D APPY ENDlNG EXIST?
James ua»: II
We h ve h r a perfe t illu rrarion of tholt familiar intellectual trick whereby, one an unten ble J finition has been established. an inordinate and distorted signif nee i at hed ( ... ) to instances which show the definicion t e in rre t.
- Andrew Britton 'The Ideology of ,.' (413)
'W tend to ume we unde n the' ppy endin fHollywood
cin m-both th t it e. 0 ts, and what it is. T . y will question
that umption. I will not have the p ce here to do that which it is
n c for fihn studies to do, which i to attempt definition of what
in f ct the 'happy ending' is. Instead, I will her try to d monsrrate just
h important it is that such a k be undertaken.
PROBLEMS F DEANIT[
Although the term is used again nd in in discussions of
Hollywood, it is startling to realise that the cinern tic 'happy ending' has received barely any sustained critical attention, nor has an adequate defmition of it ever been agreed upon. Is it, for instance, one at which characters or audience are left 'happy'? If the former, how is it that Casablanca (1942) ends on a triumphant note despite its characters having suffered a painful separation? If the latter, how are we to label a conclusion like Stella Dallas' (1937), which is heart-rending despite leaving Stella so radiantly fulfilled? Is it a particular narrative motif. such as the creation of a couple? In tho case, it w uld apply equally to a wrenchingly bittersweet final union like that of All Affair to Remember (1957) as to a mischievously equivocal one such Bri,tging up &by's (1938), and would also leave out every ending wahout a couple, such as S3y. The tZard oj Oz (1939). Is it a 'morally satisfying9 outcome? In \ hich case: is it an ending that adheres to the Production Code's moral dictates=-as " hen a gangster movie protagonist must be killed or an extra-marital affair required to end-or does it necessitate a film win the audience's moral assent? Is it when 'goal-oriented protagonists' achieve their goals? In this case, it could apply just as easily to Ethan
Edwards bringing home his kidnapped niece in TIle Searchers (1956) as to th success of the pseudo-socialist community in Our Daily Bread (1934), as to Elwood P. Dowd remaining with his imaginary 7-foot tall rabbit friend in Harvey (1950), and so on and so on.
To group the conclusions of these films under the term 'happy ending' would mean very little, and be not at all conduciv to accurate or perceptive accounts of them. Until now. this has essentially been the indefatigable critical tendency, meaning that the term has become both over-used and under-defined. It is my belief that most film studies discussions of the 'happy ending' reflect less a desire to meaningfully discuss the feature than a widespread desire to construct it as a critical 'bad object'. In order to achieve the status it holds today, this conception has had to rely on the perpetuation of numb r of common assumptions about what the 'happy nding' is and stands for
Probably the most basic assumption about the 'happy ending is that it is an exceedingly common feature of Hollywood filmmaking. In the most frequendy cited statement about the 'happy ending' in film studies, David Bordwell tells us that 60 percent of th films constituting The Classical Hollywood Cinema s "unbiased sample", "ended with a display of the united romantic couple-the cliche happy ending, often with a 'clinch'-and many more could be said to end happily" (Na"ation 159). By never revealing why-according to what definition and judged by what criteria-these many endings "could be said to end happily", Bordwell here follows two of the most common trends within the critical reaction to the 'happy ending' (a) an assumption of its simplicity and intelligibility as something that we can all immediat Iy recognise and understand, and (b) the we of this assumption to assert the trope's pervasiveness across classical Ho ywood cinema. This approach abounds in the limited writings on the 'happy ending' (which often use Bordwell's statistics as a basis), betraying the fact that so much opinion on the subject is in fact based on supposition.
Given the existence of this fundamental assumption about the 'happy ending', it is very common for critics to precede mentions of the term with words like "standard" (Dolar 38), "standardised" (Mulvey 54). "traditional' (Benshoff and Griffin 61), "conventional' (Dunne 78), "cliched" (Orr 380), "expected" (Rowe and Wells 59), "predictable" (Schatz 152), "customary" (Sterrit 10), "inevitable" (Kracauer 65), "necessary" (Mayne 363), "requisite" (Tally 129), "statutory" (Brownlow 122), "mandatory" (Kapsis 39), "obligatory' (Shapiro 197), or simply "obligation" (Maltby 16). The logic behind
DOES THE HOLLYWOOD 'HAPPy ENDING' EXIST? 17
this tendency also provokes claims such as "few conventions of the Hollywood cinema are as noticeable to its producers, to its audiences, and to its critics as that of the happy ending" (Bordwell "Happily" 2), and even assertions that it is the "most striking and persistent of all classical Hollywood phenomena' (Wood Hitchcock 52).lnde'ed it is not uncommon for a critic to imply th t virtually all classical Hollywood films have the 'happy ending in common ( ee: Maltby , Altman , Neupert )'.
Another very common assumption about the 'happy ending' is that it is by nature ideologically conservative. This means that mentions of it are also often accompanied by either implicit or explicit suggestions that it is an "ideological straightjacket' (Wood Sexual Politics 37) designed to "reaffirm the status quo of American society" (Benshoffl Griffin 28), and 'maintain the culture of which [Hollywood films] are a part" (Maltby 16)2. It is quite staggering that there should be a paucity of research into a subject that is conceptualized in this way. If a feature of Hollywood filmmaking is not only considered so ubiquitous as to be an "overly codified norm" (Neupert 35), but also wields such ideological power, is this not cause for a great deal of work to be carried out in the name of illuminating it? It is certainly not difficult to imagine a whole body of-potentially very useful-writing dedicated [0 detailing the ways different facets of American ideology might be said to be exposed and/or reaffirmed through the 'happy ending': perhaps sexuality, marriage, gender, class, race, the family. the law, capitalism, etc. Yet, although such matters are often hinted at in passing, and though the 'happy ending' might sometimes be mentioned in discussions of these issues, they have never been addressed rigorously. Of course, this lack of research has also meant that these assumptions have never been questioned, and thus never been proved correct, but ha e rather been taken as read.
Instead of attempting to demonstrate the truth of such dominant assumptions about the 'happy ending', it is far more common for critical engagements with the concept to use them as a backbone for broader generalisations about Hollywood. It is unsurprising to discover, in light of the kinds of assumptions I have mentioned, that the 'happy ending' has not been viewed kindly by film theory and criticism. Indeed, it has regularly been treated as a key site for what are often taken to be the worst tendencies of Hollywood cinema. A number of widely reproduced theories about Hollywood, while not necessarily mentioning the 'happy ending' by name, clearly implicitly presuppose both its existence and its innate disreputability-mainly through references to the 'resolution' it is assumed to bring about. For instance, it is often said of the narrative patterns of 'classical Hollywood cinema that, "The classic narrative maybe regarded as a proce whereby problems are solved so that order may ( ... ) be
JAMES MA DOWELL
restored to the world of the fiction' (Cook 40). Similarly, we are used to hearing claims about Hollywood genr s offering "simplistic solutions-the adherence to a well-defined, unchanging cod • the advocacy of methods of problem-solving based on tradition" (H 55). Finally, the Oedipal traj ctory a model that was for many years treated by much psychoanalyti film theory as th an er [Q unlockin Hollywood narrative, has been described thus: "th male protagoni t either uccessfully or unsuc e fully fulfils the tr jeer ry through the resolutiori of a crisi and a movement towards 0 ial ta iliry, In other words, after much difficulty (depending on the genre) he finds a woman and 'settles down'" (Hayward 286).
Each of these broad accounts ultimately relies on a fundamental assumption about the prevalence of, if not explicitly the 'happy ending', then at least the 'resolution' so often taken as its automatic corollary, These ar uments may vary in the extent to which they are still valuable and reproduced today, but aU have een vital to the rowth of some of film studies' most basic assumptions about Hollywood. The fact that 'resolution' and 'closure' have for so long been such ab olutely staple terms in discussions of Hollywood movies makes it extraordinary that we have not seen more research emerge on the subject of endings in general. Had more work been undertaken in this area, widespread a umprions about Hollywood films all being equally dedicat d to resolution would have had to be examined and essed in detail. Furthermore, if more work existed on endings, it seems unlikely that we would still be in the unenviable position of never having attempted to define so fundamental and ubiquitous a term as 'happy ending'. As it stands, the only book published in English whose exclusivi focus is cinematic endings, Richard Neupert's The End: Narration and Closure in tile Cinema, offers no further interrogation of the subject essentially saying little more on the matter than, "The 'happy ending' has become a cliche of the classical Hollywood cinema" (71) .
"SELF-CONSCIOUSLY ARTIACIA~ I
There has essentially only ever been one major method of approaching the 'happy endin ' that has made claims for its acceptability, and that is to argue that a film is employing it ironically, or in a way that appears otherwise 'tacked-on' so as to seem self-conscious and unconvincing. In such cases, this approach claims, the function the 'happy ending' usually serv -complete res lurion and closure-is undermined. Bordwell's article "Happily Ever After, Part 2" (the only widely-available academic work in English dealing with the cinematic 'happy ending' as a broad phenomenon') .is concerned almost solely with this phenomenon, isolating Hollywood endings for discussion which-through being apparently "unmorivared't+-seem to "pos
problems for the happy ending", and thus (rel tin b ck to umpti ns about innate conservatism) "take on a socially critical edg "(2-7). Thi conception of th subversively ironic, tacked-on, or " elf-cons iou Iy artificial" (Shingler and Mercer 60) 'happy ending' took ro t early in the history of film rudi . It first became widely u ed in rh 197 in relation t th work of Do 1 irk-in lar p rt due to comments the director hims If made ~ th effect that, in his films "you d n't believ the happy end and you re not really upposed to' 4 (H llid Y 68). It has since become de riglleur for criri to rgue that, if a film they wish to make po hive claims for has a 'happy ending' it is u in the trope in this fashion.
TIlls desire to construct the critical care ory of the 'happy endin that guarantees "we cannot rest secure" (ModI ki 54), or leave a "subterranean bitt r tast "(Zizek 9), is once again the dire t produ t of familiar, n ver-interrogated assumptions that the 'h ppy endin 'i (a) a standardized Hollywood trope and (b) inherently id 010 ically conservative. Claims about such endings can serve differ nt purpo dependin on the needs of diff rent critical camps. For instance, in e the 'happy ending' is seen as an industrial demand, the critic desirin to praise a filmmaker's artistic integrity may invoke th "elf-col ciously artificial "happy ending in order to recoup an appar ntly conventional
conclusion. In hi aforementioned article, Bordwell su ts th t w
can see the practice on di pl Y in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang,John Ford, and Frank Capra. Robin Wood, meanwhile, provid
a particularly stark example of the tendency when he s ys, "din ctors like Sirk, Ophuls and von Sternberg used various strate i of ryl and emphasis to produce irony: finding the happy ending a prison for th artist, they manage to uggest that it is also a prison for the chara rers" (Wood Sexual Politics 37).
For a different critical tradition.the'tself-consciously artificial "happy ending' has been used to reconfirm assumptions about the textual politics of Hollywood movies. For this camp, sympathy for the con ept grew from a conception-promulgated by much po trucruralistinfluenced film theory in the seventies, pecially in ehe journal Screen-ofthe classical Hollywood movie as a "h vily' clo ed'discourse ' (MacCabe 16)9 belonging to "a closed circuit, endlessly ~ peating the same illusion' (Comolli and Narboni 31). Thi model is synonymou with the notorious, and now near-universally abandoned notion of the "classic realist text' 5: a type of artwork accused of automatically transmitting bourgeois ideology by makin both the 'reali ti 'world it represents and its audience appear as coher nt entiti , rather than ideologically-determined and contradictory constructs (MacCab 7). This theory s w the task of the critic fa ed with such a text bein to expo e the "incoherence that cracks the film apart t the ems' (Comolli and Narhoni 33) in order to expo e fi ure in th w rkin
of ideology. As with previously mention d approaches to narrative, genre, and the Oedipal trajectory, the emphasis placed here on the idea of Hollywood movies being "closed" and "unified", because offering "resolution" and "containment", makes it unsurprising that the 'happy ending' should be particularly singled out for attack. The connection is made clear by Barbara Creed when he ays that the ideological operations of Hollywood cinema ar 'particularl reinforced by the conventional happy ending of the classic realist text in which all loose ends are usually neatly tied up and the values of the status quo confirmed" (155)6. In this context, to claim that certain 'happy endings' resist the "closed irnpuls supposedly inherent within the trope amounts to an act of ideological resistance - one that, as Barbara Klinger has documented, was very useful for the development of 70s 'Screen theory' as a whole (22).
In its generalizing. predetermined and prescriptive nature, the conception of the 'happy ending' as a standard, unchanging, obligatory trope repeated consistently aero s Hollywood cinema is a perfect fit for a theory like that of the "classic realist text". However, while film studies has for the most part left the illusions of the latter firmly behind, those surrounding the former continue unabated. In order to demonstrate how damaging this can prove in practice, it is worth looking at the way that the assumptions about the 'happy ending' 1 have outlined have been applied to an individual film.
THE 'HAPPY ENDING'. A CASE STUDY: J¥RlTTEN ON THE WIND
In the final scene of Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956), Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) and Lucy Hadley (Lauren Bacall) drive away from the illustrious Hadley r idence to begin a new life together. As they do so, Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone)-who has harbored unrequited desires for Mitch throughout the filrn+-warches them sadly from-a window, then sink desolately into a chair in her late father's study. The sequence is structured by a series of cuts back and forth between the miling couple's preparations for departure, and Marylee's pained rea tion to their leaving. Sh first watches them from between curtain th n sits down, looking about herself with a distraught expre sion that lies somewhere betw en depression and hysteria. We finally cut from this image to Mitch and Lucy's car as it drives away and a port r closes the gates behind them; 'The End'.
This clearly cannot be called an uncomplicated 'happy ending' according to any reasonable definition of the phrase. The stronglystressed presence of Marylee in the scene, and the way in which her interior shots are intercut with the xterior images of the departing couple, succinctly communicate that the path to happiness that has
DOESTHE HOLLYWOOD 'HAPPY ENDI G EXJST? 21
opened up before Mitch and Lucy is dependent upon another p rson loss of happiness-that two people's freedom is allowed to exi t only thanks to the repression and frustration of someone els desir . The easy, and obvious, way of a oiding th mixed register of feeling that the scene offers-simply choosing not to show us Marylee at all-h not b n talc n, r p rh p ha rather been trat . ally avoided.
Yet this endin is on of many irk conclusions th t h b n r peatedly r ferred to by criti an example of the way in which the director characteristically presents the traditional Hollywood happy ending' -that was we are told, for ed upon rum by's Ie p ople, producers, exhibitors' (Halliday 67)-but manag to lyly s bora e it in various way7. An articl by Christoph r Orr called 'CI ur and Containment: Marylee Hadley in ritten 011 fir irld' provides n e pecially transparent example of this tendency. Orr' aim is to prav that "Sirk has subverted his 'happy nding' thereby undercuttin , even spoiling, the pleasure the implied pectator expects to f I at the union of Mitch and Lucy' (386). We can se the drawb
of such an approach when Orr's assumptions about the 'happ ending' force him to di tort his object of cudy almo t ey nd recognition -all, we might say, in an attempt to conceal that this conclu ion, like many oth rs, in fa t cau es problems for t bli hed conceptions of the 'happy ending'.
Ores main line of argument consi ts of a standard laim rn d by 7 'Screen theory' about melodrama: that it "attain a trans ive ideological status by producing excess tension that cannot find resolution through the happy end' (Klinger 23). The "exc "in this case is identified as being the character of the sexually promi uous Marylee, who "reveals a lack" that "h not been ontain d within the film's circular structure and hence its ideological project" (381). According to the conception of th 'happy ending' Orr adher t Marylee is thus precisely the kind of figure who mu t ultirn rely b (to use the language of psychoanaly is that underwrites his interpr t cion) "repre ed" 0 that the feature may serve its u uaJ ideological fun rion of "resolution", As we have seen, however, she is in fact very much and very movingly, present in the final cene of the film. Theref re in order to construct the ending as seditiously' spoiled' , rather th n openly complicated, Orr finds himself required to dishonestly downpl y Marylee's importance. To achieve this he mu t pronounc that "The audience, because of its desir for the union of Mitch and Lu implicitly desires and approves the elimination of the ob ta I to [their] union" (385). Not only docs hi reading ne sitat th t h casually dismiss the audietlCe's capacity for sensitivity, intelli nc complexity of feeling towards Marylee's suffering, but it al 0 dem n he do the am for the film itself: H After a eri of shots th t p iri n
[Marylee] inside the house by herself, the film concludes with the 'happy ending' we have been waiting for-the departure of Mitch and Lucy" (380).
This is nothing short of a willful misrepresentation of how WriUetl on the Wind's ending is staged, filmed; edited, and of how it feels. The ending betrays absolutely no desire to gloss over the emotions of sharp loss and heavy oppression Marylee is experiencing. Indeed, it should barely require saying that, while we are certainly encouraged to feel some tentative optimism for the departing couple, this is in fact an ending dedicated to privileging Marylee over Mitch and Lucy. This can be seen quite clearly through a number of the filmmaking choices. (1) The shot that the first image of the scene dissolves in over is a closeup of Marylee's distressed, bowed face from the end of the previous court scene. (2) The interior shots do not simply "position [her] inside the house"; rather, their chief function is to ensure that we are close by her in her time of anguish. (3) We do not simply move from shots of her inside to the departure of the happy couple outside: we cut back and forth several times between the two, creating a painful and sustained contrast between her despair and their happiness. (4) We see Marylee solely in close-ups and medium-shots that linger on her, while our engagement with the couple is significantly compromised by two long-shots that deny us access to their faces, and thus their emotions. (5) We see the couple only in shots alternating with those of Marylee, whereas Marylee receives two sequential shots, first one from outside, showing her looking through the window, then one from inside as she sits down in her dead father's chair, focusing our attention firmly on her experience of this moment. (6) Mitch and Lucy are given no significant actions to perform besides looking contented and getting into the car, whereas Marylee is permitted a whole range of complex emotions, as well as the devastating replication of her father's pose seen in the portrait hanging on the wall behind her. (7) Finally, the last face we s'ee at all clearly in the film is Marylee's, and it is a face in pain.
Of course, it is Orr's argument too that this ending is not truly 'happy' due to Marylee. The important difference, however, is that in order to make his case he feels it necessary to construct a disingenuous image of a non-existent 'happy ending' that is being subverted, rather than acknowledging that the ending could never in fact hope to be anything other than ambiguous. It is a critical leap that clearly has important ramifications for how the film as a whole is addressing us, and it is based on the misguided assumption that, if a Hollywood ending is anything less than wholeheartedly tragic, there is no way for it to be anything other than "standardised". short of wholesale hijacking. Regardless of what even Sirk himself might claim, Written on the Wind's ending is nowhere close to being straightforwardly 'happy' in a manner
DOES THE HOLLYWOOD 'HAPPy ENDING' EXIST? 23
that might encourage us to describe it as parodically so. Instead, it delicately and poignantly balances hope and despair, freedom and oppression, in an affecting and forthright manner. The concept of the "self-consciously artificial" 'happy ending' cannot countenance such subtleties: an ending is either lazily and perniciously reaffirming or it is slyly undermining. It is an insensitive and stubbornly binary critical procedure producing binary accounts that can finally only conceive of films along binary lines. I n short, it is the logical outcome of all film studies' unquestioned assumptions about the homogeneity and ubiquity of the 'happy ending'.
Despite U1Y objections, I do not wish to argue that there are not films for which a discussion of the concept of the "self-consciously artificial" 'happy ending' might be useful. I would suggest, however, that we have currently grasped th n ture of the 'happy ending' itself nowhere near well enough to hold it, in this manner, as an assumed monolith that is only critically accessible when it is being undermined. Such an approach is only truly viable if we already know there to be an existing, homogeneous norm that it is even possible to "subvert" - which at present is far from certain. I also do not wish to argue that the 'happy ending' itself has no uses as a critical concept: it is prevalent enough in the discourses of the Hollywood industry, as well as of its audiences, its directors, and its critics to tell us that, at the very least, it is widely felt to be an important feature of popular American filmmaking. This alone is enough to guarantee its significance for critics of Hollywood cinema. Indeed, it should be enough to guarantee that it be subjected to the utmost scrutiny in order to test, apart from anything, whether this feeling is correct, as well as to determine what we mean when we say 'happy ending', what its characteristics can be, what meanings it can convey, what place the viewer has in its creation, and so on.
At pres nt, such considered engagement seems some way off. Film studies bas for far too long been equipped with merely one or two vague, yet absolutely tenacious, assumptions to structure its dealings with the concept. Not only are these assumptions persistent. but they are also pervasive: in whatever other ways theoretical approaches to film may diverge, the 'happy ending' -as- 'bad object' seems to be one concept that all can agree on, from MacCabe's 'Screen theory' to Robin Wood's auteur-inflected dose textual analysis, from Tania Modleski's feminist analyses to Kevin Brownlow's historicism, from Bordwell's nee-formalism to Zizek's neo-Lacanianism. This wide acceptance of the concept has had the unfortunate consequence that we have not only taken the 'happy ending' for granted, but also used unconfirmed
assumptions about it to help construct wider assumptions about Hollywood more generally-whether th y be about "cl sical narrative", the function of genres, ironic auteurs, or otherwis . B fore we can conclude that the great majority of Hollywood's fictions conclude with the 'happy nding'-and well before we can use this as the lynchpin of an ambitious argument about Hollywood cinema as a whole-we need to be certain e know that there i in fact som thin called th 'happy riding' in the first place. At thi I te stage in the day, it is to this pivotal qu tion that w must finally turn if we are ver to find a produ tive way of beginning to talk bout endin .
1. Giv n the routinely 'downbeat' endings of many melodramas .film noirs, and 'so ial problem films' alon this claim surely cannot be reasonably entertained - no matt r what d finition of the 'happy endin on u es.
2. See also: Aumont (53) Bordwell (5) Creed (155), Elsa er (46), Oudart (5), Row !Wells (59), Shapiro (197) etc.
3. Though see also: Celestino Deleyto (1998) and Dana Polan (1985) which xamine the 'happy ending' in contemporary Hollywood romantic comedy and 19405 Hollywood re pectively. One other, rather idiosyncratic article is C. Carter Colwell (1981), which constructs a theory of''happy and 'unhappy' endin that is predicar d on wheth r characters move away from or towards the camera in a film's final mom nts.
4. An approach he relates to th Euripedean deus ex nuuhina (Halliday 136).
5. e Wilson (192-200) for convincing repudiation of the concept in relation to film, Lodge (45-57) in relation to literature, and Britton (314-334) in relation to both.
6. Although" Creed in fact oe on to y that the th ory of rh .. lassie realist txt" ultimately went too far, her summary still stands as a fair account of its tendenci .
7. See, for example. Mere r and Shingler (60), Luzon ( 3), Halliday (136) for such claims about Written 011 tile Wind.
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Casablanca. Dir, Michael Curtiz, USA, Warner Brothers, 1942.
Harvey. Dir, Henry Ko t r. USA, Universal International Pictures, 195
DOES THE HOLLYWOOD HAPPy ENDING' EXIST? 25
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