Happy endings are not all alike. In fact, they're
not always happy. People have many strange ideas about Hollywood
movies, and it's not always clear what folks mean by the term.
"Hollywood" often seems to mean any movie in English, not
the product of a certain system in a certain factory town. Also
"Hollywood" is often pejorative, a shorthand for whatever
criticism one cares to imply without examining it.
But one of the strangest cliches to plague us is
that Hollywood movies have happy endings. This idea leads to
contempt, derision and satire. I recall one witty article that
imagined Hollywood remakes of classic stories, such as having a
centurion ride up to Calvary and announce that Jesus has been
pardoned. He and Mary embrace.
There are probably more happy endings today than in
the past, and it's because studio executives live under the burden
of this false idea - that Hollywood purveys happy endings. Let's
disprove this notion once and for all.
Of course, there's a minor truth to it – and a
major truth, which I'll get to later. For now, let us consider the
movies of the classic studio era, roughly from the 1920s to the '50s
– that era when, as everybody thinks they know, the Dream Factory
turned out happy endings.
The minor truth is that Hollywood turned out films
in many genres, and yes, some genres end happily. Comedies, for
example, including musicals. More often than not, these end in
marriage, which we shall designate a happy ending by classical
definition if nothing else. And certain types of adventures or
thrillers, from swashbucklers to westerns, invariably end with the
hero defeating the villain and kissing the girl.
But the movies Hollywood was proudest of, the
big-budget "A" projects for its high-profile stars, its
most "serious" pictures, its award winners, its test of
timers, are virtually required to end in death or separation, as are
"Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn,"
says Rhett Butler, walking out on Scarlett O'Hara.
"The problems of two little people don't amount
to a hill of beans in this crazy world," explains Rick to Ilsa
on why she'll regret it if she doesn't get on that plane, maybe not
today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of her life.
I've just alluded to three of the most famous
Hollywood films, and they aren't exceptions to prove the rule. They
are the apotheoses.
To beat "Gone With the Wind" to the punch,
Warner Brothers put Bette Davis in "Jezebel," another
Antebellum saga. That's the one that allows her to be as wicked and
selfish a strumpet as possible for two hours in order to "punish"
her in the last five minutes by sending her to a leper colony with
her sick husband.
Most of Davis' big pictures, yes and Joan Crawford's
too, end in death or bittersweet resignation. If Bette doesn't march
bravely and blindly to her "Dark Victory," she wonders
stoically in "Now Voyager" why they should ask for the
moon when they have the stars. About "Mildred Pierce" I'll
And now perhaps you recognize another stalwart genre,
and an important one, one they literally don't make any more unless
it's on TV movies – the woman's picture, also called the
melodrama, the tearjerker or the three-hanky movie – every unwed
mother, every back street wife, every imitation of life in that
penny serenade, that endless parade of Stanwycks and Dunnes and Kay
Francises (who recalls Kay Francis?), that suffering sisterhood of
The waterworks flow in male tearjerkers like
"The Champ" and "Captains Courageous," too. The
difference is that masculine melodramas focus on physical actions
while the women's pictures turn on internal choices having to do
with careers, marriage and children.
They are essentially more realistic than, say,
"Stagecoach" or "Captain Blood" in terms of how
their audience lived, but women's films too had their extraordinary
fantasias enacted by Garbo and Dietrich, those exotic sirens who,
forsaken by their men, trod off into the burning desert or throw
themselves under trains or cough their lovely lungs out. Ah, bliss!
Studios understood that just as audiences like to
laugh, they also like to cry. A "good cry" was purveyed as
aggressively and crafted as consummately as a love song, and both
had their place.
We have a revisionist idea that during the
Depression, audiences turned to Busby Berkeley frivolities for
"escape." Well, they did, and they also turned to these
overheated tearjerkers (aimed at women) and to hard-hitting gangster
films (aimed at men) and horror movies (for dates).
Gangster and horror films work in a similar way.
They focus on the monster, an anti-hero who tears a bloody swath
through the audience's sympathies until ("Mother of mercy!")
their climactic, cathartic deaths. This formula made stars of James
Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Bela Lugosi and Boris
Karloff, who intoned "We belong dead" before throwing that
switch at the end of "Bride of Frankenstein."
"Twas beauty killed the beast," someone
pronounces over King Kong's corpse. No, it was the genre.
This gangster tradition continued in the postwar
film noirs, which usually end in the death of suckers and femme
fatales: "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Double
Indemnity," "Out of the Past," etc.
Even adventure fare could end in death or separation
when Hollywood wanted it to be taken seriously. See such westerns as
"The Ox-Bow Incident" and "Shane" ("Come
back, Shane, come back!") or the search for "The Treasure
of the Sierra Madre."
Then there was that cavalcade of WWII propaganda
films such as "Casablanca." These are the movies where
John Wayne might die, as in "Sands of Iwo Jima." They
don't end in exultation, but in determination. The deaths of the
heroes signal a renewal, a reminder of what we're fighting for.
And that's the larger truth. Hollywood didn't
specialize in happy endings. It specialized in Affirmation. All this
tragedy, this thwarted desire, these tears served a purpose--the
status quo was restored, suffering was redeemed, tragedy transcended.
That's why "The Grapes of Wrath" ends not
with the hopeless doom of the Joads but with Henry Fonda's
Christlike transformation into Every-Okie, trading his private
tragedy for the immortality of the poor who are always with us.
"Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be
there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there."
Unhappy endings are in fact very common to
Hollywood, but bleak endings are rarer. Even "Citizen Kane"
can be reduced to a bromide about how the simple things bring more
happiness than power and greed, so there. And yet hopeless endings
can also be found, from "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain
Gang" to "High Noon," which has a happy ending but
feels like it doesn't.
Today, people harbor a delusion of Hollywood "happy
endings," but what they actually remember isn't the superficial
arc of a storyline that ends with people happy. Rather, they
remember how good the movies made them feel, even if they walked out
dabbing their tears. They remember affirmation.
For the most part, the audience was left with a sense that somehow
all was right with the world if the gentle monster dies, if justice
and order are restored, if Stella Dallas could smile at the marriage
of the daughter she sacrificed for, if Madame X finds a peaceful
death in the arms of her son, if Jezebel could beam in triumph on
her way to a redemptive fate, if this could be the beginning of a
beautiful friendship – If, after all, tomorrow is another day.