The film airing on Turner Classic Movies as we write these words is “Babes in Arms,” a 1939 musical pairing Judy Garland with Mickey Rooney. There are many Garland-Rooney mash-ups, but this is the one where the former child stars, then in their late teens, were tortured by the task-master stylings of director Busby Berkeley — the World War I lieutenant-turned-choreographer and filmmaker, whose films, including “Dames” and “Gold Diggers of 1933,” featured platoons of leggy dancers marching in eye-popping geometric patterns.
You know who knew far, far more about “Babes in Arms” than us? Robert Osborne. For over 20 years, since their first broadcast in 1994, the movie nut and bon vivant was the face of Turner Classic Movies. It’s impossible to think of the channel — or even about Golden Age Hollywood — without thinking of Osborne, in his smart Guffey’s of Atlanta suits and his dapper airs. His intros and outros, stuffed silly with trivia and miscellany, lulled viewers back to an era that truly only existed as myth, beamed dozens of feet tall onto movie palace screens, away from the cruelties of the real world.
Sadly, Obsorne’s tenure has abruptly ended. He has died, at the age of 84. The words “Hi, I’m Robert Osborne” will only be heard again on repeats, or on broadcasts captured by savvy techies and uploaded to YouTube.
Osborne was never himself a movie star. He wanted to be. The movie bug bit him, he said, in 1941 at the age of 9, when his mother bought him a copy of Modern Screen, one of countless movie rags from an even more movie-mad era. He tried to make it, but he never excelled past bit actor in commercials and on TV.
Along the way, though, he made lots of friends. Lucille Ball took a liking to him, and later so did Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Lana Turner. He befriended the fallen gods of the movies in the 1960s, back when the likes of Heddy Lamarr and Paulette Goddard had been forgotten, before Hollywood’s most glamorous era became the fetish object it is today.
Osborne helped lead that movement. He wrote his first book in 1965, about the history of the Oscars. He made appearances on Dinah Shore’s show. He was a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter.
But it wasn’t until TCM was born that he found his niche. From its infancy up till his death, Osborne was a TV star, perhaps as famous as the icons he introduced. He shared the screen, if you will, with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck. He actually shared a small screen with people like Alec Baldwin, who would swing by TCM to hold court with the channel’s own star, talking and sometimes debating the great movies.
There was a scare back in 2011, when Osborne took a four-month absence. It wasn’t a medical leave; he said he simply needed to refuel. When he was gone TCM didn’t feel like TCM. The channel’s honchos, including Ted Turner himself, never seemed to think about what it would do without its leading man. The idea of Turner Classic Movies without him seemed impossible.
The good news is Osborne helped birth a cottage industry of Hollywood heads — people like Karina Longworth, host and writer of the popular podcast “You Must Remember This,” who’ve taken the baton and run with it, helping tell the stories that haunt the industry. Osborne helped preserve history, spread cine-literacy and hipped us to untold great films. Let’s never forget them nor Osborne himself.