Sunday, December 4, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

The Lemon Drop Kid
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Written by Frank Tashlin
Based On a Story by Damon Runyon
Bob Hope
Marilyn Maxwell
Lloyd Nolan
Jane Darwell
Fred Clark
Jay C. Flippen
William Frawley

I have often lamented about the fact that today’s young film audiences seem to want little to do with any film not made in the past ten or fifteen years.  Anything else is considered ancient history, left for us old folks to reminisce over.  I suppose I shouldn’t gripe too much, seeing as how when I was young, I pretty much didn’t care for reading the classics, until I actually tried opening the cover and seeing what was being offered up inside.  But it’s a lot more difficult to spend a few days reading a 500 page or more tome by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne than sitting in front of a television screen to be entertained for a couple of hours.

But there are signs of hope.  My Honorable Son Number Two at the ripe old age of 23 years young, has begun delving into our honored cinematic past watching films such as Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and West Side Story.  He recently sent me a copy of Casablanca on blu-ray, something unexpected but totally appreciated especially when my only copy was some crappy DVD I recorded off of Turner Classic Movies.  So maybe I’m rubbing off on him or maybe he has, like so many others, found out that film age has little to do with quality of entertainment. 

On the other hand, one of my other sons, Honorable No. 3, has gone in the other direction.  When he first arrived out here in Sunny California Land, we would watch a film together a few nights a week, even some of the classics.  He seemed to like a few of them.  But due to circumstances putting a crimp in our viewing habits, he has pretty much given up on the likes of John Wayne, Ray Milland, and Jimmy Stewart, and his time is now consumed with work, Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls V, and beta testing Star Wars: The Knights of the Old Republic. 

I’m not sure what any of my three sons would think about The Lemon Drop Kid.  I’ve seen the film a few dozen times over the years, and probably know it far too well.  By that I mean that I can appreciate it, but it doesn’t really make me laugh like it once did back when I was ten, eleven, or thirty-five.  In those days we had three channels that we pulled in with a set of rabbit ears, and every Holiday season, just before Christmas, and especially on Christmas Eve, every movie that featured Santa Claus, Christmas, Scrooge, Angels, Nuns, and Priests , were dragged out for the Late Show because Johnny Carson was usually gone for the holidays.
Kid may have aging problems, but it deserves a better fate than it has received over the years, and this comes from someone who is not entirely enamored of Bob Hope Movies.  Unlike films like Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life, you seldom hear it mentioned at Christmas time.  Of course it doesn’t have the benefit of having a young Natalie Wood in the cast, and unlike Wonderful Life, it didn’t spend 15 years in the public domain enabling every local station and cable network in the world to run it every hour on the hour for about ten years.  What a game changer that  was for Frank Capra's ode to the Holidays.  I remember that even the Home Shopping Network got into the act one year, running it for twenty four hours straight instead of selling another set of Ginsu Knives. It was for the most part, a forgotten film up until then at which time somebody sniffed profit and it was snatched  out of public domain by the usual greedy bunch that rule the world.

Based on a short story by Damon Runyon, we begin on a warm sunny day at a racetrack in Florida as Sidney Milburn (Bob Hope), better known as The Lemon Drop Kid (so called because he is always popping lemon candy drops into his mouth) is busy touting horses. He convinces anybody that he can  to bet on a certain horse because he has the inside information and thus knows who is going to win before the race is even run.  Those who are convinced he is on the level, promise to pay The Kid off when the horse crosses the finish line.   By convincing enough suckers to bet until he has covered each horse in a given race, The Kid comes out ahead  no matter how the horses finish.

The Kid makes the mistake of convincing gangster Moose Moran’s (Fred Clark) girlfriend to bet $2000 on a different horse than the one she was sent to wager on.   That horse, Lightning Streak, loses.   The horse Moran had sent  her to bet on, Iron Bar, wins, which  puts The Kid in debt to Moran to the tune of about $10,000, the amount Moran would have gone home from the race track with.   Having no other choice, The Kid tries to get himself arrested.  Unfortunately the only two cops around are ones had snookered into a bad bet once before.

Before he can escape from his hotel, The Kid is apprehended by Moran’s Men and taken to face Moose who wants either his money, or The Kid’s hide.

The Kid convinces Moran that since it is the holidays, it would be better for Moran if he could find a way to pay the money back instead of paying with a few pounds of flesh.  So Moran gives The Kid until Christmas Day to come up with the ten grand and if he doesn’t, Sam the Surgeon (Harry Bellaver) will extract it from him piece by piece.

The Kid heads northward to New York City with nothing but  the shirt on his back and where there is a full blown blizzard in progress. He runs into an elderly “old doll”  by the name of Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell).

He can’t borrow the money from her because she is about to be evicted at the same time that her husband, Henry (Francis Pierlot), is due out on parole.  Besides that, Nellie was hoping The Kid would pay her the money he already owed her.

The Kid then looks up his old girlfriend, Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) that he had jilted once before while having absconded with her fur coat that he pawned for cash.  Although Brainy does her best to eschew his advances, The Kid suckers her once again, something she realizes when he tells her he is going to the Marriage License Bureau and heads there alone.  Obviously she got stuck with the “Brainy” moniker out of heavy sarcasm and not as a descriptive adjective.

The Kid schemes to make a deal with another gangster, Oxford Charley (Lloyd Nolan) and is quickly ushered out the door.  After seeing a street corner Santa taking in a wad of dough, The Kid decides to set himself up in the charity collection business in order to round up some money for his own favorite charity.

That would be himself of course,  and saving himself from the wrath of Moose Moran and his Family Physician.  He even puts a “Save a Life” tag on his collection pot.

It isn’t long before The Kid is arrested for pan handling and collecting for charity without a license.  In court the judge sentences him to ten dollars, which The Kid doesn’t have, or ten days, which The Kid can’t afford to serve.  As he is leaving the court, The Kid bumps into Nellie once again, who has been arrested for trying to retrieve her personal belongs from the apartment that her landlord (Victor Killian) had locked her out of.  No landlord/tenant laws in those days. 

The Kid uses his one phone call to plead with Brainy to bail him out but she gives him the brush off and he is carted off to jail.  But Brainy has second thoughts, and borrows the money from her boss, the aforementioned Oxford Charley, to bail him out with the intention that she won’t let him out of her sight until they say their “I do’s”.  Of course, you’ll be trying to figure out what the big attraction is that she can’t live without such a self-centered con artist, but I guess we just have to accept the fact that love conquers all.

Before that can happen, The Kid enlists Brainy into his latest scheme.  He’ll set up a legitimate charity, get a license and collect donations legally.  The donations will be enlisted to run a retirement home for Nellie and other “old dolls” who have no other place to go since their husbands have either died or are serving long sentences in the penitentiary.  The home will actually be Moose Moran’s old gambling joint which is temporarily out of commission after having been shut down by the law.  It will of course be called, “The Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls.”  Would any other name suffice?

What The Kid doesn’t tell Brainy, Nellie, his friends, or the other old dolls is that not only does Moose not know they are using his gambling joint as an old folks home,  but when Christmas Day arrives The Kid will use all the cash collected to pay off his debt to Moran, and the Old Dolls will all be out on the street.  I mean, why should it matter?  It’s not like The Kid has ever really cared about anybody but himself anyway.

But there are problems on the way.  Oxford Charley finds out about the Kid’s scheme, and plots to take over The Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls by kidnapping Nellie and the other old ladies.  His reasoning is that wherever Nellie is, that’s where the Nellie Thursday Home is.

In most Bob Hope films of this type, you’re going to get more than your share of slapstick, sight gags, and one liners and The Lemon Drop Kid is no exception.  There are plenty of one liners, and you’ll probably have to watch the film a second or third time to catch all of them.  Not that they will have you rolling in the aisles in hysterics, there are just as many misses as there are hits, but those that hit the mark kind of make you forget about the ones that fall flat.

The sight gags are another matter.  It’s not that some of them aren’t funny, but it is here that the film shows it’s age.  Many of these moments depend on good special effects or at the very least, believable execution.  But even for 1951 I’m not sure the ones here are up to snuff. 

For example, in one scene when the Old Dolls have bedded down on the gambling tables for the night, The Kid throws a switch which causes the tables to spin around and out of sight.  When the switch shorts out, and everything goes haywire, the effects amount to repeating the same few seconds of film over and over and then running it in reverse over and over.  In another scene, when The Kid is riding a bicycle through a building, the use of a backdrop for the whole sequence is glaringly, painfully obvious.  This is passable if you’re outdoors, but when the scene takes place indoors, it’s just idiotic not to have made more of an effort to get it right.   One can only surmise that the film was made on the cheap or they couldn’t find a stunt double with a nose that resembled Hope’s.

Bob Hope does a decent job here although far from being his best effort. He manages to make The Kid  likable despite being terribly despicable, sort of like Gru in Despicable Me.  The problem is that when his redemption does come, and you know it’s coming because this isn’t a Shakespearean Tragedy, it doesn’t come for any reason in particular or by any event that has made him seen the light other than the fact that Brainy, Nellie, and everybody else now want nothing to do with him.  That would be fine except that same scenario was true when the film began, and it never seemed to bother The Kid much.

Marilyn Maxwell is likable, pretty, and pleasant as Brainy, and probably the only character who seems to be pure of heart.  But that only serves to leave us scratching our head at her infatuation with The Kid and why she works for a mobster like Oxford Charley.

What helps to lift The Lemon Drop Kid up a notch up from just being run of the mill is the great supporting cast of character actors. Jane Darwell is perfect as Nellie Thursday, the “old doll” who is looking for a place to live before her husband is released from prison. You may remember Darwell as having touchingly played the bird woman in Mary Poppins. This film really showcases her talents to an even greater extent. 

Lloyd Nolan is seriously creepy as Oxford Charley as is Fred Clark as Moose. But the biggest scene stealer of all though is William "Fred Mertz" Frawley. Nothing tops Frawley standing on a street corner as Santa singing Silver Bells like it’s never been sung before or since.


Speaking of Silver Bells, this famous Christmas Song makes it’s first on screen appearance with a nice pleasant duet by Hope and Maxwell as they walk the streets of New York.  According to the IMDB, the movie was filmed in 1950, although released in March 1951.  That’s studio logic for you.  I can imagine it just this way:

What have we got in the can ready to go? 
We got this Christmas type movie with Bob Hope waiting for release. 
Fine, we’ll release it in the spring.

Go figure.  So Bing Crosby released the song in the winter of 1950, getting a hit out of it, and Hope and Maxwell were called back to the studio to give it a little more zing for it’s film release just in time for Easter.  But all you have to do is click the play button, courtesy of yours truly.  How this clip has survived on you tube for this long is in itself a Christmas Miracle.  I surely thought it would have been recalled long ago.  It’s been at least three years since I uploaded it, maybe longer.  And I did it for this review which I began writing back then, put it in a draft folder and forgot it existed.  And here I am complaining about Hollywood studio logic.

Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell, and William Frawley join the citizens of New York for a rousing chorus of Silver Bells.

So how do you watch this film?  Well, there’s no special sixtieth anniversary blu-ray out there, or no cleaned up spiffy colorized version.   But you can see it with just a little effort.  Netflix, as it seems to be happening more and more these days is a dead end.  So forget that.  They simply are not replenishing their DVD library and as discs get damaged and lost they are not being replaced and it’s not in their limited streaming library.  You can buy the film from either Amazon, or Shout Factory.  You can also buy a digital copy from Amazon.  The good news though is that you if you have Amazon Prime, you can currently watch it for free because unlike Netflix it is in their library.  Here comes the commercial:  If you don’t have Amazon Prime, with two day delivery, free movies, and free books for your Kindle, now might be the time to start thinking about it.  End of commercial.

Now having said all of  that, I can say that  if you’ve never seen this film and you’re a Christmassy type of person, you could do a lot worse than The Lemon Drop Kid.  You’ll find just enough laughs, and it has just enough Holiday sentiments to get by, and if a film can do well to get by I have no choice but to stuff a grade of C+ into it’s stocking and yours.

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