Remembering Robert Osborne

Beth Ann Gallagher, Karie Bible, Annie Coulter, and Deborah Rush with Robert Osborne at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Late Monday morning I was crying. A quick look at Twitter let me know something I hoped wouldn’t happen yet had. TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne had died. He’d been on extended medical leave, so I knew he wasn’t well, that he must have been seriously ill to stay away from the network and the job that meant so much to him. He was the rare person who created his own career around what he loved, film. Since he was the even rarer public person who kept his personal life private, fans didn’t know more about his condition than that. I wished like many he’d rebound.

I’m not the sort of person who jumps on the celebrity mourning bandwagon. I don’t write about someone’s passing simply to get blog hits. When I feel the loss of someone like Robert, and I’m going to be presumptuous and call him by his first name since he’s been in my living room many times, I really feel it. Chief among his many gifts was being able to connect and engage with an audience. He made me feel like he was excited to share what he knew and thought about a film because he cared–and he truly did. He wanted to pass on the knowledge and the joy of classic film. Whether you met him in person or watched him on TV, he gave you a personal experience.

I was lucky enough to meet Robert at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2007. He was there to accept an award from the festival for TCM for its contributions “to the preservation, restoration and exhibition of silent film.” He, also, introduced CAMILLE (1921). I didn’t approach him when I saw him in the Castro Theatre‘s auditorium. I don’t think he would’ve minded, but I try to be considerate of famous people’s moments of downtime. My friends and I made sure to go up to the theatre’s mezzanine for his book signing, and that’s the first and last time I met him.

Some of us bought his book, and some didn’t, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He was friendly and chatted with all of us, and he quickly and happily said yes to a group picture. While we started posing for the picture,  I wanted to let him know how much I appreciated him and his work. I don’t remember what I said to him, but whatever I said and how I said it, he paused for a moment and tilted his head, and then he responded with something nice back. I’m sorry to be vague, but I remember the quality of the moment and my emotions more than the words used by either of us.

Robert exemplified generosity. He was a consummate gentleman to all who approached him. He left people feeling good after they interacted with him. He wasn’t only an ambassador for TCM or classic film. He was someone who radiated happiness at his good fortune at being able to live the life he wanted, and he shared that happiness by making himself available until he wasn’t able to anymore.

Thank you, Robert, for giving more than you took, for being an educator and an inspiration, and for being you. You leave behind a rich legacy.

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Toronto Silent Film Festival News!

Modified Toronto Silent Film Festival 2017 Poster
The Toronto Silent Film Festival is selling early bird passes for its 2017 edition. Get yours before they run or time out! While things didn’t work out for me to attend in 2016, I’ll be there at least in published word in April. I’m very excited to be contributing a piece about CHICAGO (1927) and Jazz Age murderesses to their programme book.

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Happy Birthday, Edward Gorey!

I first got my hands on an Edward Gorey anthology as a little girl, and I devoured it. The black and white imagery of other eras, the humor, and the outrageous outcomes appealed to me. Children like their grim tales, and these were beautifully illustrated. Gorey isn’t just for children. He can be appreciated by adults, too. If you’re unfamiliar with him, but like Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, or Charles Addams, then you’re likely to enjoy Gorey. As you might suspect of someone so visual, Gorey was a film fanatic. For his eighty-eighth birthday, here’s a peek at some of the films that influenced Gorey.

We’ll start off with silent film. Amy Benfer wrote: “Gorey’s work is formatted very much like an incredibly baroque storyboard for a silent film. Each vignette alternates between panels of painstakingly ornate hand-lettered text and black-and-white illustrations. Like silent film, the juxtaposition of image and text allows us time to consider both, as separate but inseparable parts of the same work.” These silent film techniques came from watching silent films at exclusive screenings and archives.

Amongst the films screened were Louis Feuillade‘s. As someone who knew Gorey’s work first and later watched Les Vampires and Judex, I suspected an influence, and his friend Alexander Theroux wrote about it in his book The Strange Case of Edward Gorey. The fashions, the decors, the visual textures, the faces, the black humor, the surrealism, and the not always pleasant outcomes even for the good of those films are all reflected in Gorey’s work. I used to say that Les Vampires was an Edward Gorey story come to life, but it came first. Gorey put on paper the essence of these films with his own twists.

The Gilded Bat and the animated sequences for Mystery show he mined Feuillade:

We see grand old houses, detectives, mysterious figures in black, people in peril, ballet dancers, upper crust soirées, bat imagery, secret messages decoded by a mirror, criminals afoot (albeit out of frame), and settings full of visual textures–from how they were drawn to prints and fabric contrasting with other decor.

Many of the above images are found in Les Vampires scenes:

Another Gorey film favorite involves the word vampire, Carl Dreyer‘s Vampyr. Gorey said, “You don’t see a thing and I think it’s the most chilling movie I’ve ever seen. I think your own imagination does a better job.” The film is much less plot driven than Les Vampires. Vampyr is more mood-driven. Instead of criminals inflicting chaos, it is supernatural evil that causes harm. The film was almost a silent, and it has more in common with silent film than sound. Since Dreyer had to reshoot dialogue scenes in different languages for international distribution, the dialogue is minimal. The lack of plot, dialogue, and explanation married with odd imagery and sounds brings unease.

Bringing unease was Gorey’s goal. Gorey’s quoted as saying in Ascending Peculiarity, “My mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that’s what the world is like.” A film like Vampyr freed dialogue and images from meaning except what the viewer read into them. Gorey took that lesson and pushed it with the non sequitur filled The Object Lesson.

Despite the non sequiturs, our brains want to establish a plot and resolve what seems like a mystery of never ending detail that can only end badly. There is no meaning to the story, but it establishes a mood through images and text, much like movies can.

Gorey’s reputed to have consumed thousands of movies and books, he shows his influences, yet his work isn’t derivative. He uses film and literary techniques to create his own rendering of the world to reflect the realities he perceived. It’s a world we can step into opening the pages of his books, and he entertains us and makes us laugh, often out of discomfort. That might be the greatest compliment we can pay him.

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Elsa Lanchester, What A Character!

What A Character Blogathon 2012 Badge

This month I’m participating in the What A Character! Blogathon. Organized by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, the blogathon celebrates those character actors and actresses whose impact on classic film warrants as much attention and discussion as any star’s. My subject is Elsa Lanchester, best remembered today as the Bride of Frankenstein, despite a career that spanned over fifty years in film, cabaret, theatre, and television.

I ordered her out-of-print memoir, Elsa Lanchester Herself, to prepare:

Elsa Lanchester Herself Cover

I managed to score online a first edition in near fine condition with a dust jacket in similar condition and protected by a Brodart cover for a reasonable price. That was hard to do. There were a lot of ex-library and beat up copies flooding the online marketplace. That helps prove that at one time there was greater general interest in Elsa Lanchester.

I love the art deco design which extends to the decorations bookending each chapter number:

Elsa Lanchester Herself Chapter Number Art

While they appear to be peacock feathers, they manager to evoke the angle of the Bride’s very distinctive hairstyle. That must have been intentional!

And here is a sneak peak of Lanchester and her many characters:

The Many Faces of Elsa Lanchester

UPDATE: My contribution to the blogathon is now up! Click here to learn more about the talented Elsa Lanchester and her portrayal of Queenie in Bell, Book and Candle.

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