Sunday, March 15, 2009

O. Henry's Full House

The stories of William Sidney Porter, written under his pen name O. Henry, are almost universally known. Even today, when Henry's penchant for twist endings and cleverly ironic touches has somewhat fallen out of favor, many of his tales endure as part of the pop culture landscape. Five of these stories were adapted by five different directors for the anthology film O. Henry's Full House. Henry Koster, the most obscure filmmaker to contribute to the omnibus, opens the film with The Cop and the Anthem. This is essentially a showcase piece for the actor Charles Laughton, who plays a bum called Soapy, a man who had once been well-to-do and a part of society, and who still retains the vestiges of his sophistication and pride even as he sleeps on park benches with newspapers padded into his coat. As winter approaches, Soapy's thoughts turn to finding a warm, comfortable place to sleep in the cold weather, and he plots — as he apparently has for years — to get himself arrested so that he might spend the next three months in jail, with a nice warm bed.

Laughton is a delight in this film, a perfect choice to play a man who's fallen far but who was obviously once much better off — his rich, dulcet tones and florid manner of speaking are well-suited to Soapy's overblown dialogue. One can't imagine any actor but Laughton pulling off this part without turning him into a pretentious windbag. Instead, Laughton allows us to see the sadness and dignity beneath Soapy's pretensions. He is a proud man, unwilling to accept charity, preferring to do things for himself, even if it means resorting to thievery. One of his schemes for getting arrested is to walk into a fancy restaurant and order an extravagant meal, which works because he projects an aura more suited to a man of great means than a bum. Throughout the meal, the waiters hover obsequiously around his table, eager to do his bidding, silently taking his insults, until at the end he admits, casually, that he has no money, ripping up the check as he does so.

Another of Soapy's attempts involves bothering a young lady (a cameo from Marilyn Monroe) window shopping along the street, hoping that a nearby cop will take notice and break it up. Soapy miscalculates, however, because the lady turns out to be a prostitute, initially mistaking his advance for a come-on, and she's just as eager to avoid the cops. She's just happy to have Soapy call her a "lady." The great thing about the irony of these incidents is that it's often double-edged — the humor emerges not just from Laughton's blustery performance or the irony of wanting to get arrested and being unable to achieve it, but from the subtle reversals in social status that accompany Soapy's dilemma. What's not often acknowledged about O. Henry's stories is that the best of his ironic twists are not simply humorous, but prod at the underlying tensions and emotions laid bare by these ironies. Koster wisely stays out of the way, with a simple style that highlights the great comic performances of Laughton and his fellow bum Horace (David Wayne).

Prolific Fox director Henry Hathaway helms the second segment, The Clarion Call, a much more prosaic O. Henry yarn in which the police detective Barney Woods (Dale Robertson) investigates a murder case. A key piece of evidence tips him off to the fact that the murderer is an old friend of his, the wild Johnny Kernan (Richard Widmark), but he is torn over turning the man in because he owes a debt to Johnny. When they were younger and Barney was struggling with gambling, Johnny helped him out by lending him $1000, a good deed that Barney still hasn't been able to repay. This debt hangs over Barney's head now, as he knows that Johnny committed a murder but feels like he can't do anything about it until he pays off what he owes. It's a contrived moral dilemma that's underscored by the counterfeit bills that Barney is holding onto as evidence; some of the segment's unspoken tension arises from the suspicion that this is leading to Barney compromising himself by paying off the murderer in fake currency.

In addition to the tired premise, Hathaway lazily carries over Widmark's character from the actor's debut role in Kiss of Death, which Hathaway himself had presided over five years earlier. Johnny is a virtual copy of that film's Tommy Udo, the sneering, cartoonish, maniacal killer who catapulted Widmark to attention as a brilliant noir villain. Johnny's petulant, child-like manner and outbursts of uncontrolled violence (and even his black suit/white tie wardrobe) are copied wholesale from the earlier film, which further dilutes this segment's appeal. It's always fun to watch Widmark at his most unhinged, and his pop-eyed performance is in some ways as much nasty fun here as it was in Kiss of Death, but there's still no getting around the feeling of familiarity and repetition in seeing him do the same schtick the second time around. Probably the film's best moment is a little throwaway scene of Johnny's girl (Ava Norring) playing with a kitten before he viciously throws her out. The rest of the segment feels like watered-down noir, and its final twist lacks the emotional and thematic resonances that mark the capper to The Cop and the Anthem.

Jean Negulesco's The Last Leaf opens with a wonderful silent sequence in which the director's deliberately skewed compositions reinforce the emotional turmoil of his protagonist, Joanna (Anne Baxter), after she's rejected by her actor boyfriend for another woman. Throughout these opening scenes, the camera is tilted and cocked at an angle, forcing diagonal lines on the compositions as the distraught young woman stumbles home through the snow, overcome by despair. Negulesco isolates her in the sheets of white, and the cant of his camera suggests the instability of her mental state at this point: it looks as though the entire world is tilted and she might fall off its surface at any point. Her unsteady walk home is marked by a tremendous effort merely to remain on her feet, to keep herself straight against the weight of gravity. It's a great scene, visually representing her crushed dignity; it's implied in later scenes that Joanna is so upset because she slept with the man, who then discarded her once he got what he wanted.

Following this scene, Negulesco's characters begin to speak, and that's unfortunate because the rest of the film is a rather conventional weepy melodrama in which Joanna catches pneumonia and is tended to by her worried sister Susan (Jean Peters) and their upstairs neighbor, a struggling painter named Behrman (Gregory Ratoff). Ratoff's performance echoes that of Laughton in the film's first segment, a man with nothing to his name but with reserves of dignity and pride to spare. He's convinced that he's a great artist, but his abstract compositions won't sell in the time of the story — the script contains a subtle joke on modern art when an art dealer tells Behrman that maybe his paintings will sell in the 1950s, but nobody understands or wants them now. He's an interesting character, but the story isn't centered around him. Most of the segment is dedicated instead to the static melodrama of the ailing sister who has given up on life, who isn't fighting her illness but simply waiting to die, waiting for the last leaf to fall from the vine across the street so that she can go with it. Peters and Baxter are both overacting in the same maudlin register, and Behrman's more subtle evocations of an increasingly drunken and despairing old man are pushed to the fringes. This segment is a relatively minor and forgettable short, notable only for Ratoff's fine turn and its suitably destabilized opening shots.

Howard Hawks' The Ransom of Red Chief is the most often maligned segment of this anthology, seemingly hated by critics and audiences alike. When the film fared badly in previews, this segment was chopped out entirely for most of the original theatrical run. And yet Hawks' ridiculous farce is one of the most delightful parts of Full House, a low-key trifle from the great director and yet nevertheless an entertaining one. A pair of con men, William (Oscar Levant) and Slick (Fred Allen), concoct a plan to kidnap a boy from a small rural town, then extract a ransom for his return. The plan goes awry, however, because nobody's exactly in a rush to get back the little terror they wind up kidnapping, a ten year-old named J.B. (Lee Aaker) who prefers to be known as Red Chief. The film's jokes are aimed at easy targets, namely the slow-witted rural folk and the hapless kidnappers, but its deadpan farce is no less funny for its predictability. Allen and Levant are brilliant, playing their parts with a strangely formal back-and-forth patter, much slower and more deliberate than Hawks' usual fast-paced screwball dialogue, like screwball slowed down to the speed of parlor room chit-chat.

As for Red Chief himself, he's a determined little monster who taunts and assaults his kidnappers right from the start, making it clear that he's the one who's actually in charge; before long, they just want to get rid of him. Most of the sketch's physical gags aren't particularly noteworthy, and the middle stretch of the segment drags a bit. Hawks seems to have more fun with the stylized banter of the two kidnappers, or the way they subtly mock the rural locals while extracting information from them — proving that no matter how dumb you are, there's always someone lower on the totem pole to abuse and make fun of. Later, Red Chief's insistence that the two men play Indians with him provides the silly image of the con men looking forlorn and weary in warpaint and feathers. This echoes the similar images in Hawks' Monkey Business, which he had just finished making, further suggesting that the director's view of childhood and children was far from idyllic. Both films present kids as destructive and malignant little monsters. This segment is ultimately lightweight and inconsequential, buoyed by Hawks' efforts to transform the original story into a mean-spirited, cynical farce. The cynicism and ugliness of this segment is very much at odds with O. Henry's sensibility, but then Hawks is obviously not a director well-suited to adapting this particular writer. Instead, he bends Red Chief to his own preoccupations and delivers a strange but endearingly funny little film.

The anthology's closing segment, The Gift of the Magi, is quite possibly one of O. Henry's most famous stories, though its familiarity does little to dull the impact of Henry King's sentimental but heartfelt adaptation of this classic Christmas story. A pair of young newlyweds, just getting by on the husband's meager salary, make secret plans to treat each other to lavish Christmas presents by selling some of their most prized possessions. The wife (Jeanne Crain) sells her luxurious long hair, which her husband so loves, to a wig maker in order to buy her husband a platinum watch fob. At the same time, her husband (Farley Granger) sells his watch in order to buy some beautiful combs for her hair. The irony is obvious, and not particularly complicated, but this simple reversal is invested with rich emotional depths. The love between the young couple is convincingly portrayed by Granger and Crain, who communicate the affection and tenderness of their relationship, as well as their understated regret that they don't have more to offer one another in material terms.

King's adaptation of the classic story is straightforward, relying on the actors to get across the emotional stakes of such ordinary acts as buying a Christmas present. Along with the first story, this is the anthology's most emotionally satisfying installment, a beautiful ode to love and the spirit of generosity that overcomes any deficiencies in wealth. It ends Full House on a very warm and beautiful note, with one of O. Henry's most genuinely moving messages. As a whole, this anthology is as uneven as most such multi-director films tend to be, with a few forgettable segments and at least a few others that deserve to be remembered. At the very least, O. Henry's Full House is worth a look for Koster and King's heartfelt adaptations of two of Henry's most moving stories, for Hawks' contrarian comic sketch, and for isolated moments at least in Negulesco and Hathaway's segments.


Unknown said...

Such a stupid review. Of course, "The Last Leaf" is the only touching, meaningful segment of a highly flawed film. The horrible "The Ransom of Red Chief" gets kudos from you, despite the NON-ACTING of Fred Allen (a comic, not an actor), Oscar Levant (a brilliant pianist, not an actor) and a sincerely AWFUL child "actor." You praise the worst aspect of this forgotten film, only highlighting what little you know about classic film. And film in general. A truly laughable "review."

Anonymous said...

(Sorry for my less than perfect english). I fully agree with Gary Bennet. "The last leaf" is the best segment in the film, a very moving tale directed with big skill by the underrated Jean Negulesco, with two wonderful actresses, Peters and Baxter.
"The gift of the magi" is a pleasant vignette with Christmmas clichés directed with gusto by Henry King.
The Hawks episody is really awful, and only the name of its director can explai so a positive review.
Thw other two episodes are simply "cute".