Age Does Matter
One question that intrigued me was whether age played a significant role in defining "classic" (an issue that certainly applies to other forms of art as well). The answer is a resounding "yes" from two-thirds of the respondents. So then, how old does a film have to be before it's considered a classic? Survey respondents identified the 1960s and 1970s as the decades which formed the start points for classic status. Each of those decades received about 30% of the total votes, with the 1950s, 1980s, and 1990s sharing the rest (each earning between 12% and 15%).
|West Side Story: A classic within a decade?|
|Richard Widmark and Wayne--still stars|
in the 1960s.
A Film's Enduring Appeal
However, the survey results also indicate that a film's enduring appeal is significantly more important than its stars or age. When asked what criterion was most important in defining a classic film, 57% said it was the film's enduring appeal. A distant second was "when a film was made" (25%), followed by "a film's impact on culture and the industry" (12%) and and the "iconic appeal of a film's stars or director" (5%).
Of course, it's hard to discuss a film's overall appeal without focusing, in part, on the contributions of the actors in it and the film's age. We also can't forget that nostalgia--a partial by-product of age--plays a role in the "timeless" quality of some films. Thus, there's overlap between the different criteria...let's just call that a survey design flaw.
To avoid getting mired in analysis, we'll look at "enduring appeal" from a holistic viewpoint. Aside from nostalgia, why do some classic films maintain--or even increase--their appeal through the years? One potential reason is that films from the 1930s through the 1960s spanned so many genres. Lavish musicals? Check. Westerns? Hundreds were made. Gangster films, film noir, war movies, historical adventure? Yes to all!
|Cabaret: A rare 1970s musical.|
Another contributing factor to enduring appeal, related to the variety of genres, is the number of films with non-contemporary settings. Simply put, historical films and Westerns--which were plentiful in the 1930s through 1950s--don't date as quickly as most contemporary-set dramas. Admittedly, I'm generalizing to a degree, because Gene Autrey's Westerns seem very dated! But Shane, Winchester '73, Dodge City? Their settings give them a timeless quality that keeps these films fresh over the years.
Finally, I suppose some classic film fans may argue that "movies were just better in the old days" and that's why their appeal has endured over the last 70 years. Personally, I don't buy that. There are fine films made every year and, in time, the definition of classic film is bound to evolve.
But for now, we'll stick with the definition provided by our survey results. What is a classic film? A movie made prior to the 1980s that possesses enduring appeal. That's short and sweet...but the supporting reasons are what make for intriguing discussion. I've listed my thoughts. What are yours?
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we'll examine more survey results to define the prototypical classic film fan.