This will be the third year we have had The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) on our holiday watch list. It stayed off for many years because I am not a big fan of Bob Hope, probably because I first encountered him on his TV specials in the 1960s when his humor had become rather tired and tiresome. I later learned to enjoy the early “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby, so we decided to give this a try. Its main delight comes in elements beyond Bob Hope and the roguish, narcissistic character he portrays. It has one of the most familiar array of character actors in our Christmas catalog, many of whom were on the verge of long, varied careers in TV and others at the end of long movie careers. We have not seen the 1934 version of the Damon Runyon story, which apparently does not have a Christmas element, but we will try to watch it in 2019.
The perpetually broke Lemon Drop Kid (who gain the moniker because of his favorite candy) is working the Florida race tracks touting different horses to dupes near the betting windows. He convinces the girl friend of gangster Moose Moran to bet on a losing horse and now owes Moose $10,000. Moose agrees not to kill Lemon Drop if he can come up with the ten grand by Christmas Eve. Lemon Drop heads to his home turf, New York City, and tries to come up with the dough, settling on a nefarious con job: convincing his Times Square pals to wear Santa suits and collect donations to raise funds for a retirement home for Nellie Thursday and other “old dolls.” Rival gangster Oxford Charlie gets wind of the scheme and snatches the dolls and the funds, letting everyone know that Lemon Drop was also scheming to abscond with the money. Lemon Drop finds a way to squirm out of danger, regains everyone’s trust, and all ends happily on Christmas Eve.
The Runyonesque denizens of Times Square, dressed in Santa suits ringing bells to collect donations in their kettles, create some funny scenes, culminating in the first film rendition of the classic Christmas song “Silver Bells.”
Pat Flaherty, who plays Police Captain Swain who raids the casino at the film’s conclusion, appeared in yesterday’s film, Meet John Doe, where he played the rival newspaper spy trying to convince Gary Cooper to admit that he is a fake. We will see him tomorrow in The Thin Man (1934) in a small role early in his long career. Flaherty shows up again and again in small but key parts in some of the finest classics: a jail guard in Modern Times (1936), a member of the ground crew in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), again with Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (1941), and dozens more. My favorite appearances of his are as a bum on the dump with William Powell in My Man Godfrey (1936) and as the foreman of the salvage crew junking the unused war planes near the end of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
We have already seen Brooks Benedict in Holiday Inn. In The Lemon Drop Kid, he is seen leaving the Men’s Room after the cross-dressing Lemon Drop Kid ducks in with the purloined dough.
Lloyd Nolan, who plays Oxford Charlie, had hundreds of roles in movies in the 1940s and ’50s and then on TV through the mid-1980s. We saw him recently in the World War II film Bataan (1943) in an outstanding performance as a crazed corporal under fire during the Japanese invasion.
Jane Darwell made a long career out of playing kindly old ladies, often in Shirley Temple films (she appeared in five). She could also be a busy-body, such as Mrs. Merriwether in Gone with the Wind (1939). She won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Ma Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
Fred Clark, who plays Moose Moran, is another of the character actors who appeared in a host of films and TV series in the 1950s and 1960s. He had recurring roles in such classics as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show in the early 1950s and then in The Beverly Hillbillies in the early ’60s. He played the producer Sheldrake in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Another actor who bridged movies and TV was Jay C. Flippen, who plays Straight Flush Tony. His craggy voice and gruff voice made him perfect for Westerns both on the big screen (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River and The Far Country) and on the small (Rawhide, The Virginian and Wanted: Dead or Alive).
William Frawley, who plays Gloomy Willie, won TV immortality as Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy, but before that he was a character actor with a long list of movie credits. We will see him three more times in the Christmas cinema list: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Lady on a Train (1945) and Good Sam (1948).
Ida Moore, who plays Mrs. Feeney (the bird lady), will also show up in a charming role in Good Sam (1948) and in Double Dynamite (1951). She had distinctive small roles in such comedies as The Egg and I (1947) and its spin-off Ma and Pa Kettle (1949).
Tom Dugan, who plays No Thumbs Charlie, had some wonderful small parts in several classic comedies. He was Bronski in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) and the Grand Central con man in The Major and the Minor (1942). He also appeared with Lloyd Nolan in Bataan (1943). We will see him again in Lady on a Train (1945). He has a distinctive role as a cop chasing the sailors to Coney Island near the end of On the Town (1949).
Ida Moore appeared with Fred Astaire in Let’s Dance (1950).
Fred Clark played Griggs, Fred’s chief of staff in Daddy Long Legs (1955).
Tom Dugan appeared with Fred in The Belle of New York (1952). Dugan appeared on a vaudeville bill with Fred and Adele Astaire as part of the comic sketch team Dugan & (Babette) Raymond in Poli’s Theatre in Waterbury, CT, during the week of November 8, 1915.
Jay Flippen appeared with the Astaires on a benefit bill for the Young Folk’s League for Aid to Hebrew Infants at Manhattan’s Liberty Theatre (234 W. 42nd St.) on October 25, 1931. Also on the bill were vaudeville headliners Irene Franklin and Sophie Tucker.
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
We’re suckers for any film with horses at race tracks, even if it is not Saratoga. We also delight in any movie, especially Christmas movies, with scenes of Manhattan. This film abounds in such scenes, highlighted by a wonderfully produced rendition of “Silver Bells” dancing and singing through Midtown, closing with a lovely aerial shot of snow falling on Central Park. The production Barbara of the flower market number in My Fair Lady. Finally, there is fine comic bit with a dachshund on the frozen sidewalks of New York, and Barbara loves dachshunds.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
The Lemon Drop Kid is not scheduled on TCM this season, but it is available on DVD from Amazon.