Hello, readers! I’m coming to you from Los Angeles International Airport, where I am off to France for a few weeks. But before I go, and given that it’s Christmas tomorrow, I want to give you my report of Noir City X-Mas, which I attended last week at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.
Noir City is a San Francisco tradition. The main festival attracts film fans nationwide, and has become an integral part of San Francisco film culture. San Francisco itself has a noir feel to it, and has been the setting for many key films of the genre, so it seems fitting that this city has the honor of hosting Noir City every year.
And for the past 5 years, film fans have enjoyed an extension on the main Noir City festival–Noir City X-Mas, in which Christmas-themed noir films (or Christmas-themed films with a noir connection) are shown at the Castro Theatre. This year I attended with a friend of mine, and we enjoyed a showing of a film I have been wanting to see for many years.
O. Henry’s Full House (1952) is not a noir per se (though one sequence certainly is), but, as Noir City founder Eddie Muller pointed out beforehand, the history of the author O. Henry is one right out of the noir playbook. Employed by the First National Bank of Austin in 1891, he was charged with embezzlement in the mid-1890s and spent three years in jail, where he wrote many of his stories. The movie consists of a series of short vignettes, all written by O. Henry and featuring a smattering of the brightest stars in Hollywood. A young Marilyn Monroe appears alongside Charles Laughton, Anne Baxter alongside Jean Peters, Jeanne Crain with Farley Granger, and Fred Allen with Oscar Levant, in a very funny sequence that was originally cut from the film called “The Ransom of Red Chief.”
Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, perhaps two of the dryest comedians ever to exist, seem a match made in cinematic heaven. But for 1952 audiences, their comedic stylings were too much to handle. Described by Eddie Muller as “postmodern” comedians ahead of their time, many of the jokes in “The Ransom of Red Chief” went over the heads of 1952 audiences and hence the sketch was deemed a waste. But today, this sequence is uproariously funny and a supreme example of O. Henry’s legendary ironic wit. The story of two drifters who scheme to kidnap a child for ransom and their choosing of the most ill-behaved child in town, both Allen and Levant are at the top of their game and the little boy looks to be having a ball of a time playing the most obnoxious child on the planet.
The highlight of the movie is perhaps its best-known sequence, “The Gift of the Magi,” in which Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger are a poor couple very much in love with each other, but with little money for Christmas presents. Desperately wanting to give the other a gift, each of them makes a huge sacrifice–Jeanne Crain cuts and sells her hair while Farley Granger pawns his beloved watch. Their presents for each other? A watch holder and a barrette. Though initially rather materialistic in tone, the sketch ends on a humanistic tone, in which each of them realizes that their love is enough.
All sequences feature wonderful twist endings, and each one is introduced by none other than John Steinbeck, who is the perfect accidental curmudgeon with his pipe, raspy voice, and cranky expression. It’s great fun to see Steinbeck on film, in his only film appearance despite so many of his novels turned into movies.
Thank you to the Film Noir Foundation, for giving us Noir City X-Mas for these past few years. I very much look forward to next year!