Above is the marquee for the New Beverly Cinema, a much-loved revival house in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, and it's still going strong with an eclectic mix. (This Friday and Saturday, for example, it's paying tribute to Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim by showing both "Sunset Boulevard" and the reconstructed 1929 film Swanson starred in and von Stroheim directed, "Queen Kelly.")
There are still several other theaters around the country that show vintage fare, such as the Stanford up the coast in Palo Alto, the AFI in Silver Spring, Md., and Film Forum in lower Manhattan. But their number has drastically dwindled in recent decades; in New York City alone, once home to a healthy revival scene, houses such as Theater 80, the Thalia, Regency and short-lived Biograph have found themselves, to borrow the title of a Bob Dylan song from "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid," knockin' on heaven's door.
Fortunately for those of us who don't have access to a repertory, we probably have access to the next best thing, there through your cable or satellite provider. It's called Turner Classic Movies, and its original American version celebrated its 15th anniversary last month.
I apologize for the belated tribute, but those of us who have the channel are aware what a treasure it is. Old movies 24/7, all without commercials, plus special goodies such as short subjects (which TCM calls "One-Reel Wonders"), vintage trailers, themed programming and occasional specials on classic Hollywood. TCM has complemented film history books in giving us a feel for the product from film's golden age.
Truth be told, TCM wasn't the first cable channel to do this. American Movie Classics, now better known as AMC and for fare such as the much-lauded series "Mad Men," played vintage movies (George Clooney's father Nick, a popular columnist and radio-TV host in Cincinnati, often introduced films). However, AMC's library was rather limited, and its owner, Cablevision, had to rent much of its product.
That wasn't a problem for cable maven Ted Turner, founder of TBS and CNN. In the mid-1980s, he acquired the MGM/United Artists studio, but he soon sold off the studio and land. He kept the film library, which included not only MGM and UA product, but pre-1948 Warner Bros. and RKO titles. In 1988, he premiered a new channel, Turner Network Televsion, or TNT -- but back then, it didn't "know drama." It knew old movies.
From its inception in October 1988 (with Turner's favorite film, "Gone With The Wind") into the early nineties, TNT was the TCM of its day, showing close to everything in its 5,000-film catalog...because frankly, it didn't have much else. The films were a revelation to many viewers; many of the titles hadn't been screened in decades, and quite a few had been withheld from the "late, late show" era of TV because, well, they were a bit too racy for the Levittown crowd. In an unintended way, TCM played a role in the pre-Code revival.
However, the early TNT had two main drawbacks: 1) it ran commercials, disrupting the flow of these films, and 2) it did relatively little with them, or with performers largely unknown to modern audiences. In other words, TNT night show some films featuring Anita Page, but it gave you little, if any, information on her.
(A few of TNT's films were, ahem, colorized, something Ted Turner was often loudly criticized for. But he also did so much for film preservation as a whole that it's more than compensated for this short-lived mistake. Heck, when was the last time you came across a colorized classic film?)
TNT gradually diminished its old movie showings, but Turner planned a new channel for its vintage product, one that would adapt the AMC model and improve on it. And it did, thanks in part to a former actor and film raconteur named Robert Osborne becoming its genial face of the channel.
Sure, he makes an error in his movie introductions every now and then, but for the most part he's a cinematic Gold Glove. He's also been a reliable interviewer of stars, directors and others involved with classic film.
Over the years, TCM has acquired the libraries or gained leasing rights to more and more studio product. For example, over the past year or so, it's been showing a lot of Columbia films, meaning plenty of Rita Hayworth and Frank Capra (eight of his early talking films will be aired on May 18). And TCM has also secured the rights to Paramount and Universal product which, from our perspective, may lead to lots and lots more of the early Carole Lombard -- always welcome news. "Safety In Numbers," for instance?
About the only studio off-limits to TCM is 20th Century-Fox. Most of its films are shown on the Fox Movie Channel, which is available on some -- but not all -- cable systems. So you won't see much Will Rogers or Betty Grable on TCM, alas.
TCM also does special programming for niche audiences among classic film fans, such as one of my favorites, "Silent Sunday Nights." It's given me an appreciation for the artistry of the silent era. It also has a fine online presence and database, which can be found at http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/index.jsp.
To sum things up, TCM -- the American version, anyway -- is indispensable for any film buff. (Over the years, TimeWarner, TCM's parent company, has expanded the brand to other countries, but due to film rights, their libraries are often more limited than their American counterparts.)
For a nice salute to TCM, go to http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1895469,00.html.
Continued success to Turner Classic Movies, the one non-news cable channel I would want to have on my mythical desert island. You may argue that classic movies are still best viewed on a big screen, and I wouldn't disagree, but TCM has made these films more accessible -- and more appreciated -- than ever.