Sunday, March 7, 2010
Film Geek Flashback: Saturday Night at the Movies
If you are a Canadian from Ontario, then chances are you have seen “Saturday Night at the Movies,” a program which airs on the provincial owned and operated channel TVO (Television Ontario). Furthermore, if you are/were a film geek with limited access to classic films, “Saturday Night at the Movies” is/was an absolute Godsend, ever since its debut 36 years ago.
The format of the program is simple: every Saturday, two films are aired which are connected in some manner, be it by director, stars, genre, content, etc. In between the films are segments which interview various filmmakers, stars, and critics, exploring film related topics in a meaningful and detailed manner. Most often, the films shown are of noted historical significance or lesser known titles, presented commercial free and (most often) uncensored.
While its place on television might be more questionable in the era of digital television, special edition DVDs/Blu-Rays and digital downloading, I cannot stress just how important “Saturday Night at the Movies” was for me growing up. As I noted in the first Film Geek Flashback, I grew up in a small town, where access to classic and foreign films was limited at the time, as were books and other informational pieces on filmmaking. As such, “Saturday Night at the Movies” was my gateway to seeing the works of Frank Capra, Orson Welles, Ray Harryhausen and Stanley Kramer among others, and to learning about the importance and relevance of these people and their films.
However, what really made the program memorable in the olden days weren’t the films or the interviews, as great as they often were. No, what truly made “Saturday Night at the Movies” was the host: Elwy Yost, a man so identified with the show that people often referred to the program by his name rather than by its title. Yost wasn’t some slick television presenter of the likes we see these days, who are more interested in trying to look clever, young and hip than discussing film. No, Yost was (and is) a full blown, card carrying film geek of many years.
And damn, he was proud of it.
Gentle and reassuring, Yost was one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever seen discussing film, wanting to share his love of cinema with anyone who would listen. He wanted YOU to be part of the cinema geek club, to take in the films and have them be part of your life as much as they seemed to be part of his. One of the famous stories told about Yost which illustrates this point was that he once took his son out of school to take him to a screening of Citizen Kane. True story or not, that was the kind of love that radiated off the man towards cinema every week, and what made the show so special for its fans.
I will never forget when I was a kid in the late 1990s and Yost held what I believe was a day long marathon run of films one Saturday. I was supposed to be doing homework, but my eyes were glued to the screen as Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad aired early in the afternoon, along with the eyes of my younger brother. It was a joy to watch, and was made all the more so because Yost was there, beaming like a kid in his introduction of the film. The man looked like a respectable adult, but secretly, he was one of us kids. At least, it felt like that, and I am sure that I was not alone when he was on the air.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and Yost retired in 1999. While “Saturday Night at the Movies” continues to this day, it is notable that its attempts at replacing Yost with a new host were short lived. Unlike long running institutions like “The Tonight Show” or “Saturday Night Live” which are able to reinvent themselves around new personalities, “Saturday Night at the Movies” is a show that has a very specific need of its host. The host needs to let the subject matter be bigger than anything else, yet not fade into the background at the same time. Not many people are able to pull this off, so it is no surprise that the idea of a host was dropped altogether.
These days, “Saturday Night at the Movies” is connected to the film department at York University in Toronto, and is in the hands of individuals who labour with love behind the scenes of the show to continue the work Yost did for 25 years. Still, the show does not quite fill the same need as it had in the past, with classic films more readily accessible thanks to digital media. Film websites and forums are a dime a dozen these days, leaving fans plenty of places to participate in meaningful conversation (as well as plenty of places to engage in meaningless conversations. I am looking at you Ain’t it Cool News). And of course, Turner Classic Movies has cornered the market on film history, often showing better quality prints of films, commercial free, almost all day long. Yet, when looking back, there will always be a place in my heart for “Saturday Night at the Movies,” and perhaps for some young film geek out there, it is filling the same need that I myself once had.