The American Obsession with Happy Endings

On November 14, 1941, an enemy German torpedo destroyed the Royal Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal (91). In America, British director and producer Alfred Hitchcock, and the British-starring cast of Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce, Cedric Hardwicke and Dame May Whitty attended the premiere of their film SUSPICION. For a film filled to the brim with all things British (cast, director, producer, author, setting) those involved would prefer to present a triumphant Britain in the midst of World War II. American audiences, eleven days before Thanksgiving, were not skipping to the cinema with their families to see something saddening.

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The sales strategy behind films in the 1940s and earlier depended on the whims of the studio executives. These studios owned the movie houses that released the film to have the most control over the life of their product. Another commodity they attempted to have control over was their star.

Archibald Leach came to the states as a member of a performing troupe. When he parlayed into film the studio suggested he change his name. Archibald picked “Cary” from a character he played and the studio came up with a list of suitable surnames. Archibald settled on “Grant” aligning himself with the same initials as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, his future rival stars. The studio was not finished intervening with the newly minted Cary Grant’s image.

One such strategy of preserving Cary Grant’s image was an obvious factor: the film roles he chose. What was Cary Grant’s image? According to Stanley Donen (director of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN), he was “Every man’s idol. Every woman’s dream”. Leslie Caron (actress in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS) mused, “He had to make you love him, that was very important to him”. Not only was it the studio’s prerogative, but also Cary’s.

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Question: Do you like happy endings? Answer: “They make me cringe.” This was my favorite answer from a poll I issued out to a handful of my friends and family (some film enthusiasts, others casual movie-goers).

Many anticipate the climax of a film to come with all the fixings of a “Hollywood Ending”: perfectly choreographed kisses, Boston Pop level fireworks, and a litter of Jimmy Fallon prediction puppies. Some individuals seek out a night at the movies to be entertained in a light-hearted manner. Parents attempting a lovely outing with their brood of kids do not need to cram into a car of crankiness. The greasy popcorn bits stuck to their sweaters and sugarcoated fingers from their Sour Patch Kids are plenty. Those that welcome the happy ending can leave with a smile and a warm feeling and that is that. No racking your brains for the answer to meaning of life or needing to reassess your life choices. The only catch? It has to make sense.

A forced ending is met with chagrin, particularly with those who have a knack for a linear narrative. If the ending is cheesy, predictable or unrealistic, it is met with mild annoyance and for some, utter repulsion. Those with a background in screenwriting feel that a contrived or forced ending undermines the development of the characters that have established throughout the story. Another fatality of the forced happy ending is obvious loose ends or if the character makes it out too easy (I’m looking at you Harry Potter).

My father, who introduced me to film, said that sometimes it depends on the era and country. If you grew up during the Depression or lived during a war, films were manufactured for that very purpose. Studio executives had control over the film; independent films were not yet viable competition for the studio machine. Auteur filmmakers who wanted films with radical endings were forced to follow what was guaranteed to make a profit rather than an artistic splash. There is a commercial need in American cinema to turn everything into a happy ending. Europe has less of a problem with lovers not reconciling and people dying.

In Cary Grant’s last interview at age 82, he was asked by Kent Schuelke:

KS: Film students break your films apart and analyze them.  Do you think scholars place too much emphasis on films that were made strictly for entertainment?
CG: Oh, yes.  A film’s a film.  As Hitch would say when someone would get all upset on the set, “Come on, fellas, relax — it’s only a movie.”  Now, if you want to bisect it and tri-sect it and cut it up into little pieces, well, that’s up to you.  We made them.  We didn’t know their intentions half the time, except to amuse and attract people to the box office.

Cary Grant is guilty of any actor of starring in films with the “Hollywood Ending”. Why wouldn’t he, with a personal wealth of $10 million and the endless adoration of film audiences till this day (I had a crush as a ten year old, and still do). Sure, Cary Grant has one of the most handsome mugs in cinema history but it was his class, elegance and professionalism that brought him more than the cute cleft of his chin. But when asked how he would like history to remember him, Cary said “A congenial fellow who didn’t rock the boat”.

Even at his most screwball, Cary Grant maintained his Cary Grant-like qualities that audiences expected. The charming Cary Grant always got the blessings of his audience in his blockbuster career. He got the girl in record time. Alfred Hitchcock wanted to break that up in SUSPICION, which started out under these assumptions. Cary’s character, a con-artist gambler, woos the beautiful young heiress (Fontaine) who then begins to suspect he is trying to murder her. The original ending of SUSPICION, based on the novel, was that Cary’s character poisons his wife with a glass of milk.

Studio executives pulled the breaks on that one to save the face of their A-list star and cash cow Cary Grant. They were consistently interfering in his personal life to shape his success in their films, going so far as to dispel rumors of his homosexuality by constantly planting young beautiful woman around him and making sure the photos were widely circulated. Cary Grant had a handful of unsuccessful marriages and had spent most of his career living with fellow actor Randolph Scott. Grant and Scott were inseparable and consistently photographed together. Cary received an extraordinary amount of pressure from the studio heads to replace Scott with a beautiful fresh faced female.

I looked forward to seeing Cary Grant as a true villain in SUSPICION and was robbed when he didn’t make his full transformation. All the magnificent groundwork that was laid during the film felt compromised by the obviously edited ending. However, this was 1941 not 2016. SUSPICION made a profit of $3,397,000 at the box office and won an Oscar (Joan Fontaine, Best Actress). Studio executives could not truly gamble when enlisting major stars. To ensure their approval with audiences, actors and actresses were often uncomfortable with being a villain. This carried into the next decade as well. I remember learning that William Holden, a famous anti-hero, had Billy Wilder alter the ending of STALAG 17 (1953) to take some of the sting off of his already gruff character. It took a while for Hollywood to be completely comfortable with establishing true leading role villains. It still requires likability, just enough to keep the audience interested in the development of the character. Hollywood finally fully tapped into that niche with the anti-hero crowd in the sixties and seventies. Even the Disney villain has a special place in all of our hearts. A friend of my brother’s was such an emotional wreck after Lion King that he cried when Scar died. Oh, the complexities of childhood.






I’m a mixed media artist from Braintree, MA. I investigate various art disciplines, particularly ancient processes and film in non-traditional ways. The genre of Film Noir in particular, with its play on lighting to convey the motives of characters, directs my decision-making. My current body of work involves the creation of 3-D models influenced by my interest in set design and the use of miniatures in film. These models are then photographed with a Film Noir aesthetic using techniques I have acquired from studying film. More of my work can be found here.
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