Thursday, January 28, 2010

A tragedy with a happy ending

Warning! Possible Spoiler Alert! And your blogger really hates spoilers!

The first stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s bestselling novel The House of Mirth was not a success. In A Backward Glance when Wharton describes the reaction of William Dean Howells, who had come at her invitation to see the performance, she writes of “the lapidary phrase in which, as we left the theatre, he summed up the reason of the play’s failure. ‘Yes—what the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.’”

This seems to have done the trick at least in the beginning. The first film version of The House of Mirth, made in 1918 with Katherine Corri Harris Barrymore starring as Lily Bart, decided to go with the “Sleeping Beauty” ending. As Lily begins to succumb to the blissful sleep provide by her “medication” Lawrence Selden rushes in to her side, sweeps her up into his arms, and assures her that all will be well! This film is tragically among the lost gems of early cinema, and so one can only picture this beautiful scene in one’s mind’s eye.

Did the new ending make the film more successful? What did Mrs. Wharton think about this and about Hollywood in general? She said late in her life that movies were the ”killer of the imagination”, but earlier in her career she certainly understood their earning potential and influence on popular culture. Throughout her literary career she actively pursued adaptations of her works, and was very much involved in the dramatization of many of her most important novels. One of the great as yet unsolved and most intriguing Whartonian mysteries: Did Edith Wharton ever go to the movies herself? Aside from a brief mention of a movie or newsreel in Spain with Walter Berry in 1914, there are no explicit mentions in any letters or memoirs of Wharton’s attending a film. We do know that she disapproved of the reigning queen of the silent cinema, Mary Pickford, and made fun of Greta Garbo. She certainly used images and descriptions of movies in her fiction, from Summer onwards. How did she know how to write about movies and why did she have an opinion about the stars of the day, if she never saw a movie herself? This has puzzled Wharton scholars, and perhaps the answer will come in some as yet undiscovered archive. She certainly did attend stage performances of her novels and some of them met with her approval. The many radio, stage, screen and opera adaptations of her works which continue even today show that her appeal remains stong and crosses the boundaries of generations.

Jane Austen, who never loses her appeal, and Edith Wharton address similar societal subjects. Wherein lies the difference? Is it that Mr. Darcy turns out to be the most wonderful guy ever and he and Elizabeth Bennett live happily ever after? On the other hand, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska are entrapped in a cycle of eternal frustration.
A tragedy with a happy ending?

1 comment:

  1. House of Mirth has been on HBO the last few months. I watch a little bit every time it's on. I think it was shocking and flawless.