Robert Osborne, The Elwy Yost of America - Macleans.ca

Robert Osborne, The Elwy Yost of America

by

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.

Filed under: