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O. Henry's Full House

Sunday December, 9 2018 at 10:15 PM
Sunday December, 23 2018 at 11:45 AM

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First, a bit of information about what type of film this is: Anthology films are features consisting of several separate short films, usually based on a single unifying factor, such as location (New York Stories, 1989; Paris, je t'aime, 2006); prop or inanimate object that is passed from one story to the next (The Yellow Rolls-Royce, 1964; The Red Violin, 1998); or thematic or narrative device, such as some supernatural or horrific event (Dead of Night, 1945; V/H/S, 2012). The individual segments most often have different writers, directors, and casts. Anthology films have a long history and know no national boundaries; they have been made frequently in India, Italy, and Great Britain, to name just a few countries.

The unifying aspect of O. Henry's Full House is that all the short films are based on the stories of the titular author, O. Henry, the pen name of William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), a prolific writer known for his surprise endings and plot twists.

Anthology films had been made in Hollywood prior to this, notably If I Had a Million (1932), produced by Paramount and including a segment directed by the studio's leading light of the time, Ernst Lubitsch. Three films produced in England, however, were really the inspiration for O. Henry's Full House. Quartet (1948) was based on stories by Somerset Maugham, who personally introduced each one. It was such a success, it was followed by two sequels, also adaptations of the author's short stories, Trio (1950) and Encore (1951). These last two were picked up for distribution in the U.S. by Paramount, and the studio was impressed enough with their critical and commercial reception to consider making a similar film with a homegrown American author. Since Porter was long dead, Paramount brought in writer John Steinbeck to introduce each piece.

Of the five tales produced for this release, the two most famous were "The Last Leaf," about a young woman who believes she will die when the last leaf falls from the tree outside her window, and "The Gift of the Magi," centered on a poor young couple's attempts to buy each other the perfect Christmas present, each with O. Henry's trademark surprise ending. In "The Clarion Call," a New York police detective faces a crisis of conscience over whether to arrest a friend to whom he owes a debt of honor but he knows has committed a murder. There is a bit more levity in the segment about a homeless man trying to get arrested before winter sets in, "The Cop and the Anthem," although it, too, tugs at the heartstrings and has a particularly ironic twist at the end. It's also the one generally considered the best of the five short movies here.

The one real comedy in the bunch is "The Ransom of Red Chief," in which two bumbling crooks regret kidnapping the horribly unruly son of a country sheriff. It should have been a welcome bit of madcap in the mix, especially since it was directed by Howard Hawks, starred popular comic performers Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, and was written by master scenarists Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and Nunnally Johnson. The segment got bad reviews on its initial screenings and was cut from the film before widespread release. (Apparently no one seemed to mind that a full house requires five cards except New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who suggested the title should be changed to O. Henry's Four of a Kind.) It was restored when the picture began showing on television in the 1960s.

Johnson reportedly wrote the first draft of the Red Chief script with Clifton Webb and William Demarest in mind. When Allen and Levant were cast, Hawks had the other two writers refashion the script for them. Johnson was so displeased with the end result, he tried to have his name removed from the credits.

The other stories also boasted some well-known directors, among them Henry King, Henry Koster, and Jean Negulesco. If "The Clarion Call" has a noirish feel to it, that's because it was directed by Henry Hathaway, known for such film noir classics as The House on 92nd Street (1945) and The Dark Corner (1946), and featured Richard Widmark as the murderous friend, giving a performance reminiscent of his breakout villain role in Hathaway's Kiss of Death (1947).

This wasn't the first time a Hollywood studio considered adapting O. Henry to the screen. According to items in the Hollywood Reporter, Twentieth Century-Fox announced it would make a full-length feature of "The Gift of the Magi" in 1945, with Otto Preminger directing. Neither that project, nor a planned Fox bio of Porter first talked about in 1943, ever came to fruition.

The working titles of the film were "The Full House," "Bagdad on the Subway" and "O. Henry's Bagdad on the Subway."

Directors: Henry Hathaway ("The Clarion Call"), Howard Hawks ("The Ransom of Red Chief"), Henry King ("The Gift of the Magi"), Henry Koster ("The Cop and the Anthem"), Jean Negulesco ("The Last Leaf")
Producer: Andre Hakim
Screenplay: Richard Breen ("The Clarion Call"), Nunnally Johnson, Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer ("The Ransom of Red Chief"), Walter Bullock, Philip Dunne ("The Gift of the Magi"), Lamar Trotti ("The Cop and the Anthem"), Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts ("The Last Leaf"), based on the stories of O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard ("The Clarion Call"), Milton Krasner ("The Ransom of Red Chief"), Joseph MacDonald ("The Gift of the Magi," "The Last Leaf"), Lloyd Ahern ("The Cop and the Anthem")
Editing: Nick DeMaggio ("The Cop and the Anthem," "The Clarion Call," "The Last Leaf"), Barbara McLean ("The Gift of the Magi"), William B. Murphy ("The Ransom of Red Chief") - all uncredited
Art Direction: Chester Gore, Addison Hehr, Richard Irvine, Lyle R. Wheeler, Joseph C. Wright (all uncredited)
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Dale Robertson, Richard Widmark ("The Clarion Call"), Fred Allen, Oscar Levant ("The Ransom of Red Chief"), Farley Granger, Jeanne Crain ("The Gift of the Magi"), Charles Laughton, Marilyn Monroe ("The Cop and the Anthem"), Anne Baxter, Jean Peters ("The Last Leaf")

By Rob Nixon

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