The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) — All I want for Christmas is my two kneecaps

“Silver bells, silver bells, let’s put some dough in the kitty. Chuck it in, chuck it in, or Santy will give you a mickey.”

Sitting Duck’s rating: Six out of ten Gs owed to the Mob.

Sitting Duck’s review: Nowadays if you were to ask a random person on the street what their favorite Damon Runyon story is, you’re all but guaranteed to get either a blank look or a face full of pepper spray. Quite the downfall when you consider how he was one of the most celebrated short story writers in America less than a century ago. I blame the schools.

As well as their concerted effort to make sure that kids will hate reading, I don’t recall ever seeing his stories in grade school readers. Then again, said stories do revolve around the bottom feeders of the New York City underworld who were unapologetic about their criminal status. Seen in that light, they’re unattractive subject matter to introduce to the kiddies. Certainly it could have resulted in some uncomfortable PTA meetings.

Still, it’s a shame, as Runyon was quite the entertaining writer. His stories followed the doings of a variety of sketchy characters who resided in Prohibition-era Manhattan (New York, not Kansas). They possessed colorful sobriquets like Harry the Horse, Sorrowful Jones, Joe the Joker, Dancing Dan, Pete the Peddler, and the Lacework Kid. The use of slang was plentiful and never explained, though the context made it easy enough to figure out the meanings. Runyon also had the rare talent of being able to write a sentimental story without having it double as an emetic. And throughout his vast output, there is nary a contraction, which gives the dialogue an oddly formal sound.

My personal favorite is “Hold ‘Em, Yale,” which centers around a crew of ticket scalpers working the Harvard-Yale game. They encounter a girls’ prep school runaway who was supposed to meet the guy she intended to elope with at the game but got stood up. Since they have enough unsold tickets, they offer to take the girl (or “doll” in the Runyon vernacular) to see the game. While this may sound like the prologue for a Ms. 45 style revenge flick, it actually results in hilarity ensuing as the scalpers are perplexed by the game (at the time the story takes place, football was mostly a college sport) while the doll enthusiastically cheers on Yale in the midst of some very irate Harvard supporters. Alas, in this day and age, the closest many people get into contact with Runyon is through seeing a parody of his work in an old Looney Tunes short or by attending a revival of Guys and Dolls.

Being such a popular writer meant that Runyon’s stories were frequently adapted to film. However, calling the 1951 version of The Lemon Drop Kid an adaptation is a bit of a stretch, as it resembles its source material about as well as I, Robot resembles the writings of Isaac Asimov. The only points the two have in common is that the lead character is a racetrack tout known as the Lemon Drop Kid on account of his fondness for lemon drops, a scam he pulls in the opening goes horribly wrong on him, and a stash of money he saves up mysteriously disappears.

At the end of the day, it was intended as a vehicle for its star Bob Hope which plays to his own comic stylings rather than utilize those of Runyon. Certainly this makes it a bad adaptation. But does that make it a bad movie?

Before we get into the movie, an explanation for those who have no idea what a racetrack tout is. The racetrack tout runs his scam by going around the track as people are placing bets. He sidles up to a mark (possibly saying, “Hey, bud… c’mere a minute”) and presents himself as someone with inside knowledge about the horses. He convinces the mark that, for a cut of the winnings, he’ll tell the mark which horse will win (which is definitely not the one the mark originally intended to place a bet on). The process is repeated until the tout has all the horses covered. Like any effective scam, it’s simple and preys on a mark’s greed and ignorance.

Racetrack tout Sidney Milburn (Bob Hope), better known as the Lemon Drop Kid, is working his racket down in Florida where the tracks still run in December. While making his rounds, he encounters a particularly gullible doll who is placing a bet of two Gs. If the horse he cons her into betting on wins, he will be set up good. But much to his consternation, the Kid learns too late that the doll was placing the bet on behalf of her gangster sugar daddy Moose Moran (Fred Clark). It is bad enough that the horse she was supposed to bet on wins. But adding insult to injury, the horse she was conned into betting on finishes dead last.

Moose is not pleased by this turn of events. Sure, two Gs is small potatoes for a man like him, but he has his reputation to consider. If Moose were to allow a nickel-and-dime swindler like the Kid to get away with this misdeed, he would lose face among the other gangsters. But Christmas is coming, a time of goodwill to all men. So Moose gives the Kid until Christmas Eve to pay back the 10 Gs he would have won. Otherwise, Moose will send in his boys to bring back the head of the Kid as a stocking stuffer.

Heading back to his stomping grounds in the Big Apple, the Kid tries to beg up some dough, first from his doll Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell), then from shady night club owner Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan). However, Brainey insists on long-term commitment, while Charlie is having money troubles of his own courtesy of Uncle Sam. Dejected, the Kid wanders the streets and notices a guy in a Santa Claus suit ringing a bell as people toss their lettuce in his kettle. The Kid realizes this is the perfect way to accumulate the needed ten Gs. After all, who will notice one more Santa Claus?

The Heat, that is who. A policeman recognizes the Kid and hauls him in front of the bench on a panhandling charge. The Kid is found guilty and is given the choice of a fine he cannot afford or ten days in the jug, which he also cannot afford. Fortunately, Brainey comes to pay the fine, though she is not happy about it.

The Kid now recognizes where his scheme went wrong. The problem is that he was collecting the dough for himself rather than a cause of which City Hall would approve. He then recalls a sob story he was told not long ago by sweet old doll Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell). Her application to live at a retirement home had been rejected as her safecracker husband is currently serving a stretch at Sing Sing. For this purpose, he creates the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls. A casino on Long Island owned by Moose which is not being used on account of the Heat having raided it not long ago is appropriated as a front. The Kid then recruits every two-bit hustler, stooge, and goon he can who owe one to Nellie as Santas to maximize his collecting potential. This way, he will have the ten Gs in time. But will the Kid really send all those unsuspecting old dolls up the river once he has gotten enough potatoes to pay off his debt with Moose? He had better not if the producers want an Approved rating from the Hays Office.

As I mentioned earlier, the film barely gives a token effort at adapting the original short story. So you might assume that I’d be incensed over this flagrant disrespect. Well, you would be wrong. The truth is that The Lemon Drop Kid is one of my less favorite Damon Runyon stories. As well as being horribly downbeat, it employs a plot framework I intensely dislike. It’s the one where the lead character panics as he thinks he’s about experience trouble and takes flight. The narrative then follows him passing through a gauntlet of woe and misery. At the story’s conclusion, it’s revealed that he never was in trouble, or it was for something trivial and not worth what he experienced to evade it. That sort of thing just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. So they can mutilate it to their heart’s content for all I care. No, my issue is that there’s no real need for the pretense of a Runyon connection. Bob Hope was at the height of his popularity and enough of a draw in his own right.

So how does it stack on its own merits? The plot framework is a decent one, rife with comedic potential. The narrative manages to stay on point, with little drift into the sort of irrelevant cul-de-sac scenes that often infect comedies. It also helps that Hope was still in top form, with it being over a decade before his decline would commence.

A point of concern regarding the film’s star is his limited range. Much as how Charlie Chaplin could only play the Little Tramp (part of why his talkies are so Gawdawful) and John Wayne could only play John Wayne, Bob Hope could only play Bob Hope. Fortunately, this persona of a fast-talking Lovable Coward makes a good fit for the character of a petty shyster in trouble with a Mob boss, even if he doesn’t have much of a Runyon vibe to him. Picking up the slack in that regard are the petty hoods recruited for the Santa racket, who provide the needed eccentricity. These include notable character actors such as William Frawley, Sid Melton, Jay C. Flippen, Ben Welden, and, um… Tor Johnson. Yeah, his filmography was quite different before he hooked up with Ed Wood. As for the rest of the cast, they manage to display a reasonable amount of competence in their performances

Where matters go wrong is the consistency of the humor. No genre suffers the ravages of time worse than comedy (though science fiction is a close second). What is considered utterly hilarious at the time of release all too often is regarded by future generations with befuddlement at best and outrage at worst. The Lemon Drop Kid is no different, with many sequences that try too hard to be zany and all too often crossing the line into being komedy.

On the whole, The Lemon Drop Kid is worth seeing once (especially if you’re a Bob Hope completist). Unfortunately, multiple viewings expose weaknesses in the comedy, with each rewatch scouring away at the former brilliance.

Didja notice?

  • The film’s signature song “Silver Bells” was originally going to be entitled “Tinkle Bells”. That is until someone had an attack of good sense, sparing everyone from juvenile alternate lyrics.
  • Smart aleck karma
  • Tor!
  • When you think about it, Santa does act a bit like a crook
  • Little Monkey Boy!
  • Wrong kind of doll
  • Alternate lyrics to “Silver Bells” (that have nothing to do with public urination)
  • Charitable extortion
  • Mannequin stripping
  • Truly horrible rear projection

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