Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Cop and the Anthem’

Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true
BY Rudolph Lambert Fernandez TIMEJuly 19, 2023 PRINT

NR | 16 min 55 sec | Drama, Comedy | 1952

In a rare on-camera appearance as narrator, John Steinbeck introduces the film, “The Cop and the Anthem,” one part of the five-part anthology film, “O. Henry’s Full House.” This adaptation of O. Henry’s light-hearted short story, directed by Henry Koster, comically ponders the double-edged nature of socio-economic aspirations.

As Koster’s film opens, Steinbeck tells of how William Sydney Porter, an American literary treasure, better known by his pen name, O. Henry, wasn’t just a writer of short fiction, but was also a social critic, a humorist, and a word technician: “Our folklore is full of O. Henry, his courage, his gaiety, and his people. He wrote so many good stories, it’s hard to choose. Here’s one in point.”

O. Henry's "The Cop and the Anthem"
In a rare film appearance, writer John Steinbeck introduces “The Cop and the Anthem.” (20th Century Fox)

Every winter in 1900s Blackwell’s Island, professional vagabond, the portly Soapy (Charles Laughton) relies on pretended petty crime to land himself in the warm confines of prison. Pretended, because Soapy’s no criminal. Any crime will do, serious or staged, because even the worst prisons help him escape the icy wind and snow that New York’s homeless brave each year.

To Soapy, prisons shelter without prejudice, in a way that policed parks and pavements don’t, and philanthropic poor-homes won’t. But, after 15 years of success, getting in seems harder than staying out.

Henry uses the literary tool of farce to show how goodness sometimes resides in the unlikeliest of people and places. Each instance of Soapy’s pretended villainy (theft, assault, vandalism, harassment), eyeing a warm prison bed, finds others beating him to it, or mistaking his villainy for virtue, or judging his misdemeanors too minor to bother the penal system with.

O. Henry's "The Cop and the Anthem"
A vagrant friend (David Wayne, L) and Soapy (Charles Laughton) review a menu. (20th Century Fox)

Prison bars loom large in Koster’s first scene. A cop accompanies a respectable-looking man to his cell, who, on observing inmates in neighboring cells, sits down to write. As the camera zooms in on the thoughtful, silhouetted figure, Steinbeck’s voice rings out, “That man with the pencil is the real star of this picture,” a reference to O. Henry’s years in prison, among his most prolific as a writer.

This picaresque story plays on the maxim, “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.” Except, O. Henry’s pícaro is far from lowly. In fact, Soapy, with his hat, overcoat, and twirling umbrella, looks respectable, except when newspapers (meant to neuter the bracing cold) peep from under his overcoat, or when his hole-riddled shoes or gloves show. Yet, the gentleman he believes he’s stealing that umbrella from looks distinguished too, until his thievery is revealed.

As he tries to cozy up to a lady (a cameo by Marilyn Monroe), in the hope of being jailed for impropriety by a nearby cop, Soapy learns how deceptive appearances can be. She turns out to be an escort, expecting beers from him, even if he can’t pay for her services.

O. Henry’s Symbols

Blackwell’s Island is symbolic because of its long-standing association with social stigma and infamy: state-run disability homes, asylums, prisons, and destitute homes.

The Sabbath anthem ringing out from an old church that Soapy stumbles on symbolizes his discarded, virtuous past, not much more than a memory now.

Recurring cop figures are symbols too; Soapy sees as many as half a dozen of them before he hears the one anthem. Sure enough, it’s the cop, not the anthem, that holds greater sway over Soapy’s fate, except, not in a way he imagines.

Koster depicts the fragility of destitute people, at the mercy of dominant elites. His cop characters exemplify this dominance. Koster’s saying that the blame for lawlessness falls, usually, on commoners alone. But it’s elites who’ll do the blaming, deciding who’s being lawless, and when, where, and how they’ll pay for it.

The elite may revel in their choices that mirror their many freedoms, such as choosing to holiday elsewhere when New York is covered in snow. Commoners, however, lack such luxuries. The cold reality of poverty blocks their way, first teasing them with permission to wish their wishes, then, mockingly, fashioning a tragedy even when granting wishes.

O. Henry's "The Cop and the Anthem"
(L–R) Soapy (Charle Laughton), a lady (Marilyn Monroe) and a cop (Robert Foulk), in “The Cop and the Anthem.” (20th Century Fox)

Prison’s a metaphor for a comforting but destructive habit, or a deceptively soothing addiction. In Soapy’s epiphanic exclamation at church, “it isn’t my body that’s sick, it’s my soul,” O. Henry contrasts some of the seven deadly sins (sloth, gluttony, envy) with the seven capital virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, hope, faith, charity). That the otherwise contented Soapy seems free of other sins—lust, wrath, avarice, and greed—is small consolation.

Laughton’s flawless as the classy tramp. In her 120 seconds of screen time, the gorgeous Monroe conveys, with her eyes alone, anticipation, attentiveness, alarm, annoyance, awe, and appreciation.

‘The Cop and the Anthem’
Director: Henry Koster
Starring: Charles Laughton, Marilyn Monroe
Not Rated
Running Time: 17 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 16, 1952
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

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Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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