The Van Johnson War

In honor of Memorial Day, I wanted to share some of my favorite war movies.

But there’s a catch…they all star Van Johnson.

It’s no denying that Van Johnson was one of the most sought after actors on the MGM lot during World War II. Big names like James Stewart, Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney were overseas fighting the war.

Van Johnson trying to make scrambled eggs in his helmet in "Battleground" (1949)

But Van Johnson wasn’t able to get in on the action. A car accident during the filming of “A Guy Named Joe” left him with a metal plate in his head which omitted him from going overseas to fight.

 I do like other war movies besides ones that star Van Johnson. My undying love for Van isn’t the reason I’m dedicating this post to him, but because the films that Van made give a wide variety of the different aspects of war.

 War Abroad:

A Guy Named Joe (1943): The infamous movie that made Mr. Johnson a star and oddly paired him as Irene Dunne’s love interest.  Bomber Pilot Pete, Spencer Tracey, dies on a mission and becomes the guardian angel for a young pilot named Ted.  Pete helps Ted fly difficult missions and gives him his blessing as Ted starts to romance Pete’s old girlfriend Dorinda-played by Irene Dunne. Not one character is named Joe in this movie. The title comes from American soldiers nicknamed “Joe.” Filming was halted when Van had his car accident. It took three months until he could return but Spencer Tracey insisted that they keep him in the film. To Review: It’s a good movie and you get a glimpse of Esther Williams in one of her first roles (not swimming). I will say, Spencer Tracey does ALOT of talking. Not a bad thing, it can just get tiring.

Phyllis Thaxter and Van Johnson as Ellen and Ted Lawson in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo"

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944): The true story about Dolittle’s raid on Tokyo after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story follows Van Johnson playing real life soldier Ted Lawson. Lawson and the rest of the men, including actors Robert Walker, Don DeFore and young Robert Mitchum, train for the mission and then drop bombs on Tokyo.  There are several scenes in the movie of Lawson marrying his wife Ellen, played by Phyllis Thaxter, their last times together and him remembering her. This may seem cheesy sometimes with lines like Him: “How did you get to be so cute?” Her: “I had to be if I was going to get such a good lookin’ fella.” But you have to consider the context. In Lawson’s book he said the only way he got through the war was thinking about his wife. To review: This is one of my favorite World War II movies. Very patriotic, interesting, exciting and Van Johnson. Dolittle’s troops also trained at Lake Murray which is about an hour and a half from my house.

Battleground (1949): What can I say about my favorite war movie of all time? Van Johnson is a bit older and not just the fresh faced innocent soldier. This time he’s a bit more cynical and has seen a lot more life as his character Holley. The innocent kid in this movie is played by Marshall Thompson. This is a star studded film with actors like George Murphy, Ricardo Montalbon, John Hodiak and James Whitmore. The soldiers are fighting the Battle of the Bulge and dealing with heavy fog and lack of supplies. Since this film wasn’t made during the war, it isn’t as glitteringly patriotic. The soldiers are cynical, mockingly saying, “I found a home in the Army” and you watch the new recruits change from wide-eyed babes to hardened non-believers. To review: I’ve heard that this is one of the films that veterans consider the most accurate when it comes to World War 2 movies. It’s my favorite war movie as well as one of my favorite films. I don’t just like it for the lineup of attractive male stars but also the realism. The soldiers get downtrodden and tired. It’s exciting and nail biting at times while other times make you want to cry. I think my favorite part is Leon Ames’ Christmas sermon about the “$64 question” if the men felt that the war was necessary or not.

War on the Homefront:

War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942): Van Johnson has a very small role, but never the less the film is great. The wealthy Mrs. Stella Hadley (Fay Bainter) thinks she is above the war and that everyone is making a fuss about nothing.  The attack on Pearl Harbor ruined her birthday and her family has the nerve to volunteer to help with the war effort. The widow thinks her husband’s status as newspaper publisher will keep her son away from the fighting and keep her daughter away from canteens. She thinks she can work her way out of black outs and rationing with the help of her government friends in Washington. However, Mrs. Hadley finds that even money can’t get you a break in the war. Van Johnson plays a young service man that Mrs. Hadley’s daughter, Pat (Jean Rogers), meets while volunteering at a canteen. They marry and mother disapproves. To review: I love this movie. Fay Bainter does a terrific job. Though Van has a small role, I think it illustrates how everyone wasn’t for the war when it started. I think it delivers a great message, even today. A country isn’t solely going to serve its people. You have to pitch in too.

The Human Comedy (1943): This is another early Van Johnson film. Mickey Rooney is really the star here. Fay Bainter (nice in this one) plays the mother of Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Butch Jenkins and Donna Reed. Her husband has recently died and Van is leaving to go fight in the war. The movie really shows how small town life functioned during the war. Young Mickey Rooney helps old Frank Morgan run the telegraph office. Donna Reed and her friends go to the movies with soldiers that may never come home from overseas. To review: It’s a really poignant view of small town American life during the war. Sometimes it’s beautiful and other times tragic. War movies don’t just have to be about the Pacific and European theaters. Wars also affect people at home. This paints an excellent, innocent portrait of this.

Who should Van choose? Gloria or June?

Two Girls and a Sailor (1944): The plot is very simple. June Allyson and Gloria De Haven are the Deyo Sisters, daughters of vaudeville parents. When they grow up they start their own night club act and entertain soldiers in their home after the show. A mysterious stranger donates an old warehouse to the girls so they can start a top notch canteen. Performers like Jose Iturbi, Xavier Cugat, Lena Horne and Harry James all come and perform at this club. Van Johnson is the sailor torn between the two girls with soldier Tom Drake as his competition. The whole time the girls are trying to figure out who their mysterious donor is. To review: No one ever said every movie had to be as serious as “War and Peace.” This movie’s plot may be as light as a feather but it is so much fun. It’s actually one of my favorite movies. Lots of great musical performances and sweet moments.  The movie shows how people wanted to entertain and help soldiers on leave and unselfishly let them into their homes.

By no means are these the only great war movies out there, but it’s interesting to see how one actor’s films can span so many different aspects of the war.

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Memorial Day and remember the real reason of the holiday, not just a free Monday off from work or school. Have fun and be safe.

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Classic Movies in Music Videos: “Dark of the Matinee”

I’m starting yet another new feature on “Comet” about actors and actresses, or anything classic film related, in music videos.

The video featured today is Franz Ferdinand’s 2004 song “The Dark of the Matinee” from their self titled first album.

The video doesn’t have a classic actor in it, but there are several old movie clips.

If I can tell correctly from the quick flashes of the videos, I think I spotted Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. it what looks like “Sinbad the Sailor” along with an old western and silent movie that I couldn’t determine. I think it may have been a Pearl White movie.

What movies did you pick out?

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Classic Film Beauty Tip: Jane Fonda Workout #34

Jane Fonda pregnancy workout record, Workout book and the workout VHS

What do classic film and a good work out have in common?

Jane Fonda.

In 1982, my mom bought the “Jane Fonda Workout” VHS tape.  Twenty-nine years later, my mother and myself are still doing the exercises along with Jane.

Arm circles (palms up, thumbs in) with Jane.

The workout tape isn’t something new to my family’s exercise regiment. When my oldest sister Erin was four-years-old (she is now 31), she would put on her leg warmers, leotard and a belt to look just like Jane.  When my mom was pregnant with my 26-year-old sister Andrea, the workouts helped her get her figure back quickly.

When I was little, my sisters and I would put on bathing suits and exercise with mommy. I’ve continued to work out with Jane for prom in high school and have forced myself to do the advanced exercises this summer to lose weight for swimsuit season and job interviews.

The workout has several cardio exercises and helps strengthen abs, legs, arms and butt.  The tape includes a 30 minute beginners exercise segment and an hour-long advanced workout (that will kick your butt). It’s probably one of the best work out videos out there.

This particular VHS is in high demand too. It hasn’t been released on DVD yet and is being sold for up to $72 on Amazon and Ebay.

I’ll admit that Jane Fonda isn’t the first people I think of when I hear “classic film.” I consider her one of the “new age” actors. Even her father Henry Fonda scoffed at the method acting she was learning about in acting school, according to her “Private Screenings” interview with Robert Osborne.

But Jane was born into Hollywood royalty and was getting her start in the late 1950s and 1960s. Once you get into “Barbarella”, “Klute” and getting her photo taken while sitting on North Vietnam guns, I start to lose interest.

Due to Jane’s politics, my grandparents were both a little shocked when my mom bought the work out tape. My mother’s father fought in the infantry during the Battle of the Bulge in World War 2, and my father’s dad went to West Point, fought in Korea and retired from the army in 1965.

However, politics aside, Jane Fonda gives an excellent workout!

Below is a sample of her advanced work out:

Several other actors during this time got into the fitness craze. Jane Powell had one called “Fight Back with Fitness” and Esther Williams swam once again in “Swim, Baby, Swim.” I haven’t had a chance to try either of these, but I’ll let everyone know if they work as well as Jane Fonda when I do.

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Extra, extra…

Did you that “Comet” is on Facebook and Twitter? (Photo by Horst P. Horst)

In recent weeks I’ve noticed several other classic movie blogs have been active on Twitter and Facebook.

If you aren’t following me already, invited you to follow both my Facebook and Twitter.

My Facebook page for “Comet Over Hollywood” can be found and “liked” here.  On the page I try to post every day about classic movie related photos, videos and statuses.  For example, while I was listening to Lux Radio Broadcast podcasts, I posted some of the interesting trivia that was shared in the broadcast.

FYI: If you ever get a comment on your blog page by “Jessica Noelle Pickens,” that’s me.

You can also follow me on twitter @jnpickens where I talk about classic movies, blogging and life (such as trying to find a job). (April 2017 editor’s note: Since the blog was written, my name on Twitter has changed to @HollywoodComet)

Hope to see you on the social media bandwagon!

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1939: Watching a year in films

Greta Garbo in “Ninotchka” (1939)


To most, it’s just a year that occurred a long time ago.

To the Polish, it’s when the Germans took over the country with a Blitzkrieg.

To classic movie fans, it’s a year like no other.

Sure, there are several great films that came out from the 1920s to the 1950s. “Casablanca” came out in 1942. “White Christmas” lit up the screens in 1954. But neither of those years have a plethora of unforgettable movies that have a certain extra something added to them.

Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “Ninotchka” are all givens when listing off excellent, flawless 1939 films.

But what about the other 515 American films put out in that same year?  Were they just as good?  I decided to find out.

In a crazed moment last summer, I decided to try to see every movie made in 1939. I had two criteria to make it a little easier to find the movies: They must be full-length movies, no short films; they must be American and they cannot be from television (despite being early in TV’s history, there were already experiments with made for TV movies in 1939).

I went on IMDB and got a full list of all the films from 1939. I clicked on each one, made sure it followed my requirements and then typed the title in alphabetical order into a table on Word. It took me several days to make my list due to my inefficient method.

 I was surprised to find that I had already seen 90 of the 515 movies. So far I have seen 106 and counting; this project won’t be completed any time soon.

 Through this process, I have discovered several gems during 1939 that are sometimes overshadowed by larger budget films.

 Some things I’ve discovered:

•Non-MGM films are overlooked:

-“The Rains Came” has a fantastic scene during the flood when the whole city crashes down.

-“Drums Along the Mohawk” gives Claudette Colbert the chance to be in a period film on the frontier and play alongside Henry Fonda. The movie looks fabulous in color.

High quality B movies:

-“Everybody’s Hobby” is a lot of fun with Henry O’Neil being driven crazy by his family’s hobbies.

-Freda Inescort gets the change to play a nice woman in “Beauty for Asking” with a young Lucille Ball.

Contributions to series films:

            –The first “Maisie ” movie starring Ann Sothern premiered. I adore Maisie Revere and her adventures. They are hilarious but also usually have a good moral to them. Jean Harlow was originally supposed to be Maisie before her death. I could definitely see this, but love the spark that Ann offers.

            -Two Dr. Kildare movies come out this year. “Calling Dr. Kildare” and “The Secret of Dr. Kildare,” which were the 3rd and 4th films in the series.  Laraine Day as Nurse Mary Lamont hops on board as a love interest to  Jimmy Kildare.

            -Glenda Farrell and Jane Wyman finish off the “Torchy Blane” series with the last three films.

            –Andy Hardy chases girls and has “man to man” talks with Judge Hardy in three films: “Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever,” “The Hardy’s Ride High” and “Judge Hardy and  Son.”

Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor in “Lady of the Tropics” (1939)

Stars get their first big break:

            –Fresh from “Algiers,” Hedy Lamarr was playing a love interest to Robert Taylor in her first MGM movie “Lady of the Tropics”

            -Greer Garson graced the screen in her first two films “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Remember?”

            -Lana Turner is moving away from being Cynthia Potter on Andy Hardy and making a name for herself in “Dancing Co-eds” and “Calling Dr. Kildare.”

            -Olivia De Havilland finally gets the big break she was looking for in “Gone with the Wind.”

            -Jimmy Stewart had already made waves in “Of Human Hearts” but he really showed he had leading man power in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and three other films that year.

Deanna Durbin is all grown up as she receives her first kiss from Robert Stack in “First Love.”

Joan Crawford is in color for the first time in “Ice Follies of 1939”

I could go on forever of the excellent movies (like Beau Geste, Of Mice and Men, and Real Glory) but no one wants to read 2000 words on a blog.

 All these movies had a certain magic and allowed several of our best stars to emerge. Where did it come from?

 According to the Turner Classic Movie documentary “1939,” 1939 was prolific for the United States in general. Roosevelt was helping the country work its way out of the Depression, and movies showed off this new wealth with stellar films. The industry began to take off for the next two years and then Pearl Harbor was attacked.

 World War II began for the United States and the growth Hollywood was once experiencing halted. The heyday of movies was forgotten as rationing and blackouts became a concern for the world.

After the war the movie industry would never return to the heights achieved in 1939 and American film tastes would change dramatically over the coming decades.

 I hope to discover more about the magic, and maybe see exactly what its source is when I complete all 515 films. It may be a large undertaking, but I don’t think it will be an unpleasant one.

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Actress beauty tip #12: Jean Harlow weight loss program

This is the twelfth installment of my monthly classic actress beauty tips that I have tested.  I apologize that May’s beauty tip is several days late.  Exams, graduation and moving home have been pretty hectic!

Since it’s summer and swim suit season, several of us have weight loss on the brain.  Looking at thin actresses such as Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert makes losing weight seem impossible. They are so tiny and perfect!  Who actually has a 20 inch waist?

But not all classic actresses were perpetually thin and had to work hard to keep their weight off.

Jean Harlow thin and fit due to strict dieting

In between films, Harlow would eat whatever she wanted and gain some weight.  When it came time for filming a new movie,  Harlow would have to put herself on a strict diet of salads and vegetables to get back to her thin movie weight, according to IMDB and Steal Their Style.  Towards the end of her nine-year career, she wasn’t as thin due to the illness that took her life.

Other actresses had weight issues such as Clara Bow, Joan Blondell and Shelley Winters.  Bow’s weight-along with fear of talking pictures-contributed to the end of her career.

I know eating healthy seems like a no brainer for losing weight but it is harder for some of us than others. I can sympathize with Jean Harlow about struggling to lose weight. When I want to shed some pounds, I have to be very strict with myself.  I’m not someone who can work out for an hour and then go eat a piece of pie and still look great.

Like Jean Harlow, to lose weight I have to eat very light meals. Last summer I lost a good bit of weight by eating carrots, rice cakes and blueberries for lunch. I would eat normal dinners of chicken and broccoli and breakfasts of cereal or toast.  I also have to cut out sweets completely or only eat them on rare occasions. For those of you that know me, you know this is a battle.  I have a major sweet tooth and have a hard time practicing self control. For example, if my mom makes cookies I smuggle out 4 or 5.

Once I got back to school, I was on a steady diet of Popeye’s chicken and Burger Studio from Winthrop’s food court and free Papa John’s pizza every Monday night during newspaper layout.  Needless to say I gained some weight and this was even while I was taking Yoga and Aerobic Walking.

To review: Some of us, like Jean Harlow and me, have to be very strict when we want to lose weight.  Eating lots of vegetables, fruit and meat and cutting out cake, cookies and pie helped me shed several pounds.  Happy summer and swim suit season!

***I know this review was pretty common sense, but stay tuned for June! June has an exciting, creative beauty tip that cost me some money for the one year anniversary of Comet’s beauty tips!**

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Mommies Dearest: Stage mothers, Mother’s Day Style

Happy mother’s day to all of our wonderful parents. Today’s blog post is highlighting parents that sacrificed all, sometimes even the well-being of the child, to make some of our favorite actor and actresses movie stars. Happy mother’s day!

Jackie Coogan and his parents

Jackie Coogan-Jackie Coogan started his career as a baby in vaudeville with his acting family. A age seven he was starring with Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid” (1921). All his success brought a lot of money, which his parents spent. Coogan earned roughly $3 million during his career as a child actor and his mother and stepfather spent it all.  In 1935, Coogan asked for the money he had made and his parents refused to give it to him. This resulted in the Coogan Bill which puts 15% of what a child actor earns into a trust fund. Coogan later told his young co-stars in “The Adams Family” that they were able to keep their earnings because of him.

Linda Darnell- Darnell’s alcoholic mother, Pearl Brown, had her modeling at the age of 11. In her first movie “Hotel for Women,” she was made up to look like she was in her 20’s and was only 16.  Starting out so young and marrying the young men caused Darnell to follow the same path of alcoholism like her mother. Linda Darnell once said, “”Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another. I had no great talent, and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly. But Mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.” Pearl was unpopular and overbearing in Hollywood, and gave Linda a lot of bad publicity.

Peggy Ann Garner and mother, Virginia

 Peggy Ann Garner- Garner’s mother, Virginia, started Peggy’s career as a model when she was a child and was in her first movie in 1938. Garner had a successful career throughout the 1940s in movies like “Jane Eyre” (1944) and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” but was unable to make a transition into adult films. She was in movies like “Black Widow” and several TV performances, but they were all forgettable.

Darryl Hickman- In the child star edition of the Turner Classic Movie Private Screenings, Hickman recalled asking his mother how he got into movies. She told him, “Because you wanted it so much.” Hickman asked, “I wanted to be an actor at aged 3?” I’m not sure if Hickman was pushed in to it, but this is an example of what so many parents told their children. That they wanted to be an actor but they could barely even walk or talk, let alone make decisions.

Gypsy Lee Rose/June Havoc-The famous Rose Thompson Hovick was the mother of June Havoc and Gypsy Lee Rose. Mama Rose did anything to further her daughter’s careers, particularly June. Both daughters had to wait until their mother died to write memoirs because they worried about a lawsuit.


Shirley Temple and her parents, George and Gertrude

Shirely Temple- Dickie Moore was once quoted as saying that Shirley Temple wasn’t the problem, it was her mother. Shirley’s parents encouraged her singing and dancing when she was three and she was discovered at a dance studio. Shirley’s mother, Gertrude, styled Temple’s hair with exactly 56 pin curls to look like Mary Pickford’s hair, and before every scene she would tell Shirley to, “Sparkle!” Shirley Temple faced the same fate of Jackie Coogan. Temple lived like a little princess, with a bowling alley and a life-sized play house in her backyard. However, when her career dwindled, so had the money.  After marrying Charles Black, they decided to look into her finances and it showed that much of her money had been spent to support her family-what was left belonged to her parents. There should have been $356,000 in her account, but her father, George, disobeyed court orders and kept the money, according to BBC.

Natalie Wood-After reading Suzanne Finstad’s biography “Natasha,” I’m convinced Wood’s mother Maria Gurdin was crazy. Maria wasn’t able to have a be the actress so she started to groom her daughter to do what she had always wanted to do.  Crazy things Woods’ mother did:

•To make Natalie cry in scenes, her mother pulled the wings off of butterfly wings.

•Wood famously broke her wrist in the movie “The Green Promise” and always wore a bracelet over the broken wrist. Her mother didn’t let her daughter get her wrist set with a cast because it might not let her get movie roles, therefore, she always had a lump on her wrist.

•Maria had Natalie wearing the famous pigtails until she was in her early teens so she could still get child roles. Natalie finally chopped them off out of rebellion.

•Natalie started dating a boy she met in high school, and her mother forced Natalie to break up with him. The boy had some emotional issues to begin with, but tried to kill himself (I can’t remember if he succeeded) out of depression from the break up.

•Mother encouraged Natalie to date men twice her age like Frank Sinatra and Raymond Burr because she thought it would help her career.

I know I didn’t mention Jean Harlow and Ginger Rogers, who both had famous interfering mothers.  Jean Harlow has been covered a lot in the last few months due to her birthday and new book. Ginger and her mother got along, it was just other’s who didn’t like Lela Rogers, so I left her out. Happy mothers day!

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The tears are on us: RIP Jackie Cooper

Cooper looked the same his whole life

Jackie Cooper was one of those people who looked the same all his life.  He was an adorable child, a handsome young man and then adorable again as an older man.

He had that round face that was almost too big for him as a child and large chubby cheeks which plumped up with a grin or perfectly reflected his flowing tears.

Cooper successfully went from playing the wise cracking child into being able to a adult actor; something many other child stars failed to do.

He won our hearts in “The Champ” as he steadfastly loved his alcoholic father Wallace Berry. He then tugged at our  heart-strings when tears rolled down his face when The Champ dies at the end.

Cooper later showed he could play a romantic young man to pretty actresses like Deanna Durbin in “That Certain Age.” I have to admit I thought he was rather cute and was crush worthy as a teenager.

Jackie Cooper crying

Like Margaret O’Brien and June Allyson, Jackie Cooper was famous for his crying scenes.  Once when Cooper didn’t want to cry Norman Taurog, his uncle and director of the movie “Skippy” threatened to shoot Cooper’s dog.  Joking aside about the multitude of tears, Jackie Cooper was a pretty good child actor and had a sincere childish way about him.

He acted in an era where children were allowed to be children in movies, unlike today where they seem to be little adults.  Other male actor children followed in his footsteps like the adorable Bobs Watson who cried better than any other child I’ve ever seen.

As cute as Jackie Cooper was, he also was a sort of odd-looking kid. He was pretty stocky and had a huge head.  Look at

Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Cooper and Paulette Goddard

the photo of Jackie, Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin. He’s nearly as tall as both of them, and wider than either.

I always thought Jackie Cooper seemed like a genuinely friendly man from interviews and had a really good career.  I have to admit, I wish he was the one who played Ted Nickerson in the 1930s Nancy Drew series. He seemed closer to the book character than Frankie Thomas.

Rest in peace Jackie Cooper. I hope he is able to be with his wife Barbara Kraus who died in 2009.  You will be missed, Mr. Cooper, the tears are on us. You are our Champ this time.

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A great man was born today

Happy birthday Robert Osborne! I'm not sure why we aren't best friends yet

I am not one to do a lot of birthday tribute blogs, but today is  someone’s birthday who is very close to my heart. May 3 is the day of the great Robert Osborne’s birth. Today he is turning 79.

Robert Osborne is a very special person in our household. My family knows that no one should talk as he speaks words of movie wisdom. They also know if he ever came to speak anywhere in the southeast I would be the first in line for a ticket. (I was going to go see him when he was supposed to come to Atlanta in April for a film festival, but it was canceled for lack of interest.)

There are lots of actors that I love and would have loved to meet: Van Johnson, June Allyson and would still like to meet Esther Williams and Doris Day, but they don’t seem as accessible as Robert Osborne.  Robert seems like he is a regular, friendly guy that you could go out to lunch with and just chew the fat.

I’d like to share with you this video of a very young Robert Osborne on the “Beverly Hillbillies” when he was trying out his acting skills. Wasn’t he handsome?

One of my dreams is to meet Robert Osborne.  I’m not sure who will replace Robert whenever he leaves Turner Classic Movies, but they will have a hard time filling his shoes. He IS Turner Classic Movies.

Happy birthday to the man that makes Turner Classic Movies and has helped classic film nostalgia grow in importance.

Me and Robert...the bobble head. I got this for my birthday this year

**Stay tuned this summer for a more in-depth Robert Osborne post**

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