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.

State Fair (1933)
April 23, 2016, 6:06 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Henry King
4 Stars
State FairPhilip Stong’s popular novel about a family making their yearly voyage to the Iowa State Fair was first adapted as this slice-of-life drama before Rodgers & Hammerstein had their way with it. Henry King directs the material as a story of juxtapositions—the leisurely pace of the country scenes and the bustle of the fair; the righteous civilians and the swindlers; the biological family and the created community at the carnival. Part of the film’s great success is the way King dramatizes the interaction between these disparate elements. At the close of act one, Janet Gaynor calmly watches the sun set over a cornfield as Ma and Pa (Louise Dresser and Will Rogers) anticipate the events to come. This moment of serenity serves as a contrast to the action that follows, which indulges in attractions (such as trapeze artists, roller coasters, and Ferris wheels) and summer romances. In the way this drama plays on screen, Stong’s tale of this voyage becomes a metaphor for film going itself, where an hour of excitement proves to be a suitable reprieve from the daily grind. If the narrative champions the value of hard work, it ironically suggests the all-pervading fantasies of indulgence in the working class, where the spectacle of commerce becomes a religious retreat. Rogers retreated from his comedic screen image to take on a more earnest role as a man who proudly grooms his prize hog, and Gaynor and Lew Ayres make a compelling couple as the farmer’s daughter and a newspaperman. It is King’s vision of both small town Americana and the temporary seduction of something more that brings it all together, sustaining a warmhearted, nostalgic tone.