Classic Film Guide

Tearjerkers

What makes you cry? O.K., I know if you pull out a nose hair with tweezers you will probably shed a tear. But what kind of movie brings tears to your eyes? Unless you tend to view movies from a strictly controlled and objective viewpoint, chances are you experience a variety of emotions when watching a film. Of course, Hollywood knows this and has therefore learned how to manipulate you: they use visuals, words, a soaring soundtrack and many other (more subtle) techniques in order to evoke a certain reaction from you; it’s the business that they’re in.

First and foremost, they want you to believe that what you are seeing on the screen is real or the truth; they might also want to persuade you to adopt a certain viewpoint. So, moviemakers have developed storytelling methods which are constantly being refined in order to to thrill, scare, excite, surprise, convince, enrage (etc.) you and perhaps even bring tears to your eyes, which may be the hardest thing for them to do in a cynical world.

I’m a sentimental guy, and as such see no reason why a man can’t cry tears of joy or sorrow even if the culture shuns it: “boys don’t cry”. You may feel the same way but – because of differences in our backgrounds – might not have the same reaction while watching a given movie as me. However, there are obviously enough commonalities between those of us who have grown up in the same country and relative era such that screenwriters, directors, composers, cinematographers etc. can rely on demographic bell curves to “hit their marks” and – as filmmakers – produce movies that a wide ranging audience will react to similarly, especially if box office success is the goal (sometimes it is not).

In the classic era, Hollywood made dozens of “weepies” specifically designed to make audiences’ tear ducts run; these have frequently been labeled “women’s pictures” or given some other slight, which would be equally unfair. There are genres for everyone’s preferences, and none is any “better” than another; for instance, I don’t care too much for horror films.

Ironically, back when I subscribed to NOW PLAYING, A Viewer’s Guide to Turner Classic Movies, the very first issue I received – November, 2004; Clark Gable was the Star of the Month – featured a TCM Spolight on Tearjerkers, running every Tuesday in primetime, and these were the titles that were aired (in sequential order):

Dark Victory (1939), Camille (1936), Beaches (1988), Wuthering Heights (1939), ‘Til We Meet Again (1940), In Name Only (1939), West Side Story (1969), Casablanca (1942), Waterloo Bridge (1940), Doctor Zhivago (1965), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Magnificent Obsession (1954), Love Affair (1939), Now, Voyager (1942), The Way We Were (1973), Random Harvest (1942), Imitation of Life (1934), Stella Dallas (1937), Since You Went Away (1944), Penny Serenade (1941), Little Women (1933), The Yearling (1946), Sounder (1972), The Champ (1931), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and Boys Town (1938)

Most of the titles above are “standards”, and several would appear among the others that I’ve listed below. Any list of movies that makes one cry can be deeply personal, and might even be kept to oneself. But I have shared (at least some of) mine below. Not always, but it’s usually the endings of the following (in chronological order) that have been particularly impactful for me:

The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931), The Old Maid (1939), City for Conquest (1940), , Kings Row (1942), Going My Way (1944), The Corn is Green (1945), Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) – and virtually every other Margaret O’Brien movie, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), To Each His Own (1946), I Remember Mama (1948), The Hasty Heart (1949), Little Women (1949), The Secret Garden (1949), Show Boat (1951), All Mine to Give (1957), Some Came Running (1958), Light in the Piazza (1962), The Miracle Worker (1962), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The World of Henry Orient (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Ordinary People (1980), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Terms of Endearment (1983), Awakenings (1990), and Courageous (2011)

Each of these have caused me to start to well up, have moistened my eyes, or even ‘forced’ me to shed a tear or two, but I can think of only two movies that I’ve seen in the past 10 years (about 3,000 movies) that have caused me to hit the pause button because I was crying uncontrollably, and audibly: Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) and Life is Beautiful (1997). Of the former, I’m not really sure what caused my reaction since I haven’t any real connection to the protagonists’ reality – loneliness and alcoholism – in my own life (though I suppose I could be living in denial). However, I saw the latter at a time in my life when I was struggling to be a good father (which I still do, daily), and Roberto Benigni’s brave Academy Award winning performance touched me deeply. I’m almost afraid to watch either again, but perhaps I should … it could be cathartic.

© 2012 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog

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