The Lemon Drop kid is one of those Christmas gems that people overlook at the holiday because it does not feature Santa Claus, An Angel, or little kids. When most folks look for a Christmas movie they probably want something that tugs at the heart and reinforces the season. I don’t think The Lemon Drop Kid manages to do the first and only barely connects with the second. That may seem strange since this is the movie that introduced “Silver Bells” as a holiday classic. The main reason it gets overlooked probably is it’s greatest strength, it is a classic slapstick comedy with wisecracks by a seedy character played by Bob Hope. It’s not “Bad Santa”, but it does get us more in the funny bone than the heart.
Based on a Damon Runyon story, The Lemon Drop Kids follows the exploits of a race track tout, who crosses paths with a gangster and ends up owing a huge debt. What follows is a crazy plot to raise the money, in a way that seems particularly cruel to a group of older women at Christmas time. Inevitably, there is a change of heart and the plan does not go the way it was originally laid out. The story is set in the seedy streets of New York, a Florida Racetrack, and a casino that is turned into a retirement community. It is populated with grifters, thieves, gangsters and assorted other riff raff, all of whom have colorful names. Most of the characters have a heavy Brooklyn accent and some sound like they could be Bugs Bunny in a live action feature.
Those of you who only know Bob Hope from his USO shows and Christmas specials, or even worse, only know him from clips you have seen of old Hollywood, are in for a nice surprise. Hope is a very effective comic actor,with an expressive face and quick wit to back him up in tight situations. He reminded me a lot of Jim Carrey in several well planned visual gags. He was never over the top, but he could see the ledge from where he was performing. There are two great sequences when he arrives back in New York at the beginning of winter, in his white linen suit, completely out of place in the freezing conditions. A short thirty second sequence with him being blown back around a corner by the cold New York wind is really well staged and it has a funny verbal payoff. Later, as he gets ready to meet his on again off again girlfriend, he does the Marilyn Monroe Seven Year Itch scene, five years before she made hot hair blowing up your clothes famous and a lot more sexy. Hope then vamps for nearly two minutes in front of a mirror, drawing laughs from some silly visual cues but even more laughs from his smart guy commentary.
I’ll mention one other scene that shows how carefully planned the comedy in the film was. Late in the film he will impersonate an old lady to gain access to the retirement home, but first he needs a disguise. He manages to remove the clothes from a mannequin in a store window, while hiding behind an animated Santa display. It builds really well and is actually a little risque. It was also hysterical, and the payoff on this joke is another classic comedy bit, executed well by the film makers. Some of these gags may play a bit creaky for modern audiences, but if you have a little bit of patience, they manage to bring the smiles that you would come to a movie like this for.
The most successful part of the comedy however is not the slap stick staging or convoluted plotting. Although there are a dozen good visual gags in the movie, the real star is the power of Bob Hopes’ delivery. He spouts one liners and asides and excuses like they are going out of style. Most of them hit, and he sells them with his wide eyed expression and manufactured smile. If you listen, you will get all the jokes because they are simple, it is the delivery and timing that makes them work, and this is Bob Hope before he was slowed down by the need for cue cards. This is a movie that makes me want to go back and look at all the Road pictures he did with Bing Crosby, again. There was a reason that this guy was a star for over sixty years. I mentioned that I thought of him recently when I saw the new Muppet film. The humor is clever without being snide, there was cynicism but with a gentile touch and in the end you know that you are in the presence of someone who understands what is funny.