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.