There are a few reasons that ‘the old fashioned tearjerker’ can be made no more. For one thing, the type of crisis that might have destroyed a life in the past (adultery, unwed motherhood) doesn’t necessarily exist today.
Also, movies whose themes used, as a backdrop, World War II, or earlier wars had an advantage. These wars, for the most part, had the backing of the country and were and still are looked upon through sentimental eyes. Beginning with the Korean War, viewers came to view war with a more jaundiced attitude. In fact, films dealing with Vietnam still evoke emotions of anger and disgust more than they stir up any warm, nostalgic feelings for that period of time.
Probably, though, the biggest advantage that movies being produced prior to, say, 1960 had is that they were made for an audience who had not yet become cynical.
Whether it was the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, or simply the belief that we, as a country, were not always getting the entire truth from our government or our media, the overall result was an increase in cynicism. This cynicism was reflected in what we were willing to shed tears over when we went to a movie.
Beginning in the sixties, the only way in which writers seemed able to crank a tear out of an audience, was by centering the story on a disease. Since Love Story, we’ve been given Brian’s Song, Terms of Endearment and Beaches, to name a few. Now mind you this is not to say that watching the life of a character deteriorate due to disease and its devastating effect on loved ones wouldn’t make me cry. Of course it would. What I’m saying is that these are ‘easy crys’. No-brainers, since they involve illness resulting in death. It is more difficult, for a film to have the ability to make the viewer cry at other circumstances of fate that cause lives to unravel. (Three movies made in recent years that could be considered tearjerkers and yet avoid defaulting to ‘the disease ploy’ are: Titanic, Life Is Beautiful, and Ghost, none of which employ the crutch of disease to draw forth tears).
My favorite, vintage, tearjerkers of all time?
. Mrs. Miniver: 1942; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035093/ Starring Greer Garson, this was a British film whose intent, aside from tugging at our heartstrings, was most likely to draw the United States into World War II.
. To Each His Own: 1946; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039040/ Olivia DeHavilland stars in this story of an unwed mother forced to give up her son and watch as he is raised by others.
. An Affair To Remember: 1957; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050105/ Though this movie was made three times, it is the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr version that is most beloved. The lush theme song doesn’t hurt.
. Madame X: 1966; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060645/ Lana Turner as a woman who “had it all” and squandered it. It is also a story of maternal sacrifice, an apparently very popular theme. Incidentally, this movie was produced by Ross Hunter, one of the biggest producers of “schmaltz” of his time.
. Goodbye Mr. Chips: 1939; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031385/
Adapted from the James Hilton novel, this story’s sentiment is based on the passing of time and the degree to which a person is appreciated in his lifetime.
. Since You Went Away: 1944; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037280/ Starring Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, and a teenaged Shirley Temple. A World War II story centering on those waiting on the homefront for news of loved ones away at war.
. Imitation of Life: 1959; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052918/ Lana Turner stars in yet another “sacrifice of a mother” story. Ironically, it is not Lana’s story from which the tears are derived but rather from the story of a young black woman who, wanting to “pass” for white, is callous towards the feelings of her loving mother.
. My Foolish Heart: 1949; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041672/ This romantic, wartime tearjerker was based on a story by J.D. Salinger; it starred two solid actors: Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews and was enhanced by a title song that has since become a standard
.Penny Serenade: 1941; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034012/ A true heartbreaker starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a married couple desperate to adopt a child.
. Old Yeller: 1957; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050798/ This is the only film on my list that involves an animal -- a beloved dog, to be exact. Still, there’s no doubt, whatsoever, of its being a tearjerker.
. Back Street: 1961; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054653/ Based on the Fannie Hurst novel, this very melodramatic version was produced by Ross Hunter. Susan Hayward’s character, “rae”, falls in love with a married man with dire results. The married man was played by actor John Gavin who co-starred in Psycho and later went on to become U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
. Tomorrow Is Forever: 1946; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039041/ Starring Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert, this is the story of a man who survives World War I only to find that his wife, the love of his life, has remarried and has created a new life for herself. (Natalie Wood appears in one of her earliest roles).
. Stella Dallas: 1937; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029608/ Barbara Stanwyk stars as a woman from “the wrong side of the tracks” who sacrifices all (yes, again) so that her daughter might have a better life.
It should be noted that most of the above films were filmed in black and white, something that seems to add depth to the story. They are all worthy of being considered at least two Kleenex box sob stories.
Have a great weekend and thank you for joining me this week along,
RHODES LESS TRAVELED,