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Monday, January 6, 2014

O. HENRY'S FULL HOUSE (1952)

Perhaps overseas audiences are just more receptive to the omnibus story format than the ‘overhere’ crowd. In any event, Hollywood only takes up the form intermittently, rarer still with the work of a single author. But possibly prompted by the surprise art house success of three British films adapted from ten (count ‘em, 10!) Somerset Maugham stories (QUARTET/’48; TRIO/’50; ENCORE/’51) and Max Ophüls’ all-Balzac LA RONDE/’50, 20th/Fox called out the troops under contract (plus a few add-ons) for this O. Henry compendium pic. It a pretty mixed bag, of course, and those old O. Henry twist endings had long lost whatever surprise punch they may have held. But the stories (and the film) remain warm & inviting, comforting old friends telling thrice-told tales. It’s fun to watch the four dramatic stories and guess who directed what. And since the credits come up at the end, see if you can spot the hand of Henry Koster, Jean Negulesco, Henry King & Henry Hathaway, mostly in warmly sentimental mode. Standouts in the cast include Charles Laughton, as a vagrant who can’t get arrested, playing a neat little scene with Marilyn Monroe’s street-walker; Richard Widmark apparently auditioning for The Joker decades before the BATMAN films; and Anne Baxter demonstrating how in Hollywood you get to look better & better as you get sicker & sicker. Odd man out here is Howard Hawks' comic relief segment, THE RANSOM OF RED CHIEF, with those famous wits Oscar Levant & Fred Allen paying dearly for kidnapping a kid from hell. The gags are as flat as Hawks staging. Wildly off tone from the rest of the film, the segment was soon deleted Stateside and never shown abroad. Note our poster.

DOUBLE-BILL: Charles Laughton’s oversized presence worked well in omnibus pics with memorable perfs in IF I HAD A MILLION/’32; FOREVER AND A DAY/’43; and a real scenery-chewing wallow as a penniless composer/conductor in a borrowed jacket in TALES OF MANHATTAN/’42.

OR: If you can find it, a parody of O. Henry's GIFT OF THE MAGI with Phil Hartman as Donald Trump was one of the all-time best Christmas skits on SNL. Mighty hard to locate though.

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