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April 2, 2016

Movie Review: The Happy Ending (1969, Blu-ray)

Directed by Richard Brooks

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Mary Wilson (Director Brooks' real-life wife Jean Simmons) is like so many other women in 1969 America. Married to a cheerful workaholic husband (John Forsyth) – not above mixing business with pleasure that his high-profile job brings – Wilson plunges into what diversions her suburban lifestyle can afford. Face lifts, health clubs where the gals can relax with a stiff cocktail in the back, shopping, pills (as supplied by her enabling maid, Nanette Fabray), diets … it all collides into alcoholism and drunk driving charges. Feeling stifled, she jets off to the Bahamas where she runs into her old school friend Flo (Shirley Jones), now a “professional mistress.” While soaking up the rays, she has a fling with greasy hustler Bobby Darrin, before returning home where she negotiates a not-so traditional “happy ending.”

As the ubiquitous Julie Kirgo notes in her liner notes for this Twilight Time Blu-Ray release, limited to 3,000 copies, The Happy Ending was a deeply personal project for director Brooks and wife Simmons. It was during this time, married to the difficult and much-married Brooks that Simmons admitted to a real-life problem with alcohol. A professional actor at the age of 14, her performance in this film was something of a valedictory statement for Simmons, who at the time was not yet 40 years of age. Bravely, Brooks and Simmons made sure that those who came to the film expecting an escapist, sudsy soap opera were given front row center to the gravity of the situation. During an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Simmons is taken to the hospital and graphically has her stomach pumped as hard-as-nails doctors and nurses brush her aside as “just one of those” housewives. Plowing into a police car after having one too many at an anonymous dive bar, Simmons is then forced to endure a humiliating session with detectives who threaten to film her “walk the line” attempts in court.

While The Happy Ending seemed a warm-up for such future features as An Unmarried Woman (1982), the film remains a fascinating time capsule of that point in American history. Nary a hippie or longhair is in sight, and yet these respectable suburbanites pop Milltowns without apology … one surmises that the characters at this time looked down their flinty noses with disapproval at their own children experimenting with marijuana and LSD at this time. More importantly, wives at this time were expected to stay home and keep house; how does one do this with a live-in maid? Boredom and a lack of meaningful activity is more than likely spurring on Simmons’s misbehavior, 

There is the niggling detail that the characters in this film suffer from what many of us would gladly trade with: Too much money and too much free time. The problems of the Wilson’s are strictly of the “wed in haste, repent at leisure” variety, where such obstacles as  keeping enough food in the refrigerator or making sure enough has been allotted for utilities are replaced with such pressing problems as “what to wear to the benefit luncheon?” Director Brooks does his best to not whitewash the more harrowing aspects of his story, but the viewer is left wondering how Mrs. Wilson would fare as a Syrian refugee trying to keep her children alive after being ousted from their home by Islamist State.

Other than that, The Happy Ending is top-flight film entertainment done by professionals at the height of their powers. There is the sumptuous photography of Conrad Hall to marvel at, along with the supporting performance of Shirley Jones (who to her credit never gave a bad performance or ever appeared in a bad film – in spite of her identification with the insipid “The Partridge Family” TV series.) Speaking of which, Tina Louise – known to most people as the vapid starlet “Ginger” on TV's “Gilligan's Island” gives a very strong performance as a beautiful but very bitter hausfrau.

This deluxe edition from Twilight Time includes English subtitles for the hard of hearing, an isolated track for the film's Academy Award-winning music score as well as the original theatrical trailer. Fans of female-centered melodramas will find plenty to enjoy in The Happy Ending. 

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