When Turner Classic Movies announced its new "Let's Movie" campaign intended to attract a broader audience to the channel, there were those long time viewers who panicked, thinking that perhaps TCM was changing its programming. Fortunately this was not the case, as confirmed by Ben Mankiewicz himself. Of course, it was perhaps only natural that in the ensuing discussion about the campaign there would arise a question often debated by classic film buffs, "What exactly is a classic?"
It might seem strange, but there appears to be no agreed upon definition of the word "classic". In fact, I suspect that if one asked five different classic film fans what constitutes a "classic film", then he or she might well get five different explanations of what constitutes a "classic film". Surprisingly, the lack of agreement upon what makes a film a "classic" causes little problem in the classic film community (at least in my experience). In fact, the only time I have seen very many arguments erupt among classic film buffs is when Turner Classic Movies shows a movie some might consider too "recent" to be a classic (generally anything made after 1980).
Of course, for anything to be a classic most fans agree that they must be of a certain age. That is, a movie released just last year, no matter how critically acclaimed, can not be a "classic". In fact, for many a film can only be considered a "classic" if it comes from a specific era. That is, there are many who regard the Golden Age of Hollywood as "the Classic Era". For those unfamiliar with the term, the Golden Age of Hollywood is generally agreed to have lasted from the late Twenties into either the Fifties or Sixties. Most critics and fans begin the Golden Age of Hollywood with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927.
As to when the Golden Age of Hollywood ended, there tends to be some disagreement as to that. Some would end it as early as 1948 when the antitrust case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. was decided by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's decision forced the major studios to divest themselves of their theatres, to cease the practice of block booking (whereby theatres were required to accept an entire block of films produced by a studio), to cease discriminating against independent theatres in favour of the large theatre chains, and to end various other practices. Effectively, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. dealt a serious blow to the major studios and the studio system under which they had operated since the late Twenties.
While some might end the Golden Age of Hollywood with the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. decision, it seems to me that most fans would say it lasted beyond 1948. Quite simply, while the case dealt a serious blow to the studio system, the studio system lingered to some degree or another into the Fifties, with some remnants of the system still around in the Sixties. Given this, one can choose a number of different years when he or she could say the Golden Age ended. One could say the Golden Age of Hollywood ended when formidable studio executive Louis B. Mayer resigned from MGM in 1951. Others could say that the Golden Age of Hollywood ended in January 1957 when General Tire and Rubber Company closed production at RKO. Yet others might say the Golden Age of Hollywood ended as late as November 1 1968 when the MPAA's new rating system took effect, replacing the the Motion Picture Production Code under which Hollywood had made movies for decades.
Even beyond the fact that there is not very much agreement as to when the Golden Age of Hollywood ended, I must admit that I have always had a problem with regarding only films from that era as "classics". Indeed, it seems to me that using the Golden Age of Hollywood as a means of determining what is a "classic film" ignores common usage of the term "classic". I have often heard films made long after the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the demise of the studio system described as "classics". The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975), and Blade Runner (1982) have all been called "classics" and rather often at that. What is more, it is not simply the general public who have called these films "classics", but critics, historians, and classic film buffs. Given the term "classic" is commonly used to refer to films made after the Golden Age of Hollywood, I am not sure that one can say the only classics were made during that era.
Of course, another problem I have with using the Golden Age of Hollywood as a gauge for determining what is a classic film is that, well, it is too Hollywood-centric. As I see it, the United States was far from the only country to produce classic films. Many classic films emerged from the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and yet other countries. And while arguably the Golden Ages of some of these countries roughly corresponded with that of Hollywood (I would say that the Golden Age for British Cinema ran roughly from the Thirties to the Sixties), others did not. Arguably the best years for cinema in Japan, France, and Italy came following World War II--the Fifties and Sixties were the era of Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut, and Federico Fellini. An argument could be made that the best years for German cinema predated the Sound Era for the most part--the Twenties up until the rise of Nazi Germany in 1933. Given I view The Ladykillers (1955), Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), Seven Samurai (1954), The 400 Blows (1959), and La Dolce Vita (1960) as classics, I couldn't very well use the Golden Age of Hollywood as a means of determining what is and is not a classic.
Indeed, I have to point out that as the Golden Age of Hollywood is generally agreed to begin with The Jazz Singer, films made during the Silent Era would not be "classics" if the Golden Age is used to determine what is and is not a classic. Since there are many silent films I regard as classics, I would submit that I could not very well say that classic films were only made during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
While there are those who use the Golden Age of Hollywood as a means to determine what is a classic, many (perhaps most) classic film buffs simply regard a film as a "classic" if it is over a certain age and is a truly great film. I must confess that I am one of these people. I have what I call "the Thirty Year Rule". That is, before I will consider a film a classic, it must be at least thirty years old. My reasoning is that a film must have stood the test of time before it can be considered a classic. I am sure we can all think of films that received a good deal of critical acclaim and even won awards upon their initial release but are now regarded as mediocre at best. On the other hand, I am sure we can all think of films that did not receive widespread critical acclaim upon their initial release, but are now regarded as, well, "classics". Of course, beyond being at least thirty years old, for me to consider a film a classic, I must also regard it as a film of high quality. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) is well over thirty years old, but I would not regard it as a classic (unless I regarded it as a "camp classic", which is an entirely different matter....).
Ultimately, I think a good definition of what is a classic film may then be any film that is several years old (at least more than ten or twenty years) that is currently regarded by a majority of critics, film historians, and classic film buffs as being of the highest quality. Of course, this definition is not perfect. To a large degree whether someone regards a film as a "classic" is going to be subjective. Using the above definition I do believe that Detour (1945) would be a "classic film". It is 70 years old and well regarded by many critics, film historians, and film buffs. That having been said, given how truly bad I think Detour is, I cannot in all honesty say that it is a classic movie in my humble opinion. I am sure others have the same opinions about other films widely regarded as classics. Indeed, while I love the film myself, I know there are a few who would not only debate the idea that Citzen Kane (1941) is the greatest film of all time, but that it is a classic at all (here I must point out that I regard Seven Samurai as the greatest film of all time).
In the end I am not sure there will ever be a definition of "classic film" upon which everyone will agree. At best I think classic film buffs can only agree that classics will always be older films (as I said earlier, a film released last year is not a classic) and films that are always the best in quality. Beyond these two things I think there is always going to be room for argument as to what constitutes a classic, and from time to time such arguments are going to occur.