In the almost sixty years our theater was a movie palace, its red velvet cushions must have absorbed countless gallons of tears; still it’s interesting that, if you google “movies that make you cry” or “tear jerkers,” even on the IMDB site, you’ll find hardly any movies that engendered this reaction in audiences prior to 1980. It’s as if the tear ducts of previous decades remained stubbornly dry. Of course this isn’t true: think of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
I wish we could have shown my favorite cry, Casablanca, at the St. George, but in 1976 in a tough urban ‘hood, the flirtations and idealism of WWII seemed almost extraterrestrial. I regularly bawl my eyes out at home whenever we let ourselves into Casablanca’s warm bath of love, cigarette smoke, and political resistance.
As a child I cried at The Wizard of Oz, every single time I saw it on the big screen (that would be at least five times). When Dorothy sees Auntie Em in the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball, so far away, I just can’t help it. I didn’t cry, but hid my eyes when the witch died, mostly out of fear of melting, even if (or maybe because) what was changing from solid to liquid before my eyes was, in the witch’s own words, “all my lovely wickedness...”
Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander was a straight-through cry, made the more poignant by the fact that I had chosen to see it as one of my “after therapy” movies. Being alone in the dark at the Gramercy, watching as children begin to understand death, that was what did it. It’s easier, I think, to tear up when nobody you know is sitting next to you; you can lose yourself among strangers with little or no embarrassment.
There are pure cries and impure cries.
Impure ones end up making you feel manipulated. Among them, for me: Terms of Endearment, Titanic, and, reaching way back... My big sister, eight years old, burst into tears every time Lassie tried to come home in that 1943 movie. Judy’s tears were so wrenching and convulsive my father was forced to take her out of the Hyde Park Art, our local theater, because she was disturbing other moviegoers. As family legend has it, they tried three times to see the movie from beginning to end. Was it the war? My sister had a rep for crying; she also cried on December 26th for orphaned Christmas trees on a vacant lot.
Heading up the “pure cry” list for me is one of my favorite rom coms of all time, Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road. Have you ever thought a movie was written with just you in mind? I was dating the man who would become my husband (and, for a brief time, my partner in running a movie palace) in 1968 when that movie first came out. At intervals of roughly ten years, Dean and I have watched Audrey Hepburn’s and Albert Finney’s characters duke it out, and I can credit these visitations for keeping us under the same roof for more than half a century. The couple seemed, when we were in our twenties, intimidatingly grown up, but now that we’re twice their age, I think of them almost as grandchildren!
There are also in-between cries, neither pure, nor impure. Casablanca, I think, falls into this category. Yes, the bad guys singing “Deutschland Uber Alles” — outsung by French expats singing "La Marseillaise"— is exploitative, to say the least; but I surrender to it with a free heart. Then at last, there’s the scene at the airport. What could be more grown-up and more true than Rick’s pronouncement, “I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed-up world.” Whether there was an alternate ending or no, Amen to that.
There are more recent good-cry movies. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri comes to mind; was I crying for or against Mildred, the woman whose daughter was raped and killed, in a town that seemed not to be paying any attention? It’s hard to have a clean cry at a deeply cynical movie.
Returning to movies of the past, I revisited, several years ago, Lawrence of Arabia on a giant screen — the kind of screen that movie was made to be projected onto – at the United Palace of Cultural Arts in upper upper Manhattan. Now that is one deep movie, and complicated. Unlike The Man Who Would Be King, Lawrence has survived into this post-colonial era, by refusing to do anything but tell a good story. It’s hardly a tear-jerker, but I did cry at various points, and, at the end, bitterly: because T.E. Lawrence becomes a sell-out, useless.
Back to the St. George Theatre where, lost in the shadows of a half-empty auditorium, I cried briefly during Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, possibly because there was nobody in the auditorium but me and one other person, to witness a movie in which the only spoken word is uttered by a mime (albeit with plenty of music and sound effects). I also knew Brooks was taking us all back to the movies‘ inception, the silents, which the St. George probably showed just a few of, even if it had opened with a talkie (So This is College) in 1929. So in the midst of a rampant comedy, I cried, and the masks of comedy, as well as tragedy were amused. They continue to rule in the shadows of our still-standing St. George, not a movie theater anymore except for brief moments, when the current management offers up a flick on a modest-sized screen. I’m not complaining. The theater still stands, and that is not something to cry about!
1. What drove me to write about crying at the movies is a book I discovered, Crying at the Movies: A Film Memoir, by Madelon Sprengnether published by Graywolf Press in 2002. This author is no ordinary movie crier, and the movies that set her off are specific to things that have happened in her life. Check it out!
2. Speaking of The Wizard of Oz and Auntie Em, as seen by Dorothy in the witch’s crystal ball, after 9/11/01 I found a new way to cry about that part of the movie. When I see this scene now, I also cry because, though I’m a New Yorker, I happened to be trapped out of town. No cars were allowed into the city. That dark week, my equivalent to the witch’s crystal ball was the television screen I couldn’t stop watching that contained the city I was exiled from.