The term “bluebird ending,” which has mostly fallen out of use, refers to the optimistic finale of a film that defies the logic of the story. In the good old days it was not unknown for a Hollywood studio to turn out two versions of a movie— a happy end for us American yahoos and an unhappy one for European distribution to presumably more sophisticated audiences. A few years ago, when a remarkable retro of rare pre-Soviet Russian films started making the rounds, there was fascinating evidence that quite the opposite was true during the era of czarist cinema— call it the vulture effect.
Russian silent films of this period were fixated on death, suicide, rape, diabolism, and madness. The thriving capitalist czarist cinema— derived from 19th-century Russian theatrical melodrama— seemed to take unhappy endings to the far shores of bleakness. A contemporaneous Moscow film magazine, analyzing the gloomy Russian soul, noted, “Here it’s all’s well that ends badly.” And the early Russian film factories also worked two markets: the domestic and the international, and often turned out alternate endings of the same picture. For instance, in the export version of Yakov Protazanov’s By Her Mother’s Hand (1913), the heroine recovers nicely from an illness, but for domestic release, the poor thing winds up in a coffin. And when Protazanov remade D. W. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa as Drama on the Telephone (1914), he was obliged to change the denouement. As in Griffith, the father rushes home to rescue his family, but arriving too late, instead of saving his wife, he comes upon her corpse; she had been killed by the burglars. It’s significant that when Protazanov wanted to make a sentimental melodrama that did end happily, Jenny the Maid (1918), he relocated it to Paris— apparently, nontragic finales were more acceptable when they were set abroad.
One changed ending in postrevolutionary Russia involved the 1931 visit of Cecil B. De Mille to Moscow, where to his amazement the right-wing American director found that he was something of a cultural hero because of the popularity of his last silent feature, The Godless Girl (1929). He couldn’t fathom how his piece of romantic evangelism about the religious conversion of an atheistic high school student could be so appealing in a Communist state, until he discovered that the last reel had been removed. Shorn of its redemptive ending, the flick had been a hit, seemingly a call for the spread of atheism among American youth.
Greta Garbo made two very different appearances as the same Russian heroine. In the 1935 Anna Karenina, true to Tolstoy’s novel, she throws herself in the path of a train; Love (1927), her first version of the book, had a happy ending— unless you saw it in Europe. The actress had also appeared in The Temptress a year earlier, as a sultry siren who winds up reunited with her lover in the U.S., and back in the gutter as a whore in the European version.
During the ’30s, two distinguished directors shot films in Hollywood based on literary works about The Great War, both of which acquired alternative endings unfaithful to the source material. Paramount took the unusual decision of offering the happy and the unhappy endings of Frank Borzage’s adaptation of Hemingway’s tragic A Farewell to Arms (1932) to theater managers, who were to be able to decide which version they would prefer to screen. In the book, after her baby is born dead, Catherine herself dies. This is how the film ends in prints available today. In the notorious happy ending, also shot by Borzage, Frederic (Gary Cooper), stricken with grief, carries the body of Catherine (Helen Hayes) to the window. Bells toll and whistles blow, for the armistice has just been declared. Catherine’s eyes flutter open and she smiles. The lovers embrace. The studio’s advertising for the film had been shamelessly mushy, maintaining that it was based on “Ernest Hemingway’s world famous story of two who began in passion’s reckless abandon with a love that grew until it heeded neither shame, nor danger, nor death.” When the novelist made his outrage public, the studio decided not to release the bluebird ending in major cities, where the critics might side with Hemingway.
In Bill Condon’s current Gods and Monsters, a fiction based on the life of James Whale, the director, played by Ian McKellen, complains that the studio had meddled with his film The Road Back, damaging his career. He doesn’t go into detail, but the true story is more shocking than any Frankenstein movie.
After Whale had completed his adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s pacifist sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, the German consulate in Los Angeles raised objections to its release, threatening the studio and members of the cast. In Whale’s original ending, two young soldiers who have survived the horrors of combat discuss the tally of war after encountering a group of boys being trained by a grotesque dwarf in uniform. Universal capitulated to the Germans, making 21 cuts in the film, and removing Whale’s antimilitaristic ending. The new watered-down version, shot by studio hack Edward Sloman, finishes the picture with a montage of rearmament on the part of several nations that takes pains not to single out the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler had dictated content to an American studio; Whale’s ending has not survived.