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Before Turner Classic Movies embarked on a Hollywood-set film festival aimed at presenting classic films on the big screen in 2010, film historian and TCM Prime Time host Robert Osborne tried his hand at a similar program on the east coast. He happily lent his name to the Robert Osborne Classic Film Festival in Athens, Georgia, a partnership with the University of Georgia, for six years before the economy forced the program to be shuttered.
"It told me kind of how audiences would respond to certain things, and how to present them," he says, calling from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, ground zero for this year's third annual TCM fest. "And we started out with enthusiastic audiences and to full houses. So it really showed me that there was an audience out there that would have a great time when word-of-mouth got around. More than anything it kind of convinced me that it was not something that just because people could see these movies for free at home that they wouldn't be really excited about coming from all over the world to see classic films on a big screen in Hollywood."
Nevertheless, it took marquee title films early on to achieve the attendance levels Osborne and TCM were hoping for. "Casablanca" and "Singin' in the Rain" (both films reprising this year for their 70th and 60th respective anniversaries) were the big attractions, he says. But there were also nuggets for cineastes, like a newly restored version of Fritz Lang's silent masterwork "Metropolis" and an anniversary screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless."
This year, Osborne says, before the announcement of the program's film schedule and celebrity appearances, premium passes were sold out within two hours of tickets going on sale. "It means that people were trusting us and the films we would pick would be good ones," he says. "They didn't have to wait to be told what the films were going to be to decide to buy a ticket. And I think that's the biggest thing; the trust factor got there. And that turned out to be great because then it means they don't have to book for marquee names; you can book really terrific films that maybe people don't know by name but they're going to realize that they're going to see something they would probably like and see something that might be a great discovery and they go for it."
This year's festival features a slew of special presentations and restoration screenings to tickle the film-lover's fancy. Of course Osborne finds it tough to pick just one "must-see" from the cornucopia of titles, but he also notes that it's very much an individual thing.
"For me, one of the must-sees would be 'Cover Girl,' with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly on a big screen, with Stanley Donen doing some of the choreography and stuff. Another must-see for me would be 'Funny Face,' again, Stanley Donen, because that's such a visual movie and it's Fred Astaire and it's Paris and it's Audrey Hepburn and the great Gershwin music score and to see the magic of it on the big screen. But also I would say a must-see is 'How the West was Won,' to be able to see it in Cinerama, which it hasn't been shown in Cinerama on a regular basis for years."
And he can't stop there. "The Thief of Baghdad" with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., springs to mind, as, of course, does today's big opening night presentation, "Cabaret," with Oscar-winning stars Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in attendance. "You're playing 'Cabaret' on a big screen at the Chinese Theatre, I mean, that's like irresistible to me," Osborne says. "Somebody I talked to recently said the one more than anything else they want to see is 'Seconds,' the John Frankenheimer film. Somebody else said, 'Well, I want to see 'The Longest Day' because it's going to be in Cinemascope on a big screen, never seen it that way and it's such an awesome film.' So it's kind of to each his own. But the great thing is we've got films from all the eras and we've got films from all the genres. If you like war films, fine. If you like musicals, great. If you like adventure films, we've got '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' and we've got, you know, Randolph Scott westerns, the whole mix. I think that's very important."
One showcase in particular is a bit of an unofficial centerpiece for the fest when you look out over the schedule: Saturday night's screening of Roy Ward Baker's "A Night to Remember." The date, April 14, is both the 18th birthday of Turner Classic Movies and the eve of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The latter event has been quite the talk of the film world given the recent 3D conversion of James Cameron's 1997 film, but here's a chance for film-goers to discover a dramatization that came 40 years before that Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet romance came along and destroyed all box office records.
"So many people don't know that movie," Osborne says. "They only know the 'Titanic' of James Cameron or the 'Titanic' of Fox with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck and Bob Wagner. The British 'A Night to Remember' is so beautifully done and so well-constructed. So it's a logical fit for our festival because it's not just a piece of Hollywood showmanship or Hollywood glamor but it's a really well-crafted British film."
A quick conversation with Robert Osborne can't pass without some idle commentary on the recent Oscar season. After all, the author of "80 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards" might have a thing or two to say about a season thematically dominated by reverence for the cinema, and particularly classic cinema, at that.
"I loved the way it turned out, but I didn't think it was a very good season," he says. "I didn't think, to me, that there was really -- except for 'A Separation,' which I thought was great -- I didn't think there was a really great film out there this year. I did love 'The Artist.' I've seen it four times and every time I see it, it gets better and better. I think it's really a great film and I think he's [Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin] terrific in it. And it's wonderfully directed and very clever, and it's so well-researched, too.
"I thought 'The Iron Lady,' that she [Meryl Streep] was fabulous, but I didn't think the film was as good as I wanted it to be. But I thought she deserved to win. I liked 'The Help' and I love Viola Davis. But I didn't think that film was a great film; I thought that was a very uneven film. I thought the Southern women were so caricatured that it was kind of like 'Harper Valley PTA' or something like that. Overall I was kind of disappointed this year in films."
But there's no better antidote to a disappointing awards season than a four-day rush through the best classic cinema has to offer, and that's what Osborne and TCM will be busying themselves with beginning tonight with the opening night screening of "Cabaret." The fest runs through Sunday, April 15. Check out the official TCM Classic Film Festival website for schedules and details.
For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.
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