the art of ending things

A Brief History of the Alternate Movie Endings Lost to Time

That is, until a few of them made their way onto DVDs as bonus material. Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Paramount Pictures

Considering the vast combination of elements that have to come together in just the right way — the right script, the right director, the right actors, the right production team, the right crew — it’s sort of a miracle that so many films are watchable, let alone great. The entire process of making a movie is a delicate high-wire collaboration between individual voices, and any number of small mistakes can ruin that balance. It’s partly why so many filmmaking teams (and, more recently, cohorts of studio executives) fixate relentlessly on arriving at the proper ending. A perfectly constructed conclusion can solidify a great movie or make a weak one seem stronger; meanwhile, a bad finale can throw the work of a small nation of co-conspirators into complete chaos. Film history is full of tales of great movies saved from ruin by a reworked resolution, and of good movies sunk by an ending shoehorned in to appease the marketplace. Here are a few of those stories of lost endings that never made their way to the screen, for better or for worse:

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)

One of the most notorious — and tragic — tales of lost endings concerns the 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel, directed by Orson Welles as his follow-up to Citizen Kane. Though now widely regarded as one of the great (if not the great) American films, Kane was not a commercial success upon its initial release, and its reception had some executives at RKO rethinking the unprecedented multi-picture deal they’d made with Welles, on which he’d been given total artistic control. They feared they had another flop on their hands with Ambersons, about a diminishing midwestern familial empire amid the rise of the automobile industry, so when Welles left for Brazil shortly after the completion of principal photography to make a goodwill project for the U.S. government, his movie was “hacked up by a bunch of amateurs and studio journeymen,” according to Welles’s biographer Simon Callow.

“The focus of their anxieties,” Callow notes, “was on the bitter, ironic end of the film,” which tested especially poorly at the film’s disastrous advance previews (Welles had not been forced to show Kane to preview audiences). Welles, working from a print that RKO had shipped to him in Brazil, desperately offered up solutions, some of them radical — “I was trying to protect something,” he explained to Peter Bogdanovich, years later — but the director was ignored. In his absence, Jack Moss — a former magician whom Welles had hired as the business manager for his production company, who was thus in charge of Welles’s affairs while he was out of the country — penned a new, more upbeat ending to the film, which (coupled with another 30-plus minutes of deleted scenes) vastly compromised Welles’s vision. And in that era, long before home-video releases preserved and shared alternate endings and deleted scenes, there was no reason to keep the original footage around; on December 10, 1942, five months after The Magnificent Ambersons’ theatrical release, RKO head Charles Koerner ordered all of the cut ending destroyed.

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Billy Wilder’s 1944 thriller is one of the quintessential film noirs — a classic tale of a rich husband, a femme fatale, and the horny sap she asks to abet her in murder. But it originally had a more pointed ending, which took Fred MacMurray’s convicted killer Walter Neff all the way to the gas chamber, as his colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looked on. Instead, the Indemnity that hit screens ends with Neff collapsing on the floor of his office, where he’s dictated the story of his downfall, as Keyes lights his cigarette.

Unlike The Magnificent Ambersons, the shift in Indemnity’s conclusion was Wilder’s decision, and his alone. “I did not need it,” he told Cameron Crowe, in the book Conversations With Wilder. “I knew it as I always filming to the next-to-last scene. The story was between the two guys. I knew it, even though I had already filmed the gas chamber scene … What the hell do we need to see him die for? Right? So we just took out that scene in the gas chamber.” Though still photos from the cut scene survived, the footage itself is considered lost; “I don’t even know who owns it now,” Wilder told Crowe. (He talks more about the decision here.)

Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

The ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War satire is one of the most memorable in all of cinema: Dr. Strangelove, rising from his wheelchair, announcing “Mein Führer, I can walk,” followed by a montage of mushroom clouds and Vera Lynn crooning “We’ll Meet Again.” But the screenplay by Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George originally featured a much different conclusion, with Strangelove falling flat on his face and General Turgidson (George C. Scott) physically attacking the Russian ambassador, escalating into a broad, messy custard-pie fight in the War Room. The sequence was meant to serve as a metaphor (and parody) for battle, but after shooting and editing the sequence, Kubrick felt it didn’t work.

“I decided it was farce,” he explained in a 1969 interview, “and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film.” Other sources claim the scene cut too close to real life; one of the first casualties of the pie fight is President Muffley (also Sellers), who is hit in the face with the dessert, prompting Turgidson to despair, “Our President has been struck down in his prime,” a line that didn’t exactly get a big laugh when the film was being edited in late 1963. Whatever the case, as with Double Indemnity, the scene itself is lost to the dustbin of history (or, more accurately, Kubrick’s cutting room), with only still photos surviving.

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Kubrick was not shy about tinkering with his work. For example, he cut 19 minutes from 2001: A Space Odyssey after it was already in release, reasoning that since he hadn’t had a chance to properly screen the film with an audience before its premiere (“It just wasn’t finished,” he said in 1969), those early viewings were his chance to “run the film, alone and with audiences” to judge its length and effectiveness.

He performed a similar bit of post-release surgery with his 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. The version of the film that went into release on May 23, 1980, included an epilogue, in which Overlook manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) — who interviews Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) at the beginning of the film — visits Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and Danny (Danny Lloyd) in the hospital, where they’re recuperating from Jack’s attack. He tells Wendy that the local police have completed their investigation and “they didn’t find the slightest evidence of anything at all out of the ordinary,” nor did they find Jack’s frozen body in the maze; he assures her that “it’s perfectly understandable for someone to imagine such things when they’ve been through something like you have.” But on his way out, Ullman tosses Danny the yellow tennis ball that belonged to his father. After this interaction, the film proceeded to the famous dolly shot that ends the film, to the photo on the wall of the Overlook Hotel. (You can read the scene here.)

Kubrick reportedly decided to remove the epilogue after watching the film with audiences, sensing that it wasn’t playing. Satisfied with the results thereafter, he had Warner Brothers send editors to every theater that was showing the film in that initial (limited) release to physically remove the scene from each print. The snippets were turned over to Warner Brothers and haven’t been seen since; all that remains of the sequence are a few Polaroid photos, snapped on the day for continuity purposes.

First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)

The 1972 novel by David Morrell that inspired the Sylvester Stallone vehicle a decade later had a very different ending — and the film originally did as well. Director Ted Kotcheff told EW that he initially conceived of the film “as Rambo’s suicide mission,” concluding with the Vietnam vet blowing himself away in front of his former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna). Stallone, who not only starred as Rambo but took several passes at the screenplay, had flagged the ending as a possible problem early on; on the day the scene was shot, Kotcheff recalled Stallone pulling him aside and pleading, “We put this character through so much. The police abuse him. He’s pursued endlessly. Dogs are sent after him. He jumps off cliffs. He runs through freezing water. He’s shot in the arm and he has to sew it up himself. All this, and now we’re gonna kill him?” So Kotcheff shot an alternate ending, in which Rambo turns himself in to Trautman rather than taking his own life. The filmmakers tested both endings and, unsurprisingly, the upbeat, live-to-see-another-day conclusion proved far more popular. So that’s how it was released, allowing Stallone to continue as the character in four sequels that spawned action figures and even a cartoon series.

Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986)

It’s easy to forget, but once upon a time, Little Shop of Horrors was just a scrappy little Off Broadway musical, and not the go-to cultural reference and Broadway favorite it would become. Its big boost in profile came from a 1987 film adaptation, helmed by Muppet master Frank Oz and featuring big names like Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, and John Candy. But there were some growing pains involved in bringing the story to the screen, chief among them the play’s ending — a bummer of conclusion, in true Cold War–era sci-fi style, in which hero Seymour feeds his dead lady love Audrey to the story’s man-eating plant, who in turn grows stronger and more blood-thirsty, its clippings snipped and sold, and the carnivorous creatures growing large enough to take over the world.

To his credit, Oz originally shot that ending, a 23-minute stew of ominous music and expensive special effects. And that’s the ending they showed to preview audiences. “It was a complete disaster,” Oz told EW in 2012. “Howard [Ashman, the screenwriter] and I knew what we had to do: We had to cut that ending and make it a happy ending, or a satisfying ending. We didn’t want to, but we understood they couldn’t release it with that kind of a reaction. [Audiences] loved the two leads so much that when we killed them, they felt bereft. So, Howard rewrote it and I shot it with a satisfying ending.” The original version — which only existed as a black-and-white “work print” — didn’t make it to audiences until 1998, when it was released as a bonus feature on the first Little Shop DVD and was immediately recalled at the behest of producer David Geffen; that disc became a collector’s item. The original ending was fully restored for the 2012 Blu-ray release, and it frequently pops up on YouTube as well.

Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)

The quintessential ’80s erotic thriller originally came to a more emotionally complicated conclusion, in which spurned “other woman” Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) kills herself, framing her married lover Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) for her murder in the process — only to have his future, and marriage, saved by his wife’s discovery of an incriminating audiotape. We then see a flashback of Alex taking her own life to the strains of “Madame Butterfly,” which she and Dan had discussed earlier in the film.

But when test audiences weren’t responding to that conclusion, the filmmakers devised a new ending — a cheap, slasher-movie-style conclusion in which Alex attacks Dan’s family in their home and is shot dead by his wife. “When I was told [about the new ending], I thought it was a joke,” Close said in 2018. “Then when I realized it wasn’t, I became incredibly upset. I thought the proposed new ending was a terrible betrayal of the character I’d created — and it was! But they weren’t going to release the film without a new ending.” Some critics felt the same way; Roger Ebert wrote that the ending left him “feeling cheated and betrayed.” But audiences ate it up with a spoon (or a knife), and Fatal Attraction became the second-highest grossing movie of 1987. The original ending — which, true to Close’s word, is much better — is available on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray releases.

Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994)

Writer-director Kevin Smith has never been one to hide his influences, and so he never attempted to conceal that his 1994 breakthrough film was inspired by Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: a character- and dialogue-driven comedy, set in a single location, over 24 hours. But that influence originally extended to the film’s ending, which attempted a tragic turn similar to Do the Right Thing’s. In Smith’s original cut, after Randall’s exit (the movie’s eventual conclusion), Dante is confronted by a holdup man, who shoots the convenience-store clerk dead, empties the register, and leaves; Smith shows Dante dead on the floor, cuts to black, and rolls credits. Smith would later tell producer turned author John Pierson that he was attempting to emulate what made Do the Right Thing feel like “a real movie,” but whatever the logic, it didn’t work at all — the grim conclusion was jarringly out of tune with the jovial nature of what came before it. Smith cut the tragic ending before Clerks screened at Sundance, where the buzzy title was acquired by Miramax and launched his career. (The original ending was subsequently added as a special feature for the film’s disc releases.)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

One can’t help but wonder if this 1999 Academy Award–winning movie — one that has since been through something of a backlash and reappraisal, thanks in no small part to its Best Actor–winning star, Kevin Spacey — would have achieved its eventual success with its original ending intact. According to screenwriter Alan Ball, the film initially had an extended ending in which the murder of Lester Burnham (Spacey) is pinned on his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) and her boyfriend and neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley) — whose father (Chris Cooper) is the actual killer.

“It all led to this horribly upsetting ending where they went on trial and got convicted,” Ball explained. “We actually shot it, and when it got into editing it was just too cynical and too awful. Because with Thora and Wes in the movie, that love story is so heartbreaking, and the trial was also at odds with the whole heart of the movie, of Lester’s journey and his realization, so it just fell out.” You can read the ending in Ball’s original screenplay, but as of this writing, it has never been included on any of the film’s home-video releases, or seen by anyone not involved in its making.

Correction: This piece originally misstated one of the writers of Dr. Strangelove. Terry Southern wrote the film, not Terry George.

More From This Series

See All
A Brief History of the Alternate Movie Endings Lost to Time