On Cinema

Sob stories

Real men have grit in their eye

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This month I learned a new acronym. MORT stands for “middle-of-the-road tearjerker”. CODA — another acronym, standing for “child of deaf adults” — is the title of the film that won the Oscar for Best Picture. It is supposedly a MORT. Leaving aside its particular merits, I feel moved to ponder those tearjerkers that have produced such a reaction in me over the years.

A 1950 Mass-Observation panel of 318 respondents showed that women wept more at the movies than men and that those men who cried were often embarrassed at the fact. “I never cry at the pictures,” said one 22-year-old bank clerk. “It’s only the Welsh that do that — and a lot of silly women.” Men in 1950 tended to avoid those films they suspected might “unman” them, and they were more inclined to weep in war films, whereas women were more often moved to tears by family dramas that reflected their own situations.

I don’t mind tearjerkers, though I don’t seek them out, and the finest examples always creep up on you anyway. Earlier generations of children cried over scenes in Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942), just as later generations cried over E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Toy Story 2 (1999). Adults, too, of course, since repeated viewings tend to produce the same reaction.

At the end of the 1960s, as an eight-year-old boy at boarding school, I was fed a weekly diet of traditional British war films, comedies, Westerns, and other adventure films. Which of these made me cry? 

I certainly remember crying over the scene in Captains Courageous (1937) in which spoilt brat Harvey Cheyne who has been rescued at sea, played by Freddie Bartholomew, witnesses the death of Manuel Fidello, the old Portuguese-American fisherman who has befriended him, played by Spencer Tracy. 

How is it possible not to weep while watching the epilogue of Schindler’s List?

During an ocean race, Manuel is at the top of a mast when it cracks and plunges him into the waves. The rigging which smashed the bottom half of his body has pinned the rest of him to the wreckage. He asks the cook in Portuguese, so that Harvey will not understand, to tell the captain to cut him free with an axe.

I remember weeping tears of joy over the ending of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), in which Ingrid Bergman as Gladys Aylward, who had been told she was not qualified to become a missionary, leads a column of starving Chinese orphans across the mountains to another mission serving as an evacuation centre. 

As they reach the mission, the children are singing the English song she has taught them — “This Old Man”. I still can’t watch this scene without the tears pouring down my cheeks.

Music is a big part of this. How is it possible not to weep while watching the epilogue of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), in which the surviving Schindlerjuden and the actors who have portrayed them place stones on the grave of Oskar Schindler, and Liam Neeson places two roses, to the accompaniment of Itzhak Perlman playing the theme for violin and orchestra composed by John Williams?

We all have our personal favourites when it comes to films that cause us to weep. Other endings that have affected me include Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), when George (James Stewart) is saved by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers); the reuniting of son and father in Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, which upon its release in 1948 became the most successful foreign film to date in the UK, with wonderful oboe-led, orchestral music by Alessandro Cicognini; the execution scene at the end of Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1953), when Marie (Simone Signoret) chooses to watch the death by guillotine of her lover Roland (Serge Reggiani) from an illicit vantage point; and the reconciliation between stricken and paralysed Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) and his son Cal (James Dean) at the end of Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955). 

But it is not just endings that do it for me. On a transatlantic flight a few years ago, the person next to me slept while I played and re-played, several times over, the scene in A Star Is Born (1954) when Judy Garland sings “The Man That Got Away” in a single continuous shot. 

It was actually filmed on three separate occasions, twice in October 1953 and again, finally, in February 1954, with changes to set and costume, and it took more than 40 partial or complete takes before director George Cukor was satisfied. But the result, in which Garland sang to playback, is sublime, with every expression and gesture impeccable. 

It is the sheer perfection of this performance, freighted with the sadness of Garland’s own life and combined with the final line of Ira Gershwin’s lyric (“There is nothing sadder than/A one-man woman/Looking for the man that got away”) that causes me to weep each time I watch it. Check it out on YouTube.

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