It's been 16 years since researchers at the University of California concluded that the finale of The Champ, in which a young Ricky Shroeder--spoiler alert--mourns the death of his boxer father is the film clip that most reliably evokes sadness in a laboratory setting. That's earned the clip the reputation as the "saddest movie scene of all time," a distinction which has been getting traction since Smithsonian magazine revisited the study in a post last week.
We don't mean to suggest the end of The Champ is not sad--it is--but there's no way it's the most heart-tugging scene in the history of movies. No way. That isn't just a subjective opinion on our part, either--along with not having been revisited since 1995 (which is fine, because researchers just want the footage to reliably make people sad so they can study things like shopping and binge-eating), the Smithsonian piece notes that researchers rejected certain scenes "because they elicited a mixture of emotions, maybe anger and sadness from a scene depicting an act of injustice, or disgust and amusement from a bathroom comedy gag."
Again, this is perfectly acceptable in the laboratory setting, but it's not much good at capturing the way people are really moved by movies. In 2009, Roger Ebert listed the physical symptoms of these moments: "[A] welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift." In other words, it's a happy kind of sad.
Since this is the kind of thing that demands a thorough explanation of slow summer afternoons, here's the kind of stuff we're talking about.
- The "Layla" montage from Goodfellas.
- Gene Hackman buying Ben Stiller a new dog in The Royal Tenenbaums.
- The last 30 seconds of Ghost Town, where Tea Leoni tells Ricky Gervais, "It hurts when I smile." (Criminally not available online.)
- Travis Bickle watching American Bandstand like an alien visitor in Taxi Driver.
- The last five minutes of Mr. Jealousy, where Eric Stoltz bumps into Annabella Sciorra at a wedding.
- The part in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray becomes a better man.
Now, what did we miss?