Upon 20 Years, Rethinking the Classics

Turner Classic Movies just recently celebrated 20 years in business and I owe it a debt of gratitude for all the movies it’s given me.  Not just the big ones, like The Maltese Falcon or Singin’ in the Rain, which I’d seen many times long before TCM came around, but the small ones, the unknown ones, the shorts, the outtakes, the newsreels, the documentaries, all of them.  I’d never seen so much that I hadn’t seen before until TCM came along.  It’s now been 20 years and they still surprise me with shorts and B-movies that I’ve never even heard of.  But in the 20 years since its inception, a few thousand more movies have been made and the definition of a classic movie has begun to move out of a specific era and into a more generalized time frame.  Tonight, for instance, the 8:00 (EST) movie is The Remains of the Day, from 1993.   When TCM first began, tonight’s feature was but a few months old, from the tail end of the previous year.  Now, it’s a classic.  Or is it?


Let’s think about cars for a second.  Why?  Because a classic car isn’t defined by how old it is but from what era it hails.  In 1982, when I was driving a 1977 Toyota Corolla, the 1957 Thunderbird was a classic car.  Twenty years later, in 1997, the 1977 Corolla was not.  The Thunderbird still was.  Cars we bought and drove from 1994 are not, twenty years later, classic cars either.  That Thunderbird, though, is more classic than ever.  There are cars from the seventies that are revered among car enthusiasts, like the 1971 Charger, but the true classic cars hail from the fifties.  Old vintage cars come from the forties on back.  Muscle cars from the sixties and seventies.  Square cars from the eighties, bubble cars from the nineties, and so on.  You get the idea.

So is The Remains of the Day a classic just because twenty years have passed?   Maybe.  How about Amadeus, from 1984?  Chinatown, from 1974?  It seems that a movie does not have to be from the 1950′s or before to be a classic.   Chinatown immediately feels like a classic movie even though it hails from years after the studio system ended.  I suspect The Remains of the Day will feel like a classic movie, too, at some point.  Right now, it still feels like a new movie instead.   Still, I hope that TCM continues to move forward and show movies from only one or two decades past as time marches on because, while they may be familiar to all of us here today, it is surprising and saddening how little people follow film from just a decade before the present day.

That said, the movies from the studio era of Hollywood do feel distinct, different.  They feel different, not just because they were made a certain amount of years ago, in a different time, but because they were made in such a different way.   Almost forty years removed from Jaws, in 1975,  it still doesn’t feel that different from movies today.   If, however, you back a little over forty years before Jaws, to It Happened One Night, from 1934, it feels very different from anything around the time of Jaws’ release.  I suspect in forty more years, when we’re eighty years removed from Jaws, it still won’t feel as different as It Happened One Night felt in 1975.

It’s why I continue to watch as many movies from the first half of the 20th century as I can because I fear that the further we remove ourselves from them, the more we lose.  I find something so invigorating and refreshing in their different styles of writing, acting, editing, photography, even their music.  It signals something gone forever and precious, something that needs to be cared for and loved and remembered.  It’s these movies that I think  TCM will always push, first and foremost, as the priority.  There’s still so much to discover from this era, and learn, to let it ever become just another era.


On the other hand, TCM does an extraordinary job of connecting the past to the present.  Take that showing tonight of The Remains of the Day.  It’s followed by a couple of movies from 1935 and 1936, If You Could Only Cook and My Man Godfrey, respectively, that explore the themes of upstairs/downstairs class structures in a much more lighthearted way from another time, though actually taking place at about the same point in history as the story in The Remains of the Day.

At some point, redefining the classics will be a necessity.  I can’t imagine that 500 years into the history of cinema, we will still be considering only movies of the studio era to be classics.    I imagine by then that some of those new movies I’ve mentioned, like Jaws and The Remains of the Day, will look absolutely ancient and alien all at once.  And that will make them invaluable, quite frankly.   Movies, like other art forms, capture the moment in which they’re made.   That alone is one of the great gifts of art.

I won’t be around in 500 years, unless my plan to conquer space/time using a only horn of brandy and a tin foil hat works (don’t ask), so I won’t know how things proceed, but I do know, on faith, that TCM will continue to do what they’ve done for 20 years: celebrate the movies, in any and every form, blending the old with the new, and educating and entertaining a new generation of movie fans desperate for a place that treats them with the same respect that it treats the cinema.  That’s TCM.  Happy 20th Anniversary.


24 Responses Upon 20 Years, Rethinking the Classics
Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) : April 16, 2014 1:40 pm

I’m looking forward to watching the “new” movie on TCM this evening. A few years ago I might have been aghast at the suggestion of a film from 1993 on the network, but I agree that a re-evaluation of “classic” must and will take place without losing the admiration and affection for the studio era.

Posted By LD : April 16, 2014 2:45 pm

Well said Greg. Each of us approaches films from a different place in time. Sometimes time isn’t the only criteria as to what is or isn’t a classic. JAWS to me may still feel like a new film but it is also a classic because of its place in film history being the first summer blockbuster.

CHINATOWN in 1974 and BODY HEAT in 1981 now have acquired some age but they are also classics because they are such fine examples of neo noir. But so is 1997′s L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. My immediate response would be too soon but then I realized it is 17 years old. I found that surprising.

In the area of special effects surely JURASSIC PARK is a classic having hit the 20 year mark and then there is TITANIC approaching the 20 year mark. Some movies are destined to be classics when they are released.

Personally, I think a film at age 25 should qualify but people decide for themselves. I know I am grateful to TCM for all it does to see that all of film history is made available for viewing.

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : April 16, 2014 3:09 pm

“It’s why I continue to watch as many movies from the first half of the 20th century as I can because I fear that the further we remove ourselves from them, the more we lose. I find something so invigorating and refreshing in their different styles of writing, acting, editing, photography, even their music. It signals something gone forever and precious, something that needs to be cared for and loved and remembered. It’s these movies that I think TCM will always push, first and foremost, as the priority. There’s still so much to discover from this era, and learn, to let it ever become just another era.”

I love this paragraph.

Posted By swac44 : April 16, 2014 5:06 pm

I’m thankful for TCM airing the Dogville Comedies shorts. Because now I know what hell is like.

Posted By gregferrara : April 16, 2014 5:24 pm

Patricia, I know I’ve complained myself, just a few years ago when movies from the eighties were showing up. Now they’ve had movies from the 1990′s and even the 2000′s and it doesn’t seem as strange to me anymore. Young people around me regularly refer to movies they love from the nineties and eighties as classics. It’s important to include those as well.

Posted By gregferrara : April 16, 2014 5:25 pm

Thank, Jonathan. Hollywood movies from the thirties and forties especially are my favorites to watch. Over and over again.

Posted By gregferrara : April 16, 2014 5:26 pm

swac, I’m glad TCM could help.

Posted By ZoomZip : April 16, 2014 5:38 pm

REMAINS OF THE DAY is a classic because it takes place during Old Time Days and has English accents in it. JAWS isn’t a classic because it has hippies at the beginning. Question answered?

Posted By Andrew : April 16, 2014 6:35 pm

My wife and I will often watch a movie and be surprised when we notice when it was released. I think part of it is we divide movies into two categories: Contemporary = we were old enough to be aware of it when it was released. Old = Released prior to that and I suspect we are not alone in this.

I think of classic as BOTH old and good.

I know I also have a strong bias against everyone assigning superlatives to the latest fad. i want things to stand the test of time. So when anything (movies, sports, books, whatever) get labeled a modern/instant classic I immediately treat the claim as if it were part of an infomercial.

Posted By Emgee : April 16, 2014 7:49 pm

The problem with many movies of the studio era, apart from Classics with a capital C like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind and other usual suspects, many are impossible to see anywhere else but on channels like TCM.

If you want to see pretty much any movie of the last 20 or 30 years, you’re very likely to find it on dvd or blu-ray somewhere.

So, yes, by all means shwo great movies from the recent past, but the more distant movie past is a treasure trove still not fully explored. Happy birthday TCM, here’s to at least 20 more years of movie magic.

Posted By Doug : April 16, 2014 9:52 pm

TCM is great, and what they continue to do is wonderful, but there is another component to cheer: the community of Movie Morlocks sharing love for films.
Awhile back robbushblog mentioned a Doris Day movie, “Love Me Or Leave Me” which I hadn’t heard of.
It arrived today; thank you, and I appreciate the many films I’ve come to know through TCM and Morlocks.

Posted By Qalice : April 16, 2014 10:00 pm

One of the reasons I love movies is that they, as you say, capture the moment in which they’re made. I’m particularly crazy about Pre-Code films because they’re a historical record of ways of living that didn’t stop but were actively hidden for decades of American film. Also, there’s nothing like seeing a car chase from Beverly Hills to Hollywood when there’s undeveloped land between them! Lately, I’ve started to appreciate films made in the 1960s — a time I can remember — because they depict both lifestyles and filmmaking styles that no longer exist. Also, empty freeways. Some of the films I’ve seen on TCM can’t be called “classic” if that term refers to quality, but they still have value as time capsules.

Posted By Betty Lewis : April 17, 2014 1:39 am

I will be 82 in June, A great many of these movies I saw on their first run. I have found TMC almost a rerun of some of the best parts of my life. Mr Osbourne is a delight!
I am now in the process of purchasing the DVD’s of the great movies I have on VHS, since I guess that’s over. My children love them as much as I do and did!
One of my favorite funnies.. Debby Reynolds in ” Goodbye Charlie”, she hated it, but its dead on …Thank you TMC for Closed Caption, a great many of us can no longer hear the dialogue well, if ever.

Posted By Betty Lewis : April 17, 2014 1:42 am

sorry, is should be TCM, I’m not much of a computer operator either !

Posted By Richard Brandt : April 17, 2014 4:34 am

It’s a slippery slope that can lead to some abominable mutation like American Movie Classics, which rarely shows anything before the 1980s anymore, and if it does, then edited and with commercial interruptions. You might say “It can’t happen here!” but I’ve seen what became of IFC.

Posted By Lynn Alford : April 18, 2014 6:30 pm

I love TCM and watch many of their movies. I am also 82 years old and some of the oldies from the 30s and 40s were out during my childhood. Even if I didn’t see them then, I can watch them now.
Thanks to TCM and Mr. Osborne for the enjoyment I get from these films.

Posted By george : April 18, 2014 7:40 pm

When I got interested in movies, in the ’70s, a “classic” (or just an “old movie”) was something from the ’30s, ’40s or ’50s and was usually in black and white. In other words, films from the Hollywood studio era. Silents and older foreign films were rare catches in those days.

The definition of a classic has changed, especially for younger people. They certainly regard the first STAR WARS trilogy as classic, and I’m inclined to agree. (For a teenager today, movies from the ’70s look as ancient as those of the ’30s did to me.)

“JAWS isn’t a classic because it has hippies at the beginning.:”

I watched JAWS the other night, for the first time in many years, as was struck by how classic it looks. You don’t see that kind of careful widescreen composition in many movies today … or the careful building of suspense.

Posted By Holdright : April 19, 2014 6:05 am

I guess the definition of “classic” is bound to subjective. Classic usually refers to art that has stood the test of the time, that stands up critically to anything ever done. For TCM, I think of its meaning as more “vintage” than classic, more about when the movie was made than how good it is. But that’s subjective too of course: what’s the cut-off date? For me personally it’s 1968 and the abandonment of the Motion Picture Production Code: we see a radical shift in content and tone afterwards, to a much more naturalistic style, both for better and worse. I enjoy classic movies for their ability to work gracefully within the code, like following the rules of a sonnet; I enjoy modern movies for their broader range of expression, like free verse.

I realize my definition of classic as a certain vintage, pre-1969, means a lot of the newer films shown on TCM aren’t. Oh well, that’s how it goes sometimes. If TCM really wanted to make me happy, they’d split into two networks, one (Turner Vintage Classics), for pre-1969, the other (Turner Modern Classics) for post. Or, if they really really wanted to make me happy, they’d split into three, with the third (Turner International Classics) for non-English-language movies, such as we were treated to during The Story of Film airing last fall. I suspect this would also please viewers, from those who only like one sort of “classic” movie, to those who like all sorts.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself – sorry. We’re lucky to have what we do have: one network dedicated to every sort of classic; the opportunity to watch movies from any era, which we wouldn’t have without it. Happy XXth, TCM, and many more.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : April 20, 2014 5:39 pm

Richard, AMC used to have a lot of older movies, but Turner outbid them for the rights to these movies, prompting the sea change.

Andrew, I want to add one more category:

Classic – before I was old enough to have my own opinion.
Contemporary – After that but before my kids.
New – anything my kids recognize.

Posted By Along these lines : April 21, 2014 1:30 am

I think there are now two meanings to the term classic movie. One is referring to a historic classic film; the other has come to mean a popular film …”it’s a classic”. Jaws and Chinatown are great popular classics, but no way are they historic classics and never will be because they were made after the 1950s.

Posted By Lyndell : April 21, 2014 4:29 pm

We’ve had thousands of years to come to know and name the various eras of art and sculpture. Film is, as hard as it may be for us to realize, just growing out of its infancy and is full of growing pains. This is a wonderful discussion, because it’s time we started thinking about and beginning to name film eras and which films from those eras are truly classics–stand above the rest, showcase their era, are standing the test of time, etc. Some think classic is anything before 1970. To me, the genuine classic era is pre-1953 (introduction of widescreen films). But the era itself does not make a film a classic. We need to separate films into eras/vintages, then talk about what is truly CLASSIC in each time frame. And, perhaps each of us can start being a little more careful about using the term Classic in such a cavalier way.

Posted By robbushblog : April 21, 2014 4:57 pm

You’re welcome, Doug. Let me know if you liked it.

Posted By Rose : April 21, 2014 7:09 pm

Richard Brandt, I agree with some of your points. I don’t bother with IFC or AMC or FXM (Fox Movie Channel) or Sundance Channel because they have commercials. I don’t care how good the movies are. I’m not paying premium content/service prices and putting up with commercials. If TCM ever incorporates commercials, I’m done with it. Heck, the only reason I still have satellite service is so I can watch TCM.

Posted By george : April 26, 2014 9:07 pm

“If TCM really wanted to make me happy, they’d split into two networks, one (Turner Vintage Classics), for pre-1969, the other (Turner Modern Classics) for post.”

Yes, like Leonard Maltin has divided his movie guide books into classic and modern guides. He uses 1965 as the dividing line. I tend to think of 1960 as the break between classic and modern (or at least recent).

The word “classic” is now more of a marketing device than anything else. But I guess that’s classier than calling them “oldies.” Just because TCM shows an old B Western or a campy horror flick doesn’t make it a classic.

I’d say that for most film buffs, the collapse of the studio system (which began in the late ’40s but wasn’t complete until the early ’60s) was the break between old and new. But that only applies to American films. Other countries have their own eras.

I loved AMC when Bob Dorian and Nick Clooney were hosting the movies. Now it’s a great source for original TV drama, but I don’t regard it as a movie channel at all.

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