WWII and the 40s
World War II provided a wealth of especially poignant and resonant subject matter for all sorts of films, weepies included. Sacrifice was commonplace for Americans during wartime, whether it involved the enforced scarcity resulting from the rationing system or the loss of a loved one in battle. Audiences were especially receptive to films that dealt with the unpleasantness inherent in working toward a higher purpose. Perhaps the best known of these is Oscar winner Casablanca (1942). In this classic, nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) sends away his true love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) not for her own good, but for the good of the entire world, easily trumping all on-screen selflessness that came before. Since You Went Away (1944) explores the difficulties and drama endured by families on the home front.
The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) follows the lives of three WWII veterans as they return home and try to deal with the changes around them and in themselves. It features the only actor to win two Academy Awards for the same role. Real-life veteran and double-amputee Harold Russell received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and a special award from the Academy for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."
Not all 1940s weepies were war-themed. The old standby plots of death, mother love and misbegotten romance were recycled regularly. Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) combines all three, following Lisa Berndl's (Joan Fontaine) decades-long obsession with narcissistic musician Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) in early twentieth century Vienna. In Mildred Pierce (1945), the title character (Joan Crawford) allows her soulless viper of a daughter Veda (Ann Blythe) to run roughshod over her, endangering everything and everyone she holds dear. As it also involves a murder mystery and many film noir elements, Mildred Pierce is a multi-genre film. Its primary focus, though, is on Mildred's pathetic devotion to Veda, and that fact garners it weepie credentials aplenty.
The 50s and the Technicolor Weepie
The 1950s saw the release the most gorgeous, lavishly produced weepies audiences had yet seen. Many of these were directed by Douglas Sirk, who would go down in film history as the master of the form. Magnificent Obsession (1954) stars Rock Hudson as a playboy, remorseful over the havoc he has wreaked and desperate for redemption. Rock Hudson also stars in All That Heaven Allows (1956), a May-October love story wherein Jane Wyman risks ostracism by friends and family to be with the man she loves.
All That Heaven Allows (1956)
Written On The Wind (1956), yet another Hudson vehicle, combines several melodramatic plot elements - betrayal, illicit love, family drama - into an epic weepie mélange. Imitation of Life (1959), Sirk's best-known film, works along the same lines. It tugs at the heartstrings with a combination of themes, including grief, a mother's broken heart and the tension in an interracial friendship. Imitation of Life, like all the aforementioned Sirk films, is a beautiful film full of impossibly rich colors and lush orchestration that serve to heighten the viewer's emotional experience.
A Star Is Born (1954) stars Judy Garland and James Mason, and is a remake of the 1937 original. It's a heartbreaking tale in which aspiring singer Esther Blodgett's career takes off as her has-been, alcoholic husband Norman Maine declines precipitously, both personally and professionally. But A Star Is Born isn't just a tale of doomed romance - it's also a musical, featuring grand productions of some of Garland's signature song-and-dance numbers. Like Douglas Sirk's films, it's saturated with color and sound, which enhance the film's showbiz feel and draws the audience further into the drama.
Realism and the 60s
The decline of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1950s was a factor in the decreasing the popularity of weepies, but not the only one. By the early 1960s, audiences had become more sophisticated and less likely to engage in the suspension of disbelief the more maudlin weepies required. Increasingly, viewers wanted at least a measure of realism. West Side Story (1961) provided a bit in that it dealt with the modern theme of racism, but it many ways it's a last-gasp old-style weepie, complete with star-crossed lovers. It stars Natalie Wood, who also appears in Splendor In The Grass (1961). Splendor deals rather frankly with lust, family secrets and the unbearable tension of adolescence. Deanie (Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) are teenagers pulled both together and apart as they try to make sense of the pressures they feel. Splendor is a transitional weepie, a bridge between past loftiness and future grittiness.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
As the 1960s progressed, the number of traditional weepies produced declined, though the occasional old-fashioned tearjerkers appeared now and then. Doctor Zhivago (1965) is an epic in the style of Gone With The Wind, setting an impossible romance against the dual cataclysms of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968) also deals in ill-fated love. This adaptation of Shakespeare's play uses young stars (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey), soft lighting and a lovely (if repetitive) musical theme to create an atmosphere of almost unbearable sweetness and innocence. The fact that most everyone knows how the story ends doesn't make much difference in terms of weepieness; by the end of the film, all hankies are out.
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