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At a time when modern college students find The Godfather too slow, Daisy Ridley admits she’s never heard of Cary Grant and the majority of people who enjoyed La La Land have no doubt never seen Singin‘ in the Rain, the role Robert Osborne played in keeping old Hollywood movies alive for contemporary audiences cannot be underestimated. As the face of Turner Classic Movies since 1994, Osborne genially and expertly carried the torch for the films made during the studio system’s Golden Era, the 1930s-1950s, providing a platform for older audiences to revisit films they might have seen decades earlier and for younger ones to appreciate that there was some very good stuff that somehow got made before they were born.
With his debonair 1950s looks, agreeable voice and unstinting enthusiasm for his subject, Osborne delivered general public nuts-and-bolts information and a Hollywood insider’s take on the four films he presented every day, creating a sense of heightened interest and excitement for films that couldn’t all be good, but which he would suggest were at least interesting in one way or another. He was a company man, for sure, a community booster, an enthusiast, which meant that he couldn’t be taken entirely seriously as a critic (which was one of the roles he performed during his career).
Rather, he was a born popularizer, which is something old movies needed then and will probably find increasingly difficult to come by as the 21st century churns onward. Ted Turner may have been a lousy studio head at MGM, but those who love movies will be forever indebted to him and his organization for not only saving innumerable old films but for actually creating for them a public home and, with that, unexpected new life and availability to new generations. Osborne indisputably played a major role in perpetuating this process.
On television, his talks about movies bulged with information, specialist trivia and a fan’s fervor, but he was never pedantic. As a natural-born cheerleader for Hollywood, he could sometimes be petty but seemed naturally inclined to look on the bright side, which is probably why he didn’t remain a critic for very long. He was an Oscar fanatic, authoring several books about the Academy Awards and even becoming the official red-carpet greeter of celebrities on television for several years.
Despite our considerable overlapping interests, I never knew him well — hardly at all, really. For many years, we worked for competing trades and kept a respectful distance, whether that was called for or not. Once he decamped for New York, then Atlanta, I never saw him at all until 2010, when he began hosting the Turner Classics Film Festival in Hollywood. He was in his late 70s by then but didn’t look it, and he certainly knew how to handle the old stars who would emerge from the shadows to introduce films they’d made 50 or more years before; they knew Robert would take care of them and help them come off at their best.
To the largely Middle American tourist audiences who saved up every year to make the trip to Hollywood, sitting in movie palaces like the Chinese and the Egyptian to watch great prints or restorations of films they saw in their youth and observe Bob Osborne interview living legends in person was a dream vacation. For Osborne himself, his job, once he started at TCM, must have seemed like a dream come true as well, as it enabled him to share what he loved most with whoever cared to join him. He made film geekiness seem respectable, as well as plenty of fun.
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