Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Is a Classic Film? Survey says....

Ask the average person on the street to define "classic film" and your answer is likely to be: "An old black and white movie." Ask the same question to a classic film fan and you will get a myriad of responses. As I tried to craft my own definition, I decided to gather input from the experts and thus published the Cafe's first annual Classic Film Survey. Over 125 classic film enthusiasts from across the internet participated. My thanks to each of them, especially the many who took extra time to leave thought-provoking comments at the end of the survey.

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?
Think of the responses in another way: The survey's findings indicate that a film must be over 30 years old before it's considered a classic! Certainly, that hasn't always been true. When I took film courses in college in the last 1970s, West Side Story and To Kill a Mockingbird were already considered classics--and they had been made a scant 16 years earlier (of course, both were based on earlier works, which may have impacted their classic status). Still, I can think of numerous 1960s films that were considered classics by the following decade. So why is the overwhelming perception now that a film must be at least three decades old to be classic?

Richard Widmark and Wayne--still stars
in the 1960s.
One possibility suggested by a handful of survey respondents is that the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 1940s created stars that were still dominant through most of the 1960s. Perhaps their box office popularity was fading, but stars like Doris Day, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne were at the top of their game in 1960s classics such as Lover Come Back, Fail-Safe, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. By the latter part of the decade, the "new stars" weren't graduates of the studio system--they gained their experiences in television (e.g., Robert Redford) and independent films (e.g., Jack Nicholson). They made fewer films and often took roles in small pictures like The Passenger (with Nicholson). Thus, this hypothesis proposes that the cutoff point for "classic" status is when the majority of stars from Hollywood's "Golden Age" retired from acting--in the 1960s and 1970s.

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.
Yet, by the 1970s, almost all those genres were dead, on life support, or buoyed by a couple of hits. Quick, can you name a significant musical other than Cabaret or Grease from the 1970s? I suspect films like A Matter of Time, Funny Lady, and All That Jazz have their admirers, but none of them is considered a classic. How about a rousing pirate action film from the 70s? I think Scalawag and Swashbuckler are best forgotten.

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.


  1. I personally think that it is difficult to truly label what a classic film is. For me, it consists of two things: overall cultural impact and overall exceptional production (acting, writing, and visual). For example, I think that Avatar is a classic--I don't care if it is only a few years old.

  2. Excellent survey analysis, with many thought-provoking points, particularly in your look at how classics reflect the genres of a past era - the best thing about your post on what makes a classic film is that it will keep the conversation on this topic alive and bubbling!

  3. Rick, you drew some impressive and persuasive conclusions from the survey results. One of the difficulties with the term "classic films" is that it can be taken in two very different ways. One is the strictly chronological. Thus Leonard Maltin calls his guide to movies made before 1960 "Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide" and the book lists the greats as well as the crummy ones and the ones that appeal only to enthusiasts. The other sense it can be used in when applied to movies is the more general one used when people refer to other classic things--things whose appeal has stood the test of time or even increased over the years. I guess the exact meaning of a classic movie really depends not only on the individual's own definition, but also on the context it's used in.

    One thing your ruminations on this subject made me think about was the assertion that movies weren't necessarily better in the old days. However, they were different in their style, subjects, and attitudes, and if one has a preference for those things in older films, then older movies are subjectively better than modern ones in the sense that they are more to an individual's taste. Most movies today are quite derivative. When they aren't, their "new take" on a familiar genre can often be absurdly incongruous with what made that genre appealing in the first place. Of course, classic movies weren't immune to this either. Many popular genres ran their course in a few years and began to seem rote and uninspired. It happened to screwball comedy pretty quickly. As you noted, musicals were pretty much over with by the early 70s (or even earlier--I can't think of many even from the 60s). The same with the Western and the gangster film. Every once in a while a new film in one of these genres comes along that seems both respectful of the genre and adds something fresh to it, but those don't happen with the regularity they did in classic films.

    Anyway, a great post that I'm sure will have everyone who reads it thinking about the issues it discusses for quite a while.

  4. This is a great post, one that will stir controversy for some time to come. It also is a question that will never really get answered. Because the word "classic" must be defined first, and I suspect the answer will constantly be changing.

    There are 8 billion people on the planet, and, I suspect just as many different answers as to what a classic film is.

    The definition is most illuminating, yet at the same time somewhat frightening. Using 30 years as the critera to say what is and what is not a "classic" film is somewhat limiting. Using this number would make the films "Space Camp" and "Werid Science" classic films. And for me those two "films" will never be classics. They might be examples of what film should not look like, but never classics - not in a thousand years.

  5. RD, Some Musicals from the 60s that come to my mind are;West Side Story, The Music Man,Star, The Sound Of Music, My Fair Lady Bye Bye Birdie. As for Westerns, the 60's had many fine ones the last being The Wild Bunch'

    Tom I agree with you about the 30 year time frame being limiting and Classic being defined first.

  6. In the post, I tried to stick to offering hypotheses ("theories" would be generous) for the survey results. My personal definition of "classic" has nothing to do with age, but much to do with whether a film can withstand the test of time. Some films are forward-thinking (DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), some convey universal themes (RULES OF THE GAME), and others just tell an engrossing and/or entertaining story extremely well THE COURT JESTER). These are my classics! I understand your point, R.D., on the use of the term "classic." A classic car is an old car and many people use "classic" in the same way with films. But I would like to think it's more meaningful to classic film fans. As for AVATAR, I have to disagree with my friend Kim (just this once!). AVATAR hasn't proven it has enduring appeal, so it can't be a classic by my definition. It was technically impressive, but the story was derivative. Not a classic now and my guess is not one in 30 years...but time will tell!

  7. This is an interesting and thought-provoking post, Rick. An observation I had is that classic films are often ones that the whole family can see, without concern for explicit violence, language, or sex. This is a general observation and I realize that sometimes gangster or other films could be violent and that some films prior to the Hayes Code may have been more explicit sexually. But, in general, classic films seem to be less vulgar.

    In addition to being more family friendly I agree that there is a timelessness about films I define as classic.

  8. You raise an interesting point, Toto, about the influence of the Hays Code on how we define a classic film. Hollywood's general compliance with the code for several decades resulted in many films oriented toward general audiences. Certainly, there were classics made during the 1930-50s that were provocative thematically. There were also filmmakers like Preminger that just ignored the Hays Code. But your point is well-taken: taken as a whole, the films from 1930-50s were more family-consummable than those released from the late 1960s and on.

  9. Rick,

    I really enjoyed participating in the survey and looked forward to the results. They don't disappoint. Many interesting points you make that lead to further questions, as you note. I think all of us interested in film are ultimately interested in what others think of them. I am always fascinated the prospect of my views differing from other people's only to find, most often, that they are along common lines.

    I enjoyed your mention of the "retirement" of some of the classic stars after the 1960s as a possible means by which many judge the timing of "classics." That didn't occur to me but it seems viable. As do the influence of the Hays Code and the fall of the studio system.

    In my mind, however, the distinguishing factor between the "classic" film era is the revolution of sorts that started in the mid-to-late 1960s - the Vietnam and Watergate era, whereby audiences (sort of) demanded truth and grittier depictions of life in film. Of course the directors that began to surge then also reflected the grittier side in their films so the product matched audience appetites. This time had, by my estimation, a revolutionary" effect on film, rather than the evolutionary effects of the Hays Code and studio system downfalls, which happened slowly over a period of time.

    Anyway, didn't mean to go into a diatribe. But to me, that's why the 1960s is the cut-off between what I consider "traditional" film classics to an entirely new era in film and Hollywood. Although that's not to say I don't consider films of the 1970s classics because I do. But it's an entirely new definition in my mind accompanied by an entirely new attitude toward those films.

    Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks.


  10. ALTHOUGH, an addendum, the ultimate test of a classic is whether it stands the test of time. Ultimately, true classics can be viewed over and over again without losing what made it a great film to begin with, no matter how many times one watches it.

    OK, I'm leaving now.


  11. Aurora, I agree that there was a cultural shift in the 1960s that changed the face of cinema. While there are have always been gritty, provocative films (e.g., PORK CHOP HILL in 1959), the number of them seemed to increase significantly in the late 1960s. Some critics have spectulated that one reason was that network news shows brought the Vietnam War into the homes of Americans. Reading about war and watching newsreel in theaters in the 1940-50s was one thing. But seeing combat footage five nights a week on TV was very different.

  12. Rick, it seems to me that what defines a classic movie is in the eye of the beholder. In addition to a classic being a film that stands the test of time in terms of being loved by many film fans, keep in mind that today's new release could eventually be tomorrow's classic. In my blog TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED (TotED), when it comes to the age of a film, I tend to think of a classic film as one which is 30 years old or older. Because I'm in my late forties, this seems like a good cut-off point for a classic film at present, yet I've had a number of comments over at TotED expressing surprise when I've reviewed, say, Mel Brooks movies, because those are movies they grew up with, so they still feel "new" to those readers/movie fans.

  13. Really nice work, Rick. I know a lot of people who get upset with TCM because they play movies like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Kramer vs. Kramer." Once they played "Election," from 1998, and people flipped out. But who's to say? I personally consider "Kramer vs. Kramer" to be a classic. I consider "E.T." to be a classic. As a general rule I would define a classic film to be made around 40 years ago or before, but there are many notable exceptions that makes me rethink my definition.

  14. Plenty of food for thought here, Rick; thanks for setting the table. I think there may be an even shorter and sweeter definition: "A classic movie is what I say it is." The beauty of this one is that anybody can say it, and be free to back up the statement.

    I think "enduring appeal" is a worthy criterion; I might amend it to say "...or enduring value" -- but that sort of thing is harder to quantify. My own impulse is to set 20 years as the threshold for determining either.

    Then again, there have been times -- and I suspect the same is true for others -- when I've walked out of the theater after a brand-new release, knowing in my bones that I've just seen a classic. Raiders of the Lost Ark was one such; Mary Poppins was another. In 1972 it happened an astonishing number of times -- Cabaret, The Godfather, Deliverance, The Emigrants, The Sorrow and the Pity -- which, for me, makes '72 shine second only to 1939 among Golden Years.

    Conversely, other movies have proven to be classics only with time. Dr. Strangelove, From Russia With Love -- enjoyed and admired them both, but wouldn't have called them classics at the time. And To Kill a Mockingbird; my own reaction in 1962, and I know it was a widespread one, was that here was a decent, respectable, yet quite unexceptional filming of Harper Lee's novel. Nowadays, surely nobody would deny that it's a classic.

    Have there been times I had that "just seen a classic" feeling and been wrong? Hmmm... can't think of any. But that may only be a defense mechanism. Sometimes missing the boat is preferable to admitting you boarding the wrong one.

    As I said, plenty of food for thought. Thanks again.