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Defining "Classic" Movies

by Elizabeth,

April 4, 2003

Reel Classics has been online for over six years now, and it is probably somewhat surprising that in all that time I have never put forth any definition or criteria for the "classic movies" I purport to be writing about on this site.  The question of "What makes a movie classic?" is a frequent one however, and after years of considering the subject, I now feel comfortable enough with what I'm doing to attempt to answer it.

I like the word "classic" because the term is broad enough that I can tailor my own prejudices into its definition. In general, I use it to mean "embodying high qualities" with a touch of "famous in the sense of long-established." A classic also usually either serves as a model or adheres to certain established standards. Classic movies aren't so much defined by a specific time frame (although the Hollywood studio system that existed from the 1910s into the 1960s and produced the majority of the films I consider classics certainly lends a temporal prejudice to my definition). Rather, classic movies embody a method of storytelling that leaves something to the audience's imagination. When, in a classic movie, the leading man and leading lady kiss and the screen fades to black, the older members of the audience know what that means. The younger members of the audience don't know what that means, but their ignorance doesn't hurt their enjoyment of the film. As a result, the whole family can watch the same movie together and get different things from it depending on their stage of life and the experiences they bring to the theatre with them. By leaving graphic depictions or descriptions of sex and violence and moral corruption to the audience's imagination through suggestion and innuendo, classic movies make these themes more powerful in the minds of those old enough to understand, yet without destroying the innocence of those on whom these subtleties are lost.

An example: A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951).
I first saw this film when I was about twelve years old and thought it a compelling, tragic romance. I knew enough about sex to know that if Shelley Winters was unmarried and pregnant, she had done something she wasn't supposed to do, but I didn't know enough about life to really understand her scene at the doctor's office. At age twelve, I thought, "Okay. She's pregnant and she goes to the doctor. That makes sense." It seemed a little odd that she was talking to the doctor about her financial situation instead of her health, but not too odd, so I left it at that. A few years later however, when I watched the film again, I suddenly realized what this very cryptic and carefully worded conversation between Shelley Winters and the doctor was really about: abortion. By telling the doctor that she and her husband couldn't afford the baby, she was trying to get him to perform an abortion. At seventeen, that scene in the film took on a whole new meaning for me, and it was because of the expanded life experience which I brought with me into the theatre, not because of anything that had changed in the filmmaking.

To me, this is what classic movies are all about. They are films that can be watched on many different levels, and as a result, enjoyed again and again over the years in new ways. Because they adhere to certain standards of discretion and use established cinematic devices to imply what they cannot say explicitly, they also can't rely on sex or violence to hold the audience's attention. Rather than resorting to the use of blatant sensorial stimulations like explosions, nudity and flashy editing, classic movies use compelling stories and characters, or snappy dialogue, or high production values (cinematography, editing, shot composition, scoring, sets and costuming, etc.), or good acting, or some combination of the above qualities to attract and entertain the audience. The Production Code, which governed Hollywood filmmaking during the days of the studio system and censored the depiction of sex, violence and immoral behavior on the screen, played a major role in establishing the framework within which filmmakers were forced to find creative ways of subtly suggesting themes and plot elements which they weren't allowed to show explicitly. But just because those rules existed then and don't exist any more doesn't mean there aren't still filmmakers who adhere to them. Because today it is easier and more common to show two people in bed together than to imply it, modern films don't often meet my classic movie standards of discretion. There are still classic movies being made however.

To me, this Italian movie embodies the creative suggestiveness and subtly that classic movies are all about. Instead of relying on special effects to create graphic scenes of the violent indignities suffered by Jews in the concentration camps of World War II, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL implies the horrors which surround its characters by showing their reactions to what they see and hear. When filmmakers choose to show these atrocities outright, as has been done in SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) and THE PIANIST (2002), they shock, but the images are never personalized. When films don't leave anything to the audience's imagination, there is no room for the audience members to extrapolate scenes in their own minds according to their own experiences; no room to personalize the characters' experiences by imagining what these people must be seeing or hearing or feeling that could make them react like this. But the subtleties of LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL don't limit themselves to the horrors of the concentration camp. In one of the film's most romantic sequences, the leading man follows his leading lady into a greenhouse. Rather than show what they do there, the scene slowly dissolves to a shot of the same greenhouse, only this time, a little boy is playing there. The implications are obvious, the device serves to advance the plot a few years without restoring to a "Five Years Later..." inter-title, and the love scene is left to the audience's imagination. Beautiful.

Thus, to sum it all up, although most of the films featured here at Reel Classics were made under the Hollywood studio system and similar regimes in other countries, it is not the time period or conditions under which they were made that make them classics - it is the films themselves and the approach to storytelling they embody.

2003 Reel Classics, LLC

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