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Now, don’t look like you’re handling hot reindeer.

The Lemon Drop Kid
(1951)

(SPOILERS) That ghastly poster (the one at the foot of the page) makes it a wonder anyone actually saw The Lemon Drop Kid, a remake of the 1934 movie of the same name – kind of, in that it was also based on the Damon Runyon short story – but this time reconditioned for Bob Hope. Hope is generally reviled these days, largely based on his later period of very resistible stand-up/Republican cheerleading/USO-ing unsuspecting troops and compering gigs like the Oscars – and for other, less widely broadcast reasons I shall mention tangentially – but there was a golden period, around 1939 to 1952 when he was consistently appearing in some of the quippiest, meta-est comedies around. The Lemon Drop Kid isn’t quite one of those, casting Hope as the small-time swindler who does the right thing in the end – it’s Christmas! – but it definitely has its moments.

Sidney: Santa Claus doesn’t drink.
Gloomy Willie: Oh no? Well, how come he’s always falling down chimneys?

Hope was reaching the end of his movie star run here, though. 1952 would be his last gasp, with Road to Bali and Son of Paleface. Which was directed by Frank Tashlin, latterly a Lewis mainstay who contributed both the screenplay and uncredited direction to The Lemon Drop Kid. Son of Paleface is given as one of the Top Ten of its year, but there was no danger of that happening again.

Sidney: That judge didn’t look honest to me.
Cop: For eighteen years, he’s been a member of the bar.
Sidney: That’s what I mean, drinking on duty.

Hope would drop off the generational radar in the ’60s, except as a figure of scorn, out of touch with the new generation and increasingly despised for his pro-military stance. Perhaps his suggested MKUltra activities – as an “Illuminati pimp” – were also an underlying source of animus. He was known as a serial womaniser, so such skills would undoubtedly come in handy there. And he played golf with Presidents; you need more than just a strong follow-through if you’re going to mingle in such circles.

The Lemon Drop Kid finds Hope’s titular character (real name: Sidney Melbourne) offering the final glassy stare of a master hypnotist as he tells bride-to-be Brainey Baxer (Marilyn Maxwell) “Relax, I have everything planned”. Somehow, Hope was still getting regular starring gigs until the end of the ’60s, despite profound audience disinterest, which may have been testament to the influence he exerted.

Gloomy Willie: You’re going to dump all those nice old ladies out on the street at Christmas time? I wouldn’t do that to my own mother.

In The Lemon Drop Kid, he’s only a couple of years shy of fifty, and that once snappy patter – an inspiration for the also no-longer-reputably-rated Woody Allen – is less vibrant than it had been (another decade on, and see how tired Road to Hong Kong is). Sidney’s mainly known by “the Kid” here, getting in over his head after he cons the wrong gal betting on the horses, whose money belongs to gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark). Owing $10,000, he persuades Moose to give him until Christmas to get the money together.

Returning to a very blizzardy New York – he steals a body warmer from a dachshund – an initial scheme to pose as a Santa and collect donations (for himself) flounders after he is nicked for “collecting money for charity without a licence”. However, this gives him the idea for setting up a “genuine” charity, the “Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls” (Nellie, Jane Darwell, being an old acquaintance, whose hubby is in the clink, so denying her access to an old folks’ home). Naturally, the Kid doesn’t plan to see the scheme through, but enough neighbourhood hoodlums have a high regard for Nellie that they join him in his mission. Along with old flame Brainey.

Everything appears to be going swimmingly until Oxford Charlie – “Communist!” snarls the Kid after Charlie turns down a request for financial assistance – decides to muscle in on the Kid’s territory, kidnapping Nellie from Moose’s casino (which the Kid is using for the home). Naturally, all works out in the end; the Kid dons drag, posing as Mrs Herbert Beesly, and enters the home to steal back the cash; when Moose and Charlie are arrested, and the judge promises to keep an eye on him, the Kid replies “You don’t have to, judge. I’m turning over a new leaf. I’ll never be caught again”.

Gloomy Willie: Well, what’s a cow doing inside the house?
Sidney: Milton Berle’s on tonight.

There’s a smattering of the kind of one-liners you’re used to from Hope, but without the consistency of previous fare. In court, asked where his lawyer is, the Kid replies that he’s in Washington “trying to fix a parking ticket for President Truman” (I’m not sure on the topical relevance; Truman did avoid a speeding ticket a couple of years later, though). Interrupted by a mooing cow in the last scene, he instructs “Quiet, Crosby”. And while there are elements of the cowardly, shameless Hope character, they’re somewhat soft-pedalled on this occasion: “Riff-raff” he snarls after being greeted with jeers in the cells (“Santy Claus hasn’t been a good boy this year”).

Cab Driver: Mother, you don’t have to tip me.
Sidney (as Mrs Herbert Beesly): No? Well, here, have a cigar.

There are also a few of the traditional sleights at his character’s expense (but no Fourth-Wall breaking): “He’s as big a hoodlum as the Lemon Drop Kid!” says an old lady of Charlie, much to Mrs Beesly’s affront. And then, in the tradition of giving others the best lines: “You still have your hourglass figure, dear. But most of the sand has gone to the bottom”.

Sidney: Adjust boots, bellies and beards.

As seasonal comedies go, The Lemon Drop Kid does the job, but rather like the later Scrooged, it doesn’t find its star on peak form (thankfully, there’s none of the horrifying mawkish gush that afflicts Bill Murray in that picture’s final minutes, though). The Lemon Drop Kid is also notable for the first celebrated appearance of Silver Bells – allegedly changed from Tinkle Bells because it might be considered an allusion to taking a whizz – albeit, Crosby’s croon with Carol Richards became a success between filming and release, necessitating reshoots of a grander musical number in order to capitalise. None of the proceeds going to the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls.


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