Tears on Demand: Movies that Make Us Cry

The top American movie experience of the 1970 Christmas season was the communal cry at screenings of Love Story. Few who saw this film in its first run have forgotten the groans, muffled sobs, and the rustling of pack after pack of Kleenex as the film neared its ending. It wasn’t over until audience members acknowledged each other’s reddened eyes as they groped their way to the exits. This was a group experience with roots. Veteran fans in Love Story’s audience remembered the studio era, when heartfelt melodrama was part of every year’s release schedule. (Fair warning: some spoilers ahead if you are a newbie to classic films).

Critics, notably Pauline Kael, have derided such audience manipulation, but film has always been a manipulative medium. Filmmakers discovered early in the game that they could use the images and grammar of film to evoke laughter, excitement, and pity. At least as early as Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), they could create all three in the same story.

Silent melodrama went straight for the tear ducts. Famous weepers include Broken Blossoms (1919), Madame X (1920), Smilin’ Through (1922), The Enchanted Cottage (1924), Stella Dallas (1925), and Camille (1921, 1927), all of which were remade in sound.

Norma Talmadge led the field in noble suffering and enjoyed a ten year run as a top box office star. Among her triumphs were The Branded Woman (1920), Smilin’ Through (1922), The Eternal Flame (1922), The Only Woman (1924), and Graustark (1925). Her rivals who were not straight-out comediennes (such as her sister Constance and Mabel Normand) fit tragedy into more diverse production schedules. Scoring mightily in heartrending plots were Mary Pickford in a dual role as rich girl/poor girl in Stella Maris (1918), Lillian Gish as the abused daughter in Broken Blossoms (1919) and the abandoned mother in Way Down East (1920), and Clara Kimball Young in a succession of wronged woman melodramas; The Forbidden Woman (1920) is typical.

At the end of the silent era Janet Gaynor had a fast rise to stardom in stories that mixed young romance with tragic separation, most famously in Seventh Heaven (1927), but also in Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929). (She also starred in the groundbreaking Sunrise (1927), a film that is not as easy to classify by storyline).

With sound came the social and economic devastation of the Thirties. A popular theme in Depression melodramas was the mother forced by scandal, poverty, or prison to abandon her child. This befell Gloria Swanson in The Trespasser (1929; there was a remake with Bette Davis called That Certain Woman in 1937), Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son (1930), Constance Bennett in Born to Love (1931) and Rockabye (1932), Ann Dvorak in Three on a Match (1932), Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932), Garbo in Anna Karenina (1935), Stanwyck in the glorious remake of Stella Dallas (1937), and too many more to list. In a separate class is Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), which dealt with the dislocation and abandonment of the elderly. It flopped at the box office but has won a devoted following among film buffs today. The understated direction by Leo McCarey and the glowing performances of Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore give this film exceptional power. The final reel is truly heartbreaking.

Producers often mandated happy endings for their biggest stars, on the theory that moviegoers enjoyed a cry midway through a picture but wanted to go home happy. In a few cases, studios released films in ‘sad’ and ‘happy’ versions; thus, Garbo kills herself in one version of Love (1927) but survives in the other. When she remade it as Anna Karenina, they wisely adhered to Tolstoy’s tragic ending. Fatalism was part of Garbo’s allure: she dies tragically in Flesh and the Devil (1927), A Woman of Affairs (1928), Romance (1930), Mata Hari (1932), and, with great dramatic underscoring, 1937’s Camille.

No other 30s star was so thoroughly identified with tragedy; most leading ladies survived the travails of their story lines. Nevertheless, Norma Shearer had notable death scenes in Smilin’ Through (1932), Romeo and Juliet (1936), and, most pitifully, in Marie Antoinette (1938). Bette Davis dies pathetically of consumption in Of Human Bondage (1934), but with glorious selflessness of cancer in the ultimate screen goddess death scene that climaxes Dark Victory (1939). Opening a week before Dark Victory, Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights had audiences weeping at Laurence Olivier’s tender vigil at Merle Oberon’s deathbed.

Child stars had a powerful hold on the public, dating back to Jackie Coogan in The Kid. Audiences cried freely with Jackie Cooper in The Champ (1931), Shirley Temple in such vehicles as The Littlest Rebel (1935), and Freddie Bartholomew in David Copperfield (1935). Contemporary reviews of Bobby Breen’s late 30s musicals describe women bursting into tears at the purity of his singing. Margaret O’Brien bewitched audiences in the 40s when she wept copiously in close-ups. They wept, too. The 40s also popularized the theme of loving and losing a beloved animal friend, usually a dog or a horse.

Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper in The Champ (1931)

What movies make you cry? I’ve asked that question recently at the coffee shop, gym, library, and elsewhere. Most people know their answer instantly and have a strong sense of identification with the films they name. I didn’t limit my question to classic films, so many contemporary films were named: Rudy, Brian’s Song, Armageddon (for Harry’s last call to Grace,) The Notebook, Meet Joe Black, Marley & Me, and the new Les Miserables. Films remembered from the studio era include Bambi (1942; most votes), Gone with the Wind (1939), Little Women (there were 4 versions from 1933 to 1994), Casablanca (1942) and The Yearling (1946).

I’ll divulge the four movie scenes that get me every time:

1) The final minute of Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). It is perfection. Because there may be readers who don’t know this film, I won’t say more about it.

2) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): The drunken pharmacist (H.B. Warner) boxes young George Bailey (Bobbie Anderson) on the ears for failing to deliver a package. George tearfully explains what was actually in the package. It’s devastating.

3) Autumn Leaves (1956): Millie (Joan Crawford) offers Burt (Cliff Robertson) his freedom in one of the longest monologues Crawford ever tackled. Filmed when she was (probably) 52, and looking her age at last, she hits notes of regret and vulnerability that were not her usual territory.

4) The Miracle Worker (1962); Annie and Helen at the water pump.

‘Tearjerker’ is inadequate as a label for these films; they are powerfully affecting dramas. All of them display the unique power of cinema, for films are the picklocks of our emotions. From the beginning of narrative films, their makers have caused us to tense with excitement, yelp in fright, laugh, and – cry.