February 9, 2022

Review: The O. Henry Playhouse, Volume 1

Xn television's earliest days, dramatic anthologies were, if not the rule, at least quite common. They were populated by young, hungry actors and actresses, and since New York was still the center of television activity, there was no shortage of stage talent looking to make a break into television or the movies. And while we're familiar with the biggest of them—Studio One, Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Kraft Television Theatre—there were dozens of lesser-known shows that, nonetheless, introduced viewers to up-and-coming performers, directors, and writers. They may have been modest in their ambitions, but for that they were no less entertaining.

Thanks to the miracle of video (and, considering how negligent networks and studios were with their inventory, it is something of a miracle), we've had the opportunity to catch glimpses from many of these shows. Some survive almost intact, while others have but an episode or two as their legacy. And while some can best be described as, well, time fillers—you know, shows that are maybe a step or two above amateur productions—others have proved to be well worth watching. And, thanks to our friends at ClassicFlix, we have another of these programs that we can consider: The O. Henry Playhouse.*

*Full disclosure: I received this disc gratis for the purposes of 1) reviewing, and 2) enjoying. Thanks to Classic Flix for supplying both.

You're probably familiar with O. Henry (real name: William Sydney Porter,), or at least with his most famous stories, such as "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief." His stories were best-known for their surprise endings, and while critics often panned them, they were immensely popular with readers of the magazines in which they appeared. 

In 1957, The O. Henry Playhouse came to television as a syndicated series which ran for 39 episodes. Starring as O. Henry (and that's always the way people referred to him; I guess neither "Mr. Henry" nor "O"—or would that be pronounced "Oh"?—would have felt right) was veteran character actor Thomas Mitchell, who appears in each episode through the framing device of telling his publisher, or some other acquaintance, his latest story. Sometimes, as in the early episode, "Man About Town," O. Henry is himself an active participant in the story; but most of the time he's simply content to let the story unfold, luring his listener in until he springs the surprise ending on them. Mitchell's very good in the role, exuding a warmth that immediately draws you in, while exhibiting a little of the larceny of the real O. Henry (who was, among other things, a convicted bank embezzler), as when he repeatedly asks his publisher for an advance on his next story.

The stories themselves are, for the most part, fun and entertaining. No, it's not Shakespeare, but, as I've mentioned many times in the past, it doesn't have to be. It does, however, need to be enjoyable, and it succeeds. And, in keeping with one of the great charms of early television, it's a kick seeing some of the stars in their early years, such as Charles Bronson, DeForest Kelley, Johnny Crawford, Chuck Connors, Claude Akins, Jean Cooper, and Roger Smith—as well as more established not just stars like Ernest Borgnine (in the very first episode!), John Carradine, Morey Amsterdam, Tom Conway, Beverly Garland, Louis Hayward, and Gerald Mohr. Even if the names don't always ring a bell, you're likely to recognize their faces or voices.

As for the product itself, the first (of three) volume of The O. Henry Playhouse (the volume I'm reviewing) comes with 13 half-hour episodes on one disk. There are no extras, but the prints are clear and crisp ("lovingly restored") and are far better than what you might find on YouTube. Volume 1 retails for $11.99 at Amazon; you'll have to decide whether or not that fits your price point. Volumes 2 and 3 are scheduled to be released later this year.

I can't say that The O. Henry Playhouse is going to make or break your classic television collection, but who doesn't have room for an enjoyable 30-minute story that isn't going to get you upset, will probably give you a chuckle or two, and might just introduce you to some classic faces you haven't seen for awhile? If you watch television for pleasure, then this comes strongly recommended. TV  

1 comment:

  1. The producers of the series took a lot of liberties with the original stories, to the point of actually using (in Volumes 2 & 3) stories NOT written by O. Henry at all, but as you convey in your review, Thomas Mitchell delivers a winsome and charmful turn as O. Henry and it is a real treat to see the likes of Charles Bronson, DeForest Kelley, Johnny Crawford, Chuck Connors, Claude Akins, Jean Cooper, Roger Smith, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, Morey Amsterdam, Tom Conway, Beverly Garland, Louis Hayward, and Gerald Mohr. Two of my favorites, Charles Bronson and John Carradine return as different characters in separate stories, so
    keep a look out for Volume 2 (scheduled for release March 22nd) and volume 3 (later in 2022).


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!