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Everybody Was Worth Knowing

January 23rd, 2011 · No Comments

“Portmanteau” is French for “coat rack”. Lewis Carroll appropriated the word in 1871 for Through The Looking Glass to explain two words merged into one; “chortle” is a portmanteau Carroll invented, while “Internet”, “blog” and “sexploitation” are three he did not. In the month of January, I’ll take a look at portmanteau films, where we find different coats hanging in the same closet, whether tailored by one filmmaker or the collaborative effort of several.

O. Henry’s Full House (1952)
Directed by Henry Koster (segment: The Cop and the Anthem), Henry Hathaway (segment: The Clarion Call), Jean Negulesco (segment: The Last Leaf), Howard Hawks (segment: The Ransom of Red Chief), Henry King (segment: The Gift of the Magi)
Screenplay by Lamar Trotti (segment: The Cop and the Anthem), Richard Breen (segment: The Clarion Call), Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts (segment: The Last Leaf), Nunnally Johnson (segment: The Ransom of Red Chief), Walter Bullock (segment: The Gift of the Magi), based stories by O. Henry
Produced by Andre Hakim
117 minutes

Packed with as much caramel, fudge and peanuts as the chocolate bar that has nothing to do with him, O. Henry’s Full House works as a treat and a fine course on the author and his work. William Sydney Porter grew up in Texas of the mid-19th century. He spent time as a ranch hand, pharmacist, cartographer, bank teller, Houston Post columnist, fugitive and convict. Serving a five-year prison sentence for embezzlement in 1899, Porter met almost every type of human there was to meet. While behind bars, his first short story was published. A freed man, Porter settled in New York, where the author chose among the dozen literary pseudonyms he’d employed and arrived on “O. Henry” as a pen name. O. Henry went on to publish one novel (Cabbages and Kings) and over 600 short stories, where a person’s deeds — good or bad — seldom went unreturned.

O. Henry died in 1910. Forty years later, 20th Century Fox put several contract screenwriters to work adapting five of the author’s stories, which the studio doled out to five of its contract directors. With John Steinbeck appearing on camera, cigarette in hand, to introduce each tale, O. Henry’s Full House is thick with a certain formality that might bore some viewers while delighting others. The stories range from the lighthearted to the somewhat obtuse. The Cop and the Anthem is the sharpest, with Charles Laughton orchestrating a virtuoso performance. Howard Hawks, one of cinema’s masters, directs the lousiest segment of the bunch, the comically inert The Ransom of Red Chief. Richard Widmark, Anne Baxter and Jeanne Crain acquit themselves very nicely, while the mere presence of 27-year-old Marilyn Monroe in a walk-on part is the definition of a showstopper.

Surrounded by bound editions of O. Henry stories, author John Steinbeck introduces five tales by the American populist. In The Cop and the Anthem, Soapy Throckmorton (Charles Laughton) seeks warmer accommodations than Madison Square offers in winter and assures fellow bum Horace Truesdale (David Wayne) that he can beat the elements by having himself arrested, a proposition that proves easier said than done. In The Clarion Call, NYPD detective Barney Woods (Dale Robertson) traces a pen recovered at a murder to his childhood pal Johnny Kernan (Richard Widmark), a sniveling hood who calls in an old debt to remain free; to turn the tables, Barney gets some help from a newspaper, the Clarion Call. In The Last Leaf, the heartbroken Joanna Goodwin (Anne Baxter) wanders through Greenwich Village in a blizzard, nearly dying.

Seeking refuge with her older sister Susan (Jean Peters), Joanna resigns her will to live, announcing that she’ll hang on only as long as the last leaf dangles from a tree outside the window, a deal their landlord Mr. Behrman (Gregory Ratoff), a frustrated painter, has the last word on. In The Ransom of Red Chief, fugitive con men Sam “Slick” Brown (Fred Allen) and Bill Peoria (Oscar Levant) stop in Alabama to plot a kidnapping, but selecting the terrible J.B. Dorset (Lee Aaker), alias “Red Chief”, as hostage, they realize they’re doing the town a favor. In The Gift of the Magi, penniless New York City bank clerk Jim Young (Farley Granger) and his pregnant wife Della (Jeanne Crain) celebrate Christmas by selling off their most cherished possessions to buy each other a gift. Stripped of their prospective treasures, the couple realizes the true meaning of the holiday.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 227 users: 55% for O. Henry’s Full House

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

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Tags: Based on short story · Gangsters and hoodlums · Golden Age of Hollywood

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