When the Classics Deserve Better
With the Oscars out of the way, I thought I would nonetheless stick with movies for another day.
Turner Classic Movies is finishing up its annual, glorious "31 Days of Oscar," where each presentation over that period are either Oscar winners, or had a least one nomination. It's always a joyous time of year for just great movie-watching. Movie after movie. And the channel itself does wonderful job throughout the year with presenting and promoting old and classic and even just ordinary movies as its commercial and cultural mission. Which brings me to what I fully acknowledge is nothing more than a Point of Personal Privilege. Which in this case takes its form as a rant.
Tiny details are not especially important in the grand scheme of far-larger landscapes, and much of this is just quibbles. And admittedly, as I said, a personal rant. Though I think in the end it has a larger point because TCM heralds itself as the guardian of movies and the source of record, so such things matter in that context. And for a long while, other than when the late Robert Osborne wasn't on the air, the results at TCM for its commentary are fairly empty. To be clear, Osborne wasn't just a "movie geek" as bios describe some of their new hosts, but an actual movie historian who studied and knew and understood the details. I have no idea how much research TCM's other hosts do about movies, and how much of what they say is written by others. But the holes are too often so massive you could drive the train from the end of Bridge on the River Kwai through it.
Ben Mankiewicz has great movie-family pedigree, but I never get a sense that he has all that much love or even appreciation for movies. And if he does, it doesn't come through. It's not that his bookend commentaries on movies are far too often surface, pointless and tend to miss what is actually important historically and cinematically, but regularly veer off into other movies that have almost zero connection to the movie at hand.
This is more about what has come since, when TCM has brought in some new hosts, though I've only seen their Sunday addition, Australian Alicia Malone -- one of their "movie geeks," who at least has written about movies Again, though, i don't know if she does her own research and on-air commentary, or relies on a staff, or if it's a mix of both, but over the last couple of weeks, when I first saw, her there have been issues that are glaring regardless of who did the writing.
To be clear, what I'm about to mention are just a very few examples and as such will come across as petty. But it's only three because there are only three, but rather because I haven't written down all the others over time -- from her, Mankiewicz and others. I've just gnashed my teeth and moved on. And so these three serve, not as the evidence of what I'm saying, but examples of the larger issue of how uninformative and surface the channel in its commentary has become.
Last week, the channel showed the musical Bye Bye Birdie. In her description, Malone admirably said who wrote the screenplay -- and she gets big points for that, since most people leave out the screenwriter. But she didn't mention Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who wrote the songs! How do you talk about a musical and not mention who wrote the songs?? Even if you didn't write the commentary yourself, you'd think a person reading it would notice that beforehand and ask for the information to be included. And when talking about how Paul Lynde recreated his role from the stage production...she didn't mention that...oh, the movie's star, Dick Van Dyke, one of the most beloved actors in American TV and film history. not only was also recreating his Broadway stage role...but had won a Tony Award for it!! Moreover, it was the Broadway role, in fact, that helped get him hired for his legendary TV series, The Dick Van Dyke Show. Seriously, if you're going to mention Paul Lynde recreating his stage role, how does one leave all that out?? Something a movie geek should know, or that a researcher would easily find out.
The movie was followed on the schedule that day by Oliver! Or as it's actually, officially known -- since he wrote the book, music and lyrics -- "Lionel Bart's Oliver!" And in Ms. Malone's commentary on the movie, nowhere did she once ever even mention the name...Lionel Bart. How on earth do you do a commentary on Oliver! -- sorry, on "Lionel Bart's Oliver!" -- and not even mention Lionel Bart??! Forget for a moment that it's Lionel Bart you're not mentioning in "Lionel Bart's Oliver!"...once again, how do you not mention who wrote the music and lyrics (whoever the person is) for a musical??!!
I let all that slide until the next Sunday, yesterday, when they aired the movie musical High Society. Ms. Malone began by talking about last week they had three movie musicals based on Broadway musicals, and this week they have three more. Except High Society is not based on a Broadway musical, but was an original. (Yes, it's based on a movie which is based on a Broadway play, but that's very different.) She also kept referring to the film as a "remake" of film and stage play, The Philadelphia Story. But it's not -- any more than My Fair Lady is a "remake" of Pygmalion, or West Side Story is a "remake" of Romeo and Juliet. It's a totally different creature, a musical adaptation. That's another animal entirely from a "remake." More to the point was a story she told about the film's Oscar nominations --
She mentioned High Society's two nominations for Best Song and Best Music Scoring. And then told the tale of how there was a mix-up with "Best Story," confusing High Society with a film of the same title the previous year, until the other writers noticed it on the list of eligible movies and informed the Academy. And then she added that the Motion Picture Academy apparently let those earlier writers keep the plaque with their nomination, noting with a smile that "I don't know if that's true, but I hope it is." The problem is that just moments earlier, she said that the movie only got two nominations -- neither of which you'll recall was for Best Story. So, by her own words, just seconds earlier, there is zero possible way that the writers would have kept a "Best Story" nomination plaque. Since, by her own words, it didn't get a Best Story nomination! And it doesn't matter if she did the research about that anecdote or someone else did -- anyone reading the copy could have easily noticed that.
To be fair, the movie that followed High Society on the TCM schedule was The Music Man, and she did a respectable job introducing it. There was much more she could have added, like that the film's director Morton DaCosa (who she mentions) also directed the Broadway production. A small, but valuable item, as long as you're mentioning him. And that several cast members of the movie other than Robert Preston recreated their Broadway roles. Pert Kelton (as Mama Paroo), The Buffalo Bills barbershop quarter, and Harry Hickox (who played the adversarial traveling salesman). But still, it was a solid introduction.
And she also did a reasonable job with the following movie, 1776. Yet even at this it was largely surface. For instance, she mentioned that Peter Hunt directed the film -- but not that he had also directed the stage version. She mentioned, too, that the production used much of the original Broadway cast -- but not that for the other roles, almost everyone else in the movie had also appeared in either a touring production or subsequent Broadway cast of 1776. And while she mentioned that the film only did moderately-well and got mediocre reviews, she importantly left out the reason why! I mean, if you're going to criticize a movie (especially one you're about to present), while that's fair, though odd with no context, it would seem proper to point out the reason for the criticism: that 40 minutes of the movie had been cut out! And left unsaid is that it's only been in recent years after intense research tracking down lost material and meticulous restoration (including footage that very conservative producer Jack L. Warner had ordered destroyed for it being too liberal) that the finally-approved "Director's Cut" movie -- which is now what TCM shows, as the filmmaker intended -- has finally received its share of long-overdue acclaim. Bizarrely, and I personally think unnecessarily, she even doubled-down after the film by quoting from bad reviews, rather than noting that the stage version (which is what this final just shown far-more closely matches) had not only won the Tony Award as Best Musical, but also the Pulitzer Prize..
As I said, I know that this is all niggling. And it's only just a small handful of observations. To be clear, it's actually not meant as a specific singling-out of Alicia Malone -- who does seem to have a knowledge of and love of movies, far more than the channel's main host Ben Mankiewicz -- just that with the luck of the draw she's the person I've most recently seen and can comment on. (And have generally gotten to the point where I skip past what Mankiewicz has to say.) But I repeat. It's the culmination of A LOT of errors and glaring, core omissions I've seen on TCM for quite a while now, none of which I've written down or can remember the details of, and these are only the small handful of examples from just two days the past week to serve as examples of the larger issue. And -- importantly -- because TCM prides and markets itself as the depository of movies as an important part of American culture (something they do a great job of in their presentation and much else, including festivals, seminars and original featurettes), it's not nit-picking to notice when they slide so far off the track so often in their commentary of that history.
There, I got that out of the way. For now.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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