Here we go on one of those oh-so-serious missions that occupy so many of those oh-so-serious motion picture fans. We are seeking the truth behind the silver screen, the message of the mission. We are seeking answers to the eternal concern: What in the world causes a piece of film to become a classic?
First we seek out a star and we receive in turn this facetious response: "Any movie with me in it is a classic." But the film student has a different say: "Not everything Jimmy Stewart is in, despite what the video stores suggest." Calculates the video-store manager: "Practically any film over 30 years old." Computes the home-video marketing executive: "Any movie that keeps selling." The answers most of us would give: "Casablanca" or "Citizen Kane" or "Gone With the Wind."
Stop! First, we have to realize that classic movies aren't classic cars. If you were lucky enough to get your hands on, say, a Bugatti Royale or a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, you might be able to take such a car apart and, by studying each piece, figure out exactly the nuts and bolts of a classic. But you can't do that with a movie. However minutely you probe the elements that make up the whole--from screenplay to cinematography, casting to music, directing to editing--there remain too many intangibles. The emotions that go into the creation of and the response to these frozen moments are too often the result of chance and circumstances rather than careful planning. We would never know for certain how it all jelled the way it did.
Would "Casablanca" still be the ultimate romance if it were missing only that gleam of a tear in Ingrid Bergman's eye? Would "It's a Wonderful Life" still move hearts every Christmas if Jimmy Stewart's voice lacked that passionately decent timbre? Who really knows? Classics are not necessarily classics just because each element is handled perfectly but because . . . .
Well, that's the question we are asking.
We go to a man who knows a bit about classics.
What does make a classic?
"That's hard to answer," says Samuel Goldwyn Jr., whose father made a few movies that are generally designated as classics and whose company sells most of those films to the home-video market, packaged as "The Goldwyn Classic Collection."
"The answer is essentially the same as it is for literature and art. A classic movie is an experience people want to relive," Goldwyn says, adding that his father, much like many of his contemporaries, was never sure what lasting value the films he produced would have. The younger Goldwyn recalls that "Wuthering Heights" was the one film the elder Goldwyn hoped to be remembered for.
Thinking of some of the Goldwyn "classics" ("The Best Years of Our Lives," "Ball of Fire"), we realize that long before there were home videos, the film historians, critics and buffs had almost an exclusive say in labeling a film as a classic. They chronicled, catalogued and wrote about the films that appeared at infrequent moments at art houses and museums or occasionally in edited forms on commercial television. We all knew that they generally considered "Birth of a Nation," "Children of Paradise," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind" classics. But how many of us had actually seen those films in movie houses and not in abused form on commercial television? Now, the arbiters of the classics are the people who dream up and print the signs in video stores. Look at the shelves and see all of the "classics."
"That's one of my pet peeves," says Leonard Maltin, film commentator/historian for "Entertainment Tonight." "There is so much overuse and misuse of the word classic . Home video labels practically anything over a year old 'a classic.' " Maltin is fairly stingy with his four-star ratings in his reference book, "Leonard Maltin's TV Movies and Video Guide," but both "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane" merit those marks, and he writes that "everything is right in the WWII classic of war-torn Casablanca . . . our candidate for the best Hollywood movie of all time." The four-star rating is Maltin's highest, but time and individual feelings still determine for critics and historians what is a classic movie.
Now we turn to the pages of another film historian, Leslie Halliwell. In his "The Filmgoer's Companion," he is even more frugal with his praise than Maltin. But "Casablanca," he does say, "deserved and kept its fame," and of "Citizen Kane" his comment begins: "Often acclaimed as the best film of all time; certainly none has used the medium with more vigor and enthusiasm." But the word classic rarely appears in Halliwell, and where it does, it is used in a qualified way.
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," he writes of the 1919 German silent, is a "classic horror film."
"David Copperfield," George Cukor's 1934 adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, is to Halliwell "probably the most successful and satisfactory 'Hollywood classic.' "