When it comes to old films, Robert Osborne is hard to stump. But this time he had to consult his notes.
"Hold on, it's so obscure, even I don't remember the name of it," said Osborne, who has served as the main on-air host of Turner Classic Movies for 19 years, in the process becoming one of America's most recognizable cinephiles.
Osborne was boning up to introduce the little-known movie — a 1939 B picture from RKO called "Sued For Libel" — for an upcoming series the cable network has planned. "It's not just all the big, fancy important movies that we air," said Osborne, reached in New York, where he lives. "Sometimes I just want a simple movie. Sometimes I don't want French food. Sometimes I just want a burger."
PHOTOS: Behind-the-scenes Classic Hollywood
Determining what makes a movie worthy of the classic designation — and being on the receiving end of countless passionate opinions about it — is an occupational hazard at TCM. Indeed, for many classic film fans, arguing about a movie's merits fills the place that debates about sports or politics might otherwise. Who's the better silent-era comic — Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton? What's Humphrey Bogart's best film noir — "The Big Sleep" or "The Maltese Falcon"? Which was the better decade for American cinema — the 1930s or the 1970s?
Fans will get their chance to weigh in on questions like these when the cable network's fourth annual Classic Film Festival opens April 25 in Hollywood and includes a smorgasbord of noteworthy vintage fare. There will be world premiere restorations of Keaton's silent comedy "The General," the 1963 prison break movie "The Great Escape" and the 1968 Barbra Streisand musical "Funny Girl."
And there will also be less obviously classic choices such as the 1959 Ed Wood sci-fi thriller "Plan 9 From Outer Space," which is best known for its badness; the 1970 satire of Soviet life "The 12 Chairs," familiar primarily to Mel Brooks completists; and the 1980 Zucker brothers disaster spoof "Airplane!," starring noted 7-foot-2 thespian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Returning old movies to theaters has become a surprisingly robust business in recent years, even in an era of jumbo home TVs and easy access to studio catalogs on DVD and Blu-ray. TCM's festival draws fans paying up to $1,599 for four-day passes that allow them to meet film idols and fellow movie buffs and see films rarely exhibited on the big screen. Seventy percent of the festival passes sell to attendees from outside California, but the event, which draws about 25,000 people, also does a solid walk-up business for individual films, said TCM's senior vice president of programming Charlie Tabesh.
The same week in Hollywood, the American Film Institute, in a partnership with Target, is screening 13 films it considers classics, with celebrity guests including Samuel L. Jackson presenting "Pulp Fiction," Demi Moore with "Ghost" and an entry from the current century — Mike Myers with a screening of "Shrek." Also featured will be stars representing older films such as Sidney Poitier with "In the Heat of the Night" and Peter Fonda with "Easy Rider."
PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments
"Our goal is to represent the movies in the most vast and varied way," said AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale. "A classic is a film that has stood the test of time and one that continues to echo across the years. But the more recent a film is, it becomes much more of a personal decision."
A movie's popularity over time, its critical commendation and Academy Awards all play a role in earning a spot on TCM, as does its place in the career of a particular director, star or era of filmmaking.
"Some people think we shouldn't show anything after 1970," said Tabesh, a kind of human Internet Movie Database who selects the films for the festival. "Some people say 1960. Some people say 'Jaws' and the blockbuster era should be the cutoff. But we don't put any sort of hard definition on it, it all comes down to context."
By context, Tabesh means the story the network can tell around a film. For instance, Jane Fonda will be getting her handprints and footprints enshrined at the Chinese Theatre beside her father's during this year's festival — in conjunction, organizers will screen the only movie father and daughter ever co-starred in, the 1981 drama "On Golden Pond."
Like an enthusiastic children's party planner, TCM also loves its themes. This year's festival theme is travel in the movies — hence "Airplane!," with its jive-speaking stewardesses and control tower mayhem, fits alongside "The African Queen," with Bogart and Katharine Hepburn bickering their way up a reed-filled river during World War I.
The age of the viewer can play a key role too. For a festival that includes nearly century-old films, TCM's event has a surprisingly young audience, with an estimated two-thirds of attendees younger than 49.