Fifteen years and one day ago, the words “Ted Turner” and “classic movies” wouldn’t have been uttered in the same breath by a cinephile without the word “destroys” in between. Though Turner's always claimed to be a movie buff, by 1994 the media mogul’s most prominent contribution to the history of cinema had been his championing of the colorization process. (When Orson Welles heard that Turner wanted a crack at Citizen Kane, the director reportedly grunted, “Tell Turner to keep his goddamned Crayolas away from my film!”) So when Turner announced that he was launching a new cable channel to showcase all the MGM, UA, RKO and Warner movies he owned, critics imagined something like what TNT was airing at the time: butchered versions of American classics.
Instead, when Turner Classic Movies debuted on April 14th, 1994, it quickly became destination television for people who love movies. Tasked to fill 24 hours a day, the TCM programmers dug deep into the archives, showing movies that hadn’t seen the light of day outside of repertory houses since the days of The Late Late Show. With dapper Hollywood historian Robert Osborne providing necessary context in his intros, TCM introduced residents of the hinterlands to the “deep cuts” of legendary auteurs like Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang, as well as giving a new generation a taste of programmatic series films featuring the likes of Andy Hardy, Boston Blackie and Dr. Kildare. All uncut, in their original aspect ratio, and sourced from the best prints available. And completely uncolorized.
I confess to being something of a TCM addict. We have two TiVos in our house, and one of them is tasked with recording about seven or eight movies a week from TCM (which I then transfer to my main TiVo to watch on our big TV). Sometimes I only watch 10 minutes of something just to get the gist of it. Sometimes, if it's innocuous enough, I'll play an old movie in the background while I work. And sometimes I get completely wrapped up in an old domestic melodrama or psychological western I'd never even heard of until I set the DVR to record it. I subscribe to Now Playing, the TCM program guide, and spend a happy hour each month putting check-marks next to the movies I want to see. The first thing I do when the new Now Playing arrives is to turn to the list of daily spotlight films in the middle of the magazine and look for the little black “P”s that indicate which movies are TCM premieres. I'm constantly amazed that even at this late date, 15 years into its run, TCM is still programming movies they’ve never shown before.
Mainly that’s because other studios have become increasingly willing to get into the TCM business. Initially limited to the Warner/RKO/MGM/UA catalogue, the channel has since struck deals with the likes of Disney, Paramount and Sony, along with several independent and foreign distributors. They’ve shown the works of Japan’s master animators from Studio Ghibli, and the classics of world cinema handled by Janus Films. They’ve shown B-horror, blaxploitation, and unclassifiable cult films. And they’ve continued to fill the space between movies with old cartoons and other “one reel wonders.”
I think what impresses me most about TCM is that despite the occasional introduction by the relative youngster Ben Mankiewicz or some old school Hollywood star, for the most past it’s always been good ol’ Bob Osborne standing up for everything from Royal Wedding to Wild Strawberries to This Is Spinal Tap. And even though that’s the job he was hired to do, I’ve never gotten the sense that Osborne was merely pretending to like any of the movies he’s intro-ed. Instead he seems my kind of cineaste: gracious and voracious, willing to give anything a shot. He’s the right guy for a channel that offers up a startlingly wide sampling of movie history, and encourages fans to try new things. (For example, as I type this, I just finished watching a recording of The Parallax View, and I’m seeing a segment of "TCM Classic Movie News" that’s touting a new F.W. Murnau box set from Kino, an in-depth biography of Mae West, and a collection of Dean Martin love songs. You’re not going to get recommendations like that on E!)
I’ve been movie-crazy since my early teens, and I’ve been a completist for even longer. (Blame a boyhood awash in comic books and baseball cards.) TCM has helped me fill holes in my movie education that I didn’t even know existed. I’ve discovered off-brand auteurs like Don Weis, Charles Walters and John Stahl, and I’ve developed an appreciation for mid-range stars like Glen Ford, Betty Hutton, Van Johnson, Bonita Granville, Richard Widmark and Paula Prentiss. Last month I ate up TCM’s retrospective of Ronald Reagan films. I’d always heard Reagan dismissed as a “B-movie actor,” but while he was hardly brilliant, he starred in some surprisingly freaky fare, like the suburban gothic Kings Row (in which he plays a lothario who had his legs amputated by the father of one of his conquests) and the two-fisted insurance drama Accidents Will Happen (in which he concocts the perfect insurance scam in order to prove a point to his short-sighted former bosses).
If I were limited to one cable channel for the rest of my life, I wouldn't hesitate: I'd pick TCM. I never feel insulted watching Turner Classic Movies; I always feel like I've been granted access to a valuable service. Too often, the media powers-that-be feel obliged to tinker, messing up concepts that were fine as they were. (See: TV Land, MTV, and nearly every local newspaper bought up by a conglomerate over the past couple of decades.) When Turner Classic Movies won a Peabody Award last week, the channel was rightly cited for staying truer to its original mission than other cable channels. Granted, TCM’s greatness has to do with more than just staying the course. In the early days, TCM just emptied Turner’s vault, but then the vault got bigger, and now the programmers organize and curate and try to create some order out of the chaos that is movie history. But the Peabody folks were right that the basic mission hasn’t changed. TCM shows movies to people who love movies. And they treat both with the proper respect.
As part of the 15th anniversary celebration, TCM has put up a special website, with clips and images from the channel’s history, plus some extras. One of those extras is a list of the “15 most influential movies of all time,” voted on by a panel of experts. See if you agree:
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
42nd Street (1933)
It Happened One Night (1934)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Citizen Kane (1941)
Bicycle Thieves (1947)
The Searchers (1956)
Star Wars (1977)