Directed by: Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks, Henry King, Henry Koster, Jean Negulesco
Starring: Fred Allen, Oscar Levant, Charles Laughton, Anne Baxter, Marilyn Monroe, Farley Granger
For O. Henry’s Full House (1952), 20th Century Fox brought in all the star power it could muster (mostly from the studio’s roster of contract artists), five name directors and the literary clout of no less than John Steinbeck to introduce the five episodes that make up the film. In doing so, the studio actually managed to make a credible job of bringing a quintet of O. Henry stories to the screen. In fact, this may be the second most successful portmanteau film of the studio era—edged out slightly by Julien Duvivier’s Tales of Manhattan, made for the same studio 10 years earlier. As with all such films, the interest level is entirely dependent on the individual stories—and four of the five are very good indeed. The movie starts strongly with Henry Koster’s take on the “The Cop and the Anthem,” which afforded Charles Laughton a perfect screen role, as well as his only chance to play (very briefly) opposite Marilyn Monroe.
Unfortunately, Henry Hathaway’s “The Clarion Call” is a bit of a dud (Richard Widmark’s giggling bad guy wears thin fast). But as soon as it’s out of the way, the film never loses its stride as we watch an array of stars enliven Jean Negulesco’s “The Last Leaf,” Howard Hawks’ “The Ransom of Red Chief” and Henry King’s “The Gift of the Magi.” The Hawks entry is probably the best (though the most studio-bound), if only for its teaming of Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, two of the most delightfully deadpan performers who ever lived. (I think Allen out-deadpans Levant, but it’s a near thing.) The choice of Steinbeck as narrator proves inspired, since the crusty writer is clearly disinclined to approach the task with any sort of stuffy literati reverence. All in all, it’s a winner.