With reference to Hollywood, California, the principal production centre of the U.S. cinema industry, the phrase Hollywood ending denotes a conventional film ending, regarded as sentimental or simplistic, and often featuring an improbably positive outcome.
Its meaning is similar to that of the earlier phrase happy ending, which denotes an ending in a novel, film, etc., in which the plot achieves a happy resolution (especially by marriage, continued good health, etc.), of a type sometimes regarded as trite or conventional. For instance, just before the issue of the concluding volumes of the first edition of Clarissa. Or, The History of a Young Lady, the English author and printer Samuel Richardson (baptised 1689 – died 1761) complained, in a letter dated 7th November 1748, of the tendency of his readers to yearn for such a positive resolution:
These [advance copies] will show you, Sir, that I intend more than a Novel or Romance by this Piece; and that it is of the Tragic Kind: In short, that I thought my principal Character could not be rewarded by any Happiness short of the Heavenly. But how have I suffered by this from the Cavils of some, from the Prayers of others, from the Intreaties of many more, to make what is called a Happy Ending!
In fact, there have also been occurrences of the phrase Hollywood happy ending—as in a United Press story published in several U.S. newspapers on Monday 27th June 1927, for example in The Dayton Herald (Dayton, Ohio):
Hollywood, Cal., June 27.—[…] Large producing companies […] seek to have their contract stars take a 10 to 25% salary reduction […].
To date, the small fry, the lesser actors, the extras, directors, writers and technicians have been the only persons definitely informed of a slash in salary.
The only announced effort to combat the slash has come from Tom Mix 1, […] one of the best box office attractions in the movie world […].
Mix’s announcement is generally recognized as the stand many of the high paid players will take.
Among the lesser lights of Hollywood, the reduction has been accepted with the proverbial Hollywood “happy ending.” The matter is just a jest to many.
1 Thomas Edwin Mix (Thomas Hezikiah Mix – 1880-1940) was a U.S. film actor—cf. ‘Tom Mix in Cement’: meaning and origin.
These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase Hollywood ending that I have found, in chronological order:
1-: From the column Star Gazing, by W. H. R., published in The Journal-News (Racine, Wisconsin) of Saturday 10th December 1927:
New York, Dec. 10.—The romance team of John Gilbert 2 and Greta Garbo 3 are at it again. Their newest co-starring vehicle, “Love,” is the Hollywood conception of Tolstoy’s famed “Anna Karenina” without, however, a Hollywood ending.
Once again Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has dared the known public dislike of tragic endings. The final scene of “Love” is a tragic and shocking one.
Anna Karenina, it seems, was the young wife of an old politician of Russia. She fell in love with a dashing young regimental officer and, seeing their love affair wrecking the young man’s career, sacrificed herself. Her sacrifice is startling, as it occurs in a far different manner than the public expect.
2 John Gilbert (John Cecil Pringle – 1897-1936) was a U.S. film actor, screenwriter and director.
3 Greta Garbo (Greta Gustafsson – 1905-1990) was a Swedish-born U.S. film actress.
2-: From the review of Man, Woman and Sin (1927), a silent film starring John Gilbert and Jeanne Eagels 4—review published in The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Monday 2nd January 1928:
Gilbert […] appears as a young reporter on a Washington newspaper, a youngster who has worked his way up from the depths of poverty and privation. The society editor of the paper is a self-styled “Camille,” with the publisher as her “Armand” of the moment. The part of the broad-minded society editor is taken by Miss Eagels […].
[…] The reporter, believing implicitly in the society editor, falls in love with her, and though she fights against it, she finds herself in love with him. During a quarrel in her apartment the youth kills the publisher and is about to be executed for murder, when the girl testifies that he killed in self-defense and he is freed.
The picture ends with the boy returning to his home with his mother, the director passing up the usual Hollywood ending for dramatic effect.
4 Jeanne Eagels (Eugenia Eagles – 1890-1929) was a U.S. stage and film actress.
The phrase has given rise to un-Hollywood ending—as in the following from the column In Hollywood, published in the Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) of Sunday 17th November 1935:
At Warner Brothers you may see part of the filming of another and greater, Broadway success—“Petrified Forest.” Leslie Howard 5 and Humphrey Bogart 6 are playing the same roles they had in New York […]. Howard tells me that the picture almost exactly follows the play’s pattern, even to the most un-Hollywood ending.
5 Leslie Howard Steiner (1893-1943) was an English stage and film actor.
6 Humphrey DeForest Bogart (1899-1957) was a U.S. stage and film actor—cf. also origin of the verb ‘bogart’ (to monopolise) – ‘here’s looking at you’ (used as a toast in drinking) – notes on various acceptations of the term ‘rat pack’ – ‘tennis, anyone?’: meaning and origin.
By extension, the phrase Hollywood ending has come to denote an improbably positive outcome to a real-life situation. These are two early occurrences of this extended use:
1-: From the Daily Times (Chicago, Illinois) of Thursday 5th June 1941:
Hollywood ending to love killing
Judge Desort in Superior court today sanctioned a Hollywood fadeout to the Appelt case, satisfactory to everyone except possibly the survivors of Joseph Lorenz, whom Walter Appelt shot out of jealousy over his wife, Waneta.
The happy couple are at home at 2124 Hudson. A jury acquitted Appelt of the murder of Lorenz.
2-: From an article about Apolyna Stoskus (1911-1999), a soprano of Worcester, Massachusetts, who had just returned to Boston after four years of musical study in Berlin—article published in The Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts) of Sunday 28th September 1941:
Curiously enough, she was recommended for an audition with the Deutsches opera by her artistic rival, who thought she would be placed with the apprentice company—if at all—and be consequently out of her own way. However, Miss Stoskus—whose professional name is Pauline Stokes—got the Hollywood ending, and the next thing she knew she was called upon to substitute in the leading role of Weber’s “Euryanthe” 7 on the day of the performance. And, with another Hollywood touch, she brought down the house.
7 Euryanthe (1823) is an opera by the German composer Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826).