Michael Barrett on happy endings and Hollywood:
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.