The 1951 Bob Hope comedy, “The Lemon Drop Kid,” is based on a Damon Runyon story, the second film of Hope’s to do so. Just two years earlier, Hope made the highly successful, “Sorrowful Jones,” co-starring Lucille Ball. The film was released in time for the holidays, only as you will see if you check out the newspaper ad below, the holiday in question was Easter and not Christmas. The film also introduced the now standard Christmas classic, “Silver Bells” written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. In the film the song is sung by Hope and co-star Marilyn Maxwell, but more on that later.
Hope is a small time grifter known as The Lemon Drop Kid. At a Florida racetrack he unknowingly swindles a gullible woman out of a ton of dough by convincing her to switch her bet to another horse. Unfortunately for The Kid, the horse comes in dead last and the money the woman bet with belonged to her boyfriend, a hood named Moose Moran (Fred Clark). Moran gives The Kid until Christmas, a few weeks away, to come up with the $10,000 he would have won had his girl bet the money on the winning horse as he wanted.
Returning to New York The Kid attempts a few schemes to come up with the dough but all fail until he hits upon the idea for creating a legitimate ruse, a home for “old dolls,” a small group of elderly women who have been living out in the streets. The house he selects is an abandon casino owned by Moose Moran. With this set up, The Kid, using street corner Santa’s, can make legit collections, the money supposedly going to the “old dolls’ home but is really going toward helping The Kid pay off his debt to the underworld thug. His on again, off again, girlfriend Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) believes The Kid is finally going straight and quits her job at a nightclub run by Oxford Charley (Lloyd Nolan). More complications ensue as Christmas Eve approaches, however The Kid eventually does the right thing and the thugs get their just rewards. This is not top-notch Bob Hope but it is funny and charming enough to get you into the Christmas spirit.
The film was made during the summer of 1950 but was not released until early April in 1951. This is significant because of the film’s now traditional holiday favorite, “Silver Bells.” Director Sidney Lanfield, had worked with Hope before (My Favorite Blonde, The Princess and the Pirate and Sorrowful Jones among others), but Hope was not happy with the way the film was going and thought the “Silver Bells” number was filmed in a rather bland way. He demanded the sequence be rewritten and reshot. Paramount wanted the film ready for release in time for the 1950 Christmas holidays; however the reshoot could not be scheduled until November after Hope would return from his previously scheduled USO tour in Korea. Hope also “suggested” that writer Frank Tashlin do some rewrites. Tashlin would agree to the rewrites as long as he got to direct the new scenes. The studio balked but eventually gave in.
The new “Silver Bells” sequence sparkles with Hope and Maxwell strolling along a snow filled New York Paramount set singing the now standard holiday tune. In the background couples walk along carrying packages while kids are playing in the snow and street corner Santa’s are collecting donations, all making for a warm homespun holiday feeling. The reshot scenes not only improved on the original but are and remain the highlight of the entire film. According to William Robert Faith in his Hope biography, 1,643,687 copies of sheet music were sold. In October 1950, the first recording of “Silver Bells” was released by Bing Crosby, singing along with Carol Richards, and became a big hit. Hope and Maxwell also recorded a version but the Crosby/Richards version received the majority of the airplay and sales to Hope’s dismay.
There are other enjoyable sequences in the film to be sure and Hope and Maxwell are aided by a good cast of supporting actors including Jane Darwell as Nellie Thursday, Jay C. Flippen as Straight Flush Charley and William Frawley as Gloomy Willie. Anyone familiar with Damon Runyon knows one of the joys of his work is the colorful names he gives his characters.
“The Lemon Drop Kid” was originally made in 1934 with Lee Tracy, and strangely enough, the characters in this version lack the unique Runyon names. I have not seen the film but one thing I did notice when looking at IMDB was the casting of William Frawley who appears in both films.
Note: THE LEMON DROP KID will air on TCM December 20th at 9:30PM Eastern Time