What Makes a “Classic” Film A Classic?

“What really makes a classic film a classic?”

Ahhh. The age old question. Classic film fans have mulled it over for years. We’ve argued about it, fought about it, unfriended “friends” online in a fit of righteous indignation over it (only to sheepishly friend them again them later) and yet there remains no definitive answer that thoroughly satisfies every classic film fan. Is a classic film only a classic because it was made between a certain era in cinema history, say, 1930 and 1959? Is a classic film only a classic because it has an A-list cast or A-list director? Just what are the magic ingredients that keep viewers coming back again and again after 60, 70, 80 years?

This was the question once posed by writer Ted Elrick, his answer coming in the form the essay Classic is in the Eye—and Mind—of the Beholder (as published in DGA News Magazine, Feb. 1992). Elrick posed the daunting question of defining the elusive qualities which differentiates a “good movie” from a “classic film” to over 100 people working in the entertainment industry at that time. Many of them were veterans of the classic silver screen themselves who were still with us when the story went to print back in 1992.  (Hey, if anyone knows the answer to the classic film quandary, surely it’s the people who actually made them.)

Below are a few of the highlights from this insightful piece, which was written at the height of the industry’s first major rally in Washington on the issue of film preservation (a battle that first began in the late ’80s). Emotions were high at the time, and everyone from Woody Allen to Ginger Rogers made visits to D.C. to protest the practice of colorization, vocally challenging the notion that colorizing films somehow broadened their appeal to younger generations. The fact that colorization was a “solution” for distributors to actually make money from black and white films is heartbreakingly explained in this 1986 New York Times piece: ‘People just don’t like black and white … Every time we went to sell something to [the distributors], they’d say, ‘Well, this is only worth so much, because it’s black and white.’ So we thought, well, if these pictures were in color, they’d command a much bigger price.”  It was, of course, an egregious case of sacrificing art for commercialism and the battle made national news.

And so, with the words “classic film” suddenly thrown back into the public vernacular, Elrick seized the chance to try and get a clear idea of what “classic” actually means.

Do you agree with their answers?

GENE KELLY

A classic film must stand the test of time, have universality of appeal, and be a reflection of the society at the time it was made, but must not seem dated.

CHARLES CHAMPLAIN

An impossible question. A  classic film is one that was not quite like those that went before and was not quite like those that followed.

KATHARINE HEPBURN

Something that lasts. If they really last I would say they fit the description of a classic. … Universal truth and something that appeals to everyone. The reason of life.

ROBERT WISE

The elements that go into making a film a classic are a timeless story and a script that have a meaningful subtext, outstanding direction that enhances the script, great ensemble acting by the cast and exceptional cinematic treatment in every department.

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS

A classic film takes us into an experience and grounds us into something eternal.

ARTHUR HILLER

A classic film is one that leaves me intellectually stunned and so emotionally drained that I can’t get up from my seat. It accepts and incorporates the established conventions of art of filmmaking and takes it to the highest levels or artistic superiority that it stands the test of time.

JACK LEMMON

A classic film is not necessarily of a time. Whatever its theme was, whatever its point of view was, it was not only pertinent then, it’s pertinent now. (his example: Citizen Kane)

Sunset Bvd.

DAVID LYNCH

When a film creates a world and characters that you are compelled to visit again and again, it is a classic. (His examples: Sunset Blvd, Rear Window, Lolita, 8 ½)

JAMES STEWART

That’s a very tough question when you come right down to it. More than ever, it’s survivability.

MILOS FORMAN

Any film you can watch after 20 years without embarrassment has a chance to become a classic.

ROD STEIGER

If a picture’s not credible, then it can’t be memorable. [It must] touch upon great truth.

JOHN LEVIN (agent)

A classic film is one that continues to amuse, move or frighten years of moviegoers with the appreciation and passion deepening with each new generation. (His example: The Wizard of Oz)

DIANE CAIRNS (ICM agent)

A film that captures a past generation’s heart, challenges a present generation’s mind, and nourishes a future generation’s soul.

STANLEY DONEN

A film is a classic because it is unique in conception and execution and it exposes human weaknesses and strengths with a cinematic eloquence and beauty which enlightens, astonishes and entertains. (His examples: Welles, Kurosawa, Chaplin)

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