Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Movie Blogathon: The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Christmas Movie Blogathon, currently being hosted by Family Friendly Reviews from December 20-22.  For a list of participants and the films discussed, click here.

In 1949, Paramount Pictures dusted off an old Damon Runyon property that they had previously filmed fifteen years earlier as Little Miss Marker, a vehicle for Adolphe Menjou and budding child star Shirley Temple.  The studio tailored the material for their reigning box office champ, comedian Bob Hope, pairing him with comic actress Lucille Ball in the first of four films they would make together.  Sorrowful Jones (1949—the Hope version) did very well in theaters, and the following year the studio retooled another Runyon tale, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), for Hope.  (The original version was released in 1934, starring Lee Tracy and Helen Mack.)

Bob plays a racetrack tout named Sidney Milburn, whose fondness for the titular confectionary has earned him the nickname “The Lemon Drop Kid.”  He’s working a Florida racetrack, convincing bettors that he’s an expert on the ponies when in actuality he knows nothing about horse flesh.  This will prove to be his undoing: he’s talked the girlfriend of racketeer Moose Moran (Fred Clark) into switching the horse he had her bet $2,000 on…and because the horse comes in dead last, Moose wants a refund of the money he would have won had it been bet on the proper nag: $10,000.

The Kid pleads with Moran to let him have until Christmas Eve to raise the ten large, and since Moose is a gambling man, he agrees not to have his goon Sam the Surgeon (Harry Bellaver) go to work on Sidney.  Back in New York, The Kid gets reacquainted with old friends in his long-suffering fiancée, nightclub hoofer Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell), and elderly newspaper vendor Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell).  The Kid works a scheme where he pretends to be a Santa Claus collecting money for charity…something that guarantees him a reservation in The Grey Bar Hotel fairly quickly, since he’s picked up for not having a license.  But when he sees that Nellie has been arrested as a result of a fight with her landlord (he’s dispossessed her), Milburn gets an idea: he’ll borrow a closed Long Island casino owned by Moose and open up a nursing home for elderly ladies like Nellie—that will allow him to continue his street corner activities and raise the money he owes the Moose.

The Kid populates the casino-turned-rest-home with elderly women in need of shelter, then rounds up a few of Nellie’s male friends to man the kettles as Santas—Straight Flush Tony (Jay C. Flippen), Gloomy Willie (William Frawley), Little Louie (Sid Melton), Singin’ Solly (Ben Welden) and other Runyonesque mugs—and the money starts pouring in…something that has attracted the attention of Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan), Brainey’s boss at the nightclub.  Charlie figures that since wherever Nellie is hanging up her yarn constitutes “The Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls” (as The Kid’s charity is known), he’ll have his henchmen put the snatch on the ladies and move them into his mansion in order to muscle in on the racket.  The Kid’s dishonest ruse is eventually revealed to Brainey, Nellie and the rest…and even though it means that Moose will have him fitted for a pair of concrete wing-tips, Sidney schemes to retrieve the money (disguised as an old lady) and bring the long arm of the law to arrest Charlie, Moose and their respective goons.

Both Sorrowful Jones and The Lemon Drop Kid were attempts by Bob Hope to do feature film comedies radically different from his usual vehicles (as was 1950’s Fancy Pants, a remake of Ruggles of Red Gap)—but the end results won’t please any Damon Runyon fans, because the author’s trademark vernacular for his characters—in fact, the oddball collection of “guys and dolls” in general—is sadly missing in these two films, as is the unique New York atmosphere that permeated his tales (Lemon Drop Kid might take place in New York…but it could be L.A. or Toronto for all we know).  If you’re a Bob Hope fan, however—both comedies are highly entertaining diversions…with Lemon Drop Kid gaining the inside edge because of its seasonal background.

It has been argued by one or two classic film fans of my acquaintance that The Lemon Drop Kid really isn’t a true Christmas film…but since this is my blog and not theirs, I say bah and feh.  What could be more Christmasy than the idea of multiple Santa Clauses shaking down individuals for spare change in order to help little old ladies?  (In theory, anyway.)  The main reason why the movie has the Christmas cachet it does is because it introduced the holiday carol standard Silver Bells, written by tunesmiths Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.  We know them as the men who also gave us such immortal classics as the Oscar-winning Buttons and Bows (from Bob Hope’s 1948 smash The Paleface), Mona Lisa, Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera) and the Theme from Mister Ed.  (Okay, that last one didn’t win an Academy Award.)

The Lemon Drop Kid, though released in March of 1951, had originally been filmed in 1950—and in October of that year, Silver Bells started to attract some attention on the music charts with a version recorded by Hope’s “Road” partner Bing Crosby and Carol Richards.  As such, Bob and Marilyn Maxwell were brought back into the studio to re-do the song sequence in the film, which was staged as a more elaborate number.  Though Bing’s version became the more popular, the song would eventually be co-opted by Bob (well, it’s only fair, seeing as how Bing got the girl most of the time), who made the song a highlight of his traditional Christmas television specials.  (The story goes that the song was originally called Tinkle Bells, but was changed when Livingston’s wife patiently explained to him the double meaning of the word “tinkle.”)

Sidney Lanfield is credited with directing The Lemon Drop Kid—he was a favorite director of Bob’s, also helming the earlier Sorrowful Jones and such Hope classics as My Favorite Blonde (1942) and Where There’s Life (1947).  Frank Tashlin directed some of Kid, too—he was asked by the star to do some “rewrites” on the movie (which is why he gets credit for the screenplay along with Edmund Hartmann, Robert O’Brien and Irving Elinson) but Tashlin said no dice unless he could direct, too (he ultimately did the new Silver Bells sequence).  The slapstick chase sequence in the film—where the Kid tries to get away from Charlie’s men by borrowing a Boy Scout’s bicycle, followed by some gags inside a hotel as Kid evades a policeman—seems to have Tashlin’s fingerprints all over it as well (it’s similar in tone to the all-out chases featured in such Tashlin-scripted comedies as The Fuller Brush Man, The Good Humor Man and Kill the Umpire).

I’m an enthusiastic Bob Hope fan—still, I’m not going to try and convince you that Bob plays anyone else in this movie but the usual “cowardly custard” persona of most of his comedy films.  He’s got good gags, but he benefits more from a swell cast; this picture was Marilyn Maxwell’s first outing with Bob (she also appears in 1953’s Off Limits and 1963’s Critic’s Choice) after doing many overseas shows with him in both World War II and the Korean War for the USO.  (Arthur Marx wrote in the biography The Secret Life of Bob Hope that Marilyn’s long love affair with the comedian was so well-known in the Hollywood community many referred to her as “Mrs. Hope.”  Ultimately, you must make the call.)  I like Maxwell in a lot of movies: Lost in a Harem (1944) is a fave (her co-stars in that, Abbott & Costello, featured her as the vocalist on their radio program) and she does nice work in Champion (1949) and New York Confidential (1955)…and I also think she’s swell in the Tashlin-directed Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958).

I’ve always marveled at how menacing Fred Clark could be as a movie heavy because he doesn’t seem like the kind of a guy you would really be scared of in real life—but he acquits himself nicely as gangster Moose Moran (nicely blending menace and humor), as does Lloyd Nolan as racketeer Oxford Charlie (I like that there’s a subtle suggestion that he’s carrying a torch for Maxwell’s character when he’s positively gobsmacked that she’s infatuated with a loser like The Kid).  Although there are a lot of first-rate character folks in this (Flippen, Bellaver, Melton, Welden, Frances Pierlot, Tom “Heil myself!” Dugan) only William Frawley gets to share really big laughs with the star; his response to a little girl who wants to know if he (Santa) is going to bring her a doll on Christmas Eve (“No, my doll’s workin’ Christmas Eve”) is hysterical, and then there’s his hilarious response to The Kid when it’s discovered in the line for Santa inspection that Gloomy Willie has concealed a little hooch:

Is that Tor?
WILLIE (getting a disapproving look from The Kid): Well, it’s cold out there in the streets!
KID: Santa Claus don’t drink!
WILLIE: Oh, no…then how come he’s always fallin’ down chimneys?!!

This is going to be a rather obscure nitpick on my part…but on Bob Hope’s radio program, second banana Jack Kirkwood would often appear on the show around the holidays and play a street corner Santa that Hope kept running into.  His greeting to Bob—“Put somethin’ in the pot, boy…”—became a popular catchphrase, and I can’t believe Paramount passed up the chance to include Jack in the Santa shenanigans.  (Particularly since Kirkwood has a meaty role in Bob’s Fancy Pants, playing the part that Charlie Ruggles did in the Ruggles of Red Gap original.)


The Lemon Drop Kid mixes humor and sentiment in just the right amount (the old ladies are irresistible, and the scene where Darwell’s character is reunited with her husband is great without getting too gooey), and Hope’s character of the rapscallion who decides to make good because of the spirit of the season is certainly one of his most offbeat (even if he’s not entirely successful in the part).  I try to make it a habit to watch the film every year (it plays just as well in the other eleven months, too) and since The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ has been featuring it every year it reminds me how much I enjoy the film.  I defy you to get Silver Bells out of your head the next time you make its acquaintance.


Bill Crider said...

I got a real nostalgic thrill at the mention of Jack Kirkwood's catch phrase, which I hadn't thought of in years. Hope's radio show was a staple at our house when I was a kid, and I used to go around saying "Put something in the pot, boy" all the time.

Rich said...

I wrote about Damon Runyon when I recently wrote about GUYS AND DOLLS, and I briefly mentioned this movie, so I'm kinda disappointed to find out they don't talk in the trademark Runyon vernacular here - not that I could imagine Bob Hope talking that way anyway. Still, this doesn't sound too bad.

Caftan Woman said...

I haven't seen "The Lemon Drop Kid" is ages. It used to air around these parts, but local stations seem to only have spots for infomercials and TCM Canada doesn't appear to have the rights. Grrrrr.

I remember liking the movie because Hope always cracks me up, but feeling it fell short of what it could have been. I wanted to like it more.

In an interview on TVOntario's "Saturday Night at the Movies" years ago Jay confirmed that "tinkle bells" story. He said that he and Ray hadn't concerned themselves too much with toilet training their tots.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I got a real nostalgic thrill at the mention of Jack Kirkwood's catch phrase, which I hadn't thought of in years.

One of Kirkwood's relatives contacted me back at the old Salon blog some time after I had written about Jack and his antics on the Hope program. He was nice enough to send me some photos, which have apparently disappeared into the Nostalgia Vortex that occupies my bedroom.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I wrote about Damon Runyon when I recently wrote about GUYS AND DOLLS, and I briefly mentioned this movie, so I'm kinda disappointed to find out they don't talk in the trademark Runyon vernacular here - not that I could imagine Bob Hope talking that way anyway. Still, this doesn't sound too bad.

It's kind of hard to top Guys and Dolls, though I have always had a soft spot for Money from Home, in which Martin & Lewis do Runyon (Sheldon Leonard is in that movie, so there's your bona fides right there). But I don't think that Kid or Sorrowful Jones are bad movies -- they're just not all that true to Damon Runyon.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I haven't seen "The Lemon Drop Kid" is ages. It used to air around these parts, but local stations seem to only have spots for infomercials and TCM Canada doesn't appear to have the rights. Grrrrr.

Ugh. I feel your pain, Our Lady of Great Caftan. Kid disappeared from TV radar quite a few years ago around these parts,'s only recently that TCM has been showing it.

fiftieswesterns said...

Hope's films from this period are terrific (with a certainly cowboy related one among my all-time favorites), and this is a good one. It doesn't hot a home run, however, though anything with Bill Frawley in a Santa outfit has something going for it.

You've got me wanting to see it again, which is sort of the point with the movie blog thing, ain't it? Nice work.

And happy holidays.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

with a certainly cowboy related one among my all-time favorites

As Maurice Chevalier would say: "Ah, yes...I remember eet well."

And Frawley is reason enough to watch the movie even if Hope isn't particularly a favorite. That line to the little girl never fails to break me up.


I saw this film this December and loved it! My favorite part is Bob dressed as an old doll!
I didn't know Fancy Pants was a remake of Ruggles of Red Gap.
Thanks for the informative post!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)