There’s much to be interested in, in both the films and the surrounding extras, including the useful printed history of the production that accompanies the dvd. The presence of John Steinbeck, taking the role that Maugham himself was able to take with his own stories. The presentation makes the connection between the two productions clear, with Steinbeck introducing both the series and the individual films as did Maugham.
Seeing Steinbeck on film was as interesting as seeing Maugham. He adds, intentionally, a gravitas to the whole proceeding – something subtly different to what Maugham added. Sitting behind, or casually upon a desk in a book lined study, he presents a solid, respectable, and essentially serious mien. Fox wanted O.Henry to be taken seriously, despite his undeserved reputation as a literary lightweight.
Perhaps in pursuit of this, the books in front of which they film Steinbeck carry the titles of O.Henry stories, in gilt lettering on their broad, leather spines. There is an unintended comedy here, which Henry himself would not have missed, for while those spines are novel-wide, the stories they purport to contain are often only a few pages. This doesn’t prevent Steinbeck from lifting down the relevant volumes and leafing through them until the camera zeroes in on the first page of the story, from which he begins to read…
This is a direct steal from Gainsborough, or should I say, homage to? There is something about visual humour that does not always translate into pictures! O. Henry’s stories are often visually comic, and his words stimulate our imaginations to create those images. When someone tries to to replicate them in actual images it is not a simple equation. What words evoke, when seen in reality, may not evoke the humour that was in the words. A classic example of this must have been the late 20th century TV adaptation of Peter Mayall’s A Year in Provence. It was, sadly, often ‘the way he told ’em’, and in at least one of these adaptations O. Henry’s tale suffers a similar fate.
I’m thinking of The Ransom of Red Chief. This is a screwball tale of two incompetent kidnappers who seize a brat-like child who runs rings around them, and whose father they have to bribe to take him back. It cries out for filming, and there have been several subsequent films on the same theme, but without any reference to O Henry! But Fox knew they had a porker on their hands with what they turned out, and the film was dropped from the original 1951 compilation, being put back in only in a nineteen sixties TV re-run. Even the bear, which cover notes point out was of a species not native to North America, seems to walk through the piece as if under sedation. Of course, it may well have been, but were the actors too?
If you’d like to read the story but don’t fancy the 100 tale edition of his work, look out for the TravelMan edition (short stories on single sheets, folded like traditional road maps).
My favorite was The Cop and the Anthem in which a tramp, played with relish by Charles Laughton, seeks to get arrested so that he might spend the winter months in a warm and well fed custody. His plans go awry, despite his attempts, but turn out all right in the end, or not. I don’t want to give too much away. It’s worth saying though, that Marilyn Monroe gets a walk on – should that be a sashay on? – part, at a little over a minute, but star billing with Laughton and his sidekick who are present throughout the film.
O.Henry’s tales are tight little vignettes, famed for the twists in their tales. It is difficult to adapt them without being faithful, and in some ways pointless to do so if they are! Unless of course, you’re aiming for an audience who can’t read them, or who can’t imagine what they are reading. One of the twistiest of tales is the famous The Gift of the Magi and Fox capture not only its sugar sweet sentimentality, but also its powerful denouement in which the Christmas gifts of a poverty struck married couple are complementary in an unexpected way. Unexpected of course, only if you have been living on Mars, for the story had become the American Christmas Carol for the generations between of Henry and my own. This story also features on the Travelman sheet along with Red Chief.
The Clarion Call with Dale Robertson and Richard Widmark is remarkable for Widmark’s riveting performance as a deranged hoodlum, played so far from the credible character that the story requires as to undermine the dramatic integrity of the whole. Yet, undeniably, a masterpiece of acting, in the wrong place.
The fifth film is The Last Leaf in which a drunken and failed artist pulls off a minor miracle and finds his true worth at the end. Despite the crude outline of the story, this has nuances of character and motivation that make it worthy of the original.
We can judge the success of the series, perhaps, by the fact that Fox went on to make no more, whereas Gainsborough got three bites at Somerset Maugham’s cherries. I think there is an affinity between the short story and the film, but in these O.Henry adaptations, I don’t find the best of evidence for it.