Tuesday, October 04, 2005
O. Henry & Film
Edgar Allan Poe may be credited with having created the short story, but it was O. Henry (and later Rod Serling) who perfected it. O. Henry understood that a short story did not have the same literary arc as a full length story, and as such, it was best to have readers race to an end that gave them a surprise, a twist, something unexpected. O. Henry was masterful at this, and even though he wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, his stories are still being adapted today (more than 100 years later). More than 200 films have been made from O. Henry short stories. Perhaps his most famous is "The Gift of the Magi," a Christmas favorite of selfless love and giving within a marriage during the holidays. It was filmed numerous times (as early as 1909 and twice in 1978 -- once as a musical, and then again, starring Marie Osmond). The Honeymooners Christmas episode is loosely based on this story as well. Over time, it has become as important a story at Christmas time as "A Christmas Carol." O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief" has also been filmed many times, most recently in 1998 starring Christopher Lloyd and Haley Joel Osment in a version directed by Bob Clark (A Christmas Story) and written by Ed Naha (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) but perhaps most interestingly as Ruthless People, starring Bette Midler, Danny DeVito and directed by Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (the guys who made Airplane!). "A Retrieved Reformation" is another popular O. Henry story that's been adapted several times. My favorite version is the 1978 film directed by Hollingsworth Morse and starring Ken Berry and Elizabeth Baur. It was originally aired as an "ABC Weekend Special" and tells the tale of Jimmy Valentine, a recently released safecracker who is trying to keep his past a secret as he starts a new life. In 1952, the film O. Henry's Full House pulled five of his stories together: "The Clarion Call," directed by Henry Hathaway; "The Ransom of Red Chief," directed by Howard Hawks; "The Gift of the Magi," directed by Henry King; "The Copy and the Anthem," directed by Henry Koster; and "The Last Leaf," directed by Jean Negulesco. In some ways, features are not the best format for O. Henry stories, often padded to fill out the time he never intended for them to have. But, as long as student and professional filmmakers still embrace the short film, there will be no greater source of material than the magnificent short stories of O. Henry.