Richard Brooks’ The Happy Ending is an odd film snuggled somewhere between the romantic melodrama and the social problem films that came to define his career. Ostensibly the story of a crumbling marriage between bored, neglected housewife Mary Spencer (Jean Simmons) and her workaholic husband Fred Wilson (Bill Forsythe), Brooks uses the film as a springboard to expose, chastise, and condemn the society contributing to the couple’s misery. Who’s to blame for Mary’s anxieties and loneliness—her absent husband or the capitalist, consumerist forces that define American society which requires husbands to work long hours and wives to give up their dreams and ambitions to keep house? Can marriage itself be conducive to happiness when it’s not just expected but demanded of young people? Take one exchange set later in the film after Mary flees her husband on their anniversary for an impromptu trip to the Bahamas with her college friend Flo (Shirley Jones):
“Daddy, what’s marriage?”
“Business. BIG business. The US economy depends on marriage.”
In her excellent essay on The Happy Ending included in Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release of the film, Julie Kirgo rhapsodizes how it was practically Brooks’ gift to Simmons, his then wife of nine years who battled with unhappiness and substance abuse. And certainly much can be made of the film as an expression of solidarity and compassion towards his wife. But it is the film’s reconciliation of sympathy for Mary Spencer and fury towards American bourgeois sensibilities that make The Happy Ending so immediate, so invigorating to watch.
Brooks’ vision of late 60s America is one of middle class desperation and misery. Nobody seems to be happily married. Wives spend their days getting drunk, going to beauty parlors, or gossiping about other women getting drunk or going to beauty parlors. Husbands spend their nights with lovers and other people’s spouses. The children aren’t making out much better: Mary’s teenage daughter Marge (Kathy Fields) has the audacity to blithely chat about the pill over the phone to her schoolmates! And there always seems to be a radio or television droning tragic news of protests and social unrest somewhere on the corner of the screen. Though intensely personal, Mary and Fred’s struggles reflect the disillusionment of the postwar American Dream of upward mobility and comfort within the nuclear family.
But for a film about discontentment and romantic unhappiness, The Happy Ending never feels languid or dreary. There’s an enervating energy to it thanks in part to the bluntness of Brooks’ script and the kineticism of George Grenville’s rapid-fire editing. Even during moments of pause and calm there’s a feeling of unmistakeable momentum.
A quick note on this release: I understand that Twilight Time is a relatively new company, but they desperately need original cover designs or artwork. The cover of their The Happy Ending blu-ray is embarrassing—it’s a fraction of the film’s original movie poster blown up and set off center with the title written in thin blue lettering that’s nearly indecipherable.
The Happy Ending is available on limited edition blu-ray exclusively through Twilight Time and their partner Screen Archives Entertainment.