Celluloid Christmas: Holy Hollywood! "The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry's Full House"
The seventh selection for my 12 Films of Christmas countdown—and like they say on every reality competition show, “in no particular order”—is 1952’s “O. Henry’s Full House.” To be fair, perhaps I should say 20% or 40% of this anthology movie is my Christmas pick. But the movie is so entertaining, and filled with the great luminaries of its day, that it is a treat to watch movie stars enact the tender, witty, suspenseful, and heartwarming words of O. Henry.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, Americans were a better-read population. Television hadn’t become as pervasive; there were less movie theaters, because multiplexes didn’t exist; schools emphasized a certain level of literacy and appreciation of literature. These three reasons have evaporated like the remnants of snow on an unusually sunny day. (Hey, it’s a Christmas blog, I have to sprinkle in some wintry similes.) Now, with texting and emojis dominating private and public discourse, whole generations are growing up without the benefits of reading a good book for pleasure. That’s why “O. Henry’s Full House” is a perfect Christmas delight.
There was a time when every schoolchild knew one or two O. Henry short stories. His writing was famous for the twist ending. Forget M. Night Shyamalan, O. Henry was doing this 100 years before “The Sixth Sense” was seeing dead people. The works of O. Henry (born William Sydney Porter) were an array of leisurely, enjoyable reading. Some of the stories were hilarious—and it’s hard to get people to laugh aloud while silently reading a page (trust me)—others were maudlin. Still, some of his pieces were genuinely emotional and filled with goodwill toward man. The “O. Henry’s Full House” movie combs through his oeuvre and handpicks five of his best-known tales to bring to life.
The vignette that embodies the Christmas theme is “The Gift of the Magi.” That expression used to be part of everyday language. It meant sacrificing to give something to someone, and then finding out that your gift recipient has, likewise, traded in his or her item to provide a now irrelevant gift to you. The conceit of this short story has endured, and other writers, directors, filmmakers, and songwriters have borrowed from it. It’s been honored by Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Ralph and Alice Kramden (“The Honeymooners”), and even “Mystery Science Theater.”
In fact, way before Donald Trump ran for the presidency, “Saturday Night Live” parodied “The Gift of the Magi” in a spoof of “the Donald” and first wife Ivana’s Christmas exchange. Phil Hartman as Trump and Jan Hooks as Ivana confide that they each sold what they loved best to buy a gift for one another. Of course, with these billionaires, the items in question are their yacht, the Princess, and their sprawling estate, Mar-a-Lago. In this sketch, the Trumps don’t come to realize that their misguided present exchange was foolhardy and reckless, and it’s their love alone that is the gift to be relished. Instead, the SNL parody concludes with the entrepreneurs able to buy back their yacht and mansion at steeply discounted prices, thus making a huger profit than ever anticipated!
In the authentic “Gift of the Magi,” the two lovebirds, Jim (Farley Granger) and Della (Jeanne Crain), are as poor as the proverbial church mice. Living in impoverished circumstances, the husband and wife want to express their love for one another at Christmastime. Their apartment is sparse but clean; their neighborhood is loud but welcoming; their lives are poor but rich in affection. It takes Della’s decision to cut her hair, and Jim’s pawning of his heirloom watch, for the couple to realize what really underscores a merry Christmas.
In 1952, Granger and Crain were major screen idols. The two of them paired together would be like Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga eschewing these roles today, or Ryan Reynolds and real-life wife Blake Lively. (Shout-out to Reynolds and Lively, please consider filming this.) They were both gorgeous heartthrobs, and they truly embrace their parts as humble, turn-of-the-century bride and groom.
“O. Henry’s Full House” also boasts a winter-themed episode called “The Cop and the Anthem.” It follows the trials and tribulations of a professional hobo, or, as the film terms him, a vagrant. Knowing that the snowy, stormy weather is on the horizon, he tries to get himself thrown into jail. That’s his typical MO. When he feels a chill in the air, he know it’s time to get himself incarcerated. This comedic story boasts Charles Laughton as the desperate-to-be-jailed character. It’s also a terrific bit of Hollywood trivia because it showcases Marilyn Monroe in one of her earlier parts. She’s only five years into her career, and hasn’t yet struck the big time with “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “The Seven Year Itch,” and “Some Like It Hot.” Here, she has a very small cameo, but she makes the most of it.
All the other short stories in this anthology film are also worth viewing, even if they are not Christmas-centric. The cast is a notable one (Richard Widmark, Anne Baxter, Oscar Levant, and David Wayne, to name a few). Plus, and this tidbit really blows my mind, the narrator/host of this anthology movie is John Steinbeck. The Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize–winning author is the voice of this film. It is his only appearance in a movie, and it is incredible to see an American genius walking, talking, and introducing these episodes. That’s a Christmas gift all by itself. It makes the love of reading come alive.
So many famous, classic authors seem like fictional characters themselves. We hear their names, but never see them. “O. Henry’s Full House” is a must-see for the literary lad and lass in your life. What better way to while away a Christmas morning than to immerse one’s self in the long-ago New York of O. Henry’s imagination, and to be guided by John Steinbeck himself!