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Chris Hicks: Old favorite 'O.Henry' on DVD at last

Published: Friday, Dec. 15 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

When I began reviewing movies for the Deseret News some ... gulp ... 28 years ago, and home-video VHS tapes were becoming all the rage, people started inquiring about their favorite titles.

It seemed logical to assume that all old movies would eventually become available — an assumption that proved to be naive.

So I'd check the studio release schedules, and sometimes a given film was set to be released, and more often it was not.

A few movies hovered at the top of that list — and some remain there. Hardly a year has gone by that someone hasn't asked about "Porgy and Bess" (1959) or Disney's "Song of the South" (1946).

And the 1952 anthology film "O. Henry's Full House."

Unlike "Porgy" and "Song," "O. Henry" did show up on TV from time to time during all those years, usually during the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays, so it could be taped for home viewing.

Not that people stopped asking about it year after year.

"Porgy and Bess" and "Song of the South" remain elusive. Along with many other films, mostly due to petty disputes over ownership rights. Or, in other words, money.

But fans of "O. Henry's Full House" have reason to rejoice, as that one has finally arrived on home video, having just been released on DVD (Fox, $19.98), and with bounteous bonus features.

The film boasts an all-star cast, along with a bevy of writers and five seasoned directors. The result is a bit uneven; as you might expect, some stories are better than others.

But since each story is a period piece — most taking place in turn-of-the-century New York — the fact that they seem old-fashioned isn't at all out of place.

Each story also receives a brief onscreen introduction by John Steinbeck, of all people. (He's not the most lively narrator, but if you're a Steinbeck fan — and I am — it's a treat just to see him.)

O. Henry (the pen name for William Sidney Porter) was a master of short stories with twist endings.

And two of most famous are here — "The Gift of the Magi," starring Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger as a young married couple who make sacrifices to buy each other Christmas gifts, and "The Last Leaf," with Anne Baxter and Jean Peters, about a woman sick with pneumonia who is sure she will succumb when the last leaf falls from a vine across the courtyard.

Both have been frequently adapted, but these versions remain charming and quite affecting.

The next most famous is probably "The Ransom of Red Chief," a comedy directed by Howard Hawks ("Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday"), and starring Fred Allen and Oscar Levant. Which would seem like a can't-miss proposition. But the pacing is sluggish, crying out for judicious editing to trim it by half.

Still, Allen and Levant manage to deliver some clever quips in their patented deadpan manner. But I must agree with critics who complained at the time that "Ransom" stalls the picture right in the middle.

In fact, after those early reviews, Fox edited "Ransom" out of the film for its general theatrical release, and the segment wasn't seen for years until it was eventually restored for television showings.

The other two stories are "The Cop and the Anthem," a funny yarn that opens the film, with Charles Laughton as a bum who is trying to get thrown in jail for the winter (with a cameo by Marilyn Monroe), and "The Clarion Call," with Dale Robertson as a cop who tracks down a killer, his former pal, played by Richard Widmark (who is great, doing an over-the-top spoof of the psycho character that marked his film debut in "Kiss of Death" five years earlier).

Bonus features include a pair of silent two-reelers, "Girls" and "Man About Town," 1927 short films based on O. Henry stories — and when they say silent, they mean it; no music, no sound whatsoever. Both are 17-minute over-the-top farces, but worth a look for film buffs. Extras also include a six-page booklet, an onscreen pressbook with interactive elements, two featurettes on O. Henry and a museum in his name, an audio commentary by an expert on the author, etc.

But the Gershwins are still holding "Porgy and Bess" hostage; ditto Disney with "Song of the South."


E-mail: hicks@desnews.com

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