Laughter to tears and back

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

Debbie and I have been watching quite a few programs on television lately. We decided over a year ago that we were going to stay home and, as much as possible, away from crowds. That eliminated our trips to the movies.

We hoped that by limiting our contact with others, we might also limit the possibly that we would be exposed to coronavirus or one of its variants.

So far, we have not contracted the virus. But the life of Riley has certainly gotten boring.

Now, we watch quite a few movies on television and really enjoy the streaming services that are available from various sources. Disney+ offers a wealth of movies, documentaries, and other shows. That’s one of my favorites.

But if the program we want to watch is not on Disney+, it is probably on Netflix or Prime Video. There are always viewing options. In a month, we probably spend as much on streaming services as we would if we went to the movies a few times. It’s not a bad deal.

Recently, I have come to the conclusion that the reason we willingly sit for a few hours while being entertained by images on a TV screen is for the emotion wrapped into the last few minutes of the show.

That pattern has never changed. We always want to walk out of the theater laughing or thrilled by what we just experienced. That is really the goal of the film actors, directors and producers.

Eighty years ago, audiences were thrilled to tears when Ilsa and Victor finally were able to climb aboard the plane and fly away from the Nazi dangers that surrounded them in Casablanca. As they flew away, Rick was so relieved that he told Louie, “This could be beginning of a beautiful friendship.” For the millions of Bogart fans who watched that plane fly away, it was something beautiful.

Forty years after that, a completely different audience watched as E.T. prepared to fly away from southern California and return to his home planet.

I watched “E.T.” when it first came out. As Elliot and his friends try to outrun the authorities, suddenly, through some special E.T. magic, their small bicycles flew up from the road and rose into the night sky. Then, in the final minutes of the movie — when E.T. puts his finger up to young Elliot’s face and says in his raspy, extraterrestrial voice, “I’ll… be… right… here” — I cried. I still do.

Both “Casablanca” and “E.T.” were excellent movies, but it was the emotions in the final few minutes of those films that brought viewers back time after time.

Then, there are these endings. These are some of my favorites and brings tears to my eyes every year.

George Bailey is celebrating his brothers triumphal return to Bedford Falls. His friends and family just saved him from financial ruin and disgrace. As he holds Zuzu in his arms, he hears the bells on their Christmas tree start to ring. Zuzu says, “Look Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

George smiles then glances up to heaven and says, “That’s right. That’s right. Attaboy Clarence.”

That is just one of the scenes that will almost always put a lump in my throat and bring tears to my eyes. There are many movie moments that grab me and won’t let go.

When things get tense deep in the African jungle and bad guys appear to be winning, as soon as you hear Tarzan’s yell echoing through the jungle canopy, you know the hero is about to make everything fine. It is when Tarzan takes a huge breath, leans back, and unleashes his special Tarzan-yell that you know everything is going to be fine.

Even though I knew that everyone survived the mission of Apollo 13, the end of the movie is still filled with tension. As their space capsule hurdles back to earth, the drama and tension build.

After a long amount of time, as Apollo 13 passes through the communications blackout, we are left to worry about whether they survived or died. As we hear the radio static, we feel relief.

But the lump in my chest becomes tears in my eyes when I hear, “Houston, this is Odyssey. It’s good to see you again.”

People have enjoyed over 100 years of watching movies. I’ve loved movies since I was just a kid, but the past few years have been the best. Now, I can’t wait to take the grandchildren back to the theatre. They love the excitement and I dearly love spending time with the kids.

That time is approaching. I like watching movies on TV, but there’s nothing like sitting with a big bag of popcorn, an icy Dr. Pepper and a beautiful grandchild nestled under my arm.

Bring it on.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist