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Film culture in Buffalo in the days before Robert Osborne

Robert Osborne couldn't have made it easier.

He was so urbane, so genial, so civilized and so emblematic of avuncular American decency that he couldn't have been improved upon as America's favorite guide to classic American movies. That's what he was as the face of Turner Classic Movies. When, in 2012, he made a list of 11 favorite films for a TCM film festival, it radiated healthy, acceptability and friendliness.

That is one reason why the great classic film network will hold a two-day tribute next weekend to the man who will always be that network's favorite movie "host."

While the exploding era of "film culture" has calmed down considerably, this is a great era to learn about classic movies: to watch TCM, to see them show locally in series at the Amherst Theater or local colleges and museums or individually, at the North Park or Riviera Theater. Film culture is here to stay.

Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, who died in New York at age 84. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

But the road getting here was rough. With that, here is one-man's pocket guide to how one had to learn about classic film in Buffalo before TCM became a fixture of cable television.

A brief guide to the rough and tumble film education of movie fans back in the day.

The '50s

The Late Movie became a TV institution. The Mid-Day movie almost as quickly became another -- for a young person who was lucky enough to be home from school with the flu. (That's how I first saw Jacques Tourneur's classic film "I Walked With a Zombie.")

Consider such movie-mad pubescents and teenagers as my friend Jimmy and I as we devoured the late movie along with the huge chunks of mozzarella cheese that his mother left in the fridge. What did we care if the prints were seventh generation atrocities and if the commercials destroyed any possibility of dramatic flow? Or that the screens we were watching were slightly bigger than a breadbox?

Horror movies were de rigeur. As baby cognoscenti, character actors were our faves. We weren't immersed in directors yet, other than the obvious ones, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and John Ford.)

Among Jimmy's character actor faves was Rondo Hatton, the tragic horror star who suffered from the pituitary malady acromegaly so that his face was like a horror film mask. He remains a moral problem in movie history because he exploited himself for a career scaring people as much as movies like "The Creeper" exploited him in return.

[Robert Osborne's 'Secret Favorite Movies']

Another of Jimmy's faves was Lionel Atwill, whose remarkable leather arm in "Son of Frankenstein" will never be forgotten, especially not after Mel Brooks made such sport of it in "Young Frankenstein."

The guy I couldn't get out of my head when I was 12 was Laird Cregar. When later, a friend in the TV executive's trade was so insistent that he got me to introduce a film at Channel 29 gratis, it turned out to be "This Gun for Hire," starring Alan Ladd and Cregar.

What I didn't realize as an adolescent disturbed by his incomparable oddity was that the thing that made Laird Cregar such a memorable "heavy" in movies is not entirely that he was genuinely heavy (over 300 pounds most of his life) but that he was both a finely trained actor and a genuinely miserable man. It's the humanity beneath the evil that stays with you. When you watch his greatest films for director John Brahm -- "The Lodger" and "Hangover Square" -- deep unhappiness is underneath the frights. He was, for one thing, gay in an era of zero public sexual tolerance. While that was hardly unusual in Hollywood or the theater, it was outside it.

It was his weight and what it dictated for his movie roles, that he fought against his whole life. He continually crash dieted, finally so disastrously that he put himself into the hospital where he died.

Horror and comedy weren't all that we watched at that age but they got the lion's share of our attention. We trained with Saturday matinees at the North Park Theatre -- that immortal Edmond O'Brien double bill, for instance, where I saw "Shield for Murder" and "D.O.A." When the late movie discovered film noir, I first got a look at Don Siegel's "Private Hell 36" and became momentarily convinced that Steve Cochran and Howard Duff were the equal of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum.

Late in the '50s, foreign films arrived in a major way in American movie theaters -- Ingmar Bergman movies like "Wild Strawberries" and "The Virgin Spring" at the Amherst, risque French movies (often starring Brigitte Bardot) and British comedies at the tiny Downtown Cinema Theater. Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" was even booked into the Teck Theater on Main Street, the theater where such road shows as "Ben-Hur" and "King of Kings" were shown.

The '60s

The Era of Fred A. Keller, father of TV director Frederick K. Keller, who made "Vamping" in Buffalo. Fred A. Keller is the unofficial father of the sensibilities of so many film devotees in Buffalo history. His Circle Art and Glen Art theaters were the places where film culture first exploded, in a theater run by an actor and director. Keller sought to inculcate film culture in his hometown. In the early days, he would personally introduce each film. He was doing what he loved for the city he loved.

Fred Keller

Keller was irreplaceable in his prime. He showed us all the major films of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Bunuel, Resnais, Godard, Truffaut, Ray, Ozu, and Kurosawa. And then, in special festivals, some of us would finally see on a big screen what all those American film masterpieces looked like that we had first encountered on TV's late movie.

I remember the first time he showed Bogart and Bacall in "The Big Sleep," that there were a couple of scenes that stunned me with the black and white beauty of the cinematography. It's one of the last things that anyone ever notices about the movie but on a big screen, it was jaw dropping to watch what Howard Hawks was doing.

The art staples were at the Theater on Connecticut Street (at first) and later on Bailey Avenue. His Glen Art is where the big "Art House" hits ("A Man and a Woman") played marathon runs.

Fred was the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson of film culture in Buffalo. And, as an actor, no matter how far over the top he went, he was still capable of performing, at a moment's notice, Samuel Beckett's one-act play "Krapp's Last Tape" at the Circle Art.

The late '60s and early '70s

Film culture arrives in full. Suddenly the State University of Buffalo in its "Berkley of the East" era became a great venue for seeing film. The University's old Norton Union on Main Street didn't have the greatest screen in the world but you could see films there that were so esoteric that even Keller wouldn't show them. I remember seeing Kon Ichikawa's "Fires on the Plain" and marveling at its ending.

The late '70s and '80s

Film culture bliss. The Evans Art Theater went into full swing and Gerald O' Grady brought to us two irreplaceable film institutions, his Media Study Department at UB and the independent and separate entity called Media Study on Delaware Avenue. Under the auspices of the first, O'Grady was brought incredible Hollywood figures such as Frank Capra to speak at film programs. Under the second, we could see Hans Jurgen Syberberg's "Our Hitler," a film that, in other years, we would have had to be content reading about in huge pieces by Susan Sontag in the New York Review of Books.

Film culture bliss became routine with cable TV and video where we could freely rent or buy so many of the obscurities we had read or heard about but could never actually SEE.

Then, after contenting ourselves with Elwy Yost's movie favorites on "Saturday Night at the Movies" from Toronto's Channel 5 one night a week, Robert Osborne and TCM arrived to keep America wide open every day of the week while a great television gentleman, if ever there was one, told their story.



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