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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.”)
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).
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).
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?|
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.)
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.