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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Endings (originally published 12/94)

Somewhere along the way, happy endings fell into disrepute in the movie business. They're considered corny, facile, and unpardonably naive. To state the matter bluntly, in certain critical circles a happy ending is considered to be the last resort of a hack who just isn't creative enough to come up with a proper ending.

The lone exception is Frank Capra, who built virtually his entire distinguished career on happy endings. The result has been that nearly all subsequent feel-good movies have tended to be lumped into the same category -- an all-purpose critical dustbin labeled "Failed Capra Imitations." That's what happened this year to the relentlessly panned "Trapped in Paradise."

My contention, however, is that there is nothing inherently wrong with happy endings. It's just that there is a right way and a wrong way to do them, and almost everyone these days does them the wrong way. Frank Capra didn't have a magic touch. He just knew what he was doing.

What Capra understood is that happy endings have to be earned. Think of the ending of "It's a Wonderful Life," for instance. We can believe that all those townsfolk would shower George Bailey with money because Capra has very carefully shown each individual being helped by George during the course of the film.

Capra also understood that we will accept a radiant burst of optimism at the end of a movie only if the bulk of the story maintains a sternly unromanticized undertow. Again, look at "It's a Wonderful Life." The ending may be warm and fuzzy, but during the two hours or so leading up to it Capra has picked that little town apart with a gimlet eye, exposing all manner of pettiness and small-minded iniquity among its citizenry. By holding sentiment in abeyance, Capra makes us hunger for it. When the sentimental flood gates open in the last five minutes, then, we are too grateful to be put off by it.

If you're one of the many who have been disappointed by "Trapped in Paradise," and you want to see how feel-good movies ought to be done, you should know that "It's a Wonderful Life" is just the beginning of the Capra titles available on home video. Here are some others to look for.

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936). Gary Cooper stars as Longfellow Deeds, an eccentric but goodhearted fellow who inherits $20 million from a rich uncle. Having no use for the money himself, he resolves to give it away in the form of land and livestock to needy people who are willing to work a farm. There's a happy ending, but much of the film is deeply cynical, rubbing our noses in the machinations of greed and betrayal at work to thwart Deeds in his altruistic aspirations. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is a promotional trailer for a re-release of the film.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). When a U.S. senator dies unexpectedly, the political bosses who pulled his strings must decide who should be appointed to serve out his term. They pick Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a local scoutmaster with no political experience. Smith is a wide-eyed, naive patriot who reveres Washington, D.C. and believes in the wisdom and nobility of its elected officials, so the political bosses figure that he will be easy to manipulate. By the time we get to the happy ending, Capra has taken a hard-edged look at political corruption that "60 Minutes" would be proud of.

"State of the Union" (1948). Having already skewered political officeholders, Capra shifted his focus with this film to the campaigns by which politicians attain their positions. Again, his viewpoint is tough-minded and unsparing. Spencer Tracy plays Grant Matthews, a prosperous and idealistic industrialist who allows himself to be persuaded to run for president. Early on in his campaign his straight talk endears him to the voters. Soon, however, he finds himself constrained by the fat cats who actually deliver the votes. Before Capra mercifully grants us our happy ending, we must watch this likable, intelligent man reduced to parroting the words of greedy and cynical political handlers.

Of course, there are always those who can't stand happy endings even when they are done properly. Some critics of Capra's time sneered at his work, calling it "Capra-corn." I can't tell you their names, because posterity has chosen to erase them from its page. The name of Frank Capra, on the other hand, is engraved there forever. Now that's a happy ending.

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