What Makes A Classic Film Classic…?

What makes a classic really "classic"?

That was the question once asked 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 gave the daunting task of defining that elusive quality which differentiates a good movie from a classic film to over 100 people working in the entertainment industry. Many of them were veterans of the classic silver screen themselves– still with us when the story went to print back in 1992.

Below are a few of the highlights from this most insightful piece, written at the height of the industry’s first major rally in Washington on the issue of film preservation, and I hope it provides much food for thought…and discussion.

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)

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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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

11 thoughts on “What Makes A Classic Film Classic…?

  1. Excellent post. Thank you. I’ve probably been a bit too harsh on this subject in the past, and the quotes you selected put the subject into perspective and concisely.

    I absolutely disagree with the commenters who believe that classic means individual taste. Classic in the arts transcends individuality or transitory leanings — “classic” it is the best an art form has to give us, with “art” being something allows the sharing of human experience: what it means to be human and able to contemplate our own existence.

  2. Great post and great week to post it! Reminds me of some of the Oscar clip packages this past weekend – why is film important? What does it mean to you? Good questions and love hearing the many answers!

  3. A Classic Film? All the answers were quite good, the test of time for sure the fact that you want to see it often and pass it on to family members and friends. I also think that the actors in each part could not be replaced. We used to play a game on dull days at the Library, Recasting the actors in Gone With The Wind, never came out satisfactory, the romance,the smell,the feel all those things are part of a Classic Film-to me!

  4. What seems to recur most in the quotes is the ability of a film to “last” – to appeal far beyond its own time, in fact, to become “timeless.” That works for me since it generally follows that a great deal of creativity, talent and meticulous craftsmanship is required to produce such a film.

  5. I particularly liked David Lynch’s answer. Classic movies seem to be the ones who managed to create an appealing “world”. He put it in a very charming way: we do like to visit our favorite characters over and over again.

  6. I particularly like David Lynch’s answer. Classic movies seem to be the ones that managed to create an appealing “world”. He put it in a very charming way: we do like to visit our favorite characters over and over again.

  7. A classic film touches your heart, mind and soul. It is a timeless entity constantly being rediscovered by new generations.

    It is a film that relaxes you after a bad day. A film you can quote the dialogue of quite well. The actors and actresses are like familiar friends you will always remember.

    When you see it on TV, you just have to stop and watch it for a bit. You may even watch it to the end. A classic is a film in your movie collection you cherish and may even have bought a second copy of.

    A classic is a movie you would not hesitate recommending to other people. They make very few of these today. Thank God we have so many of them in the past to fill our mind, body and souls with.

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