Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Oh, O'Henry!

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore:  compilation films based on sentimental stories from a single author. But in 1952, Twentieth-Century Fox assembled its most experienced directors and its brightest box-office stars to bring to the screen five stories by O’Henry, he of the famous twist endings. To give their film added cachet, Fox creatives chose as their narrator the great American novelist, John Steinbeck. Backed by a book-lined study, Steinbeck—in his sonorous baritone—praises William Sydney Porter’s literary skills, the ones that made his literary alter ego famous throughout the world, and sets the scene for each tale. The whole mishmash is given its own title: O’Henry’s Full House.

 Needless to say, the stories are a mixed bag, depending on the varied contributions of writers, directors, and actors.  Henry Koster may not have the best track record of the directors represented here, but since his “The Cop and the Anthem” stars the great Charles Laughton at his finest, the opening segment is definitely the best. Laughton plays Soapy, a jovial n’er-do-well with no visible means of support. His usual M.O., when the city is too cold for sleeping on park benches, is to break a few laws and  then enjoy three months in a comfortable jail cell. Only problem: though he steals an umbrella, throws a brick through a store window, and eats a sumptuous meal for which he has no money to pay, he can’t manage to get himself arrested. When he is at his lowest ebb, clutching at the hope of a better life . . . that’s when O’Henry’s brand of irony kicks in. (I’ve got to mention a small but memorable role by Marilyn Monroe, whose short scene with Laughton has a poignance that’s truly impressive.)

 “The Clarion Call,” about a crime reporter who meets up with a childhood-friend-turned-criminal, is most interesting for the outsized performance of Richard Widmark. As the maniacal crook with the bizarre laugh, Widmark was borrowing from his own Oscar-nominated performance in 1947’s noir classic, Kiss of Death, also directed by Henry Hathaway. I’m told that Widmark’s inspiration for both roles came from his love of the Joker character in Batman comics. And his portrayal, in turn, influenced Frank Gorshin’s Riddler and other screen Batman villains.

 O’Henry had a special sympathy for the joys and (particularly) the woes of common folk, especially those who led luckless lives in city tenements. “The Last Leaf” is a prime example of the author at his most sentimental. It’s the story of a young woman (Jean Peters) jilted by her wealthy lover, who returns to her humble flat and succumbs to pneumonia. Winter is coming on: as her sister (Anne Baxter) worries over her, she becomes obsessed with the idea that she’ll die when the last leaf falls from the vine she can see from her window. Gregory Ratoff plays a down-at-the-heels old artist who wants to help her regain her will to live.

 Two of O’Henry’s most famous stories come last. Writer Ben Hecht and director Howard Hawks were involved with the comic tale of “The Ransom of Red Chief,” with Fred Allen and Oscar Levant as two inept conmen who plan to kidnap a local boy and hold him for ransom. As a pop culture fan in the Fifties might have said, “Taint funny, McGee.”

 The schmaltz reaches its peak with “The Gift of the Magi,” in which Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger—impoverished young marrieds—sell their most prized possessions to buy one another the Christmas gifts of their dreams. We end with Christmas carols and happily-ever-after. Aw shucks! 

 Dedicated to Jack Neworth, fellow Laughton admirer, for introducing me to this obscure title.




  1. Hiya, Nothing to add here, film unknown but Red Chief is my favorite O Henry-BUT-as always, was watching OneDayUniv at dinner last night when I had a great idea-ReRead “Seduced” so I’d be refreshed and be able to really appreciate all you bring to YOUR presentation-THEN-lightening bolt 2-read The Graduate!, so I really get your insights (Mrs Robinson is undressing at the Taft at the moment). Can’t Wait. PS-I always saw Benjamin as Jewish, a lost, lost, lost “nebish”, just like the chubby Brooklyn nebish watching it in 1968-our county’s worst year (Tet, Martin, Bobby & Nixon). How could he be anything else with Buck Zuckerman an Mike Peschkowsky In charge? PPS-We’re going to fuckin’ war again!!!!! Will anyone ever learn?

  2. Forgot to included this: the copyright for The Graduate was renewed in 1993 by The B’Nai Brith. How odd is that, considering your topic?

  3. Last Lightning Bold-The entire sound track was written and sung by two Bar Mitzvah menchenes from Forest Hills, where I lived for 15 years. Upper middle class Jewish in every brick and wall, though no swimming pools.

  4. Thanks for your enthusiasm, Bob. Yes, the Br'nai Brith copyright will certainly make it into my talk. Regarding "The Ransom of Red Chief," I don't think the film does the story justice. But Charles Laughton is sheeer heaven in "The Cop and the Anthem."