Five Things That Define a Classic Film

Guest blogger Katie writes:

Trying to procrastinate from studying for my exam, I thought of what exactly makes a film a classic film.  In this postmodern age, nothing is for certain, so I decided that what defines classics is not authoritative, but personal.  Some institutions have certain qualifications that make a movie classic, but what may be a classic film to one person may not be to another.  The following five defining characteristics of classic films are just my opinion of what makes them so.  You don’t have to agree with these.

After creating this list, I realised they are all extra-filmic.  They live outside the film.  So, for me, what makes a film classic is not the film itself, but what we make it to be.

One more thing, I consider a true classic film to be made before 1970.

1. It is re-watchable

You pop in a DVD of your favorite classic film, curl up on the couch, and soak in the first few bars of the overture when your parent or sibling or loved one walks in the room and cries out, “AGAIN?”  Why, yes.  Why not?  I think classic films have an everlasting quality.  When one catches your fancy, it never lets you go and you gladly watch it until the DVD becomes scratched to the point of being replaced.  You may love a  movie because the good writing contains layers and layers of meaning you can’t get enough of.  You learn something new about the plot and characters with each viewing.  You may get lost in the plot, the colours and costumes, the acting, the message of the film, etc.  There are countless of reasons why people love watching the same films over and over, but I think the more a film is watched, the more beloved it will become and will most likely be passed down from parents to children.

This is the most important thing that defines a classic film.  It leads to the rest of the list.

 2. Memorable performances (good or bad!)

Opinions of performances are subjective.  The same performance by an actor or actress may be deemed good or bad, but still memorable nonetheless.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers has some poor acting, but it is still considered a classic (or a cult classic).  The horror films of this era are remembered particularly because of the bad acting.

Some people may be horrified by Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but I laugh throughout the entire film!  Physically and mentally torturing Joan Crawford is supposed to be funny, right?  Call me macabre, but I think Davis is brilliant as a mad, washed-up child star.

Gone with the Wind is a film you love or hate.  Personally, I love it, but some people hate the performances.  I get caught up in the dramatic acting while it serves as a distraction for others.  After watching the film countless times, I did notice that they use each other’s names in mid-sentence all the time, but that’s just the charm of the dialogue.

The result of good or bad acting is a memorable character that people will want to revisit often.

3. The feeling you get whenever you watch it.

Besides the great or not-so-great acting, why do we re-watch our favourite films?  For me, I get a fuzzy feeling of recognition and comfort when I see my favourite movies for the 34,454,643,654th time.  It’s comforting to know who the characters are, what’s going to happen to them, and see how they resolve their issue.  There’s an emotional attachment between film and viewer, as is seen in this clip from Sleepless in Seattle.

Being familiar with a movie is a very reassuring thing.  The emotional high you get when watching the best part of your choice film is as addicting and satisfying as eating peanut butter from the jar with a spoon.  Motion pictures are addictive.  The high they give me is my drug…tee hee.

 4. Recognition (or lack of).

Some films are classics because people didn’t acclaim them in their day but grew more valuable in time.  Films such as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Wizard of Oz are all films that were not huge successes in theatres.  Films like these are like wine and jewels, they become more precious “as time goes by.”

Some fans are drawn to films that aren’t recognised as “classics” today.  You may watch a movie repeatedly that no one else has heard of, and it is a classic to you.  Sci-Fi or Western B-films may be someone’s celluloid treasure because they are relatively unknown to the mass audience.  It’s special to think you possess a secret few people know about – like having a secret spot to play in when you were a kid.  One person’s waste of time might be another’s joy and pleasure.


Whether a popular classic or not, there is always some line that is dying to be used in everyday life.  Quotes can become an inside joke to fans, thus making them even more nerdy to the outside world .  People would think you’re a horse of a different color if they heard you say, “Godfrey loves me!  He put me in the shower!” if they had never seen My Man Godfrey.  Quotes can also work as a code system for the hard-core fans.

Movie quotes, in my opinion, are proof of good writing.  They are also indicative of memorable performances of they are masterfully delivered.  Not every classic film is going to have a quote you will want to incorporate into your daily life, but some dialogue should be memorable nonetheless.

Classic films are what we want them to be.  How would you define a classic film?  Please, comment!

Katie is a Film Studies student in Canada and the co-host of a classic film podcast called The Scarlett Olive.  The biggest star she and her co-host have interviewed so far is Ed Asner. For more information be sure to check out her website, The Scarlett Olive.

  • Robert Voss

    What makes a classic? Was it not ever thus: Suspension of disbelief; the melding of all the arts involved in film-making to the point that I feel I’m viewing this in real time. To the contrary, classics are still being produced, Ed Harris’”Appaloosa” being one notable example.

  • Allen Hefner

    Katy, you have taken on an impossible task…defining Classic Movies. But thanks for trying. You have put some great ideas into words.

    I do take issue with your comment that classic films must be made before 1970. You even included Sleepless in Seattle (1993) in your post. I would venture to say that The Artist (2011) is destined for classic status. And whether you agree or not, Star Wars (1977) is already a classic in many people’s minds, and there are quite a few more.

    I think that the more you research movies and the more movies you watch, your idea of what a classic is will change. I know mine has. It is an almost undefinable quality.

  • mike

    I agree with the author, that a “classic” movie is what we make of it – that is, it’s a personal thing. Although “Citizen Kane” is included in many lists, I don’t like it. I am also guilty of family members asking “AGAIN?”, because if a movie “takes me away” from reality and I get lost in it, I consider it a classic – for me. Recent movies that are head and shoulders above include “Secondhand Lions”, “Secretariat” & “Tombstone” (why wasn’t Val Kilmer even nominated for Best Supporting?)
    By the way, “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II” are at the top of my list, and I own -and watch over and over again – every Chaplin movie ever released on VHS, DVD or even Super 8.

  • Juanita Curtis

    To me a classic film is one that stands the test of time and can be viewed by successive generations. My son always ask me why I love “old” films as he thinks the plots are very similar . I must admit I found it hard to define because as you mentioned the reasons are subjective. If I had to pick one quality it would be the joy from watching them again and rediscovering elements I had forgotten.


    I agree with Katy’s assessment of what makes a classic. Personal enjoyment does enter into the equation. Being almost 70, of course, akllows me to go back a ways. My all time favorite movie classics: “DOCTOR ZHIVAGO”, “SHANE”, “PICNIC”,
    “NORTH BY NORTHWEST”, “GUNS OF NAVARONE”. More recent classics include: “THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION” and “TITANIC”. In your mind, if you really want to take someone else to see a particular film, chances are it’s a classic (at least to you).

  • Blair Kramer

    It’s very simple. Subject, director and star are meaningless. Any film becomes a classic when a large percentage of moviegoers have a continued desire to view the film as the years fly by. Another way to define it is by asking a different question… Since movies are made for the purpose of earning a profit, when does a given film change from a commodity to a work of art? I always mention the original 1933 version of “King Kong” to buttress this point. You may be sure of the fact that the makers of “King Kong” weren’t interested in creating a “work of art” during the worst year of the depression. They were desperate to make money. But they also knew, the better the film, the better their chances of earning a profit. Here we are, nearly 79 years later, and the original “King Kong” is every bit as popular as ever. For this reason and no other, I’d say it’s a classic film, wouldn’t you?



  • Brenda

    THANK YOU, MIKE, (Dec 30 posting); I don’t like Citizen Kane either even though it’s supposed to be the “greatest movie” on most lists. I rewatch movies that I love, and I AM transported into them!

  • Bryan K

    For me, “Classic” in reference to a movie means transportation. Going where the title character goes, and doing what they do, trying to accomplish what they had in mind; becoming that title character, even if it’s just for a couple of hours! A true classic, in my mind, will be able to do that over and over again.

  • Bill

    “Follow Me Quietly” and “He Walks By Night” are, in my humble opinion, classic films. “Why”, you may ask. My answer: Because, as far as spine tinglers go they did, and still do, keep one on the edhe of their seat even when one knows what is about to happen in any spooky circumstance. That’s a true classic.

  • Susan

    I loved that you made this effort. “Classic” movies are sure to change in definition as time goes by. The thing that knaws at me is that many of the films I love and hold dear as classics might not be considered important to the generations that follow. My children and grandchildren are thoroughly versed in Meet Me in St.Louis, Casablanca and Gone With the Wind. But when I mourned Elizabeth Taylor, my 18 year old son’s friend was bewildered. She had never heard of Ms. Taylor. Nor had she any knowledge of Cary Grant, or Bogie, or Bette Davis. She knew of Judy Garland because she was forced to sit through the Wizard of Oz, but was appalled at the use of black and white photography. Since then I have asked other young people about their knowledge of film classics. I am convinced that one day TCM, Movies Unlimited and the like will fade away. The classic films for the next generation will include the Twilight Saga. But then I will be long gone, so goodbye Miss Elizabeth

  • MindyP51

    Great column!!!!

    I totally agree with absolutely everything you said–except that anything made after 1970 can’t be considered “classic.”

    Some of my “classic” films: THE SEARCHERS, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (a bomb at the box office in 1946, btw), GIANT, GWTW, BRINGING UP BABY, MR. LUCKY, TO CATCH A THIEF, THE GODFATHER I & II, ET, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN….


  • Martin Stumacher

    It’s not easy to define what is a classic film except to say that for me it is an emotional rsponse when tear ducts open up and I hear Hugo Friedhofer’s opening music score from the Best Years of Our Lives. It’s the opening segment of How Green Was My Valley with the sound of the Miners singing in Welsh and the moment I hear Max Steiner’s introduction to Casablanca, I just know that these are classics. As one of your respondents said, when TCM is gone, this generation won’t know what classic film are.

  • tony

    I agree with most of the comments here, inasmuch that a film labelled a classic is entirely in the eyes of the viewer. I have seen The Adventures of Robin Hood well over 40 times, along with Casablanca (34 times) and The Godfather trio well over 25 times,plus countless others and thoroughly enjoyed the experience as if it were for the first time. Perhaps another way of defining a true classic would be to decry any remakes of the original. For instance, how could you remake:
    The Godfather?
    It’s a Wonderful Life?
    The Adventures of Robin Hood?
    Ben Hur?
    To make a point, you only have to see the remake of ‘The Day the earth stood still’ to see what I mean.

  • Tito Pannaggi

    Classical films are films from BEFORE 1960 (i.e. what the French used to call Cinéma de papa). The New Wave and the James Bond-films changed that film language with their modern approach.

    But some outstanding films like “Easy Rider” (1969)”Taxi Driver” (1976), or “Pulp Fiction” (1994) are classics too. Not neccessary good films, but they are outstanding and often been an inspiration to newer films.

  • tom clark

    Captain Blood is my True Classic

  • Ludy M. Wilkie

    For “recognition,” remember IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE with Jimmy Stewart received lukewarm reviews from critics when it first opened, but has become a classic over the years.
    for moving performances, at one time Wallace Beery’s death scene in
    A MESSAGE TO GARCIA could move folks to tears… a memorable performance. Recenlty I was moved by Julie Andrews in
    As for a film being rewatchable, I even like the cult classics–perhaps that should be a separate category. How many times could I sit through FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN with Lon Chaney, or THE BAT with Vincent Price?

    A film is indeed a classic if people think it is.



  • Larry

    My classics are ones that I enjoy watching every time they are on. Some films that others deem classics are good the first time you see them, but aren’t so good after 1 or at most 2 times. Then I don’t enjoy them so they aren’t classics to me. I enjoy films that make me laugh and many of what some people call classics today don’t make me laugh even once. The problem I have with some of peoples choices for best actors seem to be chosen because they shout the most or the loudest in order to get an Oscar. I dislike those actors and films the most. Cary Grant and Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, William Powell, Claudette Colbert, Carol Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Maureen O’Hara, Myrna Loy and others are in my favorite category. James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford are not.
    And I would say “most” of my classics are pre-1970, but there are a few that are after that. Most of my classics are from the 1930′s and 40′s for that matter. The “studio system” did do some good for those of us who love old movies.

  • fred buschbaum

    Tnx, Katie, as you can see, most of the replies show that for most people “classic” means personal. got us all thinking…….
    cutoff dates don’t matter, for the same reason. Whether it’s 1933′s KingKong, or Avatar, if YOU want to watch it over and over through time, it’s a classic. quotes, as the bandit said to “fred C. Dobbs”, Badges? we don’t need no stinking badges!
    If a film drags you fighting and kicking into it many times over the years, it’s a classic.
    little films like “where’s papa”, or “Let it ride”, are classics to some people who can’t even define why. Epics like Ben Hur, or evisceral films like Secondhand lions creep into your heart and bring a wish that you could be remembered like they were.
    some Bogart films even though they were abviously wartime proganda films with carbon copy plots are personally classics. Yul Brenner from the king and I to The Magnificent seven, have a very strong pull.
    It all boils down to what you use to measure your personal likes and dislikes. (even if you think you’re some kind of expert on what others should like, you’re probably wrong since many films take time to make “Classic” status, and others never do). guess time will make any film a classic. even though, (heaven forbid, the next gen. will vote fof the twilite saga)!!!

  • fred buschbaum

    Sorry for the spelling errors, haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet out here in the west coast wilderness.

  • Dolores Tamoria

    I love the films that I call my Classics and I resent them being made over in most cases. I believe that movies made before “Special Effects” substituted for “Acting” was where most Classics came from. I always maintained that the Library is full of books with great story lines and would make great motion pictures. Most of our great Screen Writers are gone. We need a new batch. Try making a movie from the childrens classic “Beautiful Joe”. Have any of you read it when you were young? It would rival “Lassie Come Home”.

  • Ronnie B

    I agree Classics are in the “eye of the beholder” that is why I include in what I call my Classic Collection 3 Films made after ’70 that I very seldom see mentioned anywhere, Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Driving Miss Daisy.

  • FX Chris

    Fun stuff! Personal re-watchability (is that a word?) is probably the best criteria of all, but I would add the generational aspect. Citizen Kane is one of the examples where, (like some musical artists) you admit the greatness, but don’t enjoy it. On the other hand, my family will watch Ustinov and Laughton tear up the screen in Sparticus over and over, and never get tired of it! Casa Blanca is a rare film that is nearly perfectly done and re-watchable forever! Plus, all the great quotes! Having said that, my own “classic” personal favorites: “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” (not “Stood Still”, which I think is a little over-rated), with the near great Leo McKern and great British rapid fire dialouge, and “Harold and Maude” which is for romantics who grew up in the seventies (although my kids love it!).

  • Gord

    I agree with those who think a classic is what an individual choice. However, I do not agree that just because one doesn’t like a film it isn’t good or a classic. I have seen lots of films that I don’t like and will never watch again, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to others because they are brilliant and could easily become someones classic. Me, I love “A” and “B” film classics like some of the following, which also include recent releases.

    A few “A” Films:

    “The Tree of Life” (destined I think to be more highly regarded in years to come)
    “A Star is Born” (1954)
    “The Last Hurrah” (1958)
    “The Spirit of St. Louis” (1957)
    “The Last Angry Man” (1959)
    “Me and the Colonel” (1958)
    “The Defiant Ones” (1958)
    “Oh! What a Lovely War” (1969)
    “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944)
    “Easter Parade” (1948)
    “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969)
    “A Night to Remember” (1958)
    “Auntie Mame” (1958)
    “Double Indemnity” (1944)
    “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)
    “Madigan” (1968)
    “Will Penny” (1968)
    “Red River” (1948)

    A few “B” Films:

    “”He Walked By Night” (1948)
    “Gun Crazy” (1949)
    “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)
    “Armored Car Robbery” (1950)
    “Night and the City” (1950)
    “Raw Deal” (1948)
    “Force of Evil” (1948)
    “Jack Slade” (1953)
    “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956)
    “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951)
    “The Thing” (1948)

    And so many others too numerous to mention.

    Bottom line, I can view most of the above just about anytime, to name but a few.

  • FX Chris

    The Thing and Auntie Mame!! Great Picks! As I said before, I don’t have to like it to admit it’s great (Citizen Cane, etc.).

  • FX Chris

    Just noticed Gord dropped “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” on us! You should be a film critic!

  • Rick Hirsch

    I think that Robert orborne is most qualified to answer this question. For myself, i have a modest DVD and VCR collection of movies. I bought them because I know I will always enjoy waching them. Yes, many came from the golden age of Hollywood.

  • Publius

    An interesting list, and a good one. I agree classics are a personal thing. I guess mylist would include a lot of silents because, like Hitchcock, I agree that silents are “the purest cinema.” However, a recent classic I would have to say is “Breaking Away.” It has been constantly shown (stood the test of time)it has memorable acting performances (Denis Christopher, Paul Dooley); it has memorable lines: Did you know “fly” in Italian is “moska?” Did you know in English, it’s “pest?” The idea BEHIND the movie still lives on in our imagination; the music was appropriate (And in this case, the music was all 500 years old); the camera angles were so interesting that some of the shots resemble a painting (The bikers going down the road in along shot under the broiling sun while a medium close-up shows the bikers going though a train crossing while a dog waddles in and out of frame. The film give you a good feeling at the end.

  • Colin Benson

    My opinion of classic films are the films that don’t use special effects or CGI to make them.
    In any discussion about classics, you have to include Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers and any screwball comedy.
    Films such as The Music Box, A Night at the Opera, Harvey and Singin’ in the Rain. Also great drama The Third Man, High Noon and The Maltese Falcon.

  • Woody

    Great Plot;
    Great Performances;
    Artistic Filming;
    Recognizable & Scene Enhancing Score;
    Enthrallment (while watching all your daily concerns disappear).
    Example: The Magnificent Seven

  • Stephen

    The QUOTES [although most times they get mis-quoted].
    For instance Bogie in Casablanca–”Play it”.[usually quoted as "Play it again, Sam"]

  • Kai Ferano

    I guess a classic film is one that is so enduring that you can discuss it with your grandmother, your mother, your sister, and your daughter. It spans generations, because it has at least one quality that appeals to, and can be applied to, various generations. I guess “The Wizard Of Oz” is the best example.

  • Suzanne

    Classics are for me films that have an impact on me in some way. My admiration for clever dialogue of films like Double Indemnity,Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth. The humor and sincerity of a story in Planes,Trains, & Automobiles. Therefore, classics are pretty much personal,given the posted comments.Some of my favorites:
    What’s Up Doc
    It Happened One Night
    Mr.Blandings Builds His Dream House
    King Kong
    Rear Window
    The Thin Man
    Sunset Boulevard
    Night of the Hunter
    Holiday Affair

  • Joe Gregorio

    Definitely “classic” films are very personal. The thing that saddens me is that too many people (especially many in the younger generation) refuse to sample an older film. I’ve heard so many of them say that if it’s in black and white to forget about watching it. They absolutely won’t. And stories or plots, dialogue? Again, too many refuse to invest the time to appreciate any of that. Basically, if something or someone is not being blown up in the opening credits (with numerous murders and explosions to follow)then in their opinion that movie,”Sucks”. Unfortunately, you see that in many areas of Life today–got to have that effortless instant gratification and without that, “You could fugeddaboutit”.

  • Fred Smith

    The blogger states that, “opinions of performances are subjective” but then goes on to say, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (I assume the 1956 version)has some poor acting”. Not, “in my opinion . . .” Just where are the bad performances? Certainly not the leads. If she means from minor bit players this may be true, as would be the case in just about any movie. But, in my opinion, as well as that of a multitude of reviews I’ve read, many viewers and critics alike give this film AND its acting high marks all around. Now, if she had said, Plan 9 From Outer Space has bad but “memorable” performances I would heartily agree.

  • Garry Stewart

    Classics for me include Adventures of Robin Hood, Lawrence of Arabia, Singin in the Rain, Casablanca,Letter From an Unknown Woman, Magnificent 7,Billy Budd,Manchurian Candidate,Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Too much CGI in modern day films. They completely ruined League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing. Good ideas overwhelmed by special effects .
    Over rated classics for me include It’s a Wonderful Life [sentimental nonsense] Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane.

  • Lord Belchmore

    A sixth classic indicator perhaps:

    If it’s on TV and you happen to walk or channel surf by, you stop in your tracks and start watching it.

    • tlynette

      Happens to me every time I see “Call Northside 777″ “Run Silent, Run Deep” “Stalag 17″ and any black & white that’s on during Yuletide! And it’s even sillier when you’ve bought the DVD, and see it on TCM or some other movie channel, and you sit down and start watching — like I did recently with “White Heat!” They never get old.

  • Scarlett

    You have to put Westward the Women down as a classic… My 10 yr old grandaughter loves it!! But then she loves Singing in the Rain, Sabrina, The Searchers, just about any b/w movie that’s on. and hasn’t anyone seen The Happy Years? It’s a great movie we consider it a classic!

  • Rob in L.A.

    You know it’s a classic film when:

    1. You’ve never seen it, nor has anyone you know.

    2. The film is totally inaccessible.

    3. You finally manage to watch the film on a rickety old Moviola after a copy has been recently discovered in a Reykjavik insane asylum.

    4. You can’t make heads or tails out of what’s going on in the movie.

    5. A week later, you decide it’s the best film you’ve ever seen in your life.

  • Diane

    “Classic Films” are of course a personal preference, just like classic books, classic cars, classic architecture, etc., etc. My all time favourite classic movie is also my all time favourite book “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Who can watch this movie (or read the book) and not feel sad, angry, happy, proud, scared and so on? I agree with those who mentioned Citizen Kane. To some this is a classic, but to me it was boring and left me feeling empty. A great classic movie should make you feel satisfied and anxious to see it again and share it with someone else. What a great feeling to introduce the next generations of movie watchers to the movies that made us feel all those emotions as my Mother did when we first saw “King’s Row” together. I finally understood why she loves this movie so much. Great stuff!!

  • Magman

    I was trying to teach my 19 year old Summer Intern about “classic” films one afternoon. She just labled all my suggestions as “lame” movies. We made a bet in which she agreed to watch a movie of my choice and I would watch a movie of her choice. We exchanged DVD’s the next day where she immediately objected because my DVD was in “black and white”. But she promised to watch my “lame” movie entitled “Roman Holiday”. Monday morning she came into the office clutching the DVD tightly to her breast and panting “This is the best movie ever made on the planet”. That’s a pretty good definition of a classic movie.

  • urbanlegend

    You absolutely described what makes a personal classic film. I taught film history and film criticism and while I know all the great films, some of my personal favorites would have others rolling their eyes in disbelief.
    No go study for your exam.

  • janet m.

    I’m thinking that it becomes “classic” when it teaches us about being human. Or, let’s us know we are not alone in thinking or feeling a certain way.
    I liked:
    Blackhawk Down
    Stage Beauty
    Truth about Harry
    Inside Man
    Vanity Fair (with Reese)
    Me and You and Everyone we Know
    The Shawshank Redemption
    The Four Feather (with Heath Ledger)
    The Day the Earth Stood Still (with Michael Rennie)

    Anyone seen the Warrior yet?

  • Phil Marklin

    Great subject! I don’t get to discuss classic movies with others much as very few people remember anything more than TRANSFORMERS or other pitiful excuses for movies. A classic must first,I think, have appreciation for several generations. Movies like GONE WITH THE WIND, ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, CAPTAIN BLOOD, CASABLANCA, and even FRANKENSTEIN have had generations of people lauding their actors, plot, storyline, action. Longeveity is part of a classic film.
    I think also the loyalty of its fans is part of a classic. I will always watch ROBIN HOOD or THE SEARCHERS and never miss the opportunity to watch even though I know the dialog and recite it while watching. I also agree that the quotes make a classic standout. Who doesn’t know where “That’s the stuff dreams are made of” or “It’s alive! Alive” or “Of all the gin joints in all the world why…” come from even if they are a movie fan.
    Maybe this is why most of us have collections of 1930′s and 40′s movies and few of the 2000′s. (Yes, I also confess to owning collections of Warner Oland’s CHARLIE CHAN movies. It is a matter of personal opinion, right?)

  • janet m.

    ok, so we’re leaning toward B&W and/or those 1939 classics.
    How about. . .
    Great Expectations (B&W)
    The Third Man (orson welles film)
    My Girl Friday or was it His Girl Friday
    Birth of a Nation
    Top Hat
    Camille (with Garbo)
    Phantom of the Opera (silent one with chaney–STILL SCARY!)
    and of course one can’t deny Casablanca, and errol flynn’s Robin Hood, Citizen Kane and Frankenstein.

  • larry clemenson

    no one mentioned the great musicals of the past. love the first music man. also fred and ginger still rock, especially swing time, although the corniness of the names (he is called lucky and she is penny) could have been improved upon.
    and singin in the rain.
    to me classic films are chosen for how they effect you. a capra film and a hitchcock film, both classics, evoke different emotions and reactions. maybe that is why all of our lists are so different. maybe our emotional make-up varies that much from person to person. and so our choices of classic films varies too.

  • Glenn Davis

    For me there is only one thing that defines a classic movie, and it is this.
    You can take any five minute segment from that movie, and there will be something memorable, be it an acting scene, a Photograpic scene, a music piece or whatever.
    Added together they all go to make something special and amazing!!

  • Tom K.

    My ” video game & alleged A.D.H.D. generation ” grandson would NOT watch even what I thought was the best black & white films. Then I introduced him to some Herold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies and he loves them. He will actually sit still, closely watch, laugh with me and even ask for me to replay a scene. Spanning the generations makes for a Classic.

  • Gil

    Katie, I couldn’t agree with you more. If I was stranded on a dessert island with only a working DVD player to keep me company, I would hope that the films I had the misfortune to be stranded with were all worthy of being watched over and over again; memorable; emotionally addictive and certainly fun to quote! There are so many classics that I could not begin to choose which ones to take with me to that island but you can bet, “The 10 Commandments”, “Summertime”; “A Witness for the Prosecution”; “Vertigo”; “National Lampoons Christmas Holiday” , “Bell, Book & Candle” and Gone with the Wind” would all be in my bag!

  • frankd

    A real classic film means talent, talent and more talent. Modern movies replace talent with sensationalism and meaningless, shallow script. Movie attendance is getting lower and lower. Just give me a DVD player and a stack of old classics.

  • Sue

    I didn’t like Citizen Kane until I watched RKO360 which is about the making of the film. It explained it very well and made me rethink my position.

    Gone with the Wind is my all time favorite.

  • Justin

    I think rewatchability is the main factor for me.

    Of course acting and technical achievment are important too.

    Like I imagina most consider The Wizard of Oz a classic but I wouldn’t want to rewatch it too many time.

    And certainly they can come from any time period.

    Independence Day was a campy film of epic proportion but there are some sceens that are classic (like the white house being blown up).

    The Exorcist is still probably the scariest movie I will ever see.

    Jurassic Park made dinosaurs come to life and it was in theaters for a whole year.

    Movie’s I could watch 100000 times (not saying all these are classics)

    American Gangster
    Starship Troopers (only the first)
    The Patriot
    Lucky Number Sleven
    Enemy of the State
    Independence Day
    Man on Fire
    The Punisher
    Burn After Reading
    The Dark Knight
    Boondock Saints
    Catch Me If You Can
    Jurassic Park
    Back To The Future
    X-Men First Class

    I’m sure there are some I’m not remembering….

  • jake

    With all due respect to your well-written post, Katie (and the opinions of many who’ve responded so far), I have to argue with your definition of “classic.”

    Of course, it depends on how you define the term, but, in effect, aren’t you saying that it is up to us to define it for ourselves?

    I completely disagree with that.

    To my way of thinking “classic” is synonymous with “masterpiece,” and there are OBjective ways of determining that, in any art form, not just film. There’s a reason that Homer’s epics have survived for thousands of years, and it isn’t just because they’re handed down from literature teacher to literature teacher, and it has nothing to do with whether any particular person connects with them. It’s because, deep down, they connect with all of us, if you only think about them and give them a chance.

    To say that anyone’s favorite film can be considered a “classic” only for that reason is equivalent to saying that there are no classics at all, to say that the word is meaningless. I’m sure that somewhere or other there’s someone whose favorite film is “Surf Ninjas.” Does that make that film a classic? (Probably even that person wouldn’t think so, though I’d never deny them their preference for it! I might kinda look askance at them, though…lol) Yet if I like “Surf Ninjas,” it’s a classic. If someone else likes “Beethoven 3,” then it’s a classic, too. And in the end, EVERY film is a classic. And, really, none is.

    There’s a difference between “classic” and “favorite,” and we’re all entitled to our favorites (and our favorite DISlikes, for that matter, even acknowledged classics!)

    Of all the criteria you listed, the only truly objective one (and you mentioned it in passing, not even as one of your five…with the possible exception of “recognition”) was that classics had to be made before 1970. Is this a hard and absolute figure, or does it get modified as time goes on? Next year will your line of demarcation be 1971?

    I will grant you something with that: I think one criterion for a true classic would be to stand the test of time (though I think 50 years is a bit too long, but that’s my opinion). People are much too ready to jump on the bandwagon and suddenly consecrate the “Lord of the Rings” movies as classics. (I’m not saying they’re not, I’m saying that time will tell.)

    But (and sorry for all those who find it “boring” nowadays, and admittedly I love the picture; but I’m trying to be objective here) if one heck of a lot of knowledgeable people in film have said for years now that “Citizen Kane” is one of the true “classics,” one of the greatest movies ever made, then maybe, just maybe, if you don’t see it, then maybe there’s something in that film that YOU guys are missing. Maybe you should take some time and look a little closer. I’m just using that one as one obvious example, and I’m not insisting that any of you have to LIKE Kane. I could mention others, instead. But have you ever taken the time to figure out why so many people consider it a classic? Once having discovered that, if you still don’t like it, so be it. No one’s insisting that you like Homer, either. But along the way perhaps you’ll learn a bit more about film, and art in general.

    No, a classic isn’t a classic just because you (meaning anyone) thinks it is, it’s because a LOT of people think it is, it’s something that advances the art form, it’s something that holds meaning for a lot of us, it’s something that has withstood the test of time.

    People bandy about words like “classics” too cheaply as it is, nowadays. No need to become their enabler. (And shame on the guy who says he taught film and agrees that a classic is whatever people feel it should be. What if the entire class was enamoured with “Surf Ninjas?”)

    “Classic films are what we want them to be.” But I think the gist of what you’re saying is that “classic films are whichever ones we want them to be” (or at least it would amount to the same thing). Sorry, but I couldn’t disagree more.

    And sorry to everyone that this went on so long! It was kinda hard to explain myself succinctly!

    • CheriLynn

      I feel I must disagree with your assessment of what defines a classic. You’re saying it’s consensus over time, and with a nod to the experts opinion. Katie is saying it’s personal. I’d say that it’s both, what those in the industry have to say about the talent who made the film, and how people have responded over time. It’s a Wonderful Life bombed at the box office, but if you dissect it technically and evaluate the talent and time: It’s a classic. I can’t imagine Christmas without seeing that film.

      There have been many films that received accolades by film critics and awards from the movie industry that I personally find boring or disgusting or just plain awful. The perfect example of that to me is Kramer vs. Kramer (and Midnight Cowboy, along with The Graduate). I find Dustin Hoffman an Okay actor and Meryl Streep hadn’t obtained her full-blown talent in that film, but Hollywood seems to love it (scratch my head). However, The Princess Bride is a newer film and never received classic status due to its youth or technical accolades by the industry, but its dialogue always seems to find its way into my vocabulary. It’s Inconceivable! to me that using 1970 as the cut-off point would leave this truly delightful film out in the cold, whereas a film like Citizen Kane is a film made by an egomanical blowhard who knew how to handle a camera brilliantly but couldn’t act. I think I would have liked the film better if Orson stayed behind the camera instead in front of it.

      It’s a Wonderful Life is the classic (no joke intended) story of a film made before its time. People were feeling war weary and would have preferred something less dark. But is the film really a dark film? Yes and No. It has a happy ending and imparts more meaning to the Holiday than some other religious films have, but you see Jimmy Stewart’s character want to commit suicide because he can’t seem to handle what might happen if he lived. That’s pretty dark, and yet, I find it the perfect tear-jerker for the Holiday.

      Jumping on the bandwagon was something Hollywood does a lot and consecrated certain films as great simply because they challenged the standards of morality, the old Hays office criteria, or just slapped the face of the people who bought tickets because the filmmaker wanted to break the rules by shocking movie goers. The great Bette Davis discussed this in her interview with David Frost on television before she died. She said that people liked to be entertained. They have enough of reality in their own lives. They want drama, soapy or otherwise, and they want their emotion strings plucked. I can’t watch Sense and Sensibility (probably seen it a hundred times) without sobbing along with Eleanor Dashwood at the end or when Marianne is in her sick bed possibly dying. Yes, to me it’s a classic, but will it stand the test of time with its few accolades? Perhaps. And is Arsenic and Old Lace a classic? Cary Grant did not like the film and yet I find it is one of his finest comedic performances. It has stood the test of time and I don’t believe that it received any awards (I could be wrong. Anyone out there know if it did?). Plus, I watch it . . . a lot.

      In the end, who cares whether the film is a classic or not. I agree with Katie, if you love it and you watch it a lot, it’s your classic. Perhaps Hollywood should only give out awards when they’re deserved instead of giving them out like candy when the films were more boring and disgusting than The Ides of March (if that’s possible). You’re definition would hold more water Jake if they refrained from awarding someone every year, which to me cheapens the awards because they’re plentiful and not rare. Is there anyone out there that truly feels someone lately has really deserved The Academy Award? The movies lately have not risen to the level where they would deserve an award. But, maybe in fifty years someone will watch The Ides of March and say, “Wow!” But I doubt it.

      • Jake

        (Yeah, I’m still around!)
        I think we have a problem here: while we’re so busy trying to figure out what makes a film “classic,” we’ve forgotten that we can’t even agree upon a definition of the term, itself! :s
        At any rate, I agree that loving a film makes it “your classic,” but, as I was trying to explain, that only leaves the word completely subjective. If that’s how you choose to view it, so be it.
        (And where on earth did I say anything about the Awards?)

  • janet m.

    Justin, I don’t think even ONE of your movies is on my list, but EVERYONE of your movies I agree with–I’ve watched over and over when the opportunity came up. Enemy of the State reminded me of an addition–Enemy at the Gates–HOW about that movie! Recently I saw the documentary Stalingrad, which was about the how that showdown shut down the Nazi military.

  • Carolyn Ferrante

    Alastair Sim’s haunting (no pun intended) “A Christmas Carol” is my top nominee for a classic film that transcends all age generations.

  • jp

    Ithink any movie that keeps you comin back for more is a classic flim. I disagree with yer fact that the movie has to before 1970,cuz there were some great movies like Star Wars & E.T. both classics in my opinion.

  • Charles M Lee

    I think there is one very important criterion for a classic that was not mentioned. Is this movie so creative that it is ground breaking. That is, it approaches its genre in a way that was not previously done. Movies like “The Wizard of Oz”, “King Kong”, “Platoon” are classics because they were ground breaking in their approach to the story, or the cinematography, or visual effects. King Kong set the standard for gigantic monsters run amok in the city. As with Oz, many of the visual effects in Kong were never done before and thus set a new standard. Platoon and Saving Private Ryan took the standard war tales and gave them a unique spin. Platoon for its portrayal of the dehumanizing effects war can have on soldiers, and the various ways they deal with the horror of war. Saving Private Ryan took the standard special mission behind enemy lines and gave it a whole new twist. Ryan also gave a very realistic look at the horror and carnage of the Normandy invasion.

    Then there are some movies that are not even considered classics until years later. “Night of The Living Dead” – all feeling about how gruesome it was set aside – redefined the genre of the horror movie so it is a classic. Like it or not. I personally didn’t really care for it.

    So that is my – long winded – two cents.

  • CheriLynn

    I noticed that most of the posts are a year old. I thank you that you revived this discussion. Once again I respond with a classic has many elements including standing the test of time. Many films that are considered fantastic today given the test of time may just be considered stupid in fifty years because there is no plot, just special effects dazzle. And where are all the great actors? I just saw The Life of Pi and I think the film was rather beautiful, but I don’t feel it moved me beyond the flash and dazzle of vivid color therefore, I will not buy it. Have we all become so superficial that we can’t conceive of making a thought provoking, deeply moving film anymore? I did like The Painted Veil but more for the story than the acting. I’m reading the book now to compare. It’s been years since I’ve seen the original film and for the life of me I can’t remember who was in it. Stories like those written by Maugham are the kind of stories that film beautifully and become classics. They tell a story about redemption, finding your better self, or learning what real love is. I’m tired of stories where the hero is secretly a serial killer or he cheats on his wife or she moonlights as call girl. I want to see where the bad guy gets his in the end like Bette Davis in The Letter, or Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. And I’m tired of tattoos and naked scenes. I also don’t want to see someone on the toilet or in a public restroom or throwing up. Give me the days when girls sat at their makeup table and people kept their clothes on. Classics uplift, inform, pluck the strings of your emotions like I told Jake. I’ll take Casablanca anyday over a film made from today. There is a reason why those films are considered classics: It’s because so many people LOVE THEM.

    • Charles M Lee

      I agree that movies today – many of them at least – are very superficial, and some down right stupid. But to me, a classic has nothing to do with whether or not I like a film. It has more to do with the film’s impact and staying power. As I said, I did not care for “The Night Of The Living Dear”, but it is a classic. It redefined the genre of horror and still has a huge following. Films like the “Life of Pi” while stunning, it has not had a great impact on film making. As much as I hate and despise “Birth of a Nation’ – I am Black – it is classic because it had an impact on film making and set the standard for a lot of techniques that are still used today. Yes I love the old movies, I get bored with gratuitous love scenes and violence in movies today. Yet films like “Saving Private Ryan” will live on as ground breaking classics for how they impacted the genre. Again, my two cents.

      • CheriLynn

        I do think you have an excellent point, but many of the old classics are classics because people buy them and have requested to see them on television for many years. If they only had the technical impact you say but did not move people to want to see them over and over again then I would completely agree. However, films like It’s a Wonderful Life only became a classic because the people responded to it once it hit television. Over the years people continued to request the stations replay it and a classic was born not from awards or technical recognition. I have never had the opportunity to see Birth of a Nation so I cannot comment, but given twenty more years how are we to know whether Saving Private Ryan will be considered as part of the classic class? To me Tom Hanks is overrated. Although I do find Spielberg’s films very entertaining, Ryan is not one of them. If I had to plug in a movie on a rainy day I would prefer to see Casablanca over Saving Private Ryan seven days a week and twice on Sunday. Like I said before, ground breaking doesn’t necessarily mean good. However, your two cents are certainly worth it. That’s what I like about these discussions. Everyone is heard and respected, so keep on putting in your two cents. Over the course of many discussion that two cents could add up to real money. Blessings.

        • Huge movie fan

          Let me just say how much i agree with you on Ryan. People seem to think a movie is great just because of the subject they cover but let’s face it, that movie was filled with average performances at best and a horrible script.

    • Nancy T.

      I did not see “The Painted Veil” when it came out, but waited until I had re-read the Maugham classic, and I’m glad I read the book first as it gave me more narrative insight into what was going on. The film was decent, but the book was better. I’m a big fan of good, classic writing of the 20th century. Thanks for bringing this up, as I’ve been thinking of it for a few weeks! I like movies that respect the writer…..we’ll see how well the new “Gatsby” does.

  • jrhawk

    I have to disagree with Katie’s choices. And I don’t think you could regard any of these examples as actual “classics”…

    Rewatchable – The Marx Bros. movies (I could watch Chico and Harpo’s interactions all day long); almost every western ever made; the comedies of Mel Brooks and Monty Python.

    Memorable performances – Lon Chaney Jr. in “Of Mice and Men”; Robert Mitchum in “Night of the Hunter”; Jack Lemmon in “Days of Wine and Roses”.

    The Feeling – Waaayyy too many to mention here, but, if you don’t find yourself bawling like a baby at “All Mine to Give” or “Hachiko: A Dog’s Story”, or laugh yourself silly at “Young Frankenstein” or “Grumpy Old Men”, then you need therapy.

    Recognition – I think the public is too easy misled by what critics, mainly, may say about a certain movie. Do you care for the actor(s)?…the storyline? I know I’ll get one upside the head for this but, I find “Gone With the Wind” perhaps the most overrated movie ever! Mind you, I’ve only seen it twice yet, each time, I was not the least impressed. A love story about a self-centered, spoiled little “child” that dragged on way too long.

    Quotes – Oh boy, here we go!! Being a big movie buff, I quote movies almost on a daily basis, whatever the given situation. “Badges?!! We don’t need no steenkin’ badges”; “What we have here is a failure to communicate” (when dealing with my sometimes unruly grandson); anything from Monty Python; Jack and Walter in, again, both “Grumpy” movies…I could go on all day!

    In the end, I think we put too much emphasis on what makes a “classic”. Yes, some are deserving of that title but, like a painting, (it’s in the eye of the beholder) if a movie makes you laugh or cry and you just can’t stop talking about it, then I would regard consider that a classic.

    • Charles M Lee

      how about, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”, or “Frankly my dear I don’t give a (expletive)” or “I’m your Huckleberry”. I still say there are subjective measures that determine a classic, and I still assert impact is one of them.

      • CheriLynn

        “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” or “That’s no moon, that’s a space station.” And, I agree, I absolutely love, “I’m your Huckleberry.”

  • Randeroo

    Hi Katie,
    You nailed it! Many thanks.

  • Charlie Ray

    What’s wrong with the acting in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?

  • T L Miller

    We all know “classics” are subjective, based on what YOU personally like. The criteria listed work for me, and I do like all those films mentioned, and there are certainly more. While I still can’t understand why “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Easy Rider” are classics, I get it that they held court in their time, tho’ they really didn’t do it for me. I’ve watched “The Damned Don’t Cry” about 20 times, and will watch 4-5 episodes of “The Twilight Zone” no matter what time they come on. “The Seventh Cross,” “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” “Double Indemnity,” “Boys Town,” “His Girl Friday,” and “The Five Heartbeats” and “The Color Purple” will find me parked in front of the TV till the credits roll — and I’ve seen them at least 20 times. They just don’t get old!

  • JoAnne McMaster

    I have to take issue with #1. Just because someone deems something re-watchable, doesn’t mean someone else does. There are a lot of movies I would rather never see again but which TCM insists on playing over and over and over – usually within the span of a few months. How many times can you watch Goodbye Again with Ingrid Bergman before you say, Enough Already!

  • Gerard Kennelly

    i am tired of the oscars being political instead of awarding the best performances
    day lewis ‘Lincoln’ was not better than Phoenix in ‘The Master’

  • Vincent J. Anello

    I have watched a lot of movies in my 68 plus years starting with a movie house right across the street from my own house and the charge was never more than a quarter in the day time, they always showed an A and B movie plus five cartoons. Then by 1950 – 51 everyone had tv’s, so as I said I have watched a lot of movies, some before I was born because of tv. and all the new ones That come out in the movie theaters, to me a classic is a movie you never get tired of watching or go out of your way to watch again, Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Godfather, King Kong and so many more.

  • RW

    I am one of those people who have watched certain films over and over again since I was a child all through adult life. Many are recognized as classics, others are classics to me..I agree with your evaluations especially rewatchability and the “fuzzy feeling” you get when watching them. Thank you for your most astute insights on the subject.

  • Chet Carman

    I get no feeling from watching “Casablanca.” Never have. Does that make it a non-classic, or me just dim…?

  • watalifer

    The Outlaw Josie Wells is the greatest one-liner movie of all times.Watch and count them….Don’t pi## down my back…lives by the fued…hard put and desperate man…hows it with stains…chain blue lighting…and my favorate….dieing aint much of a living,boy