Friday, December 9, 2011

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951): Ring Those “Silver Bells”

Damon Runyon was a writer of short stories whose literary world was hard boiled and street smart, where women were ‘dames’ or ‘tomatoes’ and men were named ‘Benny the Gouge’ and ‘Harry the Horse’. He wrote of the shady types whose domain was Broadway during and shortly after Prohibition. Paramount produced two films in 1934 based on Runyon tales, Little Miss Marker and The Lemon Drop Kid. In 1949, the studio remade Little Miss Marker as Sorrowful Jones starring their top comedian Bob Hope. Hope, along with co-star Lucille Ball, made the film a big success and the funny man decided he wanted to try another Runyon story as a film vehicle. The next year production started on a remake of the other ‘34 movie, The Lemon Drop Kid.

It’s silly fun, like most Bob Hope movies, but an added attraction was a holiday ditty written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, called “Silver Bells”. It was sung by Hope and his female lead, blonde Marilyn Maxwell and became an instant hit and holiday standard. Story has it the song was originally going to be called “Tinkle Bells” but Mrs. Jay Livingston advised against it, making reference to childhood slang for urination, hence “Silver”.

It’s a fun story. Hope plays a small time swindler called, you guessed it, the Lemon Drop Kid, who hustles tips at a Florida horse racing track and touts a race to a gangster’s unsuspecting moll. The losing horse ends up costing the thug $10,000, and the mob comes a knocking. Kid heads back to his stomping grounds of NYC and tries to solicit help from his chorus girl cutie Maxwell. Instead he ends up concocting a scheme to collect money for a fake retirement home called, get this, the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls! Classic. Bob gets to dress in a sad looking Santa suit (as do his band of shady elves) and even takes a turn in drag as one of the “old dolls”.

To many, Bob Hope is remembered for his television comedy specials, his USO tours or his numerous turns as Oscar host but after transitioning from vaudeville in the late 1930’s, he became a major film star at Paramount. His “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour were mega hits and his non-Road films were box office gold as well. By the time he made The Lemon Drop Kid, he was top of his game.

The colorful characters of Runyon’s world were portrayed by a colorful roster of Hollywood supporting players. William Frawley (who made this film just before starting his run as Fred Mertz on the long running T.V. classic, “I Love Lucy”), Jane Darwell, Lloyd Nolan and Fred Clark are all hilarious or hilariously menacing. And then there’s the pretty Marilyn Maxwell, but when it’s all said and done, it’s Bob Hope film and Bob more than delivers.

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