Another often forgotten gem of Christmas is this collection of short tales. Within this movie are five shorts based on the stories of O. Henry
Now not all of these are Christmas tales, but they all speak to the best in humanity (well, maybe not the 3rd one on the list) and they all touch your heart so I’m going to go over all of them.
And in addition to describing the scenes I’m going to link the title of each one to the original short story which I highly recommend you read (are you surprised the English teacher is telling you to go read something?)
The story of a homeless man, Soapy (played by Charles Laughton) in New York who has no desire to work or earn a living…but winter is coming and he needs to find a way to get into his usual winter residence: jail. Not a long stay mind you, just a nice 3 month stay where he can get a bed and blanket every night and 3 meals every day without having to work for any of it. The problem is that the fates seem to be against him…he tries to proposition a woman in front of a cop and get sent to jail for that crime, but the woman he propositions (played by Marilyn Monroe) happens to actually be of the oldest profession and tries to get away from the cop’s notice as quickly as possible. Dine and dash and destruction of property also fail. At last Soapy falls on his knees in a church humbled at what he has become and promising to reform his life and become a better man. It’s at this point he’s arrested for loitering.
What I like about this story is that for a story written in the first decade of the 1900’s it realizes the problem of government entitlements long before anyone was dumb enough to stop relying on private charity and go to the idea that government can do better. O. Henry observes, through Soapy, that private charity always comes with the cost of bettering yourself, the government has no such concern it only gives things:
“There was an endless round of institutions, municipal and eleemosynary, on which he might set out and receive lodging and food accordant with the simple life. But to one of Soapy’s proud spirit the gifts of charity are encumbered. If not in coin you must pay in humiliation of spirit for every benefit received at the hands of philanthropy. As Caesar had his Brutus, every bed of charity must have its toll of a bath, every loaf of bread its compensation of a private and personal inquisition. Wherefore it is better to be a guest of the law, which though conducted by rules, does not meddle unduly with a gentleman’s private affairs.”
The story of a cop who finds that an old acquaintance, whom he owes several hundred dollars to, is also guilty of murder (keep in mind what several hundred is in 1900…after all you can buy a pure platinum chain for only $20…more on that later) . His personal honor will not let him arrest someone he is indebted to; his professional honor cannot let a murderer go free. And as he walks this tight rope of personal integrity he eventually finds a way to make the money in one night (legally) and see that justice is done.
This is the story that will probably strike modern audiences as the most unusual as the concept of personal honor and integrity is something sadly lacking in a society where you literally get a TV show if you can show yourself to be the trashiest thing TV producers can find.
The great Howard Hawks directs this comedic short story of two thieves and conmen who kidnap the worst child in the existence of human history. No really. The kidnappers in the end have to pay a ransom to get the parents to take him back.
And now we get to the Christmas themed stories
Probably my favorite O. Henry short story…and my least favorite part of the movie. Why you ask? Because they went out of their way to change almost every point in the story. In the film version the two female characters are sisters instead of just friends, not artists as they were in the story, and the woman who is on the verge of death has lost the will to live only because she has just been dumped by her boyfriend (which is an insulting level of misogyny that you will not find in the original). Did we have to change it from two women who are just friends and artists, living together in what appears to be a one bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village? I don’t know if O. Henry was implying what the producers of this film were trying to censor, but it’s still insulting to change the story that much.
Still the Puritanical bowdlerizing aside this is still a tear-jerker story of sacrifice and love. I’m not actually going to tell you the plot to this one because if you don’t know it then you deserve the emotional catharsis of finding out what happens to the last leaf. But read the story first, it’s much more touching.
Not thrilled with some of the changes they made to the story,but touching all the same.
And of course
Keep your readings of a Christmas Carol and Twas the Night before Christmas, don’t bother picking up the book The Bishop’s Wife is based on, and forget your going over the story of the nativity, even the gospels, for in the history of Christmas no story has ever so fully encapsulated the meaning of this holiday and what makes it great…and probably none ever will surpass it. If you can read this story or watch this film version and not cry, you have no soul.
And the movie does the story justice. The actors, Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger, are probably not the most successful actors in history (although Crain’s People Will Talk is an excellent movie) but I can’t see anyone doing a better job than the performance of these two.
And I won’t remind you of the plot of this story because I assume you don’t live in a cave, but I leave off with O. Henry’s closing words:
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.