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Chris Hicks: And the saddest movie of all time is ...

CHAMP (1979) Ricky Schroder (L) and Jon Voight
CHAMP (1979) Ricky Schroder (L) and Jon Voight
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One night last week at the end of "ABC World News With Diane Sawyer," the closing story was announced as a tease, to be revealed after a commercial break: "What's the saddest movie of all time? … there is actually a scientific answer." Hmmm.

So my wife and I were trying to guess. When Bogie and Bergman separate at the end of "Casablanca"? "Of Mice and Men" when George is forced to take action with his doomed pal Lenny? "Bambi" when his mother dies? "Old Yeller" when the dog dies?

Then, we thought perhaps we were thinking too old in our choices. So we thought more recent: The opening montage of "Up" when the old man loses his wife? "Marley & Me" when the dog dies? "Million Dollar Baby" when Clint Eastwood makes a difficult decision about his hospitalized boxer? Maybe "Schindler's List"? (My eyes were moist all through that one.)

Or perhaps "The Green Lantern," because teary-eyed audience members realized as they exited they were out 10 bucks and two hours of their lives.

Anyway, we were curious. So, instead of channel surfing during the break — our usual TV-news pastime — we waited through obnoxious drug commercials, loud restaurant ads and endless promos for ABC's lineup. Which movie would it be?

At last the show returned and Sawyer gave us the answer: "The Champ."

Say what?

And not even the 1931 original. The 1979 remake. Not Jackie Cooper crying because his dad, boxer Wallace Beery, has died. Young Ricky Schroder crying because his dad, boxer Jon Voight, has died.

Sawyer explained that this was a report from Smithsonian.com about a study from the University of California at Berkeley. Yes, "The Champ" is the saddest movie of all time. It must be true. Science says so.

On the Smithsonian.com site, where this story resides under the headline, "The Saddest Movie in the World," it is explained that the two-minute, 51-second scene at the end of the film — with 9-year-old Schroder sobbing uncontrollably and saying, "Champ, wake up!" — is so universally capable of causing viewers to tear up that it is used in experiments to see if depressed people are more likely to cry than nondepressed people. The answer? No.

The clip has also helped determine:

Whether people are more likely to spend money when they are sad. (Yes.)

Whether older people are more sensitive to grief than younger people. (Yes.)

And whether sadness causes people with binge-eating disorders to eat more. (No.)

Since "The Champ" had only medium-to-mediocre box-office earnings in 1979 and critics roasted it, it's by and large a forgotten movie. So why was this particular film chosen? After all, another, more popular, more famous, Oscar-winning tearjerker was the No. 1 box-office hit that year, "Kramer vs. Kramer."

So why "The Champ"? Well, the answer is on the site.

It seems that this scientific study didn't just happen yesterday. It dates back to 1988, when a Berkeley psychology professor and a graduate student began soliciting colleagues, film critics, video-store employees and movie buffs for sad-movie titles. (Remember, "The Champ" came out in 1979, so nine years later it was probably better remembered than it is today.)

The scientific duo screened more than 250 films and clips, edited 79 of the best into few-minute segments and showed them to some 500 undergraduates … who were probably more prone to crying after obtaining long-term student loans.

Some films were rejected because they elicited a mixture of emotions, such as anger or amusement along with sadness. The study needed one singular emotional response, and it had been determined that movies were more successful in bringing it out than such other methods as playing music, spraying odors or reading aloud sad or tragic statements.

And by golly, "The Champ" was the champ at helping scientists determine what sadness is and how it makes us behave. (The death of "Bambi's" mother came in second.)

In fact, according to the site, since "The Champ" received "two (scientific) thumbs up as the saddest movie scene they could find, their research has been cited in more than 300 scientific articles"!

By the way, also listed are other clips that successfully give rise to specific emotions:

Amusement: "When Harry Met Sally," "Robin Williams Live."

Anger: "My Bodyguard," "Cry Freedom."

Fear: "The Shining," "The Silence of the Lambs."

Surprise: "Capricorn One," "Sea of Love."

And if you just can't get enough of all this highfalutin science, there's another study on the site: "NASA Picks Best and Worst Sci-Fi Movies."

C'mon, really, isn't it nice to know our top-level scientists are doing such constructive work to benefit mankind?

EMAIL: hicks@desnews.com