Elwy Yost, host of Saturday Night at the Movies, has died at the age of 86. Read Christopher Bird’s excellent tribute to him in Torontoist. And go once again to TVO’s recently-launched Public Archive, where some of Yost’s interviews with classic movie people were posted (in the form of “Talking Film” half-hours) earlier this year.
I’ve said many times before that Yost’s work on Saturday Night at the Movies opened up a new world for me, especially the interviews. He didn’t just go for stars, though he interviewed them when he could; he looked for anyone who was directly involved with the movies or stars he was featuring. The first Saturday Night at the Movies I ever saw was a Marx Brothers double bill (Night at the Opera and Day at the Races) which my parents videotaped for me, a VHS tape I then wore to the bone, if VHS tapes had bones. During the interview segments, he talked mostly to people who had written for the Brothers: Nat Perrin, a writer on Duck Soup and The Big Store, and Irv Brecher, writer of two other Marx Brothers pictures. I didn’t even understand all they were talking about, but I did understand some of it – like Perrin’s controversial criticism of Duck Soup, which he didn’t think turned out that good – and I liked some of the anecdotes about what it was like to work with the Brothers.
By the time it was over, I not only knew more about the stars of the film, but what it was like to be a writer in Hollywood, what writers contributed, and the fact that screenwriters and directors even existed. Yost was quite good about this – he wasn’t an auteurist, focusing on the greatness of directors, and even did a segment where Pauline Kael and others attacked that whole idea. But he also wasn’t a star-ist like many movie hosts. (Some hosts will tell you only about the star and nobody else.) He would do segments on directors like John Ford and Ernst Lubitsch, producers like Darryl Zanuck, cinematographers, composers – an education not only on what these different people did but what, exactly, these people were like. This was helped, as I often say, by the use of long interview chunks, allowing the interviewees to reveal themselves at length. It’s very different from the segments TVO started doing after he left, where they would take very short interview clips and cut them together to comment on a theme of interest to film buffs or film students. That can still be educational about moviemaking, but not so much about movie people.
We have a somewhat personal relationship with classic movie hosts, even more than most hosts, I think – because people like Robert Osborne (who hopefully will recover from his upcoming operation) introduce things we may not have seen before, and put it in context for us; most of the people involved are dead, so they’re our link to a lost world. Yost was, for me and many other people who watched him on TVO, a link to a world that no longer exists, and his enthusiasm about that world made us enthusiastic too.
Here’s Yost doing an interview with DeWitt Bodeen, the writer of several of Val Lewton’s horror films, followed by critic Charles Champlin, who seemed to turn up as an Expert Witness in a lot of these segments. And here he is talking to Fox’s most prolific director of the ’30s and ’40s, Henry King (The Gunfighter, 12 O’Clock High).