15 Reasons to Love Turner Classic Movies

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Turner Classic Movies

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3. Silent films. Once a larger part of TCM programming, mute cinema is now mostly confined to a Sunday-midnight niche — a glorious grotto, whose saints are Lon Chaney, Lillian Gish, John Gilbert, Marion Davies and other stars of MGM silents. The slot also is home to early masterworks from France (Jacques Feyder's Queen of Atlantis), Germany (F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh) and Sweden (Victor Sjostrom's Phantom Carriage). The country doesn't matter; all these films speak an eloquent visual language.

4. Foreign-language films. A late Sunday-night slot, right after the silent movie, goes to non-English-language films: official classics, often from the superb Criterion and Kino collections, but also outre items like Munchhausen, a lavish Germany fantasy made in the last years of the Third Reich. A rich month was devoted to Mexico, the second largest film industry in the Americas; another to Italian neo-realism, curated and introduced by Martin Scorsese. (One disappointment: in the recent month dedicated by Sophia Loren, only five of the 23 films were Italian.) A season on Asian faces in Hollywood movies veered eastward for two extremely rare Chinese silent films starring Shanghai's original tragic movie diva Ruan Lingyu.

5. Short films. In the golden age, an evening at the movies was just that: an A feature and a B feature, buttressed by selected short subjects. In the first years of sound, dozens of vaudeville acts achieved their only immortality. Blacks rarely had prominent roles in feature films, but Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith and a seven-year-old Sammy Davis starred in shorts. TCM runs Robert Benchley and Joe McDoakes comedy shorts and Fitzpatrick travelogs. The weirdest series: MGM's early-'30s Dogville Comedies, one-reel movie parodies (The Dogway Melody, The Big Dog House, Trader Hound), in which pooches were dressed up and made to walk on their hind legs and "talk" with fish wire. Paging PETA?

6. Series and serials. For 40 years or so, movie theaters lured the kids with Saturday matinees, often featuring a thrillingly primitive 12- or 15-chapter serial. TCM revived the tradition earlier this year by showing two 1930s Zorro serials, a few chapters each week. They've also opened the vaults to show B-movies detective series from the '40s: Sherlock Holmes, the Crime Doctor, the Whistler and the Lone Wolf sleuth again.

7. August Under the Stars. Since TCM's mission is to rekindle old Hollywood glamour, it makes sense to focus on a star a day for the month of August. Such a scheme can lead to laziness — drag out the old faves for the 30th time — but the staff often spotlights less obvious names, actors whose careers merit a close look: Marie Dressler, Constance Bennett, Peter Lorre and Trevor Howard all have shone in what amount to one-day retrospectives. In June, TCM will try a similar tack with the stars behind the camera: two directors a day for 30 days.

8. Special Seasons. If there's one thing you see a lot of in TCM's basic collection of old movies, it's white people. When blacks and Asians were depicted, they were usually seen as slow or wicked menials and often played by whites in blackface or with spirit gum on their eyes. TCM has wisely annotated the old era by devoting prime-time months to the Hollywood images of blacks, Asians, gays and, in May, Hispanics, the programs curated and introduced by specialists in the fields.

9. The hosts. TCM viewers are a demanding lot, and raising Robert Osborne's name at a dinner party with the right people can stoke spirited debate. The 76-year-old host has acknowledged he occasionally mangles an unfamiliar name or movie title (the Japanese director Kon Ichikawa came out "Ron Ichikawa," the French film La Terre was La Ter-ray); he once said that Stephen Sondheim emails him when he catches an Osborne gaffe. But his avuncular or grandpaternal demeanor puts the home audience at ease even as it charms the celebrities he chats with. Weekend afternoons go to Ben Mankiewicz, third-generation Hollywood royalty and a slightly spikier presence, who has also done a few trips to such old L.A. monuments as Musso & Frank's restaurant and a star-studded cemetery.

10. Private Screenings. Since the early days, Osborne has sat down with venerable actors (and a few directors) for a clips-heavy discussion of their lives and work; the conversations usually run a little under an hour. It's a treat, and occasionally poignant, to see stars who've been out of the klieg lights for decades sit for one last closeup. Don't miss the Betty Hutton interview: she erupts into laughter and tears with exactly the gale force she exuded in her '40s comedies.

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The All TIME 100 Movies

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