by Marlee MacLeod
We don't just watch movies - we experience them. We're inhabitants as well as observers, safe in theatres and living rooms yet inwardly out on some emotional limb. We feel by proxy whatever passes on the screen and we like it that way, especially when it comes to the more unpleasant human experiences.
An Affair to Remember (1957)
Consider the success of horror and suspense films; first-hand abject terror is no one's cup of tea, really, but the same situations played out on screen delight millions. We love vicarious fright because it lets us experience the range of emotions associated with it without actually being in danger. Similarly, we want to weep, to sacrifice, to have things fall apart without the inconvenience and unpleasantness of those things actually happening. We want contained suffering and we get it from weepies.
The term "weepie" emerged with the genre itself in the 1930s and is a sly play on the term "talkies." Over the years, weepies have been known by many names - women's pictures, three-hankie films, melodramas, soap operas, tearjerkers and recently, chick flicks. But those terms are unspecific and give the impression that a weepie can be any film that makes one cry for any reason, including happiness. Though the definition is somewhat elastic, the classic weepie generally involves some worst-case scenario - disease, unrequited love, family secrets, war and mental illness are the biggies - and the heroine's (for it is most often, but not always, a woman) struggles against it. Struggle, sacrifice and hard-won redemption are the hallmarks of the true weepie, and it's no wonder; we all know they're admirable ideals, but there's no big rush to volunteer for them. Weepies allow us to do our time on the hardship front for two hours at a time and then return to our more or less comfortable lives.
Silent films easily lent themselves to melodrama, perhaps ironically, since the term "melodrama" itself is derived from a combination of "melody" and "drama." But before the advent of sound, feelings had to be conveyed visually, of course, which often led to exaggerated expressions and gestures. This isn't to say that no one ever identified with or cried at a silent movie. In retrospect, you could probably file countless silent films - DW Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919), say, with Lillian Gish, or even FW Murnau's great Sunrise (1927) - in the weepies category. But true weepies, in the historic sense of the term we're using here, didn't hit their full stride until the age of the talking picture, when every vocal nuance and musical embellishment could be used to its fullest extent. Almost subliminally, sound drew predictable reactions - a ragged sigh or swell of violins at the right moment could bring on the tears as reliably as an onion.
Bette Davis and the 30s
At the center of many of these worlds was film's first Weepie Queen, Bette Davis. In life, Davis could be demanding and troublesome, the problem child of the Warner Brothers lot. But a number of her characters were either noble or became noble over the course of a given film and met impossible circumstances with grace and courage. As Judith Traherne in Dark Victory (1939), she matures from spoiled heiress to doting wife and succumbs to a brain tumor so charmingly she could just as well be welcoming The Grim Reaper to afternoon tea.
Dark Victory (1939)
In Now, Voyager (1942), Charlotte Vale morphs from neurotic frump into stylish woman-of-the-world and sacrifices true love in the name of honor. Davis plays Jezebel's (1938) Julie Marsden as pathologically selfish until she suddenly volunteers to accompany her one true love to almost certain death at a yellow fever colony. One could host a monster Weep-a-thon of Davis films alone, really. The Old Maid (1939) is the tale of an unwed mother who watches forlornly as a cousin raises her beloved daughter, who must never know her true parentage. In Marked Woman (1937), a jaded nightclub "hostess" (a Hayes Code-era euphemism for "prostitute") faces disfigurement to rat on a mobster and avenge her sister's death.
But there were plenty of non-Davis weepies released in the 1930s as well. Women attended movies in droves, creating a huge audience of ardent, loyal fans of improbably sad stories. The studios happily obliged them with tale after heartbreaking tale of death, unrequited love, sacrifice or any combination thereof. The original versions of enduring tearjerker favorites A Star Is Born (remade in 1954 and 1976), Imitation of Life (remade in 1959) and Back Street (remade in 1941 and 1961) appeared in 1937, 1934 and 1932, respectively. Stella Dallas (1937) features Barbara Stanwyck as an impoverished mother who sacrifices everything for her daughter's happiness. It's a remake of the 1925 silent original and a precursor to 1990's Stella, starring Bette Midler.
Though it isn't usually categorized as such, Gone With The Wind (1939) is a weepie on the grandest of scales. Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) meets all the slings and arrows her life has flung her, even those resulting from her own selfishness and petulance, with strength and frenzied self-preservation. In the end, things still don't work out and she isn't all that redeemed, but she's certainly clearer about what (or whom) she wants and determined to keep fighting. It's a breakthrough of sorts, the kind that viewers with problems of their own (read: all of them) find uplifting.
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