For classic movie aficionados, it may be the most crucial 4 minutes and fifty seven seconds of programming Turner Classic Movies airs all year. Each December, the Atlanta-based basic cable celluloid wonderland debuts its annual TCM Remembers in memoriam tribute to the Hollywood stars both big and small who have died over the past 12 months. The remembrance airs between films on the channel through Jan. 1. The artfully created clip reels are so beloved, film fans routinely upload them to share with each other on YouTube. Then they search online to determine the music used as the soundtrack to the piece, wait breathlessly to see which fallen star is assigned the solitary piece of dialogue in each tribute and who has been given the coveted final fade out position in the piece. The tribute is so highly regarded by film fans that many gripe on message boards that the producers of the annual Academy Awards’ often-botched In Memoriam piece could learn from the TCM Remembers production team.
The Hollywood legends lost and honored in this year’s tribute include actor Farley Granger, actress Jane Russell, actor James Arness, actor Peter Falk, actress Betty Garrett, former child actor Jackie Cooper, composer John Barry and director Sidney Lumet. Tonight starting at 8, TCM host Robert Osborne will pay a full-length tribute to Russell, Falk, Lumet, Cooper and others who passed away this year with an evening of their films.
In an interview with Atlanta magazine, TCM on-air producer Scott McGee (who produced this year’s “TCM Remembers” tribute) and Pola Changnon, TCM vice-president of on-air production discussed the often arduous process of compiling the piece.
“I’ve been with TCM for 11 years and over those years I’ve gotten into this morbid habit of keeping a list of all the notables who have passed on during the year,” explains McGee. “I scour the various news agencies and take note of even the most obscure names. I don’t make any judgments about whether they should be included. The important thing is to compile a master list for us to work from.”
Changnon says who gets included and who gets left on the cutting room floor can spark many animated discussions at the classic film network’s Midtown offices. “One of the things Scott managed to do so well with this year’s tribute was to really pack ‘em in to describe it in a less delicate way. Often, it comes down to the musicality of the piece, the beats of the piece and how many people you can fit in there and still pay a level of respect to the departed. We don’t want it to be so fleeting that it becomes a crazy montage. There are those times when it goes through a filtration process. We always ask ourselves: ‘Will our audience connect with this person?’” It’s always difficult because it’s impossible to include everyone.”
As Changnon notes, the piece of music selected to accompany the film images is a critical part of the package. This year, indie band OK Sweetheart’s “Before You Go” was plucked from iTunes obscurity to provide the soundtrack. In years past, TCM producers have selected tracks from Steve Earle, Badly Drawn Boy, Joe Henry and Sophie Hunger. “Throughout the year, our producers have their ears open to certain songs that we earmark for the TCM Remembers piece,” explains McGee. “This year, OK Sweetheart was something I quite literally stumbled across in my iTunes library. I’m not even entirely sure how it ended up in there, to be honest. But when I listened to it, I had that feeling of ‘This could work.’” Adds Changnon: “The fact that most of the songs we select aren’t recognizable, to me, is a benefit. When you’ve heard a song before, you’re bringing a story to it with you. When you’re hearing something for the first time, it can work better because as a listener you’re not bringing anything to it yet. Scott’s images are what you are going to associate with it.”
For this year’s tribute, Peter Falk’s classic line “As you wish” at the end of 1987’s “The Princess Bride” is used as the single isolated audio clip in the piece while Elizabeth Taylor walking away in the rain in 1954’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris” provides the tribute’s effective final image.
“It was never a question that Elizabeth Taylor would go last,” says McGee. “It’s just a matter of sizing up who the biggest, most notable personality was of the year. It was never any question that in 2011 that Hollywood death was Elizabeth Taylor’s.”
With the final cut of the 2011 edition of TCM Remembers finished and now airing, McGee and Changnon joke that a solitary prayer goes out to all the aging Hollywood icons from the TCM Remembers production team as the remaining days of the year tick by. Says Changnon: “Hang on through the holidays, please!”
To watch the 2011 TCM Remembers piece, go to tcm.com.