That's NOT All, Folks! A Brief History of the Movie Epilogue

'American Graffiti' had one of the first epilogues in modern movies (Photo: Everett Collection)
‘American Graffiti’ had one of the first epilogues in modern movies (Photo: Everett Collection)

By Carrie Rickey, Yahoo Movies

“If you want a happy ending,” Orson Welles once advised, “it depends, of course, where you stop your story.” Had the director of Citizen Kane ended his film with, say, its subject’s campaign for Governor of New York — well, you get the picture.

Which brings us to the movie epilogue, the device allowing filmmakers to stop their story — and then quickly slide in what happens next to each of the principal characters. Curiously, there seems to be little (as in any) scholarship on this device, which I like to call “That’s not all, folks,” even though films have been regularly tacking on such postscripts — in on-screen text, voiceovers, or scenes set in the future — for decades.

Related: 7 Alternate Movie Endings We Finally Got to See

Flash back to 1966, when Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons won six Oscars, including Best Picture. Seasons was a drama based on historical figures in 16th century England, so it seemed natural that audiences might want to know what became of the courtiers around King Henry VIII depicted on screen. As it happened, real life gave screenwriter Robert Bolt the gift of characters who met unhappy endings by axe, fire, noose, and venereal disease. In a quasi-Shakespearean voice-over, after the final scene, a narrator shared their fates:

Thomas More’s head was stuck

On Traitor’s Gate for a month.

Then his daughter, Margaret,

removed it and kept it ’til her death.

Cromwell was beheaded for high treason

five years after More.

The Archbishop was burned at the stake.

The Duke of Norfolk should have

Been executed for high treason…

…but the King died of syphilis

the night before.

Watch a supercut of witty remarks from ‘A Man for All Seasons’ below; a portion of the epilogue narration begins at approximately 4:45:

Seven years later, it likely was George Lucas who inspired many of the “What happened next?” segments to come with his postscript for American Graffiti. Released in 1973 and set in 1962, the multi-character nostalgia piece propelled by an early rock-n-roll jukebox soundtrack was fictional, but grounded in the real-life world of that year’s high school grads in Modesto, Calif. The audience knows what its characters don’t: Life-changing events — the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement — are in their very near future. Lucas and screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck thus took the opportunity to let us know what they imagined life had in store for these characters.

After we’ve spent a couple of hours in their company, we learn, for instance, that Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), the bookish dreamer who flies away to college at movie’s end, became a writer living in Canada (code for Vietnam War protester). And that Steve (Ron Howard), the boy-next-door, chose to settle down in Modesto as an insurance agent.

Watch the ending of ‘American Graffiti’ (epilogue at approximately 3:30):

Future filmmakers surely drew on this sequence when their own characters had more life to live, and they wanted us to know about it before the fade to black. Consider five of the most memorable examples since, which make clear how varied and useful the epilogue can be.

Funniest
Animal House (1978)

Like American Graffiti, John Landis’s raucous fraternity farce is set in 1962 for an audience in 1978. At fictional Faber College, toga parties and food fights are well attended — classes not so much. In its Delta House, the frat for campus misfits, we meet Otter (Tim Matheson), suave womanizer; Boon (Peter Riegert), straight-faced observer, who also happens to be the only Delta with a girlfriend, Katy (Karen Allen); and Bluto (John Belushi), slob drunk.

John Belushi in 'National Lampoon's Animal House'
John Belushi in ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House’

At the film’s close, the Deltas famously disrupt a homecoming parade. Amid the onscreen chaos, each character’s fate is memorably revealed in a freeze-frame, the final punch lines delivered as the Deltas get the last laugh. Who wasn’t curious to know which Delta moved on from Faber to a gynecologist practice, who got married, and who was destined for a U.S. Senate seat?

This coda was so effective that any number of comedies since have adopted the epilogue as the means to even happier endings. Think of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981), Stripes (same year), and Anchorman (2004).

Cheekiest
Four Weddings and a Funeral  (1994)

Bridal gowns that resemble meringues. Bumbling parsons. Best men who forget the wedding rings. Unintentionally funny toasts. After-party hookups. Six friends. Four troths. One last rite. Charles (Hugh Grant), Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), Tom (James Fleet), and Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman) are eternal bridesmaids, while Gareth (Simon Callow) and Matthew (John Hannah) are a longtime couple. All travel the wedding circuit of their posh set. Each singleton longs for a partner and despairs of never finding one. Did they? We needed to know…

In the epilogue, guess who pairs off but decides commitment is a better route than marriage? Who marries a cousin? And who weds Prince Charles?

Watch the ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ epilogue:

Most Likely to Be Mined for Sequels
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2  (2011)

First, a horcrux hunt, which is like a scavenger kind except the objects Harry, Hermione, and Ron need to find are fragments of wizard souls that would ensure evil Voldemort’s immortality. Then, with much apparating and disapparating, the friends discover secrets of the Elder Wand once wielded by Dumbledore. Chaos reigns at Hogwarts! A battle between good and evil! Some will live, some will die.

So, how do you wrap up one of the most beloved film franchises of all time after all that? Flash forward 19 years and show the spawn of the ones that survived, waiting at King’s Cross Station for the Hogwarts Express.

Watch the ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2’ epilogue:

Most Likely to Wring Tears (tie)
The King’s Speech (2010)

Like A Man for All Seasons, Tom Hooper’s 2010 Oscar winner focuses on a real British royal. Bertie (Colin Firth), the man who would not be king in the 1930s, has a stutter and is happy to live in the shadow of his father (King George V) and brother (King Edward VII) — until Bertie’s blasted sibling goes and abdicates the throne to wed a divorced commoner, on the eve of World War II. How can Bertie, crowned as George VI, rule the Empire when he cannot rally his subjects’ confidence?

Before the coronation, Bertie’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter) has the future king consult a speech teacher, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a rough-hewn brewer’s son from Australia. Over time the sovereign learns to relax and ride the rhythm of words. After teacher helps pupil prepare for his coronation, Bertie learns that Lionel is not what he seems — and banishes him from the Castle as Henry VIII might have done to a pesky wife.

Colin Firth in 'The King's Speech'
Colin Firth in ‘The King’s Speech’

Ultimately, Bertie calls Lionel back to train him for “the King’s speech,” the annual radio broadcast from monarch to his subjects. We learn in the epilogue that:

  • King George VI made Lionel Logue a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1944.
  • This high honor from a grateful King made Lionel part of the only order of chivalry that specifically rewards acts of personal service to the Monarch.
  • Lionel was with the King for every wartime speech.
  • Through his broadcasts, George VI became a symbol of national resistance.
  • Lionel and Bertie remained friends for the rest of their lives.

42 (2013)

Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the first African-American to play in baseball’s major leagues, started his MLB career with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. The uniform number he wore was 42.

Brian Helgeland’s sports biopic focuses mostly on Robinson’s rookie season, as he swallows his bile and plays his heart out despite teammates that refuse to shower with him and rival teams that covertly sabotage him when not overtly yelling racist epithets.

The film officially ends with a championship pennant-clincher for the Dodgers. Its unofficial ending, an epilogue that hisses the villains and cheers the heroes, is one of the most narratively satisfying of its kind.

After listing Robinson’s many awards and accomplishments, most prominently his opening up the game to other players of color, the epilogue concludes, “Every year on April 15, MLB players wear the number 42 to honor Jackie Robinson. It is the only number retired by Major League Baseball.”

As epilogues go, a grand slam. And as Shakespeare might have said, all’s well that ends well.

Many other movies include comparable epilogues. Honorable mentions to Stand by Me (1986), GoodFellas (1993), That Thing You Do! (1996), and last year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight (2015).

Do you have a favorite epilogue that hasn’t been mentioned here? Let us know below.