Whatever Happened to Cincinnati? (The Kid, That Is)

A fellow film buff recently lent me his copy of “The Cincinnati Kid,” a film that I hadn’t watched in years. Imagine my astonishment at finding that the DVD featured an altering ending. In the version that I remembered, the Kid loses the big tournament, winds up with a $5,000 marker hanging over him, goes out in the alley, gets challenged to a coin toss by a shoeshine boy he had beaten at the film’s opening, and loses to him too! The boy inadvertently salts the Kid’s wounds by putting him down in essentially the same terms that the poker maestro used and the Kid walks off into an uncertain dawn. But in THIS version, he turns the corner there is his girlfriend, played by an angelic-looking Tuesday Weld, waiting for him. He sees her and the embrace. This is a close to a happy ending as we’re going to get.
This got me thinking–why eliminate the encounter with the lover in the first place? In what I’ll call the “original” darker version of the film, the aptly-named Christian walked out on the Kid when she caught him in bed with the slutty Melba (Ann-Margaret at her sultriest). As portrayed by Steve McQuuen, the Kid isn’t a bad guy, he’s just a bit careless in the way that he treats people and overly-confident that he can beat Edward G. Robinson’s aging grand master. Now the general pattern in American film seems to be–when confronted with a choice between a downbeat ending and an even moderately upbeat one, go with the light. (It’s true that in “Chinatown” Roman Polanski prevailed with a bleak ending over writer Robert Towne’s more hopeful one, but as far back as Greta Garbo’s silent film version of Anna Karenina, released as “Love,” the powers-that-be at M.G.M. decided that audiences didn’t really want to see Anna jump in front of a train, so they did a quick re-write of Tolstoy to provide a happy ending with Anna in the arms of lover.) On the subject of adaptations, did anyone even notice that the John Wayne character in both Allen LeMay’s The Searchers and Borden Chase’s Blazing Guns Along the Chisholm Trail, filmed as “Red River,” died? We tend to like our endings happy. So again I wonder why M.G.M. of all studios chose to end “The Cincinnati Kid” with Steve McQueen alone at dawn with a pockful of nothing?

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