January 3, 2019

O. Henry's Full House (1952)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks, Henry King, Henry Koster, Jean Negulesco
Stars: Charles Laughton, Richard Widmark, Fred Allen

What it's about. "O. Henry" is more than a candy bar. It was the nom de plume of William Sydney Porter, a writer who cranked out about one short story a week circa-1900. Porter had a difficult life and died fairly young, which may explain his identification with the underclass.

O. Henry's Full House takes five of his purportedly best stories and packs them into a feature film. Each segment stands alone, with a different cast and director. All they have in common, besides the source author, is an introduction by John Steinbeck, the living legend author of "The Grapes of Wrath."

The adaptation of "The Cop and the Anthem" stars pontificating bum Charles Laughton, who tries to get himself arrested to wait out the New York City winter. His sidekick is fellow bum David Wayne. A surprise cameo features Marilyn Monroe as a streetwalker.

The second adaptation, "The Clarion Call", has earnest police detective Dale Robertson pursuing colorful murderer Richard Widmark. Because it is a movie, Robertson can't arrest Widmark until he pays back a loan.

The third story, "The Last Leaf" stars Jean Peters, whose ravishing sister Anne Baxter is near death with fever. Because it is a movie, Baxter believes that her life depends upon at least one leaf clinging to a tree branch outside their window. Peters is frustrated by oafish neighbor Gregory Ratoff, a struggling professional painter. Little does Peters know the sacrifices Ratoff makes to help save Baxter.

The fourth story, "The Ransom of Red Chief", stars Fred Allen and Oscar Levant as two dufus criminals who travel to the boonies to kidnap wild child Lee Aaker, the post-toddler son of wealthy farmers. Aaker turns out to be more than a match for his hapless keepers.

The fifth and most famous story, "The Gift of the Magi", is a bittersweet romance. Jeanne Craig and Farley Granger are a happily married young couple. Craig wishes to buy a gold chain for Granger's fancy watch. Granger wants to buy jeweled combs for Craig's luxurious hair. But they are poor, and their sacrifices to purchase the gifts negate their value.

How others will see it. Despite a stellar cast and a slew of esteemed directors and screenwriters, O. Henry's Full House was ignored by the festival circuit, and was not a box office smash.

But its assets make it interesting to fascinating for the classic film buff, who can play five rounds of Spot The Actor. At imdb.com, the movie has a decent 1845 user votes and a very respectable user rating of 7.3 out of 10. Curiously, the movie does best with those in their 20s and over 45. The age 30 to 45 crowd grades it about a half-point lower.

The user reviews note the varying quality of the segments, though there is some disagreement about which ones are better than the others. Some like them all, e.g. "Every segment a winner!"

How I felt about it. O. Henry wrote for the masses, and was known for surprise endings. His reputation rose after his death. "The Gift of the Magi" is especially popular for its Christmas theme and Whoville sense of the True Meaning of Xmas.

The stories do vary in quality. Richard Widmark was a beloved character actor, typecast as a nearly insane villain in his early movies. Here in "The Clarion Call", he is mostly annoying, performing a campy send-up of Dan Duryea in Winchester '73 (1950). Robertson is dull as the hero whom we all know will make Widmark pay for what he's done, but only after much endurance of Widmark's schtick.

Only a bit better is "The Last Leaf". Baxter's breathless acting and foolish obsession with leaves on trees worries poor Peters to no end. Ratoff's imitation of Wallace Beery is convincing, but Beery couldn't save this segment either.

Fortunately, the remaining three segments are worth the effort to track the movie down. It isn't the fault of Granger and Crain that they are beautiful, and nice people as well. Their segment has the warmth required to pull it off, and we can share their laugh when their well-intentioned efforts are at cross purposes.

It is true that Charles Laughton has the largest vocabulary of any street bum in the Big Apple. But he is likable, and the Monroe cameo is the payoff. We don't believe him when he proclaims he will turn his life around. It's his false promises that finally gets him arrested.

I am partial to both Howard Hawks and Oscar Levant, which may be why I like "The Ransom of Red Chief" best of all. The parents of the Problem Child are a hoot when they react to the rascal's kidnapping with deadpan disinterest. It is predictable that Aaker regards his abductors as playmates to be abused, but entertaining nonetheless.