Monday, December 11, 2023

Movie Quote of the Day (‘O. Henry's Full House,’ As 2 Dopes Weigh Kidnapping a Brat in ‘The Ransom of Red Chief’)

William Smith [played by Oscar Levant, left]: “How much you gonna ask for him?”

Sam “Slick” Brown [played by Fred Allen, right]: “I intended opening up with a bid of $2,000.”

William: “Two thousand? I think you're overestimating this kid's charm.”

Sam: “The trouble with you is you don't understand human nature. The blacker the sheep, the quicker they bail 'em out. And if I'm any judge of black sheep, we have come up with a collector's item.”— "The Ransom of Red Chief” segment of O. Henry's Full House (1952), segment written by Ben Hecht, Nunnally Johnson, and Charles Lederer, directed by Howard Hawks

Well, Sam’s got one thing right, anyway: their quarry is a “black sheep,” all right. What they don’t know is just how spoiled and obnoxious the boy really is—and the extent to which he’ll torment them.

No wonder William tells his equally inept partner in crime, “You have no brains and I have no courage—an unbeatable combination.”

And now, let me turn to the movie as a whole. Certain vintage films, because of their subject matter, should lend themselves to broadcasting on particular holidays, but for some inexplicable never do. They’ll end up on days and times that are anything but appropriate.

Think Plymouth Adventure, a 1952 film about the Pilgrims starring Spencer Tracy and Gene Tierney, which I have never seen on the most logical day: Thanksgiving. And think of O. Henry's Full House, which, despite the presence of two Christmas stories in its quintet of segments adapted from short stories by O. Henry, never shows up on Christmas.

The concluding tale in this film is the ironic but heartwarming “The Gift of the Magi,” starring Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain as a cash-strapped couple willing to sacrifice what’s most precious to them to buy their partner a gift for Christmas. 

The first segment (which I prefer among the two Christmas stories) is the ironic but amusing “The Cop and the Anthem,” in which the plans of Charles Laughton’s vagrant to get arrested during the holiday season so he can stay warm during the winter run aground.

I’m sure two other segments, “The Clarion Call” and “The Last Leaf,” have their adherents. But for my money, the beautiful bonus in this set is “The Ransom of Red Chief.” This was the segment I still vividly remembered from watching the film 50 years ago, and watching it again a few nights ago, on the cable station Movies!, made me guffaw all over again.

(By the way, I know of no plans by TCM to air this O. Henry’s Full House anytime soon between now and Christmas—and I can’t recall it showing up on any TV station at all in recent years—so I stopped during a bout of channel-changing a few nights ago when I saw this listed.)

I doubt, with its now politically incorrect references to “paleface,” that O. Henry’s popular turn-of-the-century story is being assigned in many schools these days. 

But its plot has, shall we say, heavily influenced a couple of famous comedies from the past four decades: Ruthless People and Home Alone (a film that does get shown at Christmastime—incessantly).

If you do get a chance to see the film, by all means look up the short story. It’s got the great plot twist readers have come to associate with O. Henry, along with some great examples of Southwest humor (“That boy put up a fight like a welter-weight cinnamon bear”). 

Most of all, it provides several minutes of levity in a season that can use some light besides the decorations hung outside homes.

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