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What Makes a Classic Movie “Classic”

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

By Natalie Morales

Certain films possess a special aura, an “x-factor” separating them from the rest. Such movies carry an everlasting legacy, cementing themselves into our culture. Their titles are recognizable even to those born decades after their release. When their iconic lines are quoted, people instantaneously understand the reference. Eventually, as these movies pave their way into history, they are lifted to one of the highest honors among films. No longer are they just a movie, but a “classic movie.” They join the elite club that elevates them to the pinnacle of our culture. But, are they truly classics?

Growing up, I had been familiarized by titles such as Gone with the Wind, Psycho, and Casablanca, yet I had never experienced them in their full glory. I was unaware of the intricacies of Bonnie and Clyde, only that it was a tale of two crime breaking lovers named “Bonnie” and “Clyde.” Nor was there a desire to sit down and watch one of these films in their entirety. The classic movie channel was a bore to my child self. Rather than being a shining beam of high culture, it was a filler to an otherwise empty void. Classics were dusty artifacts of the past, devoid of the luxuries of modern films: CGI, color, and sometimes even sound! The vivid, eye-catching blockbusters of the 2000’s were far more appealing to this young mind. I would much rather watch an explosive Marvel movie or the documentation of the fantastical adventures of Bilbo Baggins than To Kill a Mockingbird. And this limited view stuck. When streaming Netflix, older movies, longer movies, and those outside of my preferred genre were cast to the side in favor of newer but often disappointing productions. There was no interest to delve into the films so highly praised by society, to see why they had been placed on a pedestal, to become educated on their significance. Only recently did I decide to finally watch them and judge whether they lived up to their reputations. To commence this journey, I chose two “classic” films - Gone with the Wind and Casablanca. What I learned surprised me.

The 4 hour romance Gone with the Wind is a movie surrounded by both praise and controversy. The 1939 film, based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, follows the Southern belle Scarlett O’ Hara through the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Scarlett is trapped between two worlds as she simultaneously longs for a married man named Ashley and holds a burning passion for nonchalant Rhett Butler. Her obsession with Ashley eventually results in her loneliness as it leads to the deterioration of her relationship with both men. The dramatic epic of Scarlett serves as a cautionary tale of those who relentlessly chase what is unattainable and have a lack of gratitude for the world around them. Gone with the Wind earned a number of significant accolades. At the 12th Academy Awards it received 10 awards in total, becoming the first color film to receive Best Picture. Along with that, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award in receiving Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy, Scarlett’s house slave.

Another notable feature of the film that instantly stood out was the absolutely stunning costumes. The beautiful dresses designed by Walter Plunkett not only served as eye candy to the viewer; each dress also possesses symbolic meaning. White symbolizes Scarlet’s naivety and youthfulness, such as the white, whimsical, fluffy one worn by the 16-year-old protagonist at the start of the film. Green suggests scheming and envy, such as the white and green one worn by Scarlett as she confronts Ashley over his decision to marry Melanie instead of her. Another example is Scarlett’s green curtain dress, a makeshift mimicry of affluence which she wears in a desperate attempt to deceive Rhett into giving her money. Red represents love and passion shown by the scandalous form fitted burgundy dress, worn to Ashley’s birthday party.

However, this film is not without criticism. In 2020, it was accused of racist depictions and even pulled from streaming service HBO Max. When addressing the decision, a HBO Max spokesperson stated that “to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.” This film was also pulled from the Orpheum Theater in Memphis in 2017. The president of the theater justified this decision, describing the film as “insensitive to a large portion of the local population." Critics of Gone with the Wind claim it glorifies the Confederacy and the notion of the Lost Cause. There have also been concerns regarding the film's failure to address slavery.

There is validity behind such backlash. The film shows a confederate South through idyllic, romantic, rose-tinted glasses. The atrocities of slavery are nonexistent and the slaves depicted, including Mammy, are perfectly content with their lot in life. She exhibits heavy stereotypes, simultaneously reinforcing the trope of the “white savior.” Slave owners such as Scarlett’s father and Ashley are portrayed as decent, reasonable people with no mention of their deplorable actions against African-Americans. To associate this film with the likes of D.W Griffith's KKK-glorifying Birth of the Nation is not a reasonable assessment though. Rather than being an outright racist film, Gone with the Wind is a victim of its time. It turned a blind eye to the horrors of that time period in order to be more palatable to a White Southern audience. The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, was incredibly cautious, removing possibly controversial scenes. References to violence and abuse against Mammy, slurs, and threats to sell another slave named Prissy were all cut in the final script. Additionally, Selznick also chose to remove scenes outrightly glorifying the Confederacy. Ironically, the film’s attempt to avoid controversy during the time of its release has led to it being incredibly controversial in the modern world.

Timeliness can make or break even the greatest creative endeavors. Movies especially can serve as not only a reflection of the past and present, but also as a guide to the future. They entice the audience, tapping into their own hopes and dreams. One shining example is the classic Casablanca. Released in 1942 during the Second World War, the film served as a beacon of hope in a time of uncertainty. Its relevance (being released just weeks after the Allied invasion of North Africa) along with its timeless themes of love and sacrifice have cemented its title into history.

Set in 1941 Nazi-controlled Casablanca, Morocco, viewers get a glimpse into the life of nightclub owner Rick Blaine. Initially a cynic, Rick holds little hope for good's triumph over evil. However, this worldview is disrupted after the arrival of Nazi resistance leader Victor Laszlo and the unexpected return of a familiar face - Rick's former lover Ilsa Lund. Following this event, Rick is forced to confront his own morality and make a choice impacting the fates of them all. He must decide whether to give into his own selfish desire to have Ilsa for himself, leaving Laszlo to the Nazi wolves, or allow the couple to escape, sacrificing his own security.

One of the key aspects of the film was its masterful cinematography. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson cleverly utilized lighting in order to illustrate this everlasting pull between good and evil. Our downhearted, conflicted protagonist Rick Blaine is shown throughout the film in noirish side lighting, suggesting an internal struggle between the shadows and the light. Meanwhile, Isla’s face is graced with soft, angelic lighting, leaving the audience in awe of her beauty. The lighting on both Rick and Ilsa mimics prison bars, symbolizing their inability to pursue their love for one another. Lazlo is doused with light, as he is a shining star to those suffering under the brutality of Nazi rule. All of these subtle details contribute to revealing the characters’ true natures and building a world of sophistication plagued by unrest and disorder.

The magic of classic films is the passion and the consideration that went into them. Each detail, no matter how insignificant it may seem, has purpose behind it. Artists and filmmakers alike must put attention into every brush stroke, every frame. Each of these creators works in harmony, birthing a painting filled with love of their craft. These precious canvases of love instill wisdom, reminding us of both the beauty of this world and the sacrifice needed to maintain it. Classics will be admired for centuries, just like the works of artists Da Vinci and Michelangelo. The responsibility now lies on this generation to create their own masterpieces, to be added to this ever growing gallery.


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