Stars inside and outside the 20th Century Fox stable were put to work in what are essentially short films, each with its own screenwriters and directed by a top-rank craftsman. Fox could count on lovers of the hugely popular turn-of-the-century writer famed for his twist endings as well as fans of such names as Charles Laughton, Jeanne Crain, Anne Baxter and the up-and-comer Marilyn Monroe to turn out, even if the individual actors' screen time was limited. Fox's DVD marks the film's homevideo debut.
The stories, in order:
1. "The Cop and the Anthem," directed by Henry Koster. Charles Laughton is Soapy, a fastidious, cultured and urbane bum who, with a New York winter approaching, embarks on his yearly scheme of getting himself arrested for some minor crime so that he can spend a few months in a warm cell. Of course, every felonious attempt -- stealing a gentleman's umbrella; ordering a huge restaurant meal with no way of paying for it -- backfires. David Wayne plays a dimwitted hobo pal, while Marilyn Monroe has a minute of screen time as a well-dressed streetwalker whom Soapy unsuccessfully (and discreetly) propositions.
2. "The Clarion Call," directed by Henry Hathaway. New York police detective Barney Woods (Dale Robertson) discovers the prime suspect in a millionaire's murder is an old, shady buddy of his, Johnny Kernan (Richard Widmark). But Barney can't arrest Johnny with a clear conscience until he settles an old $1,000 debt. Widmark, who greets Robertson with a friendly sucker punch to the gut, reprises his sociopath from his 1947 debut, "Kiss of Death," right down to his famous demented laugh -- and he wears a film noir-ready black suit, white tie and black fedora that are four decades ahead of their time.
3. "The Last Leaf," directed by Jean Negulesco. While "Full House's" famous final segment (see below) is the sentimental favorite, this story pulls the heartstrings the hardest. Joanna (Johnsy) Goodwin (Anne Baxter) lies near death from pneumonia in the Greenwich Village apartment she shares with her sister, Susan (Jean Peters). The delirious Joanna sees the vine leaves on the building across from her window gradually fall away; she's convinced that when the last leaf falls, she will die. A grumpy old artist who lives upstairs, Behrman (Gregory Ratoff), comes to the girl's aid in an unexpected, poignant way.
4. "The Ransom of Red Chief, directed by Howard Hawks. The anti-sentimentalist Hawks was the right choice for this famous tale, a comedy about two Northern con men (radio star Fred Allen and pianist/renaissance man Oscar Levant) who kidnap an Alabama boy expecting a hefty ransom but quickly see that the little hellion is more than they bargained for. Hawks sets up the best bit of business in the entire movie: a long shot through the window of the kid's home as his mother (Kathleen Freeman) casually watches the kidnappers throw a sack over the boy and cart him off.
5. "The Gift of the Magi," directed by Henry King. Unlike the Hawks segment, there's no edge at all in this rendition of the story of poor New York couple Jim and Della (Farley Granger, Jeanne Crain), who each sells something dear to buy the other a Christmas present. Even if a viewer somehow is unfamiliar with the O. Henry story, the ending will hardly be a surprise as handled by a director whose best days (see "Tol'able David" and other silents) were far behind him.
The on-screen introductions to each segment are by John Steinbeck, done perhaps as a favor to the studio that had brought his "Grapes of Wrath" to the screen. The great author's deep, "unprofessional" voice has resonance but his tilted frowns either ascribe more profundity than the stories deserve or indicate a wish to be over and done with it.
Fox has put quite a bit of effort into this release, starting with a clean, vivid transfer of the black-and-white film. The movie is clearly marked by typical backlot artificiality, but some bits, like the opening scene in a New York park, look distinctly real and timeless.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (on widescreen TVs, you'll have black bars on the sides). The Dolby Digital sound is available in mono and stereo, and there no pops or hisses.
The main menu, illustrated with stills from the movie, offers the basics: scene selection, sound options and extras. The scenes menu gives five or six chapters for each story.
The featurettes "The Life and Writing of O. Henry," hosted by O. Henry scholar Jenny Lind Porter, and "The O. Henry Museum," about the author's Austin, Texas, home, are informative. Jenny Lind Porter also provides running commentary for the movie. While she clearly knows her O. Henry, her remarks about the film are often merely descriptive of what we can readily see, hyperbolic ("It is absolutely hilarious!") or wrong -- she says Oscar Levant was a perfect choice to co-star with Jack Lemmon in "The Odd Couple." Doesn't anyone at the studio listen to these commentaries before plopping them onto disc?
The disc also has a still gallery of on-the-set shots and lobby cards as well as a reproduction of the original exhibitors campaign.
The six-page booklet has a brief bio of O. Henry and a rundown of the movie plot lines.
The many fans of all ages of the prolific short story writer O. Henry will welcome this 1952 collection of five of his tales. The movie has never been on any video format and is rarely shown on TV, so this is something of a find, especially for Marilyn Monroe completists. The execution of the stories varies, but the DVD presents a fine-looking transfer and overall this is solid entertainment from the Hollywood studio system.