This is a fascinating film for a wide variety of reasons. First as one of the best examples of a minor cinema genre, the anthology film, which featured different directors creating separate short episodes then stitched together into a full-length film with some connecting theme. Here the connection is that all five episodes are based on stories by O. Henry, the famous American short story writer from the early 1900s. These stories were once very widely read and featured in secondary school textbooks. (I doubt if that is still the case.) The tales range from the wildly comic (“The Ransom of Red Chief”) to the tragic (“The Last Leaf”) to the suspenseful (“The Clarion Call”) and the ironic (“The Cop and the Anthem”). All feature excellent acting and directing. I’ll focus on the one story that makes this a Christmas film: “The Gift of the Magi.”
A struggling young married couple begins Christmas Eve morning dreaming about the gifts they would love to give each other but that they can’t afford. The young wife is pregnant. The young husband has a grinding, low-paying job as a bookkeeper. They reminisce about the things that first attracted them to each other: her beautiful long hair and his wonderful pocket watch. As they walk past stores, she sees a watch chain that would go perfectly with his watch. He sees a set of combs that would go perfectly with her hair. But they know they can’t afford either gift. Each then sells the thing most precious to them to buy a gift for the other, pointing to a sad, ironic conclusion that is happily reversed by their love.
The story is set on Christmas Eve and emphasizes the theme of hope and the transforming power of love even in impoverished circumstances.
I will focus on the actors who appear in “The Gift of the Magi,” except for a few in other segments who have been in some of our earlier Christmas movies.
Sig Ruman (the jeweler) is the link to yesterday’s film, White Christmas (1954), where he played the landlord pursuing the Haines Sisters in the Florida night club. He had outstanding roles as the prison camp guard in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) and a comic Nazi commandant in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942). He played Dutchy in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and was constantly tricked by the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935).
Fred Kelsey, who plays the street Santa Claus, is the link to the next film Christmas in Connecticut, so we will wait to discuss him more in that post.
Fritz Feld, who plays Maurice the hairdresser, will appear again in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961). He has a wonderful role as the psychologist befuddled by Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938).
Frank Jaquet, who plays the butcher, was seen previously in Meet John Doe. He had nice small roles in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).
Harry Hayden (the employer A.J. Crump) is making another appearance. We have already seen him as the bank manager in Double Dynamite and will see him again in Larceny, Inc.
Irving Bacon (the father, Mr. Dorset, in “The Ransom Ransom of Red Chief”) has been seen several times already in Bachelor Mother, Holiday Inn and Meet John Doe. We will see him once more in Good Sam.
Philip Tonge (the man with umbrella in “The Cop and the Anthem”) played the toy department manager in Miracle on 34th Street.
Herb Vigran (one of the poker players in “The Clarion Call”) appeared as Novello, the Florida night club owner, in White Christmas.
The Astaire connections are a bit more tenuous in this film. The ones that are there (Harry Hayden, Philip Tonge and Alfred Newman – the music director), we have discussed in previous posts.
One distinctive element is that most of the stories are set in New York City, and in his introduction to “The Gift of the Magi” narrator John Steinbeck specifically mentions that the story is set in 1905. This was the same year that Fred Astaire came to Manhattan. The noisy elevated railroads depicted in the movie would have been some of the things the young Astaire would have encountered daily as he and his sister and mother started living on 23rd Street in the Flat Iron District.
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
“The Gift of the Magi” is a wonderful Christmas story that ends with love transforming what could have been a very sad conclusion into a happy one. Each of the episodes is a little gem, with wonderful acting and expert direction.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
Turner Classic Movies regularly runs this film throughout the year. It is scheduled again for December 23 at 11:45 a.m.