Sunday, November 21, 2010

O. Henry. Inspiration from Disney to Serling. And Beyond.

So I’m not just imagining it.

After I read O. Henry’s story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” I immediately thought of the 1976 Disney film “No Deposit, No Return,” in which Darren McGavin and Don Knotts play two unsuccessful safecrackers who inadvertently “kidnap” two kids of generally absentee parents whose grandfather revels in their absence as he toys with the kidnappers in paying the ransom.

Of course, the story is also similar to that of 1982’s “Savannah Smiles,” starring Donovan Scott and Mark Miller, though in this case it’s the parents, not the “kidnapped” kid who are the real stinkers in the story.

But that’s O. Henry for you. Before Hollywood was there churning out the “surprise” plot trists, before Rod Serling was there, banally prattling on about the odd little twists of fate that lead people from a normal life into that twilightiest of all zones, there was O. Henry.

And there’s this version, an odd Russian version of the film, which makes it clear within the first few moments that the director saw the story as a jab against the capitalist stooges who set up their whole society so that one had to get capital in order to capitalize on the whole capitalist system. Capital capital capital. (Other than that, the telling here is pretty accurate to O. Henry’s story.)

(This was filmed in 1962, per Unsure on international copyright for this.)

What first catches the ear is an odd simile:

“Hey, little boy!” says Bill, “would you like to have a bag of candy and a nice ride?”

The boy catches Bill neatly in the eye with a piece of brick.

“That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars,” says Bill, climbing over the wheel.

That boy put up a fight like a welter-eight cinnamon bear; but, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the buggy and drove away.
Like a welter-weight cinnamon bear. I like the sound of that.

I like the sound, too, of O. Henry’s first-person telling, at which he is amazingly consistent.

Of course, the brick in the eye isn’t the only first-person telling we get of this little brat’s impudence. There’s also this:

Just at daybreak, I was awakened by a series of awful screams from Bill. They weren’t yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or yawps, such as you’d expect from a manly set of vocal organs – they were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It’s an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.

I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief [the kid] was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other had had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp, according to the sentence that had been pronounced upon him the evening before.

Of course, in true Hollywood or Disney fashion, the kidnappers can’t get rid of the kid until they pay the imp’s father $250 for his return – and have to do so under cover of darkness besides, so the neighbors won’t know who to blame when the kid returns.

O. Henry is a wonderful practitioner of the short story, a lost art in America, and as well a chronicler of the unchronicled, choosing rather than the socialite, the war profiteer, the politician or the industry mogul, to write of the ordinary, from two-bit kidnappers in a tiny town in Alabama to their obnoxious prey. And while most folksa re more familiar with the Oprah-like shmaltz of O' Henry's pieces such as "The Gift," this piece shows that while hes tuck with the short story genre, he wasn't all shmaltz.

Full text of the story can be found here.

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