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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.’ ”

“Forty-Second Street” is termed a “classic ‘putting-on-a-show’ musical from Hollywood’s ‘golden age.’ ”

“High Noon” is “a Western of classic economy” (which is not the same thing as believing the whole film is a classic because of Gary Cooper). Halliwell terms “Nanook of the North” “this classic documentary,” but he simply uses the word “great” when he talks about “La Grande Illusion,” the film about which Woody Allen says in his own film “Manhattan,” “I see that every time it’s on television--if I’m aware of it.” (Maltin does use the word classic for this Jean Renoir film, calling it “Renoir’s classic treatise on war” and gives it four stars.)

Was “La Grande Illusion” a classic to Renoir? We go to another expert in films. Peter Bogdanovich, the film director who moonlights as a home-video film commentator for “CBS This Morning,” recalls a conversation with Renoir. The two talked about another of the late French film maker’s works, “Boudu Saved From Drowning” (which was reworked in Hollywood more recently as “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”). Bogdanovich recalls Renoir saying: “The film stock was very poor, the sound not good, the music not well recorded, the cutting a little abrupt and awkward, but I think, maybe, it is my best film.”

Bogdanovich laughs in recalling the conversation. Even though a film may be flawed, he observes, it can in many ways still be called great. “However,” Bogdanovich says, “I like to think it possible that you can’t set out to make a classic but only set out to make a picture you believe in.” Perhaps that is why Bogdanovich’s 1971 study of a small town, “The Last Picture Show,” earned four stars from Maltin.

We track down another director, this time John Boorman (“Hope and Glory”). He expresses a slightly different view. “Rarely, of course, does anyone set out to make a classic, though obviously Orson Welles did when he created ‘Citizen Kane.’ But usually the last thing you are able to think about when you are working is making a work of art.”


So much for directors clearing up the issue. Time for an actor to speak up. We travel to the desert and pose the question to Joseph Cotten, who starred with Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane.” He laughs at the idea expressed by Boorman and others that Welles really knew what he was aiming for. He recounts that Welles had several plans for film-making projects during his theater and Mercury radio days in New York. Lack of funds prevented them all, except “Citizen Kane.” “It was Orson himself who said if he’d known he was making a classic, we’d have tried much harder.” As for his own contributionto “Citizen Kane,” Cotten modestly explains that “in those days I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never seen a camera.”

Cotten’s wife, actress Patricia Medina, paintbrush in hand from gilding furniture in her Palm Springs home, interjects that if there was any film maker who always thought he was making a classic it was Alfred Hitchcock. “He had a much bigger ego than Orson. He expected to make a classic every time.” (Cotton acted in “Shadow of a Doubt” for Hitchcock. By Maltin’s standard’s, it merits three and a half stars--not quite a classic--and Halliwell writes “a very effective, and pleasingly understated Hitchcock thriller.”)

We go to another actor, this time Gene Kelly. After all, it was Kelly who starred in and co-directed “Singin’ in the Rain,” generally considered a classic Hollywood musical. Kelly provides answers from a different direction, pointing out that a film maker must develop a sympathetic group of people.

“It must feel like a family getting together, sharing the same kind of feeling. You must have an intelligent producer, the right actors and you must lean very heavily on the words. The writing, above all, is extremely important, though often the least talked-about aspect of any great film. When we made our musicals, we were rabid about pulling musicals up to the dramatic level. We felt musicals were looked down upon. That is why we were very serious about our work. Maybe that has something to do with the results because these films do give you a joyous uplift each time you see them. They may not have the shock effect of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ or the romantic tug of ‘Casablanca,’ but they are eternally joyous.”

But then, like those others interviewed before him, Kelly goes no further. “Really,” he says, “there are no rules about how you go about making a classic.”

Though Bogdanovich would agree with Kelly, he, like Maltin, believes that there should somehow be a few rules about the use of the word classic . “We use it too much on my show,” he admits. “I’m not entirely sure it’s as valuable a word as it should be anyway. It suggests a film that demands your respect, rather than one you can be entertained by, and a really great film actually is something entertaining that nevertheless can be taken seriously as well, even if it’s a comedy. I suppose the phrase ‘It stands the test of time’ is still the best way of judging what is really a classic.”


But changing times can also change perceptions as can viewing movies on home video. Despite his current CBS assignment, Bogdanovich admits that, “at best, video is like a reproduction of a painting. The reduction in size from the big screen means it can’t take you away like a dream. We dominate the films, they don’t dominate us. We can’t be ‘spellbound in darkness’ as we are in front of the large movie-theater screen.”

So now we are examining the word rather than the deed and turn to Tony Huston, who wrote his late father John’s last film, “The Dead.” He thinks that the word classic can be off-putting. “It can be inhibiting in its suggestion that this is going to be something that really doesn’t appeal but is merely good for you. When you work as well as you possibly can, you are creating something in a very unself-conscious way, and the term ‘classic’ is, I think, a very self-conscious tag.

“My father never thought in terms of classics when it came to movies. A classic to him was a horse race like the Kentucky Derby. He wasn’t at all reverent in his conversation about films, but he loved a classic story and he felt responsible about making his work true to that story. But he didn’t like to pontificate about his films.” He does note that the reasons behind his father’s choice to film Irish writer James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” had nothing to do with literature but because “he wanted to return a favor to a country that had done so much for us.”

Now we travel to the marketplace and discover a given, that Huston’s films do pop up on the shelves of the video stores in the “classic” sections. “The Maltese Falcon” and “The African Queen” would probably make every discerning viewers’s list, but perhaps not “Night of the Iguana,” which is labeled “a classic” by one video-store manager simply because it’s “so popular.”

Video-store managers admit to being reluctant to make too many distinctions about what is eternally good rather than merely not new. Patrick Cousans, manager and head buyer of Videoteque on Sunset Boulevard, says, “Trying to make an aesthetic judgment is a little difficult. We wouldn’t want to make that.” His chief standard for judging what is a classic is “if it’s 30 years old or older, but we wouldn’t put ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in the classic section because people are going to be looking for it under musicals.” (Gene Kelly take note.)

In most video stores, we discover, there are sub-categories for certain classics. Classics by departmentalization. Thus, “Classic Comedies,” though the separation from non-classic comedies is fairly loosely gauged. At Videoteque, “Tammy and the Doctor” with Sandra Dee and Peter Fonda, a piece of sugar candy, is on the same shelf as “Hobson’s Choice,” the 1954 version of the stage comedy directed by David Lean and starring Charles Laughton. What passes as history in the classics is also confused. “The Crimson Pirate” lies alongside “Cromwell” in the “classic” ranks at the adjacent Tower Video.


Tower Video’s manager Mike Dampier makes no pretensions about setting particularly strict standards. “There are some movies you just know are classics,” he says, naming “Casablanca” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” “Basically, films made before the 1960s tend to be put in a classic or nostalgia category. After all, who are we to make judgments, though if an old film is very weird, like ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ we tend to put it in the cult or horror section.” Dampier believes the public is growing increasingly more knowledgeable about films, noting that the racks of old movies in his store recently have gone from one to 2 1/2.

A movie can be greatly admired in its time, but then . . . ?

“Who wants to see ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ now?” muses our next expert, Newsweek’s film critic, David Ansen. He is referring to the 1937 Academy Award-winning film that starred Paul Muni. Maltin gives it four stars and Halliwell calls it “probably the best of the Warners Bros. biographical films.” Ansen’s point: Time alone doesn’t produce classics, even with films considered important at certain times.

Yet the fact that a film is based on a work of literature gives studio marketing people encouragement to proclaim the film a classic. Amid all the “Collectors Classics” and “Classic Collections” labeling, there is even a sales pitch from MGM/ UA Home Video that states, “These videos are so excellent they even made books out of them.” How’s that for backward thinking? These “books” include “Studs Lonigan,” in which a young Jack Nicholson has a supporting role, and “Anna Karenina,” one of Greta Garbo’s perfect starring parts.

But the marketing experts are not as carelessly expedient as you might think when it comes to enticing the viewer, particularly if he’s a buyer rather than merely a renter. Nelson Entertainment president Reg Childs and executive vice president Rand Bleimeister, who distribute such films as those in the Goldwyn Classic Collection, believe that today’s film collector can be anyone with $19.98 to spend, rather than the traditional “academic, nerdy guy who sat in a corner looking at 16-millimeter black-and-white film.”

To Childs and Bleimeister, the true classic is the film that rises above the rest, that is called a “collectible.”

And their own tastes seem knowledgeable and pure, though sub-categorized. In the black-and-white category, Childs picks “Citizen Kane” and Bleimeister “Casablanca.” For “Foreign Films,” both choose works of Federico Fellini--Childs goes for “8 1/2” and Bleimeister for “Amarcord”--and when it comes to spectacles, Child chooses David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” while Bleimeister picks Francis Coppola’s two “Godfather” films.


Despite the proliferation of home video movies, there are old films that are in the classic league and are not available on the home screen. Chief among them are such Walt Disney animated films as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Bambi,” which is are available to the public only in theaters on a restricted release. “It used to be every seven years, but now we have changed it to every five years,” explains Dick Cook, president of Buena Vista Distribution, “because children are growing up faster, and we don’t want to miss a generation.”

Cook says that Buena Vista works to keep up the sense of these films being special and classic. “They are classic because they are in the main based on classic stories, and because Walt Disney was foremost a storyteller and, not to be so simplistic about it, because they have universal themes such as good versus evil, with good triumphing, and because they were handmade, not manufactured, so they are art. Nevertheless, we don’t take anything for granted when we re-release them. We always make brand-new prints and we update the advertising.”

Though the child in us may never die, standards and judgments do change and grow. What might have once seemed wonderful to us may not hold up as we age.

“I’m not sure I would say that just because a picture changes the way you think and feel, it means it is a classic,” reflects John Boorman. “Your opinions change when you are young and they need to be changed, but the film that helps that change may not meet your standards later.” Boorman nominates as classics Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” and the films of Luis Bunuel.

“I might have adored ‘Samson and Delilah’ when I first saw it,” jokes producer Allan Carr, “but if I saw it now I would probably only think of what Groucho Marx said about enjoying movies in which the men’s breasts were bigger than the women’s.”

Time and all the tricks it plays is the chief consideration when assessing classics.

“I think John Ford was able to produce classics because he had time behind him in his choice of subject,” says Gene Kelly, citing the Western “My Darling Clementine.”


Trying to capture the immediate present is a different challenge. “Obviously the judgment of a classic is something that stands the test of time,” says Italian actor Andrea Occhipinti of the Oscar-nominated “The Family.” “But I also think a classic is often a film that captures forever a certain moment in culture, a movie that is so true to its time that its image is everlasting.” Occhipinti thinks “West Side Story” will always have this appeal.

But will “Annie Hall,” wonders David Ansen about Woody Allen’s film. He thinks perhaps “Victor/ Victoria” from Blake Edwards may prove more meaningful 30 years down the ticket line. Allan Carr believes in Mike Nichols’ “Carnal Knowledge.” Producer Howard W. Koch, who wishes he’d written “Casablanca” (but of course that was the work of the Howard Koch without the W.), is interested to see whether the revival of interest in his “The Manchurian Candidate” will prove lasting.

The only thing certain about our search for the classic? There may not be certainties. One person’s classic is another’s bad video. One person’s four stars is another’s thumbs down. You buy your ticket . . . or you rent your video . . . and you take your chance. It’s classic.