15 Reasons to Love Turner Classic Movies

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Turner Classic Movies

Before I got hooked up to Turner Classic Movies, which turned 15 years old in April, a few friends issued this promise or warning: "It will change your life." Like me, they were FOOFs — friends of old films — and in the late '90s, the repertory cinemas of our New York youth, the oldies houses, had pretty much vanished. There were exceptions: one could see many artifacts of Hollywood's golden age on videocassette, the eight-track of its day. And the commercial-free American Movie Classics channel was still showing Paramount and Universal goodies from the '30s and '40s; it also staged annual Film Preservation Festivals of, say, silent and early-talkie John Ford pictures. (Then AMC changed its format, emphasized "newer" movies, and devoted so much time to advertising that it became known as Always More Commercials.)

But when they spoke of TCM, the FOOF's voices fell into whispered reverence. People scheduled their vacations around it, obsessively taped its movies; there's a clique of Turner Classic Monastics who record, then trade, every premiere of an antique film on TCM. From its airing of films from the rowdy 1930-34 period, a new genre called pre-Code entered the FOOF phrase book along with auteur and film noir. To the faithful, TCM was the Lamborghini, the Mouton Rothschild, the very Callas of movie channels. Eventually, I got to see what all the rapture was about. And yes, it changed my life. (See TIME's list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2009.)

Enriched, that is. For anyone who believes that the first hundred years of movies possess treasures that the last few years can't touch — and that's most of the professional film folks I know — TCM is an utterly essential part of the culture, our own American cinematheque. I can't imagine what the business model is, and I don't want anyone to ask, since TCM is owned by the same media company that pays my salary. Whatever it is, the network remains free of commercials. All movies, and movie specials, all the time. (See the All TIME 100 Movies)

Here's how it came about. In 1985, Ted Turner, who'd made money from his TBS superstation and the Atlanta Braves, bought MGM/UA, a blending of two legendary film companies — one the dominant and most glamorous studio from the '20s to the '50s, the other a kind of filmmakers' cooperative that nurtured indie-minded directors from D.W. Griffith to Woody Allen — both of which had fallen fallow. Almost instantly, Turner was obliged to sell the studios and their California real estate; but he held on to the library of 3,000 old MGM, Warner Bros., UA and RKO films. These were the programming staples for his TNT channel (Turner Network Television), which went on the air Oct. 3, 1988; the first movie shown was Gone with the Wind.

There were revelations aplenty, especially in the early-'30s Warner melodramas; they instructed a new generation of old-film fans in the urban snarl, panache and breathless efficiency of the young James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis, plus a bunch of directors that scholars had mostly ignored. But TNT was clogged with commercials, sometimes 15-20 mins. an hour. In time, the oldies format gave way to basketball and reruns of '70s TV shows. The FOOFs were disconsolate... and ecstatic when free TCM premiered Apr. 14, 1994 (again with Gone with the Wind). The same library would be ransacked, but the new channel was free of commercials, more smartly programmed and anchored each evening by Robert Osborne, the silver-maned columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and a comforting, cohesive presence.

TCM started out good and just got better. So in homage to its decade-and-a-half on cable, I offer 15 reasons to cherish Turner Classic Movies.

1. The basic collection. Even when TNT had commercials and AMC didn't, the Turner network had an edge because its library was stronger than its rival's. Turner had (and has) the grandeur of MGM, the grit of Warners, the swank of RKO. And the movies usually look great. This is a living archive; it keeps restoring classic films so they look as pristine as when they premiered. That's thanks in large part to George Feltenstein, whose title is senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing at Warner Home Video, but who is really the boss of all things old and beautiful in the Turner trove.

2. The pickups. Two years ago TCM got access to old films in the Columbia Pictures catalog. This led to star-of-the-month tributes to Rita Hayworth and Jack Lemmon, to screenings of rare early Frank Capra dramas, and to a fresh batch of underseen 1930s-40s B movies for viewers to discover and analyze. Lately, the network has been showing British films of the same period. Along with stars like Leslie Howard and Robert Donat, shining on their home turf, we've seen important oddities like the 1939 The Frozen Limits, featuring the Crazy Gang, the comedy sextet that set the anarchic tone for the Goons and Monty Python.

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