If a network is going to trace the history of film, Turner Classic Movies is the most appropriate one.
It’s about to reaffirm that, as it nears its 20th anniversary, with a series – and series of movies – that will run for most of the rest of the year. The initiative is built around “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” a 15-part documentary to be offered in weekly chapters Mondays starting at 10 p.m. Monday.
Director-writer-narrator Mark Cousins’ retrospective goes decade by decade through movie history, starting in the era of 1902’s “A Trip to the Moon” and going up to such recent (in TCM terms) releases as 2000’s “Gladiator.” Besides being excerpted in the documentary, many of those features will be shown in full on Mondays and Tuesdays, introduced by TCM staple Robert Osborne.
“It does give a basic history of film,” Osborne said of the documentary, “and it gives enough for us to follow it up by showing the films. Between now and December, it allows us to show things like ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ … this wide mix of great films. We can introduce to fans of the channel some of these films they’ve always heard about, and they can see them in context.”
Also a veteran Hollywood reporter and historian, Osborne admitted even he is a newcomer to some of the featured movies.
“There are some obscure Indian films that I’ve never heard of,” he said. “And there are things like ‘Breathless’ that we only show every now and then on TCM.
“There’s something called ‘Never Weaken’ from 1921, and I’ve never heard of that before. And ‘Osaka Elegy,’ from Japan in 1936 – I don’t know that. But then there are things like ‘Safety Last’ and ‘Metropolis.’ And ‘I Am Curious (Yellow).’ When I was in college, that was such a notorious film with all its nudity and stuff, we all piled in to see that.”
TCM titles linked to “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” also run to more popular ones such as “Citizen Kane,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “A Fistful of Dollars,” “The Graduate,” “M*A*S*H,” “Cabaret,” “Chinatown” and “Jaws.” As Osborne confirmed, “This is an incredible mix of stuff.”
However, one inclusion prompted him to place a phone call to England to one of its stars: Peggy Cummins, the female lead in the 1950 cult-classic crime drama “Gun Crazy” (being shown in the wee hours Oct. 2).
“They had one of those Scarlett O’Hara-type talent searches for the lead in ‘Forever Amber,’ ” Osborne recalled. “It was a sensational book, so popular, and this British girl named Peggy Cummins got it. They started filming, and while she was absolutely gorgeous, she photographed way too young for the part of Amber and to be doing all this scandalous stuff.
“They put her in some other films, and she finally went back to England, but she came back to do ‘Gun Crazy,’ which originally was called ‘Deadly Is the Female.’ It was a B picture, and nobody paid any attention to it, but years later, it was discovered as a great film noir. Which absolutely stunned her.”
Now, Osborne noted, “To see it on a list of films celebrating the greatest movies ever made, it just tells you that you never know.” And he explained of his Cummins phone call, “She’s British, so she doesn’t get that excited about anything. She enjoyed making that movie, but she also knew it wasn’t any big deal. She was just dumbfounded that it was on that list.”
On the cover: Buster Keaton stars in “The General,” airing at 11:15 p.m. Sept. 9 on TCM.