An above-average Bob Hope comedy, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) has many assets: good direction by an uncredited Frank Tashlin, a better-than-usual character for Hope to wrap his screen persona around, and an appealing leading lady well-versed in Hope's style of comedy. It introduces a classic holiday song, and at least twice the usual number of character players populate its Damon Runyon-based story.
A remake of the same-named 1934 Lee Tracy-Helen Mack comedy (which co-starred William Frawley, who's also in this), The Lemon Drop Kid was produced and distributed by Paramount, but as a co-production of Hope Enterprises the rights seem to have shifted around through the decades. Shout! Factory's release is licensed from Fremantle Media, a London-based firm that apparently owns most of Hope's post-1948 titles. In any case, the full frame transfer looks just fine. There are no extras.
Yes, that's big Tor Johnson in the middle, dressed as Santa Claus
Sidney Melbourne (Hope), better known as the Lemon Drop Kid, is a racing tout ("someone who sells picks of winners against the spread and the over/under," says Wikipedia) operating out of a track in Florida. The Kid unknowingly cons the girlfriend of gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark), who demands the Kid pay him $10,000, the amount Moose figures he would've won, by Christmas Eve.
Traveling to New York, the Kid eventually hits upon an elaborate scheme: using an army of fellow grifters dressed in Santa Claus suits, he solicits donations for an old age home for "Old Dolls," headlined by grandmotherly Nellie Thursday (The Grapes of Wrath's Jane Darwell), recently evicted from her apartment while waiting for her safecracker husband to finish his jail sentence.
Various small time crooks - including Straight Flush (Jay C. Flippen), Gloomy Willie (William Frawley), Little Louie (Sid Melton), No Thumbs Charlie (Tom Dugan), and Super Swedish Angel (Tor Johnson) - happily agree to help out the kindly old ladies. They have no idea the Kid plans to pocket the dough and beat it come Christmas Eve, and neither does nightclub singer Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell), the Kid's sometime girlfriend who naively assumes he's gone legit. Eventually Brainy's boss, racketeer Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan), catches on to the Kid's scheme and muscles in on his scam - just days before the Christmas deadline.
The Lemon Drop Kid has a lot going for it: the opening racetrack scenes are hilarious, with the Kid outrageously conning one gullible gambler after another. It's an intelligent use of Hope's established screen persona; too bad this sort of thing is limited to the opening scenes. Nevertheless, the Damon Runyon milieu serves Hope well, providing him with something closer to an actual character to play beyond his usual cowardly and unscrupulous screen image. (Hope previously starred in 1949's Sorrowful Jones, also based on a Runyon story, Markie.)
Born with the Runyon-esque name Marvel Marilyn Maxwell, the radio singer had toured with Hope on his famous USO shows, and around this time they were also appearing together on television's The Colgate Comedy Hour. They enjoy an appealing, relaxed screen chemistry similar to Hope's with Dorothy Lamour. Hope and Maxwell did a lot of radio and TV together but just one other film, the largely forgotten Off Limits (1953).
Maxwell, with Hope joining in later, also introduces the song "Silver Bells" (William Frawley sings harmony with Maxwell prior to Hope), now a Christmas standard and which Hope later reprised on numerous Christmas television specials. Other than "Thanks for the Memory," it's probably the song most closely identified with the comedian. In the film "Silver Bells" is presented with much imagination; it looks like the entire Paramount backlot was transformed into something out of Norman Rockwell, just for the occasion.
Reportedly Frank Tashlin, who co-wrote the script, directed something like one-third of the picture, though why he took over from credited director Sidney Lanfield is unclear. Regardless, many of the cartoony sight gags (and accompanying funny sound effects) bear his unmistakable stamp.
The supporting cast is great. The film features what is probably Tor Johnson's best role in an "A" picture, as one of the mugs the Kid sends out dressed as Santa to collect donations. Seeing Johnson's get-up the Kid advises him, "Now don't scare too many people, okay?" Later, Tor collects donations from some sewer workers, pulling the dough up through an open manhole. After telling them, "T'anks a lot, feylahs!" Tor casually tosses the heavy manhole cover back into place like it was a paper plate.
Video & Audio
With rights likely inherited from BCI/Eclipse, which released four Hope comedies a few years back in mostly gorgeous high-def transfers on the now-defunct HD DVD format, Shout! Factory's The Lemon Drop Kid offers a similarly impressive transfer - clean, sharp, and bright. The mono audio (English only, with no subtitle options) is likewise strong. The region "1" encoded disc has no Extra Features.
The Lemon Drop Kid is a funny movie that still elicits strong laughs today, and its Christmastime setting makes its release now, not long before the holidays, timely as well. Highly Recommended.
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