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Is It Really a Classic?


TopBilled
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Each day for the next three weeks, I am going to post a series of 21 points that I use when looking at film, to determine if it is truly a classic. Granted some films score higher in certain categories than others, but overall there has to be consistent excellence, or else I feel the film will probably not stand the test of time. I hope you join me for this journey, and add your thoughts along the way-- and I know everyone has thought about this topic, especially when watching films that do not really seem like classics.

 

Here goes.

 

_Today: POINT 1_

 

I am borrowing this first idea from the late Roger Ebert. In some of his reviews, he comes right out and says this, and it really makes you think about the film on the screen in a very critical, and analytical, way:

 

Does the film have a reason for existing?

 

Often, I catch myself watching a film and I say to myself, why was this made? What was the studio or the independent production team thinking or trying to accomplish here? Was it strictly financial the reason Film X was made, to fulfill a contract or to bring home a paycheck? Or was it artistic or politically motivated to make this film, even if the results came up short? Also, if it is a rehash of what came before, then how can anyone (despite the financial or intended artistic or social benefit) justify its being made?

 

As Ebert implies, if the film really does not have a solid reason for existing, then it probably should not have been made. And it certainly cannot qualify as a classic, can it?

 

This is not meant to be a slam on remakes, because some remakes do have a good reason for existing (perhaps to take advantage of newer technologies). But I can think of plenty of films, remakes and non-remakes alike, that do not seem to have a reason for existing.

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Does the film have a reason for existing?

 

That's a very high standard when you elaborate on it the way you have, and it's a good one to start off the discussion. I'm always interested to see how people apply it to particular movies.

 

My only initial comment would be that I find that that standard was met more consistently in the better foreign films of past decades* than it was in most Hollywood films. Though I would qualify that somewhat by acknowledging that by the time most foreign films make it over here, the worst ones have mostly been culled out, so in a way the comparison is a bit unfair.

 

*Most markedly in the Italian neo-realist films of the 40's and 50's, which IMO as a group were the finest movies ever made.

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> Often, I catch myself watching a film and I say to myself, why was this made?

 

They were trying to entertain people?? For some reason, I'm reminded of Jean-Luc Godard and his negative reaction to Fran?ois Truffaut's *Day For Night* because it wasn't challenging anybody. I mean, how dare Truffaut try something as prosaic as making a fun film that will entertain the masses?

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Well of course the main reason for making a movie is to make money. So I assume that reason doesn't qualify as it relates to what is a 'classic'.

 

But as we have discussed before the most simple reason is that a movie entertains people. The Sullivan's Travels theme.

 

This topic caused a major stir here related to the Story of Film series. e.g. that many Hollywood movies are just silly fluff with the ONLY reasons they were made was to entertain and make money.

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I haven't seen the rest of TopBilled's list, but this one is but 1 of 21 different criteria for regarding a movie as a "classic". Beyond the example you give, I can think of plenty of B-movies (Torchy Blane; Boston ****; etc.) that are "classic" in one way or another without putting them into the highest "classic" echelon. IOW it's all relative.

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>This topic caused a major stir here related to the Story of Film series. e.g. that many Hollywood movies are just silly fluff with the ONLY reasons they were made was to entertain and make money.

 

Yep, good point here, James.

 

AND, as I recall, the maker AND narrator of that series stated THIS very opinion in his documentary in the follow manner:

 

"Many Hollywood movies?..are just silly fluff?.. with the ONLY reasons?... they were made?..was to entertain?..and make money?

 

(...isn't that how YOU remember it TOO???) ;)

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This topic caused a major stir here related to the Story of Film series. e.g. that many Hollywood movies are just silly fluff with the ONLY reasons they were made was to entertain and make money.

 

As were most foreign movies.

 

The difference is that *those* foreign movies seldom make it across the ocean or the border, which can give us an inflated idea of the overall foreign product. Personally I'd like to see another TCM channel devoted to foreign movies that don't make the existing TCM cut, but that's probably for another lifetime.

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I have to admit that I disagree with the whole premise of this question.

Yes, I think it is much better to make a film under optimum conditions than under negative ones but that's only a generalization and a guarantee of nothing.

 

For example, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT was based on unpromising material. Louis B. Mayer was supposedly insistent that the film be made at Columbia to punish Clark Gable. Claudette Colbert entered the project with great reluctance. And yet Frank Capra helped ignite the creative juices and a classic film was made.

 

Creativity is a very mysterious process. Unpromising material can be foisted on writers, directors and actors and with the least amount of time and lowest budget but it's still possible that they can find something in the project that can spark their artistry.

 

Allegedly, James Cagney was bored with the idea of making another gangster film in the late 1940s and signed up for largely commercial reasons. But once he got involved, he and director Raoul Walsh worked hard to make his character totally distinctive and different from the original script, resulting in WHITE HEAT.

 

By the same token very creative people can set out to make a masterpiece and be granted all the funds they need...and still wind up turning out a piece of crap.

 

What ultimately matters is what's on the screen, not how it got there. This question usually gets asked when you see a fiasco and as with the case of an accident, we wonder how did it happen?

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(...in all seriousness here...BOY is this hard for me, and as you know ;) ...)

 

Yep TB, I have to agree with most of the responders to your thread here.

 

Because as "they say", "There are only seven basic plots to use in storytelling", the idea that ANY film made in order to be held in the highest regard(vis-?-vis "a Classic") is required to "break new ground" if you will, seems to me to be a very high standard of which I would venture to guess many many "recognized" film classics might fall short of.

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>by the time most foreign films make it over here, the worst ones have mostly been culled out

 

I would agree. So in essence, many mediocre or abysmal, foreign films may not have reached American shores. Or for that matter, the great earlier works that may have inspired Rossellini and his contemporaries.

 

>I haven't seen the rest of TopBilled's list, but this one is but 1 of 21 different criteria for regarding a movie as a "classic".

 

Correct. This is the first point. Some of the other points will look at individual components of filmmaking and if those are successful how they lead to a film reaching classic or at least cult status.

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FredfromNJ,

 

You have hit upon a few subtopics that I plan to explore with the later 'points' I will be presenting.

 

You said creativity is a mysterious process, and I could not agree more. I think all aspects of filmmaking, even the seemingly less creative efforts, denote an air of mystery-- or else it is not going to beckon to an audience and create a suspension of disbelief in order for even the most casual viewer to experience and feel the story.

 

You mentioned budget and that is one of the other points I will touch upon-- but I do not think we are looking at budget the same way, especially as it relates to what is a classic film. So I will look forward to your feedback on that.

 

>What ultimately matters is what's on the screen, not how it got there

 

Not sure if I agree with that statement. Sometimes what matters is what is not on the screen and why it didn't get there.

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>Well of course the main reason for making a movie is to make money.

 

Unfortunately, this is not always true. Sometimes movies are made to fail. They may be ill-conceived from the onset (and not marketed well) in order to sabotage an ego-driven star or even wreck a star's career.

 

Though let's say the main reason a film might be made is, as you stated, to make profit for the company. It would have to contain some attractive elements to make the audience respond to it, even if those elements are synthesized or forced. The elements, where the audience is responding favorably, can help qualify it as a classic on some level.

 

I am going to look at budget with one of the upcoming points, but I do not think money itself determines what makes a film a classic.

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>They were trying to entertain people

 

Many films entertain but educate at the same time. Or they entertain and don't exactly educate but they offer something else, like providing escape from a depressing outside reality-- so they are doing more than entertaining-- they are providing therapy almost. It is possible that most astute filmmakers realize that there is more than just entertainment involved when making and screening a film. There is a higher purpose and standard involved. A real classic will succeed in meeting that higher standard, and perhaps going way beyond it.

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Before I move on to Point Two tomorrow, I want to apply the first point to a specific film.

 

Again, does a film have a reason for existing?

 

Let's use LITTLE WOMEN (1949) as our example. Does it have a reason for existing? Rating it on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being highest, LITTLE WOMEN (1949) would earn at least a 4, if not a 5, in my estimation. It exists so that MGM can take advantage of advances in technology-- Technicolor primarily, as well as other areas-- to re-present the beloved Louisa May Alcott story. Interestingly, George Cukor turned down the opportunity to re-direct it. He felt he could not improve upon either the earlier RKO version, or at least, his technique in the earlier version. So for him, personally, the remake would not earn a 5 in this category-- probably something much lower.

 

The remake also has another reason for existing-- and it is similar to the reason it was made originally by RKO, and that was/is to promote a group of starlets under contract at the studio with a wholesome product that might have the greatest mainstream appeal possible.

 

Now, if we look at the next big screen remake, produced in 1994, color would not be its reason for existing. Something else might be. Perhaps because recycling Alcott's story might promote a mid-90s feminist agenda, as well as once again furthering the careers of the young stars.

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I will admit I find this entire topic folly. One clue that it is folly is that "real classic" was used. To me having to put 'real' before 'classic shows that the term 'classic' doesn't have any actual meaning.

 

While I can define elements of a flim and film making that I like or even one could say require for me to enjoy a film, I would never say that these elements define a 'classic'.

 

Instead these elements only define my personal taste.

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If the topic is 'folly' as you state, then perhaps it would serve you best to focus on other threads that you do not deem to be this way. I see a tendency on these forums for certain posters to go in and either post negative comments to devalue the intent of the thread or to degrade it by posting either ribald humor or frivolous funnies that detract from a meaningful and constructive conversation.

 

Moving forward...

 

A real classic is a film that is a classic in the truest most unadulterated sense, not a 'classic' (which is an overused word to begin with) because it it appears in a new N-th Anniversary package or because it appears on a cable channel devoted to showing movies predominately from a given era. Though I think TCM is good in this regard: its programmers realize that a real classic film is timeless and does not need to have been produced in a certain decade to be recognized, scheduled and broadcast.

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I will admit I find this entire topic folly. One clue that it is folly is that "real classic" was used. To me having to put 'real' before 'classic shows that the term 'classic' doesn't have any actual meaning.

 

While I can define elements of a flim and film making that I like or even one could say require for me to enjoy a film, I would never say that these elements define a 'classic'.

 

Instead these elements only define my personal taste.

 

I certainly would never try to embellish my personal taste in movies by claiming any objective standard - - - I like what I like and that's about it - - - but I do think that TopBilled's exercise might well prove to be useful in seeing what sort of traits are most commonly found *in movies where the sense of being a "classic" has reached a strong critical consensus.*

 

IOW what combination of factors differentiate a universally regarded "classic" like Stella Dallas from the average studio era soaper? Unless I'm mistaken, that's what I think this thread is supposed to be about.

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>I certainly would never try to equate my personal idea of a "classic" with any objective standard - - - I like what I like and that's about it - - - but I do think that TopBilled's exercise might well prove to be useful in seeing what sort of criteria are most commonly found in movies where the sense of being a "classic" has reached a strong critical consensus.

 

>IOW what combination of factors differentiate a universally regarded "classic" like Stella Dallas from the average studio era soaper? Unless I'm mistaken, that's what I think this thread is supposed to be about.

 

Yes, that is part of it. How can we be sure that we are listing what are unquestionably classic films? Andy, you said in one of your posts on the Underrated threads that you have a way to rate the films to compile your overall list for each decade.

 

I think we need a rubric for this. It can still be about personal taste and some degree of subjectivity, but if we are going to put a real classic to the test, it has to meet certain objective criteria.

 

For instance, if something has only a 35% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, it does not seem as classic (to me) as something with a 97% Certified Fresh rating.

 

In regards to the 21 points I am setting forth here in this thread, we can score so-called classic films and see how they rank. And with this first point, 'does it have a reason for existing' if it does not earn the highest marks, that may tell us something about whether it is a real classic. (Notice I am using the word 'may' because there could still be some subjectivity involved, not to mention other factors.)

 

Where I see this headed is that some films we consider classic, decade after decade, are not actually classics, but just over-exposed, over-played titles that when compared against a rubric or other more classic films, fall considerably short. That might be hard for some people to accept. And some films that people do not give a chance, because they were made after the code ended, are in reality more classic than something made during the code years. That might be hard for people to accept, too.

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To try to answer point 1 ( the way I interpret this) , I believe the public has to relate to the film at the time it was made. So the film's popularity at the time it was made would be the way to measure that. But how do you judge a film that "bombed" when it was first shown and yet over time it has built up a popular following? Laughton's *Night Of The Hunter* comes to my mind for example. And of course there is the opposite side of the coin, a film that really scored big at its release but is poorly thought of today. Can a film be a legitimate classic and later lose its rating or visa versa?

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To try to answer point 1 ( the way I interpret this) , I believe the public has to relate to the film at the time it was made. So the film's popularity at the time it was made would be the way to measure that. But how do you judge a film that "bombed" when it was first shown and yet over time it has built up a popular following? Laughton's Night Of The Hunter comes to my mind for example. And of course there is the opposite side of the coin, a film that really scored big at its release but is poorly thought of today. Can a film be a legitimate classic and later lose its rating or visa versa?

 

I think we each have our own set of standards, and IMO it's a sad person who lets popularity (or the lack of it) guide his taste in movies or anything else.

 

That said, all our personal standards give us is a basis for argument. They certainly don't settle the issue of what films deserve a label of "classic" over the broader realm of critics and audiences. There are plenty of movies with 90% or better ratings from Rotten Tomatoes that I consider wildly overrated, and even more films hovering in the 50% range that I put near the top of my list.

 

But the key word there is "my". To go beyond that we have to figure out what most people (critics and audience) think are the most important factors in the makeup of a "classic" movie.

 

Hell, I just watched Die! Die! My Darling, and thought that Tallulah Bankhead's performance was nearly up to Bette Davis's memorable role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? And yet the latter film got a 91% RT rating while the Bankhead movie got but 44%. That gap seems seriously out of whack to me, but I'd still be interested in finding out *why* Bankhead's stellar acting in Die! Die! seemed not to resonate very much across the board.

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These days, words like "classic," are thrown around so much, that they kind of lose meaning. Declaring a movie a "classic" can also mean different things to different people. Some people may just proclaim films they love as classics, whereas others may look specifically at box office records. Those unfamiliar with classic films may acknowledge "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca," and "Wizard of Oz," as the best classics. Those movies are almost at a point where they're a clich? answer to "What are the best classic films?" Films that fit someone's criteria of 'classic' may differ based on the individual. If someone loathes a particular 'classic,' they will probably be less apt to refer to it as such.

 

I believe that a film can be declared a classic if the following is true:

 

Tradition- Has the film become part of a holiday tradition? Does your family/friends annually gather 'round each year to watch a particular film? Here are my holiday classics:

Halloween It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Thanksgiving Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Christmas A Christmas Story, Grumpy Old Men, Elf, A Muppet Christmas Carol, Christmas Vacation, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (cartoon)

 

Other films like "It's a Wonderful Life," and "Miracle on 34th Street," while considered holiday classics, they aren't part of my holiday traditions, so I don't consider them as big of classics as "A Christmas Story."

 

Rewatchability- This is probably the biggest thing for me. When I buy movies, I very rarely buy ones I haven't seen. I have to have a pretty big hunch that I'll love the film for me to buy it without watching it first. I bought "Gilda" without seeing it first, knowing that it was a film noir and it featured two of my favorite people, Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, I just knew I would enjoy it. I'm happy to say that I was right.

 

There are some films I have watched and while I enjoyed them, I don't feel the need to see it again. An example of this is when I saw "Capote." It was a good movie; but I don't see myself needing to rewatch this film. I also think that if it's a movie that you can watch a million times and never tire of it, then it's a classic-- at least in your heart it is.

 

Films such as "Sabrina," "Sunset Boulevard," "All About Eve," and "The Adventures of Robin Hood," are just a few examples of films that I cannot ever tire of. With each successive viewing, I love these films just as much as I loved them when I saw them the first time. I have quite a few films that fall into this category. I'm shameless when I watch one of these movies even when I just watched it a few weeks (or days) before. I don't care. I have a zillion movies too and I always seem to watch the same handful.

 

It's hard to come up with a defined set of rules to follow to determine a classic, because it's subjective. I suppose you could look from a purely technical standpoint and specifically look at films that were innovative in a specific filming style, technique, camera, etc. Then again, films could be viewed from an artistic viewpoint and one could look at whether or not there are memorable scenes and performances, great soundtracks/film scores, quotes that standout, and other similar details. Films that may not necessarily rate high at rotten tomatoes may be chock full of quotes that people love reciting.

 

Then there are the cult films. Films that would for the most part fail every serious attempt at analyzing the technical and artistic merits of the film to determine the quality could be considered "classics." Many of the Ed Wood films would fit this criteria. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and many of the John Waters films would also fall into this category. Then there is my personal favorite, "UHF" with Weird Al. There is nothing about that film that says "classic movie." However, the campiness and sheer ridiculousness of that film is what I love about it. It's a classic in my book; but it may not be to the more serious film buffs out there.

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>I just watched Die! Die! My Darling, and thought that Tallulah Bankhead's performance was nearly up to Bette Davis's memorable role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? And yet the latter film got a 91% RT rating while the Bankhead movie got but 44%. That gap seems seriously out of whack to me, but I'd still be interested in finding out why Bankhead's stellar acting in Die! Die! seemed not to resonate very much across the board.

 

Hazarding a guess here, but maybe it was Tallulah's acting that brought it up to a 44%, otherwise without her, it might have been rated lower. I think you'd have to go back and look at the critics' reviews and the box office to see how it earned a 44% rating. Perhaps the supporting cast did not help, whereas in BABY JANE, the supporting cast seems to be much more lauded. And Aldrich's direction is lauded, too. You also have a second major star, Joan Crawford, giving it clout, which DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! does not have. Again, I'm just guessing. But I agree that Tallulah does give an excellent performance.

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mmroberts,

 

You are hitting on another variable-- time. But if something is a real classic (and there's that phrase again a real classic) then it is ultimately going to stand the test of time, even if there are changes in attitude about it in given generations.

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