Happy Endings–Bah!

Sometimes those DVD commentaries and bonus features can be really worthwhile. On Fox’s DVD of F.W. Murnau’s remarkable “Sunrise,” there is bonus material concerning his follow-up effort for Fox, the circus drama “The 4 Devils.” Now William Fox was apparently proud as a new papa at getting the great Murnau to come to Hollywood. “Sunrise” garnered critical accolades and that was good. Murnau seemed “in like Flynn” as the Hollywood folk would say. He was an Artist, a god–until the studio got a gander at the Devils. What? A romantic drama in which the star Janet Gaynor dies? As a suicide? And takes her weak-willed lover with her? Oops. Trouble in paradise.

Now the interesting thing about “The 4 Devils” is that the preview audience didn’t seem all THAT upset by the downbeat ending. Some of comment cards even complimented Murnau and applauded his courage in offering adult audiences adult entertainment, not fairy-tales. But the high command was unmoved. Murnau is off in Tahiti filming some thing about Polynesians that probably won’t earn a quarter–re-work the ending. Boy, did it get re-worked! No more love-death in this version. If Janet must die, make it a tragic mishap, get all the old ladies bawling in their hankies. The fact that this was not the ending that Murnau had envisioned for his film was pretty much ignored.

Hollywood has a great and tragic fondness for Happy Endings. Tragic because it contributes to the ongoing infantilization of the audiences. A people that can’t accept Tragedy can’t embrace the nobility of the human spirit. I always found it disheartening that during the rage for Blaxploitation films, the moguls decided that Blacks were incapable of dealing with tragedy. Thus A.I.P. decreed that “Black Caesar” must not end with its anti-hero’s death at the hands of a youth-gang. And at M.G.M. they decided that their re-do of “The Asphalt Jungle” should conclude with the Dix and Doll characters making a successful get-away. If I recall correctly, even the Doc Reidenschneider character waltzed off with The Man’s diamonds. It apparently never occurred to the studio bosses that the power of Huston’s film came out of the fact that his criminals were small-fry with big dreams, and that what should have been the score of their lives was what set in motion their destruction.

I can go on and on about the idiocy of studio-decreed Happy Endings. This putrid policy reached out to besmirch Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” and the silent-film version of Garbo’s “Anna Karenina”–which ended with Anna happy in Vronsky’s arms! Tolstoy? Who the hell was Tolstoy? Some Russian. Sometimes the real miracle is when a film escapes this treatment. “Sunrise” probably escaped creative destruction only because the ending was a happy one. If Gaynor had drowned, and the maddened O’Brien had successfully strangled Margaret Livingston’s temptress, and the film had concluded with O’Brien being carted off to prison, one wonders what the Fox executives would have made of THAT. There were those at Paramount who wanted “Chinatown” to end with Evelyn Mulwray killing her odious father and escaping to Mexico with her sister/daughter and J.J. Gittes. Fortunately in the 1970s not every filmmaker was looking to spoon-feed his audiences pap!

A studio-imposed happy ending can be simplistic–the studio-approved ending to Brian Helgeland’s “Payback” ends with independent thief Porter besting the mob, whereas Helgeland’s original ending, now available on DVD as “Payback–Straight Up,” ends more logically with Porter’s death–or it can completely undo what went before. Case in point: Hugh Hudson’s “Revolution.” Yes, it’s a comfy ending to have Al Pacino’s reluctant warrior re-united with Nastassja Kinski’s feisty patriot, but everything that led up to this miraculous fade-out pointed to a darker, more embittered version. Yes, the Colonials have won a great victory, and Pacino’s trapper-turned-scout has done his part. But he has lost his furs, his boat, his pre-war livelihood–the promised compensation never came about–his son and fellow-scout has married and gone off on his own, and Pacino is left stewing with his fellow ex-soldiers over their greatly-reduced back-pay. It seems to me that Hudson’s point was that revolutions come at a price. Dobb will never re-gain what he had before as a subject of King George. To have him re-unite with his lady-love–who miraculously survived a savage slashing by a British cavalryman–suggests that even he has gained as a result of his privations. This was not the message that the director has originally intended. But once again, studio executives felt that too harsh a vision of revolutionary upheaval would not go down well with audiences. “Revolution” failed at the box-office anyway, but at least with its original ending intact, it would have been an honorable failure.

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