Chances are something like this comes to mind for many the first time the name Ted Turner is mentioned...that dreaded word, colorization. (To be fair, I don't believe Turner's group ever colorized "My Man Godfrey," which apparently has undergone the process from multiple companies.)
Yes, in the second half of the 1980s Turner was active in colorizing old movies, but to remember him primarily for that is like remembering the Beatles chiefly for the pretentious "The Sun King"...or, for that matter, primarily remembering Carole Lombard for "Fools For Scandal" (shudder). That's because where classic films are concerned, Ted Turner's good deeds way outweigh his venial sins of colorizing -- and by a wide margin, too.
Say what you will about Ted's politics, his ownership of sports franchises, or what have you -- but as a businessman, so often he's been playing chess when the rest of us were playing checkers. A blogger who labels himself "Dr. Film" recently sang his praises in an entry (http://www.drfilm.net/blog/?p=94), where he says of Turner: "Ted may be the single greatest contributor to film preservation in the history of the 20th Century. He’s certainly in the top 10."
Dr. Film then provides proof:
In 1986, a decade after turning his Atlanta UHF station WTCG into superstation WTBS, with a satellite reach across America, and six years after establishing CNN, America's first cable news channel, Turner purchased the floundering MGM/United Artists studio, which, thanks to "Heaven's Gate" and other disasters, somehow had sunk even lower than when MGM famously sold off its memorabilia and backlot acreage in 1970.
Finding it difficult to get a full-fledged movie studio going, Turner gradually sold all the assets...except for its film library, which then consisted of the entire Warners library pre-1948 and the entire MGM library to 1986. (Some years later, Turner also acquired most of the film library from RKO.) Dr. Film continues:
"All of this material was deemed worthless by most experts. It had been played to death on local television over a period of 30 years. There was no real home video market for any but a few titles.
"Amazingly, Turner did what no one else would do. He poured money into preservation. New 35mm prints were made for distribution to theaters. MGM’s restoration efforts, which had started years earlier, were stepped up and enhanced. Turner entered the home video market, even the laserdisc market, which was just starting. Anything that even had a chance of selling was issued.
"When TNT (Turner Network Television) launched in 1988, Ted scheduled it full of films that hadn’t been seen in years. They were all transferred from beautiful 35mm prints. That lasted until he found he could make more money with newer material, so the movies got forced out. Those were great days at TNT, though, because there were movies shown there that have rarely been screened since. In the early days of the channel, everything was fair game."
If you're a fan of James Cagney (above), or of Norma Shearer, Loretta Young or Warren William, you probably can thank Turner for helping make it possible. Many of those films restored for TNT in its early years were films from the first several years of talkies, movies often kept out of programming packages in the '50s and '60s because over-the-air stations deemed them too racy to show to family audiences. By the end of the '80s, their sexuality hardly raised an eyebrow, and TNT began showing them; very few of the viewers had ever seen them before. They were a revelation. Turner, and TNT, frankly don't get enough credit for being a significant catalyst in the pre-Code revival.
As stated, TNT eventually evolved into an all-purpose channel, adding sports and newer (sometimes original) programming. But never fear -- quoting Dr. Film again:
"Turner started Turner Classic Movies in 1994 following [American Movie Classics’] model. He also made sure that anyone picking up TCM had to pick up WTBS and TNT as well, guaranteeing that he’d have some extra income from the movies.
"Ted felt that the best thing he could do was treat his investment with respect so that he could make as much money off it as he could. I say more power to him. Some people look at classic film as some supreme royal sacrifice, something that one does just for art’s sake. Turner did it and made it pay. And he made it pay the right way. Restoration, video availability, cable showings, 35mm booking prints."
Some 17 years after its launch, TCM -- with a far bigger library at its disposal -- not only effectively drummed AMC out of the classic movie business, but took that business to unimaginable heights. Of course, Turner himself has long been out of the picture, having sold his broadcast empire to TimeWarner some years back.
And how important is film preservation? Here's a "how not to do it" example from Dr. Film:
"We only need look to the example set by Hallmark recently for the other end of the spectrum. They purchased the Hal Roach back library, rather unenthusiastically, as a tax loss investment. They were begged to release Laurel and Hardy films, maybe some Charley Chase titles. SOMETHING. Eventually, Turner Classic Movies got a package out of them. Hallmark couldn’t be bothered to look through what they had. They didn’t care, and the materials languished. Thank heaven UCLA now has all of it and is giving it the care it deserves. The problem is that this stuff could have made them money -- maybe not a lot, but some."
Moreover, as Dr. Film so deliciously notes: "I love the irony that Warner Brothers bought back their own, 'worthless' catalog of films when they bought Turner Broadcasting. Who’s really crazy?"
I've met Ted twice, though he wouldn't know me from Adam. In November 1977, I was working for a newspaper in Macon, Ga., and went up to Atlanta to write a story on the Hawks' surprising start. I saw Turner at work with his front-office staff, gearing up for that night's game against Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers, and his energy was evident.
Nearly five years later, during the NFL players' strike, the players' association held an all-star game at RFK Stadium in Washington that was carried over WTBS. After the game, Ted met the players in the locker room and congratulated them on a job well done. (If NFL brass was upset with him, it soon faded, because in 1990 TNT began a package of Sunday night games for several years.)
Anyway, as a classic movie fan there's so much to thank Ted Turner for...something you should remember this Sunday when you sit down to watch Carole Lombard.