Robert Osborne, The Elwy Yost of America


TCM host Robert Osborne is 77 now, and while there are perpetual message-board buzzings about whether or not he’s looking well, this profile by Tom Shales indicates that he’s feeling good and not planning to slow down any time soon; next month he’ll be headlining a new TCM project, the TCM Classic Film Festival, where they’ll show old movies “introduced by the people who made them” (including public appearances by the most obscure — and probably most undeserving — two-time Oscar winner of all time, Luise Rainer).

How good a host Osborne is, I can’t definitively say; I’m so used to him that he just is a part of the TCM experience. His rhythm, his inflections, his physical appearance are all something we expect before and after the movie on a weekday night. If we know the movie already, he’s like a buddy welcoming us back to something we love. If we’ve never heard of the movie, he does the job of filling us in on what we need to know without providing spoilers.

And one thing he’s particularly good at is finding the proper tone for this type of programming. TCM is basically the last place where anyone can find old movies, so while it naturally skews older, it’s also trying to draw in younger viewers, partly for business reasons and partly because if they don’t introduce young people to these movies, nobody else will. So the host cannot act as a pure nostalgia guy, expressing a wish that everything could be like it was in the good old days. (Back when PBS stations used to show old movies on a regular basis, some affiliates had hosts like that: I remember one old guy quoting from Michael Medved and ranting at us that there’s too much swearing in Goodfellas, and why couldn’t movies be clean and wholesome like White Heat, where “Jimmy Cagney didn’t even say ‘darn.'”) But he will look pathetic and needy — and drive away core viewers — if he tries to turn his introductions into special pleading, begging young viewers to give these films a try. Osborne seems to know how to get the right mix: there’s a bit of nostalgia and a bit of fan enthusiasm in there, but mostly he just seems to be treating the movies as movies — not “old” movies, not nostalgic windows into a more innocent time, just films that we might enjoy.

I think, for Ontarians, the late Elwy Yost had some of the same qualities; his introductions were more personal than Osborne’s (he freely admitted to disliking certain genres, like musicals) and he was much more of a fanboy and a nostalgia buff, but his enthusiasm and lack of condescention made any movie seem like it was going to be an immediate, current experience, no matter how old it was. Are there any old-movie hosts — local, province/state-wide, or national — who you think were particularly good at selling old movies and not making them feel like antiques?

Also, may I make another plea: for God’s sake, would TVOntario open up its archives of Elwy Yost interviews with old Hollywood actors, directors, writers and more? They’ve got perhaps the best library of such interviews, and they hardly ever show them anywhere except in tiny 30-second snippets, plus copies that were donated to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Geez, they interviewed Henry King on film, and just let him talk, and all that’s available online is the first three minutes of the interview. Free the Elwy archives!

Update: A commenter who works at TVO confirms that they are working on making the interviews available eventually, though clearing them for re-use is a complicated process:

We receive many requests for Elwy’s old interviews, and we are aware of their value. Unfortunately, releasing them for public consumption is a complicated process. Old copyrights have to be cleared, and most release forms signed by interviewees in the 70s and 80s don’t account for Internet usage. But this is something we are working on, along with our other archived content.

Thanks for the clarification, and it’s good news that they are working on it.

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Robert Osborne, The Elwy Yost of America

  1. Are you certain about the 'late' Elwy Yost, or is it he's just well-retired? I last heard he was living in the Vancouver highlands in comfort. But I completely agree — Osborne makes the movies accessible, and Yost's catalogue of interviews are a treasure that should be opened up in some form or other.

  2. You're right; I don't know why I thought he was dead. Glad to be wrong.

  3. It's funny that most Ontarians, myself included, treated Elwy's gushy enthusiasm with mild embarassment. His patter with apparently washed-up "greats" was often painful in its panting banality, and his enthusiams were certainly narrow (although I'm glad he shared his love of that nostalgic gem Margie).

    But Elwy's vision was purer than we knew, and he set about building in methodical fashion one of the greatest film history archives of all time. Best of all, he seemed to have unlimited amounts of tape on which to capture the meandering thoughts of hundreds of film pioneers.

    In fact, to be fair, Elwy doesn't even come close to being the worst celebrity interviewer of all time. That honour has to go to Skip Lowe, who was satirized by Martin Short as the character Jiminy Glick.

  4. I couldn't agree more. And disagree with the above post.

    The TVO interviews are a great reasource. It is in the interest of film buffs everywhere that they be freed.

  5. I checked out this article because of the Elwy Yost reference. He is still alive and retired in British Columbia. I work at TVO. We receive many requests for Elwy's old interviews, and we are aware of their value. Unfortunately, releasing them for public consumption is a complicated process. Old copyrights have to be cleared, and most release forms signed by interviewees in the 70s and 80s don't account for Internet usage. But this is something we are working on, along with our other archived content.

    • Thanks for the reply. I've added it to the post.

  6. As the producer of TVO's Saturday Night At The Movies, I read with great interest your posting on Robert Osborne, The Elwy Yost of America. The comparison between the two men is one I too have noticed, given that Osborne's show follows a similar format to one pioneered at TVO 36 years ago. TCM, with resources well beyond that of a public television station, has earned its place as the go-to network for old movies.
    The past four years have marked an exciting transition period for SNAM. Our focus has shifted from classic cinema to a schedule that includes more contemporary, independent and international films. We have been successful in reaching an audience that may have otherwise felt excluded by a schedule of solely classic Hollywood fare.
    The inclusion of newer films and foreign cinema has resulted in limiting the need to dip into our archives as frequently as we once did. But TVO is well aware of the value of this archive, and is by no means purposefully withholding it from the public. Rather, TVO is working to find new and better ways of giving our audience access to this extraordinary database of interviews, of which we remain very proud.

  7. Many interviews that once appeared on Saturday Night At The Movies are, or will soon be, available online. It's a complicated process, given that rights and contracts have to be considered. And as wonderful as it may seem to simply air an interview (i.e. Henry King) and “just let him talk” we would no more air an uncut interview than Maclean's would publish an unedited interview or raw transcript of an interview without proper context.

    As society and the movies change, so does the process of learning about them. New classics evolve. The roots of great cinema are not limited to the Hollywood story alone. We best serve Ontario viewers and maintain our relevance by continuing to build our archive with interviews from the important filmmakers of our time.

    I invite you to keep an eye on or for exclusive interview material – often moments that never get to air. I think you will see that we have kept our respect for our archive and remain dedicated to sharing this treasure with our audience.

  8. The "revamped" Saturday Night at the Movie stinks. Instead of being exciting, it has become as drearily dull in its movie selections as any other commercial station, and it is insulting to say that the audience for contemporary films was formerly excluded when they were were being catered to by every other channel. Now, it is the audience for older films which is being excluded, as TCM is NOT available in all areas or carried by all cable providers. If TVO were truly sincere about providing access to quality foreign films which have trouble finding a wider audience, they would have simply revived the old Film International series and allowed for a happy coexistence between the two programs. Instead, we are getting mainstream Hollywood films from the past two decades which you can guarantee have been or will be played on another station in a matter of weeks or days, and most of the foreign films they have selected are mediocrities deserving of their obscurity, chosen to fill out an inanely-themed double bill. As it is, the new SNAM is an insult to its original fan base, a subversion of the intent of public broadcasting, and is symptomatic of a broader trend in not just the general public but among so-called professionals, film journalists, scholars, and film makers themselves, in which film history is being willingly ignored and forgotten.