Thursday, March 31, 2016

Anne Baxter In The Blizzard -With The Film O. Henry’s Full House In Mind

Anne Baxter In The Blizzard -With The Film O. Henry’s Full House In Mind


By Zack James


“The turn of the 20th century short story author known as O. Henry sure knew how to do the ‘hook,’ knew how to grab a reader and throw him or her a curve ball,” Jack Callahan was telling Sam Lowell after he had just seen a DVD that he had ordered from Netflix, O. Henry’s Full House, a black and white film anthology produced in 1952. Jack further mentioned “this cinematic effort to put some of O. Henry’s more famous short stories on the screen was interesting. What they did was pick five beauties from his treasure trove of work, had five different screenwriters shape up the plotlines for film, brought in five different director and not B-film hacks either, and a slew of stars famous then or would be famous later like Marilyn Monroe and David Wayne and wrap the thing up with a bow. The bow being bringing the big time writer, John Steinbeck, a guy who was very familiar with the ‘hook’ in his stories from desperate Tom Joad Grapes of Wrath to the Cain and Abel lusts of East of Eden to introduce each story.”         

Sam Lowell who fancied himself an amateur writer told Jack that he was surprised that he had seen the film since usually Jack’s interests were with detective stories or sci fi eyes treats. He told Jack, “I remember reading O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi as part of anthology of great American short stories for English class sophomore year in high school and telling you guys about the twist in the story when we were sitting at Jimmy Jack’s Diner over on Thornton Street chewing the fat one Friday night when for some reason we had nothing else to do, no dates and no dough for dates, the usual story, and you all rained hell down on me for even talking about a school subject. I remember you said, I think it was you because you used your favorite expression back then, “you didn’t give a rat’s ass” about a couple of goofs getting mixed up getting each other the wrong Christmas gifts. That’s right isn’t it?”

Jack thought for a moment and said he was not sure that is what he said, or whether he even said it but he probably had. He realized that Sam was trying as usual to one-up him when it came to so-called literary matters just like always so he uttered, “Sam, I glad you brought that up because that is a classic case of where if you “deconstruct” what O. Henry did you will see what I mean about his ability to use the “hook” to draw you in. You know I could, Chrissie too who watched that segment with me, relate to the part about the young couple “from hunger” but desperately in love just like us getting their signals mixed up. She goes off to sell her hair to get him a geegad for his heirloom watch he had eyed at a jewelry store and he on his own hook gets her some barrettes for her long hair that she had eyed at another store after he sold his precious watch. Yeah, great hook.”

Sam, knowing that Jack had for once set the bait for him, had tried to one-up him so he let it pass, let Jack have the point although he felt a ping of regret about doing so as he asked Jack what the other segments had in the way of the “hook.” Jack responded, “One story I forgot the name of it was about a bum, a high-style fancy talking bum, played by grizzled old actor Charles Laughton, who once winter came in cold ass New York City would do something illegal to get himself put in jail to ride out the cold. Spend the winter in the cooler with three squares at city expense. That year though he couldn’t get anybody to arrest him no matter what he tried to do and so he had an epiphany, decided to go straight, but while he is making that decision outside a church a brutal looking bull of copper pulled him in and the judge gave him his him three months. So much for going straight. Not as good a hook as that Magi thing but the way Laughton played it was funny in its own way.”

Sam thinking seriously about the name of that short story that Jack could not remember knew he had read at some point, probably in another anthology since he did not remember reading any O. Henry collected stories when he was younger asked Jack, “Was the name of the story The Cop and the Anthem?”  Jack snapped his fingers, an old habit from the corner boy days, “Oh yeah, I think that was the name.”         

Jack continued after thinking for a couple of minutes about the plots of the other segments, “Another segment titled The Clarion Call had Richard Widmark, you know the guy who played all those psycho criminals like Tommy Uno which won him an Oscar, in another criminal role as this burglar who wound up killing a the guy at one of his break-ins. The only clue the coppers had was a dropped at the scene gold pen engraved with the words Camptown Races like the old, old song by that name that my grandmother used to sing while she was doing her household chores which he had won when he was kid in some kind of barbershop quartet competition.”

Sam interrupted, “Didn’t we sing that song in Mister Dasher’s Music class in seventh grade over at Myles Standish?” “Yeah, that’s the one and the reason that is important is that it just so happened that one of the coppers at the precinct in which the crime took place had been in that same quartet. So he knew exactly who had done the crime,” Jack laughed. “Just coincidence right, and there would be no problem finding old Widmark and bringing him to justice. Except this copper, played by Dale Robertson whom I didn’t recognize at first but who played on television in some Western when we were kids was in Widmark’s debt. See he had gotten in over his head with some high- roller gamblers, had written a bad check for a thousand bucks and Widmark covered him, covered him with the proviso that he would get paid back some day. Well that killing was the pay-back day and since, if you can believe this, although I can believe anything about coppers these days just like when they hassled us when we were kids, old Dale couldn’t pay up. Widmark walked away, walked away laughing at Dale as he made his plans to get out of town.

“But you know as well and I do since we saw a million 1930s and 1940s gangster films at the Majestic Theater on those Saturday matinee double-headers whether we had money for popcorn or not, that no stone-cold killer was going to get away  with murder. What Dale did was to go to the editor of the town newspaper The Clarion and have him put out a reward for a thousand bucks for information leading to the killer of that guy who was robbed. Of course Dale stone-cold knew who the killer was and grabbed the dough. Grabbed it and paid Widmark off. All even, right. A little gunplay ensued when Widmark resisted but Dale brought his man in, no problem. Sam chortled, “How many times have we seen that same scenario, or something like it, in gangster movies and then the guy gets grabbed anyway. Those gangster scriptwriters were ripping off O. Henry just like I do when I read something that hits me between the eyes. Go on”                                      

Jack told Sam that he had dozed off through something called the Ransom of Red Cloud. “It was nothing but a goof story about a couple of city-slickers who are con men looking to fleece some rube farmers down in rural Alabama by kidnapping their kids for ransom. They picked the wrong kid in this one, a wild boy who would just as soon kick your ass, big or small, as look at you, like Billy Bradley used to in elementary school, except this kid thought his was channeling some Indians or something. The long and short of it was that the con men were so baffled by the situation they paid the rube farmers to take the kid off their hands. Like I said a snoozer.”

Jack pleaded tiredness, said he didn’t want to talk about the last segment he had not mentioned yet but suggested that he would let Sam take the DVD  home and watch the segment (watch it soon because he wanted to return the DVD so he could get Out Of The Past with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas  which was next on his list and the faster he returned it the quicker he would get his next selection that he really wanted to see, see after having not seen it for many years since he had seen it as part of a film retrospective at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge).

Sam did so, actually watched the whole film since Jack had been so clever about the literary device that many authors use, the hook, to draw a reader in, had watched the missing segment titled The Last Leaf, starring Anne Baxter. That night after he had watched the film though when he went to bed he had a dream, a dream connected back to the time when he had had a serious schoolboy “crush” on Ms. Baxter after seeing her in her devilish role in All About Eve.  Everything got a little mixed up when he started to write about the dream the next day in his journal in hopes of getting some story out of the experience for the blog he wrote for occasionally, The Black and White Film Classics:

A young man, a little disheveled as befits a struggling artist new to town, new to New York City and its delights and hassles as he tries to get his first recognition as a budding new star, is looking through a narrow window in his small garret apartment, the normal student art league fold-up bed and kitchenette complex that a thousand students occupy through the Village. Through that narrow portal he see a  young woman, a young women that he vaguely recognizes through her artist carrying bag and her stolid hat not worthy of the day’s weather struggling as the winds howled in all directions and the snow is blowing fiercely every which way blocking his view at times after she had come down the stairs from the apartment building across the street.

A few minutes early also on occasion blocked from a clear view out that frosted window he had seen that same young woman arguing, or maybe better, pleading, with a man, an older man with mustaches, dapper, well-dressed, or at least his dressing jacket and the fine crystal holding a good portion of what looks like high-grade liquor in his hand tells that tale, a man whom seemed at first glance recognizable, seen in the newspapers, no, on stage, an actor, that makes sense since at the corner of the street as we zoomed in on the scene we can see a sign which says McDougall Street, which means nothing other than Greenwich Village, the Village in New York City at earlier age when the immigrants, the artists, the actors all vied for space in the cheap rent districts while they waited for their fortunes to come in. The look on the man’s face and his surroundings indicate some success, that of the young woman not so, she has the look of being one in a long line of beauties who have succumbed to the older man’s charms and is now being shown the door, maybe a rising starlet who even in the times we are talking about, the early 1900s knew that one way to stardom was through the casting couch, or the couch of a leading male actor.     

The pleading fruitless, endlessly fruitless, at times half-hysterical at others an almost murderous look on her face but that might have been his imagination plotting out some headline grabbing scenario, all the while the Lothario was exquisitely indifferent, she had dragged herself in a heap to the door and down the stairs. That is where the young artist picked her up again. She was next seen walking, walking bareheaded, having taken off the ill-fitting and inadequate for the weather conditions despite the snows swirling madly about her, despite the shawl she has in her left hand that could have been used to cover that long luscious black hair that she owned, handbag in her right hand. That is when the young man decided in a fit of hubris or maybe just curiosity to throw on his oilskin jacket and run down the stairs of his own building and see where she was headed. Once on the street he could she had stopped and started going down one street and up another and over time as he followed within a block she had crisscrossed many blocks, stopping occasionally in anguish, then moving on almost unaware of the traffic in the street, the horse-drawn carriages and transoms which she could have taken to wherever she was going.

More blocks, more snow, the snow swirling in such a manner that it could only be a blizzard she is attempting hatless to walk in, a couple of stops to moan, then gather herself, a couple of gentlemanly offers of a ride, and who knows what else but she finally makes it to Green Street, Green Street and home at the south end of Greenwich Village, the place where the newest arrival immigrants from Southern Europe, but mainly artists and actors down here, find themselves shelter when they hit the city looking, well, looking for something not to be found in Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, hell, Lima, Ohio either.

At the corner of a six-story building on Green Street she ran into an older man, an artist of some sort from the framed painting he has in his left hand sheltering it against the winds and snows. The young man decided that she had not spied him as some kind of stalker walked on pass them and walking slowly overheard part of the conversation, she had begun to unburden herself to the old man who worried about her health as she moaned, moaned the moan that the old artist as a man of the world, a man of the old country, and wise knew meant that she had been forsaken by that gigolo Joe Stella, whom he had told her over and over again was nothing but a womanizer, and liar too. Ah, that is where that older man across the apartment street, this Stella, had seen him on student rush day on Broadway in Hamlet.

Yes now the young man too knew what the Oldman was wailing about, knew that she is now “tarnished” goods having given herself mistakenly to that bastard hoping that would ease the way for her onto the Broadway stage. Such has been the fate of women since Adams’s evil apple time. The old man groaned the groan of the knowing and tells her to get upstairs and get the wet clothes off and dry her hair which has become a Medusa mass of snarls in the wind and snow. The young man just shook his head in sorrow for the naiveté of the young woman since he too had been taken in by an older person, a woman in this case when he was “from hunger” even worse that his situation now and she had forced him to do naughty things to her, and let her do things to him that  no man should have had to suffer before she one day without notice and without leaving him a parting “salary” left for Italy, Rome, Italy on a transatlantic steamer without as much as a fare you well. Probably had some silly pretty boy Italian to work her evil on by now.  

Back to our lady in distress though. As she stumbles and rumbles up the stairs she can barely make it to her third floor apartment but does so, knocking faintly. Her sister, let’s call her Sue, as we will call our bedraggled beseecher, Anne, Anne Baxter, of the long black hair, opens the door into their studio apartment, a sure sign that they are newcomers (later finding out they had arrived from upstate Albany a few months before so he was not wrong in the greenness factor) Sue the budding young artist and Anne, well, Anne as the besmirched young actress. Sue is appalled at Anne’s appearance and orders her to bed, orders that old man artist Anne had talked to on the street, called Cezanne, who had just come up the stairs as she was closing the door since he lives above them to fetch the doctor. Pneumonia, pneumonia, but not fatal in a young heart determined to live another day. Some medicines are bought and things look on the surface to be going okay.                    

Sue of course having lost her own formerly cherished virtue to a fellow Art Student League member whose whereabouts these days is unknown although she had no regrets surrounding what she had to surrender to the lad as it turned out knew full well what ailed Anne, had like a million young women moved from the country and small towns to the big city lost her moorings and lost her virginity to Stella, for no gain. She is distraught, cannot sleep is feverish, as she keeps to her bed, her shelter from the storms in her body, in her life outside the studio as she watches the winds blow against some remaining leaves from a tree that shed late, late before the early winter blizzard was coming to finish the task.

Strange what thoughts the feverish, the lost, the forsaken will draw from the slightest object. Anne had been in the throes of her fever counting the leaves as the fell off the single cityscape tree. Dying down in the alley somewhere to be fertilizer for some future tree, perhaps. The dying leaves, Anne dying inside (Sue suspects the worse that Anne is with child and tries to approach her on the subject of, a delicate matter, then and now, abortion so more dying to no avail) has cast a spell on her romantic imagination. She will cast her fate with the blizzard blown last leaf. If that cannot withstand the swirl and whirl of winter’s hardest blows then she cannot either. The morning light will tell the tale. Anne threatens seven kinds of hell if Sue does not open the night curtain to expose the branch, expose that one last life-giving leaf. No leaf. After a few awful days of struggle for the death she craved they buried Anne several days after that up in the family plot in Albany.       


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