O. Henry’s Full House

O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE has five of the most popular short stories from the beloved author spun into an anthology from 20th Century Fox in 1952. A showcase for a dozen of the studio’s contract stars and a quintet of veteran directors, it was in part spurred by three recent British films that had used the anthology form to good effect for W. Somerset Maugham stories, and partly to compete with rival MGM pushing its own a multi-segment audience catnip, it also fit in with the Americana theme Fox was on that year, with a slew of the studios 39 releases having some native nostalgia pull attached. *

John Steinbeck made his only feature appearance, as himself, introducing each segment.

“The Cop and the Anthem”, written by Lamar Trotti, directed by Henry Koster, has Charles Laughton enjoying himself as a bum (now referred to as a “homeless drifter”, so we don’t offend bums) named ‘Soapy’ who makes numerous failed efforts to get himself arrested so as to spend the winter months in jail, warm and fed in. David Wayne is his ragged, admiring confederate and Marilyn Monroe has one quick, funny scene as a streetwalker.

“The Clarion Call”, with Henry Hathaway directing a script by Richard L. Breen, has a policeman (Dale Robertson) trying to solve a case that involves a rotter the cop used to run with before he went straight. But getting his old acquaintance to fess up is complicated by a debt the lawman owes him, and by the thug in question (Richard Widmark) being a full-on murderous louse. Widmark takes his maniac cackle from Kiss Of Death and cranks it up to hyena level. Robertson is cool and likable. Neat finish to this one.

“The Last Leaf”, scripted by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, with direction by Jean Negulesco has heartbroken Anne Baxter dying of pneumonia while big sister Jean Peters appears hopeless to stave off impending tragedy. Their neighbor, an irascible failed artist played by Gregory Ratoff, may hold the answer in his hand.

“The Ransom of Red Chief” had Howard Hawks directing with writing shared by Nunnally Johnson, Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer. This episode wasn’t well received by the studio or critics and was cut after initial showings. Later restored, it has Fred Allen and Oscar Levant as two city slicker conmen kidnapping a country kid (Lee Aaker) for ransom, but he’s a Southern-fried Tasmanian devil. The best aspect of this farcical episode is the deadpan work from Allen, a once very popular, quite funny performer virtually unknown today.

“The Gift of the Magi”, written by Walter Bullock and Philip Dunne, Henry King directing, has Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger as a poor but blissfully married couple who make dual sacrifices for one another in order to make a merrier Christmas. Crain’s too ‘actressy’ (which is saying something in a movie with Anne Baxter), but the sweet, sentimental payoff is hard to dismiss.

Though all five director’s bore impressive track records, none of the episodes bear much individual stamp, if that’s your watch-or-not criteria (hint/plea/scold: don’t be a tiresome craftsman v. auteur snob) rather than—God,forbid—entertainment. The production design throughout is standard without being standout. The stories work, some better than others; the same holds for the actors. Coming in 120th place for the year, it achieved a gross of $2,800,000.

 With Fritz Feld, Kathleen Freeman, Sig Ruman, James Flavin, Warren Stevens, Will Wright, Robert Easton, Carl Betz, Ava Norring. Cameramen delegated were Lucien Ballard, Milton R. Krasner, Joseph MacDonald and Lloyd Ahern Sr.  Alfred Newman scored, with vocal director Ken Darby on hand. 117 minutes.

* The three English entries in the anthology area were Quartet (1948), Trio (1950, and Encore(1951), saw “art house” play in the States. MGM’s all-star 1951 entry It’s A Big Country was lambasted by critics and failed at the box office. With the Americana angle, along with O. Henry’s Full House, Fox rekindled the old days with Stars And Stripes Forever, Lure Of The Wilderness (remaking Swamp Water), Wait Till The Sun Shines Nellie, The Pride Of St. Louis, The Outcasts Of Poker Flat, and a remake of What Price Glory?

Fox was working their contract stars for all they could get. Widmark and Peters were in four films that year, Robertson, Wayne and Monroe in five. The Marilyn push saw her given star billing with the others in this one despite having only one minute of screen time.

Speaking of output, William Sidney Porter (1862-1910), as O. Henry, wrote 381 short stories.

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