Remembering Robert Osborne: Classic Film’s Greatest Ambassador

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“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne, and this is Turner Classic Movies.”

Such was the beginning of many of an adventure I embarked on as a teenager when I began my transformative foray into the world of classic film. After an introduction from Osborne, I traveled to Casablanca where I first met Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman , Claude Rains and Peter Lorre, and was given a taste of the sacrifices that were made by the WWII generation who brought an end to the evil of Hitler and Nazi Germany. With Osborne as my guide, my virtual Virgil if you will(Dante’s Inferno readers will get this), I plumbed the devilish depths of film noir and the creative genius of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. On a lighter note, I got the scoop behind Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe’s “Some Like it Hot”(“she kissed like Hitler,” Curtis had said of Monroe). Actors who passed on years before I was born, such as Lillian Gish, Rudolph Valentino, Bogart, Rains, Orson Welles, Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth and many, many more quickly made their entrance to the forefront of my cinematic imagination, and they’ve never left.

Although I had been fascinated by classic movies since I was a child, it was TCM’s erudite and dapper Osborne who instilled a deep and abiding love for the silver screen in my heart. By the time I was a college student, I simply couldn’t watch a classic film without Osborne setting up the story for me, and concluding it with a pithy behind-the-scenes observation that I wouldn’t have learned elsewhere. It eventually progressed to the point where I felt I was being cheated if I watched a classic film without Osborne to impart the knowledge and insight I felt I needed to get everything I could get out of what I was watching. A few years ago, when I went with my mom to see Gone with the Wind on the big screen for the first time (a big moment for me!), I felt like a teenager at a rock concert when the screen lit up and Osborne appeared to introduce the film.

“Mom, that’s Robert Osborne!” I cried, a little too loud and a little too giddily.

“Who?” she asked.

“Never mind. He’s the guy from TCM who knows everything about movies.”

And it was true. Osborne was, for all intents and purposes, the world’s most famous film appreciation teacher. Sure, there are other film critics and presenters whose knowledge is as prolific as his (although I doubt there are too many), but Osborne was mainstream. Through his work at TCM, he was given the ability to touch young and old alike. Osborne carried himself with a class that embodied the glory days of Hollywood itself, and combined with the efforts of TCM, he introduced the great film classics to a new generation that has been all too willing to eschew movies that are black-and-white in favor of more CGI-laden fare. Osborne, who had worked in the film industry and thus, was personally acquainted with many of its biggest stars, had a way of bringing them back to life for us, a way of resurrecting a time that is rapidly receding from our collective memory. Osborne allowed me to imagine a world where my great-grandparents donned their best clothing, took off in their Model T or Model A, paid a dime or a quarter(whatever the going rate was at that time) to see the latest Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton flicks in the movie theatre that once existed in their little town. I mourn that lost world as I mourn him. Although Osborne and his connection to that bygone world are irreplaceable, it’s now up to my generation to pick up the torch where he left it and show the world that classic films are not simply relics of the past, but are a vastly important piece of our cultural heritage with themes that still provide a mirror to our nature as humans; themes of love, hatred, anger, and fear that are melded into tales that can still speak to us if we are willing to listen. By tuning into a movie that was made 50 years before we were born, one may discover that the film’s lack of color and technological sophistication is more than redeemed by its artistry and the depth of its characters and plot, and although the actors may dress and talk a tad differently than we do, in the areas that count, they are very much like ourselves.

Thank you, Robert Osborne, for teaching this young GenXer (old Millennial?) the value of films that were made long before I was born. It is a gift I’ll carry with me always. Rest in peace.Osborne camera