I HAVE BEEN involved in the creation of motion pictures for more than thirty years, as a writer or as a director, and mine has been a varied life full of surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. But from the beginning one experience has been commonplace—that of being asked to state succinctly, in words of one syllable, a “formula” for making motion pictures.
The question is not always phrased in just that way. I may be asked to state my rules for creating suspense, to list precisely the qualities necessary for a film story or to analyze with fine exactitude those places in a motion picture where dialogue can or cannot be used, etc., etc., but all of the questioners want the same thing (I want it too)—a sure-fire formula for success.
No matter how the demand for a magic “formula” is put to me, my answer does boil down to three one-syllable words—I don’t know. I don’t know any rules for creating suspense. I wouldn’t attempt to list the qualities necessary for a film story. If I did, tomorrow someone would be sure to film successfully a story having none of the qualities I listed. As for rules about the use of dialogue—again, I don’t know. I only know that out of a multitude of experiences, out of successes and failures (I’ve had my share of both), I’ve developed a kind of automatic reflex device which guides my work, which has usually served me fairly well and which I hope will continue to do so.
I am disclaiming the possession of rules and theories because I want it understood that whatever thoughts I express here I know to be inconclusive and subject to change. I prefer that such ideas remain fluid, believing set formulations, rules and rigid procedures to be for me the deadly enemy of creativeness. Even should I appear to formulate a rule, I believe that if the rule exists it exists to be broken. I am merely setting down here a few random thoughts about one aspect of picture-making—the question of happy versus unhappy endings.
A friend of mine who is a fairly worldly member of the motion-picture audience started it all when he confessed to me that he will not go to see a movie which he knows to have an unhappy ending, and he assured me that a majority of the people he knows feel the same. His confession disturbed me a little. I thought I had long since resolved for myself this question of how a picture should end through the simple truism that each picture should have the ending which belongs to it, and if it rings true it will be accepted. But I found this truism to be insufficient and meaningless in the face of what I assume is a general audience demand for, willy nilly, a particular kind of ending. As a picture creator as well as a businessman, I respect the audience, which I believe to be moving towards better standards and higher truths on the screen, as well as in life. Yet in this apparently arbitrary demand for “Pollyanna” there seemed to be, on the surface, a contradiction of my evaluation of my audience.
I am always suspicious of assumptions which discredit the audience, because they are so often used as excuses for lazy, untalented or inept production. I realize it has always been stated authoritatively by “authorities” that the motion-picture audience’s preference is for happy endings, and it seems to be generally true that pictures with “unhappy” endings are not as well received at the box-office as are those which proclaim “all’s right with the world.” Still, I question the easy conclusion that an immature, Pollyanna audience in its demand for Pollyanna pictures makes the production of good (mature) pictures impossible. I suspect that such a judgment is a handy rationalization for people who are themselves too immature to look for audience needs behind audienee demands, in order to give the audience the substance as well as the form it craves.
The happy ending is a relatively late development in serious drama and is peculiar to the western world. Apparently it was only in a society where the individual could achieve dignity and could at least hope for a happy ending for his own life, that he enjoyed seeing such possibilities dramatized. Even today the peoples of Asia, of India prefer tragedy, finding in it a catharsis, a release from the universal sorrow of their lives.
Life in the western world, particularly in the United States, where there is usually the assurance of food for weeks or even months to come, where millions of common people exercise some choice over how and where they live, where at least a fair proportion of the population enjoys such glittering marvels as bathtubs, automobiles, refrigerators, would constitute to a Chinese peasant or to an Untouchable of India an unbelievable fantasy. To the average American of the last century, whether native born or immigrant, these same possibilities were marvelous but by no means fantastic. For a majority, a good and happy life was realizable. Even western Europe, until the last year, offered its peoples great individual hope, a promise of fairy-tale endings for many, many lives. In such a world of greater material comforts, broadened human freedoms with greater emphasis on the worth of the individual, it is no wonder that people took delight in seeing and hearing over and over again the old fairy-tale assurance, “and they lived happily ever after.”
The First World War brought changes to the western world. In Europe, an entire generation of intellectuals embraced despair. In America, too, intellectuals and artists turned to a rocky wasteland, trying to outdo each other in pessimistic outcry. All over the world, young people engaged in the cultural fields, myself among them, made a fetish of tragedy, expressing open rebellion against the old answers and outworn forms, swinging from naïve nineteenth-century sweetness and light to the opposite extreme of pessimism for its own sake. In the end, our audience, even in Europe where a new life was being built out of the wreckage of the old, rejected our despair (at the box-office!) and we, with many groans, gave in to the “bad taste” of the audience while casting wistful glances back into the purple gloom in which our “artistic” spirits had thrived. Yes, it was a fight I shared, the fight for the “unhappy ending,” but today I believe I was tilting with windmills.
Today, at the end of the Second, and even worse, World War, another generation of young intellectuals is raising the slogan of “artistic” despair. And today’s audience in both Europe and America is again rejecting them. You may say that because the war left the American people comparatively untouched, in their innocence and immaturity the future looks richer and more promising than ever before, so it is senseless optimism which makes them seek light and frivolous film fare. Granting that America’s war experience was in no way comparable to that of Europe and that many realities of the struggle against Fascism were not realized by a majority of Americans, I doubt if Americans look ahead to an easy life. These are a people who too recently saw bread lines and mass unemployment and who today again see their savings melting away in inflation and in a period labeled “prosperity” know that again millions may be unemployed. I do not think the American people are naïvely optimistic, but if they are, what of the people of Europe who also reject pessimism and despair? Are people looking for an escape from reality because of the misery of their lives, seeking soothing assurances as children turn from hunger and pain to the assurances of a mother?
We must look farther for our answer to what the audience wants and what it needs. We must look farther if we claim any responsibility beyond that of making invested dollars multiply in profits. And we must look farther even to assure continued profits.
I believe in artistic rebellion. I think new approaches, new forms are needed to reflect the changed world we live in. But I don’t think the only alternative to sugar is poison. If we keep our ears and eyes open, I think we shall discover that our audience is somewhat sickened by sugar but knows it is more nourishing and far safer than arsenic.
These last months, there have been dozens of articles on Hollywood’s concern over European, especially British, competition. Part of our answer can be found in the undoubtedly increasing popularity of English and European films in the U.S. and abroad. Is it an even happier dream-world that people find in these films? The answer obviously is no. But it is no more true that they find a general negativism. Most of the films from abroad which I have seen tell another story of the individual hero who solves his problems and lives happily. There are exceptions, notably Open City, but of this I will speak later.
The problem for me boils down to a question of concept, of positive or negative concept—of how we look at the world. Classic tragedy was negative, in that it showed man trapped by Fate, as personified by the gods, drawn helplessly to his doom. In an age when man was puny in the face of nature, there was a magnificence in this concept which gave man, even in his almost inevitable failures, a sense of dignity. Too often, modern tragedy, unable to draw on a mystic belief in prearranged Fate, is merely negative, showing a triumph of evil and a waster of human life for nothing and because of nothing. It is this negativism which our audience rejects. Yet classic tragedy is certainly as unacceptable to a modern audience, to people who in one generation have conquered more and more diseases, doubling and trebling life expectancy, who have made time a servant and space a toy, who have harnessed the energy of the universe. No matter what unsolved problems we have of keeping our world at peace and of distributing equitably the abundant riches of the earth, we believe problems can be solved because we have seen so many solved. We believe in a limitless future, one world, trips to the moon and then to the galaxies beyond our solar system. How can we say that man is trapped by fate, believing man is mighty?
It is not the intellectuals and dilettantes who believe in this power of mankind. Nameless millions, engaged in bitter day-to-day struggle, believe somehow in a brilliant living future—insist it is impossible that men live and die for nothing. When Norman Corwin, in his recent One World tour, asked people of all races and nations about their hopes and fears for the future, he received most often optimistic answers. And one man seemed most eloquently to sum it up when he told Corwin that atomic power is not the strongest thing in the world, since “man is stronger.”
So what are our alternatives, as film creators responsible to our own time? The traditional happy-ending story is a story of problems solved by an invincible hero, who achieved with miraculous ease all that his heart desired. It is the story of good against evil, with no possible doubt as to the outcome. Boy will get girl, the villain will get his just deserts, dreams will come true as though at the touch of a wand. Our audience prefers such a story to tragedy, and I think the audience is right in its preference. But I am sure there is something further which will answer the real cultural needs which lie behind the audience’s demands. And it is the immemorial function of artists to lead the way along the paths of cultural development.
I spoke earlier of Open City, which has enjoyed great success abroad and which even in America, with limited distribution, has run for more than a year in several large cities. No one would advocate a traditional happy ending for Open City. A European audience would not accept a picture which shows a superman hero triumphing easily over the forces of Fascism. Europe knows better. Even an American audience would not accept such a solution to such a problem. (As an example, I cite one of my own pictures, not because it is the best or only example, but because I am naturally most familiar with the problems and choices in my own work.) In 1943, when I made Hangmen Also Die, which I made primarily for Americans, who then knew next to nothing of the nature of Fascism, I ended the picture with the anti-Fascist professor going to his death along with the other Czechoslovakian hostages. I did not want to tell Americans that Fascism would crumble at the first breath of resistance, and I did not think they would believe it if I had told them. But I don’t consider either Open City or Hangmen Also Die tragedies in the sense of negativism or despair. Both of them show man triumphant in himself, in his own sense of dignity. Both of them pose tremendous problems, but proclaim the solution through man’s courage and sacrifice for those who live after him. This is not man as the victim of Fate or man dying for nothing.
It is interesting to note here that what constitutes a happy ending must be qualitatively different to people conditioned by modern democratic life than, for instance, to the people of Nazi Germany. A happy or affirmative resolution of a story must be based upon the ideals and ethical concepts of the audience. It is also significant that in the Fascist states there was a marked return to the mystical concept of Fate, as it existed in classical tragedy.
I think we can all agree that when we deal with the largest life-and-death questions—war, Fascism, depressions—as they affect millions, the audience does not want the traditional happy ending. The Best Years of Our Lives, a motion picture which achieved last year’s greatest success, has nevertheless been criticized by people on all levels of life for the kind of ending which they sensed was forced upon it. It seems to me that this very strong motion picture would have been immeasurably strengthened if it had resolved the stories of the three returning veterans in terms of a recognition by them of their obligation to struggle for a good life, instead of having a good life fall into their laps—a happy ending achieved through thought and feeling rather than through miraculous events.
When I made Woman in the Window, I was chided by critics for ending it as a dream. I am not always objective about my own work, but in this case my choice was conscious. If I had continued the story to its logical conclusion, a man would have been caught and executed for committing a murder because he was one moment off guard. Even were he not convicted of the crime, his life would have been ruined. I rejected this logical ending because it seemed to me a defeatist ending, a tragedy for nothing brought about by an implacable Fate—a negative ending to a problem which is not universal, a futile dreariness which an audience would reject. Woman in the Window enjoyed a considerable suecess, and while it may be hindsight on my part, I think that with another ending its success would have been less.
To state my general thesis—I think the audience’s apparent preference for happy resolutions is more accurately described as a preference for affirmative resolutions, as a desire to see dramatized the Tightness of its ideals and the eventual achievement of its hopes. The death of a hero, if he dies for an acceptable ideal, is not a tragedy. The death of a protagonist, if he dies because he lives counter to an ideal, is affirmative. While my picture Scarlet Street may not seem to fall in easily with my thesis, I feel the audience in general was satisfied with its unstated affirmation that evil in its many forms—the evil of crime, of weakness, of deceit—must reap some sort of physical or mental punishment, and not punishment by Fate, but created by the characters themselves, each one of whom—the boy, the girl and the old man—chooses an easy road to happiness without regard for moral and ethical standards.
To sum up: Classic tragedy served as a catharsis in a society where the individual man could hope for little beyond a sense of his own dignity as he faced the overwhelming forces of nature. The happy ending, known previously in legends and fairy-tales, was accepted in so-called realistic drama in the western world when man, emerging from centuries of bitter struggle, realized his struggle against nature could be won. Prior to the First World War, the happy ending was usually a naïve presentation of the inevitable triumph of virtue. Following World War I, rejecting the intellectual swing to despair, people tended more and more to the affirmative ending, in which virtue triumphs through struggle. Today, following World War II, this tendency in the taste of the American and European audience is even more marked.
Today, the peoples of America and Europe cling stubbornly to their belief that problems can be solved. The difference (and all to the good) is the quality of their belief. It is this difference in quality which our pictures must capture, the greater maturity expressed in the people’s belief that the future does not come of itself—it must be achieved. The highest responsibility of the film creator is to reflect his times. If the people believe in the future, the film creator must also believe in it. And if they search for ways to achieve the future, he must chart the ways.
Originally published in Penguin Film Review, no. 5, January 1948, pp. 22-29.