Originally published December 2nd, 2011
This is an odd one to group with Marilyn movies as she’s literally in it for a minute (I’d say less but I didn’t time it). O. Henry’s Full House an anthology film of adapted stories from the works of O. Henry. It’s certainly not worth watching for Marilyn, but there are a few redeeming stories out of the bunch. The film also blends perfectly into my 25 Days of Christmas movies as the last segment is a Christmas film (and a pretty popular story to boot).
The film tells five stories based on O. Henry’s novels, all introduced by the writer John Steinbeck (I can officially put a name to a face). The five stories are as follows: “The Cop and the Anthem” follows a homeless man (Charles Laughton) who tries, and fails, to get arrested so he can spend the harsh winter in prison. “The Clarion Call” tells the story of officer, Barney Woods (Dale Robertson) trying to catch a murderer who happens to be his once best friend (Richard Widmark). “The Last Leaf” follows a depressed young girl (Anne Baxter) who proclaims she’ll die when the last leaf falls off the tree outside her window. “The Ransom of Red Chief” follows two bumbling kidnappers (Fred Allen and Oscar Levant) who kidnap an unruly little boy who the town doesn’t want back. “The Gift of the Magi” follows a young couple in love (Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain) who are looking for the perfect Christmas gift for the other.
Overall there were two I enjoyed: “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Gift of the Magi.” It’s not that the other three stories were bad – okay one had me really bored (“The Clarion Call”) and the other made me want to beat someone (“The Last Leaf”) – I just didn’t expect an anthology film, especially one with so little Marilyn late in her career. Considering the films we’ve discussed thus far it’s ridiculous how prominently she’s billed yet how little time she warrants. I’m tempted to write a letter to the people who sold me this box set because she’s not even a character worthy of a name; IMDB lists her simply as “Streetwalker.”
That leads us to the first story “The Cop and the Anthem.” Laughton is solid as a homeless man trying to find a place to survive the winter, thinking prison is the best option. The time period the story takes place in isn’t specified, but you can find its connection to the Depression and World War II. Soapy is a man who seems highly educated, is extremely polite and could be a millionaire if he wants, yet something prevents him. I’m a huge fan of Laughton’s directorial debut The Night of the Hunter, but here you’re led to believe he’s a poor bum despite his booming voice and eloquent speech. I’d say he’s one of the “forgotten men” of 30s films, rich men who have given it all up to live a life of homeless freedom. He does get his act together just in time to be arrested. It’s ironic, but I’m wondering what the statement is meant to be? If you wait too long to make something of yourself you’ll be stuck forever wandering? Or is it a commentary on the prison system, we let crime go unpunished and never give criminals a chance to truly redeem themselves? I’d be interested to hear thoughts on the subject. All in all, it was an interesting story but it went on a bit too long. Marilyn shows up as a “streetwalker” who Soapy tries to harass. Her character’s all for it, leading me to believe she’s meant to be a prostitute. Again, so many elements not explained and this segment just went on forever.
The one that comes off the longest is “The Clarion Call.” Richard Widmark returns after my lambasting of him in Don’t Bother to Knock…playing another dick I wanted to hit with a bat! He plays criminal Johnny Kernan, who’s hunted down by his once best friend, Barney Woods (Dale Robertson). It’s directed by Henry Hathaway who would go on to direct Marilyn in Niagara, as well as direct a slew of John Wayne westerns. This segment is reminiscent of a Western with an obvious good and bad guy meeting up for a gunfight by the end. Widmark is annoying with his screechy voice looking like a cheap gangster and you know he’s bad when he beats on a woman, throws her kitten at her, and so on…laying it on a bit thick there, but hey, it’s Western-esque. Robertson is just bland as good guy Barney; his deep voice and delivery seem stilted. The problem is the segment makes a Western within a gangster era and there’s no seamless blending of the two genres. This one also went on forever with Barney trying to solve the mystery, find Kernan, talk to him, realize he owes him, payes him back, fights with him again, it just went on.
“The Last Leaf” is melodrama at it’s most ridiculous. We see two other actresses with Marilyn connections in this story. Anne Baxter played Eve Harrington in All About Eve, while Jean Peters would go on to act in Niagara (directed by Henry Hathaway). Joanna (Baxter) is seduced by an actor and gets pneumonia. She says she’s going to die when the last leaf falls, leaving her sister, Susan (Peters) to worry. There’s also the tormented artist Behrman (Gregory Ratoff) trying to paint something worthwhile. The problem lies in how weepy and melodramatic this is. I know it’s a mark of the times, but Joanna just whines and lays in bed, constantly harping on how she’s going to die. She makes Susan jump through hoops until the very end when Joanna is miraculously cured and realizes it was all in her head. Call me a cynic, but if the dying was all in her head and she snaps out of it, wouldn’t you punch her? She makes everyone worry, only to pop up and say, “Well the leaf didn’t fall, I’m all better now!” I’d at least send her to the nuthouse for an evaluation. The lingering of Joanna makes this also limp into home.
“The Ransom of Red Chief” is the funniest story, inspiring everything from Dennis the Menace to Ruthless People. The story of two bumbling kidnappers taking the most annoying kid is cliché, but the comedic writing is flawless. From the first scene you’re led to believe Bill and Sam have stumbled on the stupidest people in the world, rife with stereotypes about people from the South. When they kidnap little J.B. (Lee Aaker) his parents witness the whole thing. The mother says in a deadpan voice “They’re putting a bag over J.B.’s head and putting him in the automobile.” No one moves to do anything and even once J.B.’s parents get the ransom note they don’t care. This kid is such a handful, the town is said to be celebrating because they’re so happy. I’m not a fan of kids, but I loved Aaker as J.B. aka Red Chief. From his little blond head of hair and the way he talked, everything was comedic. The way the grown men cower because “they had a difference of opinion” culminating in J.B. stuffing a hot potato down their back is hilarious. The writing is sharp and witty making this one of the segments I could watch again.
The Gift of the Magi is a story everyone knows and has been done to death in popular culture. My personal favorite is The Rugrats Christmas special presenting Phil and Lil doing a Gift of the Magi swap. Anyway, having seen this story done before it wasn’t surprising. The acting was solid, with Jeanne Crain being the best as the woman willing to give up her hair for a man. I’m still not sure how I feel about Farley Granger as an actor. I’ve seen him in Strangers on a Train and thought he was okay, but nothing special. “The Gift of the Magi” didn’t change my mind on him. He was good, but again nothing special.
I’d say if you’re checking this out on a whim, don’t watch it for Marilyn. Watch “The Ransom of Red Chief” and laugh heartily. “The Gift of the Magi” is also great to watch around Christmas, which is why I picked it as my introduction to 25 Days of Christmas.
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