I got a copy of O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE ages ago, through my sister-in-law taping it off Sky Cinema, and of course failed to watch it. All I knew at the time was that it was a compendium film adapting stories by O. Henry, and that one episode was directed by Howard Hawks. I had no strong feelings about the other directors.
Fast-forward a couple of years (on V.H.S. that’s going to take looong time) and I’ve grown quite interested in Jean Negulesco, and somewhat more interested in Henries Koster, King and Hathaway (given the name of the author, did they try to cast only men called Henry to direct this thing, then give up when they suddenly thought, “Wait — what the hell are we doing?”) , so I eventually overcame my boundless inertia and played the thing. Well, I have a kind of creeping dislike of O. Henry’s famous story The Gift of the Magi, recreated here with Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain, who inevitably fit right into the heart of mush that beats and oozes within that tale, so that ended the film on a sour note, (I don’t think I’ve actually enjoyed a Henry king movie yet) but the rest was not bad ~
To take the stories in no particular order — Hathaway’s adaptation of The Clarion Call was perfectly fine, it’s a good story, and here it was used as an excuse to have Richard Widmark play another cackling black-shirted psychopath. No bad thing, and the story was genuinely smart.
Negulesco’s episode, The Last Leaf, with Anne Baxter, Jean Peters and Gregory Ratoff, was another sentimental tale, but it did boast some florid and eccentric work from the Romanian maestro — his camera lurches into Dutch tilts as Baxter staggers home, feverish in a snowstorm. The camera makes little darting movements, motivated by nothing at all, perhaps trying to create a discombobulated and fevered reaction in the audience.
Hawks confirmed his reputation as the best filmmaker of the bunch by turning in the best short, a sterling adaptation of the Ransome of Red Chief. The late Donald Westlake riffed on this idea in his third Dortmunder novel — the kidnappers outkidded by the kid they kidnap. Hawks’s dry approach to comedy is here exaggerated by very very dry performances indeed — Fred Allen and Oscar Levant realise that the only way to deal with this overwritten, literary comedy dialogue is just to say it, with a little inflection but zero emotion. The mighty Kathleen Freeman also turns up as the kid’s mother, and the kid himself is an astonishing prodigy called Lee Aaker. His throaty, serious, preternaturally adult delivery makes him like a country cousin to legendary comedy child Henry Spofford III (George Winslow) in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. “I’ve changed my mind about you, Slim. I still don’t like you, but now I think you’re stupid,” he intones, with a level, deadly gaze.
But the most exciting moment was in Henry Koster’s comedy episode, The Cop and the Anthem. Charles Laughton is great value as a tramp trying to get arrested so he can spend the winter in a nice warm penitentiary. David Wayne makes a fine sidekick. But it was the brief appearance by Marilyn Monroe that caught my imagination.
Laughton and Monroe shared a scene? How long did THAT baby take to film? Between waiting for Laughton to “find the man”, waiting for Monroe to show up, waiting for Laughton to “feel it”, and waiting for Monroe to actually give voice to her lines, surely this is a sequence which would have had to be begun years before the film’s projected release date. My theory — they’re still shooting it NOW. By the time the scene (a couple of shots long) is complete, time travel will have been invented, and Koster will be able to pop back to 1952 and seamlessly insert the fresh footage into the cut negative, all ready for its release. And we can already see that it will be worth the effort.
Oh — the film also features introductions to each section delivered by John Steinbeck. He has the porous, jowly features of James Ellroy, but he doesn’t say “copacetic” all the time so is clearly a better writer.