What Makes A Classic Movie Classic?

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If I may, I’d like to quote from Entertainment Weekly’s review of the just released 70th anniversary Blue-ray release of Casablanca (1942). According to Chris Nashawaty’s piece, when the script arrived at Warner Bros. in December of 1941 “…there wasn’t an ending yet…the movie was just one of 50 in Warner’s crowded pipeline at the time…The reliably bland Ronald Reagan was considered for the lead, then George Raft, with ‘Oomph Girl’ Ann Sheridan floated as love interest. In other words, this forgettable little project carried all the telltale signs of becoming just another disposable feature that would run for a few weeks and then be swept away like the stray popcorn kernels and Lucky Strike butts littering theater floors.”

As we all know, that’s not exactly how it played out.

My point being that classic movies don’t always come about because someone sits down and says, “We’re making this one for the ages!” As often as not, cinematic greatness is a happy accident.

But what is it – what are the elements, the components – that turn a movie from a fun day at the matinee into an evergreen still being saluted, still moving audiences decades later? What makes a classic classic?

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In the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to teach some college basic film appreciation courses, and it’s become clear to me that cinematic classicism isn’t always apparent to the untrained eye. I cannot tell you how many young people look at Citizen Kane (1941) and have declared it “Boooorrrrriiiiinnnnnng!” Does that mean that, as the years go by, Kane is losing its fizz? Or is movie-making greatness (or at least elements of it) sometimes an acquired taste? In the same way that the palate has to be “taught” what to look for in a fine wine (“This is supposed to be good wine? It tastes like furniture varnish!”), do we have to train the eye, the ear, the sensibility to appreciate true greatness?

Do we even understand what greatness is in a movie?

I recall a story I read some years ago in screenwriting e-zine Hollywoodlitsales News in which author Eva Peel claimed “plots have improved” because contemporary movies “…have taken to cramming 20-30% more plot beats into two hours…than your average action movie or thriller made before 1990.” Ms. Peel then went on to say that this made Enemy of the State (1998) a “better” movie than Francis Ford Coppola’s essay on paranoia, The Conversation (1974), and the glitzy but empty 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair better than the 1968 character-driven original. In other words, thrillers were better because they were faster and had more action in them. So, Speed (1994) is a better movie than, oh, say Out of the Past (1947), The Third Man (1949), Rear Window (1954), The French Connection (1971).

And for some slices of audience – the Citizen-Kane-is-boring crew — I think that’s true.

So, then, does a movie lose its greatness because it no longer meets the demands of a new audience sensibility? Is Citizen Kane less the classic it’s always acknowledged to be because more and more people find it a bit of a slog? Is Casablanca no longer one of the all-time great Hollywood movie romances because most of us no longer appreciate its wartime context and sense of self-sacrifice? Or because 40s-style screen acting might seem a bit arch by today’s standards? Or because – this is for you, Eva – it has so few plot beats?

That also brings up the question of, Have we gotten a little intellectually lazy? Back in January, Sound on Sight’s Edgar Chaput wrote a post on the 1954Godzilla and how the movie still worked for him. Edgar, bless him, was able to extend his mind’s eye to see the movie the way it must have hit an audience in 1954. But if a contemporary audience can’t get past the guy-in-a-rubber-suit creature and Lego cities the Big Guy stomps and sets afire, does that make the movie bad? Does that make Edgar crazy? The 1998 remake had countless more beats and infinitely better special effects, yet even the most indiscriminate viewers agreed the movie totally, completely, and comprehensively sucked.

What is it we respond to that makes us consider a movie great? Is it purely its ability to entertain year after year? It’s 37 years later, and damned if Jaws still doesn’t perform its gut-wrenching suspense magic, and, even older, The Godfather (1972) is still one of the most quoted movies in pop culture (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”; “Take the cannoli; leave the gun”; “It’s just business” et al).

But some movies considered “great” or “classic” are not particularly viscerally entertaining (a fancy way of saying they’re not “fun”). 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was never an easy watch, and The Godfather, Part II (1974), is longer, slower, and has a considerably lower body count than its predecessor. Yet many a cineaste would argue Part II is the better film of the two (although by Eva Peel’s gauge, not so much).

Is greatness as simple as, “I enjoyed it,” or can there be something less obvious at work? Has our movie-watching sensibility been so degraded by the monumental tonnage of crap that flows into the marketplace that we may no longer have the eyes to recognize vintage good work when we see it? Can something be good even if we don’t like it?

Mull that over while I load up my Casablanca DVD. Until you come up with an answer, here’s looking at you, kid.

– Bill Mesce

4 Comments
  1. Ricky says

    I would agree with you Bill but I think the general public is to blame. There are far too many times when great movies even those distributed by indie studios do get a wide release, but people would rather see the next Michael Bay film instead.

    It is true that most of Hollywood films are decided and in some ways manufactured by marketing execs rather than filmmakers but the biggest problem is society in general. Attention span has decreased, people are far less educated, and even worse ignorant, and familiarity is far more powerful than say what a film critic has to say.

    People go see a movie like ‘Jack and Jill’ because they are familiar with the actors in the film. They play it safe.

    People can say what they will about the Weinstein brothers, but they have been distributing some of the most interesting films to come out of America in the past thirty or so years. But they know the game. A good chunk of their films make a profit and they know how to market it.

    Basically I think it comes down to once again ratio …
    I am willing to bet that while Casablanca was a major hit when released and Citizen Kane was critically acclaimed , kids back than found it just as boring as most kids do these days.

    In a way I think the internet , despite downloading and torrents and what not, has saved the movie industry … film buffs can go online and hear about certain films they would never see advertised on television or even in a local newspaper ….

    times are changing , in some ways for the best and in other ways for the worse.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Well, said! Here here!

  2. Bill Mesce says

    During the peak studio years in the late 1930s, the motion picture industry was releasing somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 movies, but I agree with you: the proportion of good movies to crap probably hasn’t changed.
    I’ll also agree with you that the good movies are as good as they’ve ever been, and that they’ve continued the ongoing evolution in style and content that really kicks in post-WW II.
    The difference is that most of those terrific new films — as you say — are being released by the indies or being imported, and that keeps them on the fringe. From the late 40s through the late 70s, those steps forward were happening in the commercial mainstream. We may still be getting potentially classic films on our screens; it’s just so few people know about them.

  3. Ricky says

    hmmm – you know I really love the classics, and I think that one should take into consideration how many of the films mentioned above and so many more inspired filmmakers decades later.

    IE: How “The Most Dangerous Game” inspired countless movies to come…

    and while I Can’t stand by this lady Eva and the horrible examples she laid out, I still really do believe they make movies better than they used to.

    There were over 500 new releases last year, and about 50 or so I consider anywhere from really good to great.

    If you consider the ratio of great to good to bad films made in 1950 and compare it to present day, the ratio would be the same.

    There are simply more films made nowaways and so we have many more bad ones.

    Grant it Hollywood is producing mostly crap, but if you look at the majority of films released by independent studios and those foreign gems, and you can’t deny that filmmaking has really matured in many ways.

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