Pushing the Buttons

Any of you who know me know I’m a rough customer capable of tearing a phone book in two. Or if not a phone book, then junk mail, which I’ve been known to rip to shreds. But tough as I am, I am a sucker for certain motion pictures that make me cry every time. There are no-brainers that cause similar effects among many people, like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, which always gets me. Emotional overwhelm strikes long before Todd Karns as Harry Bailey dashes in to proclaim Jimmy Stewart’s George “the richest man in town.”

Fireball author Robert Matzen's "movies that make me cry."

“To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”

Pride of the Yankees has knocked me flat all my life when Gary Cooper/Lou Gehrig makes his farewell speech and talks about getting a bad break.

Fireball author Robert Matzen's "movies that make me cry"

“People all say that I’ve had a bad break. But today … today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

In They Died with Their Boots On, when Flynn’s Col. Custer tells de Havilland/Libbie, “Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing,” prior to riding to certain death, I’m weeping like a schoolgirl.

Fireball author Robert Matzen's "movies that make me cry."

In a moment he’ll say, “Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.”

In the past couple of weeks I’ve gotten pretty bad. Abe Lincoln in Illinois snuck up on me one afternoon at the end when Raymond Massey as Abe has just been elected president and makes a very somber farewell speech off the back of a train to his friends in Illinois. We know what he’s in for in Washington, the war and all, and he’s just so sad to leave because he too senses the blackness ahead. The forlorn figure of Abraham Lincoln standing on the back of a passenger car as it recedes in the distance devastated me.

Fireball author Robert Matzen's "movies that make me cry."

A melancholy Abraham Lincoln says farewell, and I lose it…yet again.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Yankee Doodle Dandy laid waste to me unexpectedly a couple of days ago on like my 20th viewing when George M. Cohan started the Little Johnny Jones sequence, and it wasn’t sadness that swept over me this time but the music, Cagney’s dancing, the choreography behind him, and the sheer brilliance of all those elements hitting me at once.

Fireball author Robert Matzen's "movies that make me cry."

He’s a yankee doodle dandy…yankee doodle do or die. *sob*

Maybe we reach a certain age where more things move us because there’s a greater appreciation for life, I don’t know. It’s been a sad little stretch for me of late, and maybe that’s causing more emotional chords to be plucked as I watch movies.

I’ve gotten in trouble in the past for denigrating Casablanca. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a brilliant picture, but there’s something flat about the ending for me, something disingenuous in the parting of Rick and Ilsa, and I smile when Rick and Louie walk off into the foggy night. I smile but I’m not moved.

Fireball author Robert Matzen's "movies that make me cry."

Maureen O’Hara as Mary O’Donnell and Ty Power as Marty Maher at West Point. Even when I see it coming, John Ford gets me.

I’ll give you one that maybe you haven’t seen: The Long Gray Line, the Tyrone Power picture directed by John Ford about West Point. At the end when all the people in Martin Maher’s life come back to salute him that one last time, oh God, I’m welling up just thinking about it. Ford’s The Searchers gets me a little at the end, too, when Ethan brings Debbie back home. It’s not a torrent, but it always sneaks through and gets me, the loneliness of Ethan holding his arm and walking away from the house as the door swings closed behind him.

Fireball author Robert Matzen's "movies that make me cry."

Debbie is home, but Ethan remains a man alone.

Yet a third Ford picture, How Green Was My Valley, pushes all my sentimentality buttons in recounting the stoic and suffering Morgan family of Welsh coal miners.

Fireball author Robert Matzen's "movies that make me cry."

John Ford’s saga of Welch coal miners gets me every time.

So there, my big confession for a Monday. I’m a sentimental slob. Now it’s your turn. I would be very curious to learn what movies make you all misty and sentimental. Fess up, guys and gals, what are the movies, which scenes in particular, and why do they move you?


  1. Confession time, eh? Well, Robert, you’ve already listed two of the moments that always have me tearing up, the farewell scenes in They Died With Their Boots On and Pride of the Yankees. I think it’s the stoicism of the characters involved, their grace under pressure that particularly get to me. Aside from the effectiveness of the performances of Flynn and de Havilland, it also doesn’t hurt that the Boots goodbye scene also has the emotional sweep of that glorious string-laden musical score by Max Steiner which builds and reaches a crescendo as the Custers embrace for the final time.

    Pride of the Yankees also has a final touch that further rips me apart. It’s that moment after Gehrig’s speech when he is leaving the field and stepping into the darkened dugout when we hear the umpire yell out “Play ball!” That call represents how players come and go, including the great ones, but the game goes on forever. And that’s the way it should be, of course. Yet it seems, to me, somehow painfully insensitive for that umpire to be calling those words out at that precise moment when Gehrig is still within earshot.

    The ending of City Lights never fails to move me. Some may have a different interpretation of the final scene because of the ambiguity of its presentation. To me Chaplin pulled the rug out from underneath the feet of viewers by denying them the standard happy ending of a comedy that was expected. I see a look of gratitude and appreciation, not love, in the formerly blind flower girl’s eyes as she gradually realizes that her great benefactor is, in fact, a scruffy little tramp, rather than a handsome millionaire.

    The camera closes in upon Chaplin for that final heart breaking image of the little tramp smiling yet shyly placing a small flower to his lips, almost like a small child trying to hide behind it, reflecting his joy that the flower girl has regained her eyesight combined with his shame that she now sees him for what he is. That moment, to me, represents the death of any dream the tramp ever had of a relationship with this woman for whom he had sacrificed so much. Chaplin gave his viewers an honest, realistic ending: sometimes life just isn’t fair.

    There’s another film to which I’d like to make reference, not nearly as well known, a 1950 Michael Curtiz-directed production called The Breaking Point, an adaption of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Long story short (and perhaps I should provide a SPOILERS ALERT here because I’m about to give away the ending): The film’s chief protagonist, a fishing vessel skipper played by John Garfield, has a black shipmate (Juano Hernandez).

    The film establishes early that Hernandez has a son, a shy little boy, seen once soon after the film begins. As the story develops (again SPOILER ALERT) Hernandez is killed at sea and the film ends with a wounded Garfield being brought back to port. A big crowd has gathered around the wharf, police, spectators, the media, to see how Garfield is, and whether he will live.
    In the midst of this crowd scene Curtiz throws in a couple of shots of the little black boy searching for his father (there has been no communication so he doesn’t know he is dead). The boy is quiet as he searches, too shy to approach anyone, ignored by everyone around him.

    The film ends with the crowd dispersing, trucks driving away, all the drama dissipating. The film’s final image is a high crane shot of the little boy, now appearing very tiny, standing alone in the middle of the dock looking around, still searching for his father. THE END.

    It never fails to tear me up, such a profoundly poignant and human moment. A little boy, who has nothing to do with the film’s main narrative, is unexpectedly given the film’s moment. The filmmakers chose to end the film with the heart breaking image of a small boy who hasn’t yet realized that his life has taken a tragic turn.

    I can think of at least one occasion, too, in which I was touched by a scene for entirely personal reasons. When I saw that scene in Field of Dreams in which Kevin Costner’s character was (unexpectedly to me) reunited with the ghost of his own father as a young man, I experienced a massive outburst of emotion due to a sudden flashback that I had to my own father, whom I lost many years ago with unresolved issues. The thought of the desire for a “second chance,” such as Costner had in that film, registered with me profoundly, and left me sobbing for two or three minutes.

    So while it was the artistry of the other films named that deeply affected me, in the case of Field of Dreams, while the delicacy of the presentation may have had some effect, it was more the thought of a possible reunion with a departed loved one that affected me. And that idea, of course, is something with which I’m sure many other viewers could identify, as well.

    1. Fantastic, Tom! This is exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve never seen The Breaking Point. I’ll have to grab the Kleenex and give it a shot.

    2. Tom, I heeded your recommendation and watched The Breaking Point yesterday and was looking for the Curtiz touches, of which there were several; not as many as the old days but they were there. Garfield was fantastic; such a multi-layered performance. Cold, seemingly apathetic with his kids one moment and warm and loving the next. I got such a sense of bond with his wife, and of course he ultimately says no to the come-ons of Patricia Neal. The shooting of Juano Fernandez as Wesley shocked me. I feared it was coming and it was brutal and cold-blooded to see this loyal character gunned down. Then having established the brutality of the killers and Garfield alone with them on the boat, forced to stare at his dead friend on the deck, the confrontation ahead was going to have to be a nail-biter, and was. The screenplay has a nightmarish quality to it, so many nourish aspects, reflecting the times after the euphoria of winning WWII. OK, the veterans are home but some are struggling to make ends meet. They had bought in to the post-war boom and had kids and established businesses, only to hit the skids come 1950, and then what were they supposed to do? No I didn’t cry at the ending, but what an epic fade-out with the little boy looking for his father for a celluloid eternity. Thanks for the recommendation, Tom. I have been a snob for the 1950s pictures of fading leading men and there are many gems that I’ve overlooked by taking this attitude. But you set me straight in this case.

  2. Robert, The Breaking Point is a great film that I can’t recommend enough. A brilliant job by Curtiz, his last outstanding effort, from my perspective. It explores characterizations in a manner that Bogart’s To Have and Have Not version, essentially a romantic adventure, did not. It also has, for me, probably the performance of John Garfield’s career. Oh, yes, it also has THAT ending.

  3. Really enjoyed you two tough guys talking about this… probably you’d expect a girl to come up with millions of such scenes but right now I can think of only two, and one is not even a movie scene so I’ll leave it out. But the other is always the one in “Escape Me Never” (of all things, I know) where little Piccolo dies. It’s so touching when the doctor pulls the blanket over the little one’s face to see ida Lupino who just desn’t want to believe it… I’ll have to do more thinking to see if I come up with other scenes.

  4. Having thought about it a little bit, another scene that has caused me to blow into a tissue or two is the ending of De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. Heck, I don’t have to see the ending again, I just have to think about it and my eyesight starts to get watery.

    What affects me about the scene is, along with its profoundly sad musical score, not just the idea of a man making the very human error of commiting a dumb impulsive act that causes him to be shamed and humiliated in public, but that, even worse, it happens in front of his hero-worshipping ten year old son!

    Yes, Inga, as you know, tough guys can cry, too.

    But I’d like make a couple of points, if I may, as to the macho credentials of both Robert and myself.

    Robert may get all mushy while watching a film or two (or three), but don’t forget that he also climbed Mount Potosi to get to that airplane crash site. And as long as no one played a Capra film for him when he was on top of that mountain, I’m sure he was fine.

    As for myself, I’ll have you know that just this morning I received a rather nasty paper cut without screaming so loudly as to shatter any windows. (I will, however, be making an appointment to see my doctor soon if my fingie doesn’t stop hurting me).

    1. Men, you need not apologise for anything! I never doubted your manly qualities, on the contrary. And I appreciate any guy who can show his feelings!

  5. Robert, I’m glad you had the opportunity to see The Breaking Point, and for the fact that you enjoyed this long neglected little gem.

    I loved the film when I first saw it decades ago on television but then it seemed to disappear from any TV air waves, only recently making its way to TCM and as a release in the Warners Archive Collection.

    The film was shot between February and May, 1950 as the first of a two-picture deal that Garfield had made with Warners. The actor was very pleased with the final product, stating “I think it’s the best I’ve done since Body and Soul. Better than that.” It also received uniformly good reviews.

    But by the time of its September release Garfield’s name had been listed in Red Channels, the witch hunters were looking for heads and the actor would, as we all know, be targeted for his left wing associations. As a result, Jack Warner gave the film very little publicity and it was soon withdrawn from release. Warner also killed the second picture that Garfield was to make with the studio.

    In many ways, considering the career uncertainty that Garfield was facing when he filmed Breaking Point, you can view his character of Harry Morgan, desperate to bring in some money for his family, as a pretty close reflection of what the actor himself was going through, and would even moreso after this film’s completion. He would make only one more film. And what a pity that is for all. I think his performance in this film shows that he was maturing and growing as an actor. Who knows what other great performances awaited him if only given the opportunity.

    One of the aspects of this multi-layered film that I have always appreciated is in its portrait of the relationship between Garfield and shipmate Juano Hernandez. There is not a single reference in this film to race. Yet, with the deep affection for one another that these two actors were able to beautifully convey, without it ever been overstated, I think that in its own quiet way The Breaking Point was also making a sensitive plea for racial understanding.

  6. I thought I was the only one who cried when Errol says good-bye in “They Died With Their Boots On.” Thank you, gentlemen, I feel better now about myself.

    So, am I the only one who cries…every single time…when Jesus gives Charlton Heston water in “Ben Hur?”

  7. Oh, it’s so good to find Robert and TomJH hiding out on this website on a snowy day. I have to admit the farewell scene in “They Died with Their Boots On” gets to me, too. In “Pride of the Yankees,” which was aired recently on TCM, I teared up not at the farewell speech, but when Gehrig speaks to the boy outside the stadium who had been crippled and is now well and walking; the irony of that scene got to me — that there was hope for the boy, but not Gehrig. Coop always has the ability to make me tear up — “Meet John Doe”, the final scene in” A Farewell to Arms”, when he is weeping over the death of Catherine as the Armistice bells are ringing, that scene in “Mr. Deeds” when he is confronted by the desperate man almost ready to assassinate him.

    1. Wow! The gang’s almost all here! Thanks for finding us, Rosemarie. You point out an overlooked scene in Pride of the Yankees, with the now-grown boy and Gehrig’s cold reaction to him. I always thought Coop and director Sam Wood had missed the mark, but on this last viewing (we were watching at the same time), I realized it was played just right as Gehrig was forced to look at his own mortality–he’d never get another chance like this boy.

      1. This is a good spot to visit when I tire of cruising the TCM message board, which surprisingly can sometimes get nasty. On your blogs, people can disagree and remain civil.

  8. I almost forgot — the scene in “The Long Gray Line” when Maureen O’Hara’s character dies on the porch. Surely, one of Ty Power’s most underrated performances.

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