid-life crisis, and they went out and bought a gaudy red convertible to grab your attention.  The screens grew wider, the emotions grew more histrionic.  And so there was a lot of over-the-top acting and movies grew longer.  (You will rarely encounter a movie over 2 hours long in the ’30s or ’40s.)

At the same time, the sexual revolution was percolating just under the surface.  Hollywood was beginning to push back against the Hays Code and became more explicit about sex.  But in this regard they were like pre-teens who just went to sex ed class.  There’s a lot of tittering over sexual innuendo in late ’50s and early ’60s comedies that seemed daring in its day, just causes us to roll our eyes now.

So in a lot of respects, movies from the ’30s and ’40s seem leaner and more sophisticated.  Nobody wants a return of the Hays Code, but there’s an argument to be made that it forced filmmakers to be more creative.

Also, the ’50s saw the beginning of Hollywood’s pursuit of “social relevance,” which leads to earnestness, which leads to boredom or, if you’re lucky, death.  (A brilliant comedy that lampoons this tendency is Sullivan’s Travels.)

Many will disagree with me (and they will be wrong).  But that’s the great thing about classic movies.  Get a few thousand — or just two — of us together, and we’ll argue about our favorite movies, stars, and directors.  But there is still that shared love of the classics that others think is so weird.

So join me in a toast to TCM’s 20th anniversary.  And let’s wish them many, many more.

  • Edith

    The idea that it takes effort and a different mindset to watch old movies is absolutely true. Why are old movies so difficult to watch for the modern eye? Because you have to think! And sometimes thinking hurts and it’s so much easier to watch new movies that tell us exactly what to think or how to react.

    “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I think I will start using that line.
    By the way, and to imitate TCM’s “The Essentials” program; which five classic movies would you recommend to a person who has not yet seen all that many old movies?

  • Andrew Leigh

    So many choices…. My answer to your last question would probably be different depending on which day I gave it. So much also depends on your tastes — do you like comedy or melodrama? Do you prefer adventure or romance?

    I will give you what I think they are at this moment. (I won’t bother to include the two films I’ve already mentioned, My Man Godfrey and Sullivan’s Travels, but one or other would probably make the list on any given day — so let’s say this is a list of seven recommendations, with Godfrey and Sullivan’s among them.)

    Casablanca – There’s a reason this is on so many “greatest” lists. One of its best attributes is its endless rewatchability (if that’s a word). The first time you watch it, you’ll probably just be trying to keep up with the plot. The tenth time you watch it, you will savor new meanings in lines you missed on the ninth viewing. It’s one of the most quotable movies ever made.

    North by Northwest – I could pick any of Hitchcock’s best here — Foreign Correspondent, Notorious, Rebecca, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train — but this is what first came to mind today.

    (Those were the two musts. Now for three more comedies:

    It Happened One Night – The quintessential romantic comedy, the first screwball comedy, the mold for all rom-coms that came after. You will see why everyone loved Clark Gable.

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – You have to include a Western on the list. This is one that’s very accessible and also has a little of everything — humor, suspense, action, John Wayne, James Stewart, John Ford directing, and a surprisingly deep theme.

    All About Eve – Bette Davis: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

    • Matt Edwards

      Those are excellent first steps into classic film. Although, I prefer His Girl Friday to It Happened One Night, but that’s because of my affection for Cary Grant.

      • Andrew Leigh

        That’s because I wrote this list on a Monday. On Tuesdays, it’s His Girl Friday, a brilliant comedy. Rosalind Russell is wonderful in it too. I think it set a World’s Record for fastest dialogue ever.

        As for Cary Grant, he’s certainly one of the greatest stars, but I got him covered with North by Northwest, and I needed Clark Gable on the list too.

  • Andrew Leigh

    P.S. – If you get TCM, My Man Godfrey will be on tonight at midnight ET.

  • Misha

    Too bad I couldn’t make it to this festival. I remember when TCM first came on. I had just moved to L.A., enamored with movies and Hollywood. I would watch TCM all night until I fell asleep.

    I don’t think it’s too hard to go from watching the good old classics (I say good because they had stinkers too) to modern film. Maybe because I started young watching films like ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) and ‘The Wolfman’ w/Lon Chaney which would come on a sic fi/horror show right after Saturday cartoons. Yes, the way they dressed and dialogue was odd but the story was strong enough to keep me hooked. And the oddness was interesting anyway. Just like Shakespeare, basic stories appeal to people as long as they can get past the flowery language and focus on the meat of the matter. It is challenging for people who judge superficially in a split second (i.e.: culture of T.V. surfing, serial dating ) and have the attention span of a fly. It’s not the movies, it’s the mentality of audience.
    Nothing a slyly placed xanax in their grande, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk couldn’t fix.

  • Matt Edwards

    TCM and live sports are the only reason why I miss my cable subscription. Sure I can rent and watch on Netflix or Amazon – but there is just something comforting in a curated experience like TCM. It’s what got me to watch “Meet John Doe”. As relevant a film for today’s sociopolitical climate as anything, ANYTHING, I’ve ever seen.