For Reel


O. Henry’s Full House (1952)

Director(s): Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Henry King & Henry Koster
2 Stars
O Henry's Full HouseWhile living in New York, William Sydney Porter (pen name O. Henry) published over 300 short stories, many of those being churned out once a week for New York World Sunday Magazine. If many critics of the time regarded his writing as too-reliant on a gimmicky late plot twist (audiences, on the other hand, ate it up), his reputation has been rehabbed significantly in the last decades, with his sense of dramatic irony recognized as involving a dry, witty cynicism regarding life on the streets. 20th Century Fox would adapt five of O. Henry’s most famed stories for this portmanteau film in 1952, capping off the quintet with the classic “The Gift of the Magi.” Despite the talented cast and directors attached to the production, no one involved seems to arrive at what makes the author interesting—stories like “The Last Leaf” and “The Gift of the Magi” become overtly-sentimental and cute, translating none of the ache of the words on the paper. Ironically, only Howard Hawks’ “The Ransom of Red Chief” arrives at a tone befitting of O. Henry’s work—the sequence was so derided that it was cut from the theatrical release. Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, as a pair of deadpan kidnappers who hold an especially dangerous child for ransom, perform the comedic shadings of a sense of existential dread that O. Henry was particular good at. If it might be a stretch to refer to O. Henry as an author of dark comedies, the ground-level realism is of paramount importance in his writing, something that this adaptation of “The Gift of the Magi”, in particular, is missing entirely.

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