Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Lemon Drop Kid

Premiered March 8, 1951.
Note:The Lemon Drop Kid was released on this date in 1951, which is why we're blogging about a Christmas movie when it's nearly St. Patrick's Day.

Kid: "It's all the same to you whether Sam kills me now or doesn't open me 'til Christmas. And if I get the money you're 10 Grand ahead. You see, Moose, picking up 10 Grand will be fun for you and killing me will be so sloppy."

The Lemon Drop Kid gets inside information from a friend
Racetrack tout Sidney Milburn (Bob Hope), known as "The Lemon Drop Kid" due to his penchant for the candy, makes a living suckering tourists at the horse races.

Taking in a couple of suckers
But the Kid screws up when he steers a woman away from placing a winning bet.  It turns out she was betting on a horse on behalf of a dangerous gangster, Moose Moran (Fred Clark).  The Kid ends up costing Moran $10,000.  Moose puts a price on the Kid's head.  The Kid is so afraid that he tries to turn himself in to the police.

Moose wants his $10,000 back ... or else!
Moose confronts the Kid, tells him he owes him the $10,000.  Sidney begs Moose to give him until Christmas to get the money.  Moose says he wants the money by Christmas Eve, if not "you'll find your head in your stocking."  Moose has a casino in Long Island that is currently abandoned that he plans to reopen, the Kid can deliver the money there.

A snowy and windy day to be without a coat in NYC
The Kid goes to a frigid New York City and visits his old friend Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell).  He begs her for money so he can get his winter clothes out of hock.

The Kid talks to Nellie Thursday
Nellie can't help him out as she is being evicted from her home and has recently been rejected from a nursing home because her husband is a convict.

The Kid and Brainey Baxter
Sidney then visits his girlfriend Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) and hits her up for money.  However, he still owes Brainey for pawning her coat, so she's not eager to shell out more cash for the Kid.  He proposes marriage to her and says he needs $10.00 for a wedding license.  Brainey complies, but it's just a ruse to get her money.  She's mad, but Brainey still loves the Kid.  

The Kid's initial Santa scheme gets busted
The Lemon Drop Kid notices all the sidewalk Santas collecting for charities in New York and gets an idea.  He gets a Santa suit and collects for his favorite charity:himself.  This earns Sidney a night in jail.

The Kid calls Brainey to bail him out
When Brainey bails him out, the Kid revises his plans for a scam.

He obtains a charity license and claims that Moose's abandoned casino will be used a nursing home, with Nellie and some other "Old dolls" from her neighborhood moving in.  

Brainey and the Kid talk to some of the Old Dolls
Sidney recruits old acquaintances to dress as Santa and collect the funds.  Among the recruits are Gloomy Willie (William Frawley) and the Super Swedish Angel (Tor Johnson), a professional wrestler.  But the Kid doesn't tell any of his assistants that it's all a front that will allow him to settle his debt with Moose.

The Kid inspects the Santas
 Small-time gangster Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) learns of the Kid's scam and decides to steal the money and take in the Old Dolls.  In the process, Brainey, Nellie and the rest learn that the Kid was lying the whole time about the nursing home.  He now has no friends and the Old Dolls will soon be out on the street.

The Kid disguises himself as an Old Doll.
Can the Lemon Drop Kid save the Old Dolls from homelessness?  Can he get back in Brainey's good graces? Will the Kid be able to make good on the $10,000 he owes Moose Moran?

J.A. Morris says:

I generally enjoy Bob Hope's onscreen persona.  From the 1930s to the 50s, he basically played the same character, an exaggeration of his stand-up comedy identity.   If you like Hope's movies from this era, you'll like The Lemon Drop Kid.  If not you won't.  Hope is funny here, making the ne'er-do well Kid sympathetic. We believe Sidney is a "tout with a heart of gold."  I also enjoyed the Kid's interaction with Nellie Thursday. Hope and Jane Darwell made it feel like there was genuine affection between the two.  Marilyn Maxwell is good here as Brainey, and she has a nice singing voice as well.

The Kid steals some clothes from a department store window.

In addition to the Santa scheme, Hope gets to perform some good physical comedy as well.  During a romantic scene with Brainey, the Kid scrambles to kiss her while simultaneously hiding his ill-gotten loot.  Another example comes when Sidney strips a mannequin of her clothes in a holiday display window, so he can use them as a disguise.

Sidney teases a policeman while singing "Silver Bells".
I'm a big fan of Damon Runyon's stories.  While The Lemon Drop Kid shares a title and title character with a Runyon story, it barely resembles its source material.  But the New York slang, names of the characters and their behaviors can certainly be described as Runyonesque.

The kid hits up Oxford Charlie for money.
The plot is hardly believable, but The Lemon Drop Kid a fun caper movie, with plenty of Christmas seasonal trappings.  I won't spoil the ending, but it won't shock you to find out this movie has a happy one.  While it's not as good as other holiday films of the era, it's still worth watching. There a few lines of what we might call "ethnic humor" today, but I've seen a lot worse in other old movies.

The Lemon Drop Kid & Brainey sing "Silver Bells"
I'm guessing that lots of people today don't know that "Silver Bells" was written for The Lemon Drop Kid. It's performed by Hope and Maxwell, with William Frawley chiming in for a few lines. Hope's friend and frequent co-star Bing Crosby became aware of the song during the film's production and recorded "Silver Bells" (as a duet with Carol Richards) prior to the film's release.  Speaking of Crosby, the last line of dialogue in The Lemon Drop Kid includes a joke directed at him.

Some notes about the supporting cast:
William Frawley appeared in numerous movies, but he's best remembered for playing Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy.  The Lemon Drop Kid was released just a few months before that series premiered.

Gloomy Willie (Frawley) sings his own "Silver Bells" lyrics:
"Silver Bells
Silver Bells
Let's put some dough
In the kitty"
Nellie Thursday is played by Jane Darwell, who had a prolific career in films from 1914 until 1964, when she appeared in Mary Poppins.  Most famously, she won an Oscar for portraying Ma Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath.
Sidney recruits Super Swedish Angel.
Professional Wrestler-turned actor Tor Johnson plays the Swedish Angel, which was also his wrestling name in real life.  Fans of Ed Wood's movies will recognize Johnson from Plan 9 From Outer Space.

A snowy Christmas street scene.

The Lemon Drop Kid wasn't something that was shown frequently on TV when I was growing up (I believe I saw it once about 30 years ago).  But in recent years, Turner Classic Movies has aired this movie at least once during December.  It's also available on dvd and can be streamed on Amazon 

A Santa plays Craps for the Old Dolls home.
You might want to add it to your holiday viewing this Christmas season, especially if you're a fan of Bob Hope and "Silver Bells".

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 Candy Canes.

The Kid and Brainey sing to the Old Dolls
RigbyMel says:

This is a fun, but not a great Christmas movie.   Bob Hope is enjoyable as the title character and the supporting cast is top notch, but there's just something about the story that doesn't quite sit right with me. Maybe it's the straddling of the line between screwball comedy and pathos that doesn't quite work.  Maybe it's that the story feels a bit too much like Guys and Dolls (which is also based on Runyon's work) without being quite as satisfying as that musical.

The Kid finds a creative spot to hide the money!
The Santa Claus money raising scheme is a lot of fun to see play out and there is some great physical comedy involving hidden gambling tables at the abandoned casino/old dolls' home.

Gambling tables double as beds for the Old Dolls and also disappear behind walls unexpectedly
But I never made the emotional connection with this movie that would enable me to call it a "classic."

Scruffy Santas
It's great fun, and it's historically important what with the introduction of the holiday standard "Silver Bells", but it's not a must-see.

RigbyMel's rating:

Two and a half candy canes

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