Top 7 Overrated Classic Films

Posted by Laura Grande July 9, 2013 31 Comments 25343 views

We all have our own personal lists for a topic like this. Each and every one of us has, at one point or another, sat down to watch a critically acclaimed classic only to sit there in puzzlement afterward, wondering what all the hype was about in the first place. And while you may contemplate whether or not there’s something wrong with your cinematic tastes, differing opinions about film is what makes the ongoing discussions about the classics so enlightening. Some people actively dislike Gone with the Wind (1939) while others shrug off Citizen Kane (1941). While neither film made my list, I have no doubt that some of you would include them on yours.

For the sake of restricting this list to a manageable number, I’m considering only popular films made prior to 1965. Had I widened the time period I would have added Easy Rider (1969), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), among others — all cultural lamdmarks in American cinema that, for whatever reason, never really resonated with me. I’m fully aware that some of these picks will earn me some serious backlash but where’s the fun in generating film lists if there isn’t a little heated debate to keep us entertained and engaged?

So, here is my list of what I consider to be overrated film classics. Now, excuse me while I run and hide while you read this…

What classic film would you call overrated? Tell us in the comments!

Top 7 Overrated Classic Films

Still image from "Frankenstein"

Frankenstein (1931)

Maybe it’s because I’m such a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s science-gone-wrong novel, but I’ve never loved the Boris Karloff Frankenstein. In fact, I actively dislike it. I find it a poor film adaptation of one of literature’s finest achievements. Normally, I take film adaptations as a separate entity from its source material — as we should, considering the limits of different mediums. But I think that the real meat and bones of Shelley’s story was stripped away, and the film simply devolves into your average monster flick. While I never go into films expecting straightforward adaptations, I do expect that the original source is represented in some form. However, after each viewing of Frankenstein (I’ve seen it about five times now) I still leave incredibly disappointed at a wasted opportunity to capitalize on a truly fascinating story about the ramifications of playing God.


Still image from "The Wizard of Oz"

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I didn’t like it all that much as a child, and I like it even less as an adult. I’m aware that I’ll inevitably come off sounding like an old grump when I admit that I just never got the fuss over this critically lauded musical. Yes, it was stylistically influential with its clever use of black and white and technicolour to offset the differences between Kansas and the Land of Oz. I can totally respect and appreciate it’s revered place in the history of cinema. But between the irritating songs (with the exception of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, of course) and the over-the-top acting, The Wizard of Oz is one of those iconic classics that I just can’t sit through. Not even Judy Garland’s soaring vocals and adorable blue-checkered dress can save this film for me.


Still image from "The Searchers"

The Searchers (1956)

This is the film I was the most reluctant to add to the list as I know that John Wayne fans will likely come after me for this one. I’ve never made it a secret that I’m not exactly what you’d call a John Wayne fan but, of the films of his that I have seen, I’ve gone in with an open mind. Yes, The Searchers is dated. Yes, some might even find it offensive. But those arguments aren’t even the real reasons why I’m not a fan of this film. The story of one man’s quest to rescue his young niece from a First Nations tribe lacks the emotional resonance that should be a prerequisite for a film with a plot revolving around the kidnapping of a loved one. It feels stale and wooden. I went into it expecting a true classic Western, but what I got was your average story about a cowboy who saves the day.


Still image from "Ben Hur"

Ben-Hur (1959)

Besides the epic chariot race sequence, does anyone actually remember anything overly memorable about this film? It’s been on so many “best of” lists for so long that I feel it’s now just added out of a sense of obligation. While some may admit to finding enjoyment from the film, it’s likely more out of a sense of nostalgia — a recollection of the big-budget period pieces from back in the day that so many of us loved. However, in all honesty, Ben-Hur — and Charlton Heston’s acting — hasn’t aged all that well. It’s a bloated, dull, melodramatic piece of filmmaking.


Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

This film adaptation of Truman Capote’s story literally stripped the plot of everything that made it great in the first place. The end result is a mediocre (almost borderline awful) film that I’m convinced is only still deemed a great classic because of Audrey Hepburn’s iconic role as Holly Golightly. For all her natural charm and fashionable outfits, not even Hepburn (and the film’s costume designer) can save this disappointingly humdrum version of a Capote bestseller.


Still image from "The Birds"

The Birds (1963)

Other than a couple of effectively suspenseful scenes — aided by some truly arresting visuals — The Birds is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s weakest ventures. I’m always surprised by how often it makes “best of” lists, both from critics and Hitch fans alike. The film is almost uncomfortably dated and, while the story is loosely based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel, the film is strangely devoid of any real suspense. The gimmick of birds attacking people wears thin fairly early on in the film, leaving viewers with nothing more than a distressed Tippi Hedren fending for herself. It was a disappointing follow-up to his influential thriller, Psycho. I’ll never understand why this is considered a Hitchcock masterpiece. If nothing else, it was a springboard for other later, greater films.


Still image from "Dr. Zhivago"

Dr. Zhivago (1965)

Tedious. Dull. Bloated. It still surprises me that anyone, myself included, managed to slog through David Lean’s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. It comes as an especial shock knowing that this is the same director who helmed the monumental masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia (1962) only three years prior. Despite it’s glorious cast — which includes Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Sir Alec Guinness, among many others — there’s very little redeeming qualities. Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, this love story lacks the sizzle required in order to make the plight of its characters even remotely interesting. It’s an absolute snooze.

What classic film would you call overrated? Tell us in the comments!

About Laura Grande

Laura Grande is a Toronto-based writer working in digital media. A (wannabe) movie buff who just wants to spend her days writing about classic film, she also loves history, travel, hockey, literature and anything related to Scotland.

View all post by Laura Grande

There are 31 Comments

  1. Brandy Dean
    - July 9, 2013
      -   Reply

    I’ve shored up the servers for the massive attack Laura’s controversial list is sure to provoke.

    And really… The Birds? Overrated? Pshaw.

    • Laura Grande
      - July 9, 2013
        -   Reply

      Haha! I’m sure all these lovely people won’t be THAT mad. I’m sure most of them have their own controversial pics. 😉

  2. Jacob Ethington
    - July 9, 2013
      -   Reply

    I would swap in “2001: A Space Odyssey” any day of the week for one of these films. I understand that it’s a technical marvel of filmmaking and its profound impact on science fiction tropes, but man it’s hard to sit through unless you’re in the absolute perfect zen mindset.

    • Brandy Dean
      - July 9, 2013
        -   Reply

      Good call Jacob! I think your first job as filmmaker is to make something watchable. 2001: A Space Odyssey – totally unwatchable.

    • Laura Grande
      - July 9, 2013
        -   Reply

      I actually debated whether or not I wanted to include 2001. If I’d made a list of 15 films, I think it would have made the cut. However, there are actually portions of that film that I thoroughly enjoy so, for me anyway, it didn’t feel right to include it.

  3. Mary
    - July 9, 2013
      -   Reply

    Laura, you need to watch these movies. You obviously haven’t seen them!

  4. - July 10, 2013
      -   Reply

    It pains me as a Blake Edwards fan to agree with your inclusion of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, but whatever charm that film possesses continues to elude me.

    I’m on the fence with “Dr. Zhivago”. I do not like the movie for many, many reasons, some of which you mentioned, but I can’t outright dismiss it.

    “The Birds” is a tough one, although it has grown on me with the years particularly after a crow dive-bombed me last summer.

    The remaining four titles are not overrated in my world.

    “Frankenstein”: KARLOFF

    “The Wizard of Oz”: Its fantasy, fun and horror have given it a permanent place in my heart.

    “The Searchers”: The emotion you cannot find in the film is always there for me.

    “Ben-Hur”: The scope of the storytelling and the Miklos Rosza score always impress me.

    • Brandy Dean
      - July 10, 2013
        -   Reply

      I think The Searchers is a tough one. I also didn’t exactly get it, but for various reasons I rewatched it about 4 times. Then it just dawned on me one day how ineffably brilliant it is.

    • Laura
      - July 10, 2013
        -   Reply

      Hi Patricia! Thanks for the response.

      Based on some feedback I’ve been getting on Twitter, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is the selection that people seem to agree with most. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be alone in that one, no matter how much I think we all wanted to love it.

      That’s fair, with regards to Dr. Zhivago. That’s how I feel about 2001: A Space Odyssey but my inability to outright dismiss it is the very reason I couldn’t include it.

      Perhaps I’m due for a rewatch of “The Birds” but each and every time I’ve watched it, I just can’t seem to get into it. It’s not for lack of trying, either. I love Hitchcock as much as the next person.

      And I totally appreciate your sentiment with regards to Ben-Hur.

  5. - July 11, 2013
      -   Reply

    I agree with many of these picks, perhaps “The Wizard of Oz” most of all. As a young boy, I just thought it was the fantasy equivalent of a chick-flick, like “The Last Unicorn”. I have come to greatly appreciate the latter, but Oz continues to bore me.

    My pick is Steven Spielberg’s “Duel”, often lauded as a masterpiece of suspense. Unlikable guy is pursued by a menacing truck, but refuses to stay off the road. It’s as if Chief Brody insisted on swimming out to confront the shark in “Jaws”. Dumb.

  6. Chris
    - July 27, 2013
      -   Reply

    Dr. Zhivago doesn’t belong on this list, based on cinema art, aesthetics and performances, I believe you need to be locked in a room and watch this film sober and alone, re-evaluate. No it isn’t Lawrence Of Arabia but it isn’t supposed to be. However it is an epic cinematic achievement. If nothing else, watch the scene where returning deserters face off with the Russian reinforcements, it is truly one of the greatest scenes in Classic Film. It may seem like a love story to those who haven’t tried to understand the parables.

  7. Atomic Dogg
    - August 13, 2013
      -   Reply

    I agree with all your choices especially Gone With The Wind. This big overheated melodramatic piece of nonsense is phonier than Paula Deen on the Today show. Victor Fleming’s overdone direction, the over the top acting and a score so syrupy it still makes Aunt Jemima cringe. Awful. And yes you shouldve added 2001 to this list. Technical achievements be damned this movie is horrible! The acting is more wooden than a Hal Hartley film. The difference being Hartley does the whole monotone emotionless acting thing on purpose. For my money Kubrick is one of the most overrated Hollywood directors! Yeah i said it! Most of his films-Barry Lyndon, 2001, Spartacus and Full Metal Jacket are given classic status and i dont get why. The Shining isnt a complete waste of time only because of the performance by Nicholson. And make no mistake that perf came from him not Kubrick. Kubrick is a things director not an actors director like George Lucas. He’s a technical craftsman nothing more just like Lucas. And lets add one more shall we? Titanic. It won eleven Oscars, it made Leonardo DiCaprio a star and its a classic. Well the first two are true. Overlong with rotten dialogue and a performance that is the dictionary definition of the word godawful by Billy Zane. Like all of the films you mentioned above this movie is given classic status when it should be referred to as beloved. All the films up top are beloved but classics? Not even.

  8. Kristopher Underwood
    - September 8, 2013
      -   Reply

    I am a huge John Wayne fan and I agree with your take on the Searchers. For me, it doesn’t make the list of his top 10 or even top 15 films. There are so many that are better performances from him and just better films overall.

  9. Melissa
    - September 9, 2013
      -   Reply

    I completely disagree on “Frankenstein.” Like you said, we have to separate books from their film adaptations. Not to mention, this film was based on the novel. “Based on” is used pretty loosely and this film was intended to be a monster film. Universal Pictures capitalized on the success of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “Dracula” and saw there was a market for monster films. This film isn’t your average “monster flick” either — the depiction of Karloff’s Monster became the prototype for all future monsters, Frankenstein’s or otherwise. The Monster from this film is recognized universally, whereas the description of the Monster in Shelley’s novel is not associated with Frankenstein’s Monster in pop culture.

    I wrote a 20-page paper on the moral analysis of this film incorporating various philosophers. “Frankenstein” isn’t a religious narrative or warning against “playing God,” it’s a warning the possibility of a horrifying outcome when corners are cut, responsibility isn’t accepted, and hubris is not curbed. Without scientists who have delved into experimenting with human tissue, where would we be in terms of medical advances like stem cell research?

    If anything, “Frankenstein” is underrated. (However, I would still say “Bride of Frankenstein” tops it.)

    That’s all! 🙂

  10. Sasa
    - September 13, 2013
      -   Reply

    I think you are mixing the concept of overrated films and films you don’t like.
    I myself am not a big fan of Citizen Kane, but I would never claim it’s overrated.
    And by your explanation, I belive you didn’t really understand the quality and depth of some of these films. Particularly The Searchers and The Birds.

  11. Kelly Prunty
    - October 11, 2013
      -   Reply

    I’ll see your
    Ben Hur, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Frankenstein.
    And raise you one Marty (Ernest Borgnine). I almost choked when I found out it won the Best Picture Oscar. Horrible!!!

  12. - October 11, 2013
      -   Reply

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) with Kenneth Branagh, Robert DeNiro and Helena Bonham Carter is a fine rendition of the classic story.

  13. Meg Hammil
    - October 29, 2013
      -   Reply

    Actually I would argue for Citizen Kane being overated. its a technically brilliant film without an emotional center. (I can also argue How Green Was My Valley deserved that Oscar, but that’s another day’s argument). Put more simply, no single film is that good, and I get tired of hearing of it as THE movie. As for the list, i don’ t agtee with most of the chouces on theist, but I understand the perspectives offered. i totally disagree with the argument about Frankenstein. it was a truly daring film for 1930. Plus it made Karloff a star, reason enough roght there.

    • Brandy Dean
      - October 30, 2013
        -   Reply

      I completely agree with you, Meg. While I recognize the seriousness of the work, I do not like Citizen Kane. I have zero affection for that movie. And while it was daring in a way, it was also a regurgitation of many things that came before it. I recently came across a quote from Fritz Lang, who called Citizen Kane “that scrapbook of Expressionism.” That is probably the single most incisive statement about Kane I’ve ever encountered.

  14. Scott
    - October 31, 2013
      -   Reply

    When you say people might find The Searchers offensive, and that Wayne’s character sets out to rescue his niece, you do realize that it’s meant to be offensive and that he sets out to murder her, right?

    And I don’t understand the dated argument with The Searchers and The Birds. The Birds was terrifying when it came, out it’s not the horror picture today it once was, the but the story and characters are there, even if they’re from a different time period. The emotion, beauty and truth holds up. That’s what counts.

    When I think of what movies I’d call dated, they’re films that rely on pop-culture dialogue, technology to advance the story, have nothing to say about life or experience. I find modern movies quite dated, because the artists haven’t a clue about what art really is. The Searchers still cuts incredibly deep, as does The Birds. The superficial aspects may seem dated, but the core of the story and the characters are not.

    • Brandy Dean
      - October 31, 2013
        -   Reply

      The Searchers is a challenging film for even the most astute viewers. True I think Laura’s reading of The Searchers is a little odd, but I also think it was my reading the first three times I saw it. I did not like the film at all, yet… I returned to it again and again. Something clicked and the complexity sort of peeled back for me.

      I think part of the challenge on the initial encounter of The Searchers is the pre-conceived notions about the genre and about John Wayne one brings to it. This is neither a western per se, nor is it any way a typical John Wayne outing. What do you think?

      I’m with you on The Birds. The special effects might be a bit dated, but they were a technical marvel in their day, and I love every last thing about that movie.

  15. Robert Long
    - October 31, 2013
      -   Reply

    Using taste as a means of selecting “classic” film is as useful as using it to choose your favourite bridge, building, or plan of a town: you may have a subjective “like” of superficial qualities but don’t really understand it like an architect, builder, or film theorist does. Merely watching lots of films doesn’t really qualify either, nor does the watching of DVD extras that contextualise or explain the films.
    What’s interesting is that most people feel that they have something to contribute to the “film debate”, whatever that is, because they always feel their “taste” is better or somehow worthy of consideration!? If enough people agree with them on a website then this alone is justification for their post(s)!?

    • Brandy Dean
      - October 31, 2013
        -   Reply

      Dial down the nasty please. It’s a fun list post meant to spark friendly debate. If you disagree you can posit cogent reasons why instead of… this crap.

    • - October 31, 2013
        -   Reply

      I’m not sure what the single, scientific definition of “classic” is, but movies were made for consumption by regular people – not just film theorists.

      Everyone has a right to form, share and discuss an *opinion* about what works and doesn’t work, for them, in a movie.

      I have watched movies called “classic” that I don’t like. As mentioned in the article, Frankenstein (1931) is a “classic” more for its historical importance in the monster movie genre. It is, however, generally recognized as a poor reflection of the timeless themes and heart-wrenching emotions of the novel upon which it was (loosely) “based” (and yes, I have certainly read her book). I find that Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was a much better adaptation.

      If you feel this article dismisses movies that you maintain are worthy of the label “classic,” speak to that, but I concur with Brandy Dean that this is a fun post for friendly discussion.

      BTW, I think that almost every movie Billy Wilder did should be considered “classic” – I’ve yet to see them all, but those I have seen all qualify.

  16. - December 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time just last week. I liked it.

    One of the things I like most about it was that it’s a good looking movie. The views of New York, the wardrobes…

    Another movie that was striking to look at even though the story was not fantastic is Hitchcock’s Vertigo…but I’ll take NYC over San Fran any day.

    Anyway, BaT has a charm and pathos that I found engaging. No car chases or explosions, but two curious characters (three if you count ‘cat’) who cross paths and intertwine.

    It’s not perfect. I don’t know on what basis BaT has been called a classic; and whether or to what degree the basis is correct. It certainly had its flaws (the controversial role played by Mickey Rooney has been hotly debates for decades); and the “prostitute with the heart of gold that needs to be rescued” is a touchy device.

    But, at the end of the day, I’d watch it again.

  17. - December 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    GUTSY!!! Interesting list. And, I might add, not without merit. I agree in a few.

    Aurora

  18. Howard
    - January 17, 2014
      -   Reply

    I’m unaware that most of these films are anywhere nearly as highly rated as the author believes. Dr. Zhivago? Breakfast at Tiffanys? Ben Hur? Who rates these that highly?

  19. Smogzilla
    - January 19, 2014
      -   Reply

    I like BaT. I saw the movie first THEN read the novella. If the story as written was made into the movie it wouldn’t have had the charm that the movie has now. I cry when she leaves cat out in the rain – every time.

  20. Barrett
    - January 24, 2014
      -   Reply

    The Birds was a springboard for later greater films? It was actually the last good movie Hitchcock made.

  21. Alana DIrecTV subscriber... for now
    - November 14, 2014
      -   Reply

    I recently saw a restored version of Frankenstein on the big screen, and it was just astounding. There were a few technical problems – like the very obvious wrinkled scrim during one of the later scenes up by the old mill. When this movie was first released, people fainted. They had to put the hokey introduction at the beginning to remind folks it was just a story. Karloff’s portrayal is complex and sensitive. The chain from doctor bullying Fritz who then abuses the monster is very clear. The father’s transformation from loving daddy to grieving vigilante is completely convincing.

    There’s also some amazing work with a moving camera, following the monster through the scrub to the lake, and then through the village festival.

    And the look: so iconic. Whale was a master.

    On the other hand… Lugosi’s Dracula is something of a yawner, and to me he has no charisma whatsoever.

  22. Alana Dill
    - November 22, 2014
      -   Reply

    I like some westerns and watched the searchers when this list piqued my curiosity. Definite mixed feels. Wayne’s performance is very uneven… sometimes very mannered, almost a caricature of himself. Sometimes very raw. The supporting actors were also kind of awful, particularly the blond Larson boy and the idiot with the guitar. It’s like Ford set out to make a naturalistic & honest film then got scared and threw in a bunch of familiar stereotypes to make us feel safe. I’d love to see this remade. I did like the sense of time passing & the sheer awe of the landscape as a character, not just a setting. I also liked the subtle implication of the relationship with his brother’s wife.

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