Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Lemon Drop Kid (Paramount, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie, and I decided to pick one with a Christmas theme and settled on The Lemon Drop Kid, a 1951 Paramount vehicle for Bob Hope based on a Damon Runyon story that they had previously filmed in 1934 with Lee Tracy as star and the underrated Marshall “Mickey” Neilan as director. (Neilan had drunk himself out of a major-studio career but his direction of the independent race movie Chloe had produced a surprise hit and won him a chance at a comeback at the majors, though it didn’t last long and he only worked as a director for three more years, though he lived until 1958 and acted in a small part as a U.S. Senator in A Face in the Crowd a year before he died.) The Lemon Drop Kid was made at a time when Damon Runyon’s popularity was at its peak even though he had died in 1942; Hope had previously appeared in another film based on a Runyon story, Sorrowful Jones, in 1948 and it had been a blockbuster hit and a major career boost for his co-star, Lucille Ball. What’s more, Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows musical based on Runyon’s stories, had opened on Broadway in 1950 and become the most popular musical to that time, so in this film Runyon is the only person who gets above-the-title billing. The Lemon Drop Kid also is noteworthy as the film that introduced the holiday classic “Silver Bells,” first warbled in his usual tone-deaf manner by William Frawley (who also appeared in the 1934 version and in this one plays a Runyonesque lumpen character recruited by Hope to be a bell-ringing Santa Claus) and then sung on Paramount’s “New York Street” set by Hope and his leading lady, Marilyn Maxwell (the other blonde movie star named Marilyn with a second name beginning with “M”!). The arrangement of the song, punctuated by the street bells Hope and Maxwell are supposedly ringing, indicates that the “suits” at Paramount were hoping this song would become a mega-hit on the order of “White Christmas,” and while it didn’t reach that level of popularity, it did make the charts (thanks to a recording by, of all people, Bing Crosby, Hope’s lifelong friend off-screen and bitter rival on-screen) and become a seasonal standard.

The Lemon Drop Kid begins where any film based on Damon Runyon’s work ought to begin: at a horse-racing track, this one in Florida, where Sidney Milburn (Hope) — who’s been given the nickname “The Lemon Drop Kid” based on his fondness for that sort of candy — is talking to a horse. If this were a Hope-Crosby Road movie the horse would probably have answered him back in English, but instead Hope simply asks the horse who’s going to win the race it’s in and the horse answers with normal horse-noises. All this is supposed to prove to the customers at the racetrack that the Kid has inside information about the races, and he seems to be making his money by giving tips on every horse and then collecting from whichever bettor he sold on the horse which actually won. Only one of his customers turns out to be the girlfriend of gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark), and he talks her out of putting $2,000 of Moran’s money on the horse that eventually wins and instead gets her to bet on the horse that finishes an embarrassing last. Moran kidnaps the Kid and tells him to pay him $10,000 — the amount his $2,000 bet would have paid off if it had been placed on the horse he wanted in the first place — by Christmas Day, or else — and he gives the Kid a look at three of his thugs working over a man who cost him money just to show what will happen to him if he doesn’t pay off. The Kid is broke, and in order to raise the money he goes to New York City (if he’s so broke, how does he get there?) and hits up his old girlfriend “Brainey” Baxter (Maxwell), who works at a nightclub owned by Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan). Charlie is in love with Brainey, but Brainey loves the Kid — only she’s getting more and more impatient with him because he won’t marry her. The Kid runs into another old friend, Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell, whom Hope insisted be billed fourth and in the same type size as his own name), who’s been waiting 20 years for her safecracker husband to be paroled, only now that he’s got a parole date she’s got no place to take him because she’s just been evicted. The Kid sees a bell-ringer Santa Claus (obviously patterned on the real ones from the Salvation Army, though the actual agency’s name is never mentioned) and decides to use the same gimmick himself, dressing in an ill-fitting Santa suit and ringing his own bell — only he gets busted by the police for not having a city license and Brainey has to bail him out. Nonetheless, this gives him an idea; he’ll take over Moose Moran’s old casino, now closed after a police raid; reopen it as the “Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls,” and organize as a quasi-legitimate charity with a city license.

Since Nellie is a sort of mascot among New York’s criminal classes, the Kid recruits the city’s lower-level gangsters to be his Santa Clauses — including Gloomy Willie (William Frawley), who’s only billed eighth but is one of the most entertaining parts of this movie, turning in a standout performance that warmed him up for his coming bout with immortality as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. There’s an unexpectedly poignant moment when the Kid catches Willie with a bottle on his person and says, “Santy Claus don’t drink” — and Willie replies, “Then how come he’s always falling down chimneys?” The poignancy comes from Frawley’s real-life status as a recovering alcoholic, which almost cost him the Fred Mertz role; CBS didn’t want to risk that one of the series’ principals would fall off the wagon and miss work, and Desi Arnaz had to put his own prestige and money on the line to guarantee that Frawley would stay sober and able to work — which he did. Anyway, the Kid moves the “old dolls” into the casino — “played” by the big set Paramount had used in Holiday Inn and would recycle again for White Christmas — and has them sleep on the gambling tables on “mattresses” that are really wrestling mats brought from a gym (where Tor Johnson worked out as a wrestler until the Kid roped him into being one of his bell-ringing Santas — it’s nice to see that this weird screen presence from Ed Wood’s and Coleman Francis’ bad movies got to be in a major-studio production with a major star, and a quite good movie at that!). He’s bound and determined to run this scam at least until the holidays, by which he hopes to have the money to pay Moose off — only Oxford Charlie, who in the first half of the movie was portrayed as a nice guy deeply in love with “Brainey” and sorry to see her only attracted to the Kid, turns into a gangster rivaling Moose for unscrupulousness in the second half: he kidnaps Nellie and the other “old dolls” and holds them hostage in his country home in Nyack, keeping the racket going for his own enrichment. To stop him, the Kid dresses in drag and crashes Charlie’s home posing as an “old doll” in need of accommodations — only he loses the handbag he brought, which contained a gun, and ends up with someone else’s un-armed bag. There’s a comic confrontation which ends with both Moose and Charlie getting arrested and the Kid and “Brainey” agreeing to tie the knot and continue running the old dolls’ home.

The Lemon Drop Kid is a lovely movie, and like many of Hope’s best films (the Road movies, the 1939 Some Like It Hot, and the 1949 film The Great Lover) it benefits from the sprinkling of darkness in the background that sets off the Hope humor. It’s the kind of role that suited him best: not the out-and-out doofus he all too often played in his later years but the sharp con artist who’s nowhere near as sharp, or as skilled in the “con,” as he likes to think. It’s also got two great songs — “Silver Bells,” which you know about, and a nice novelty called “It Doesn’t Cost a Dime to Dream,” which you don’t know about but you should — and some unusual (for a Hope movie) slapstick sequences, including one in which Hope gets the women’s clothes he needs by stealing them, one garment at a time, off a mechanically moving mannequin in a department-store window, in full view of a laughing crowd and a perplexed cop. This must be one of the sequences shot by the uncredited co-director, Frank Tashlin — the script was written by the usual committee (Edmund Beloin, Edmund L. Hartmann, Robert O’Brien, Frank Tashlin, and “additional dialogue” by Irving Elinson) and the credited director is Sidney Lanfield, an old Fox hack who made something of a comeback in the 1960’s with The Addams Family TV show, but Lanfield’s skills at character comedy and drawing-room drama did not extend to a forceful, screamingly funny slapstick scene like this, and both this and the ending show Tashlin’s sensibilities. The Lemon Drop Kid is also unusually good as a showpiece for Hope’s voice: though it was hardly as beautiful an instrument as Bing Crosby’s, Hope’s voice was musical enough to hold his own with Bing in their duets, and on his own he phrased quite well and communicated a song effectively.