The Lemon Drop Kid

The Lemon Drop Kid. Paramount Pictures 1951.

Before watching the movie:

I found this on the shelf, and it seemed like a pretty standard comedy vehicle. Bob Hope gets into trouble, and Bob Hope does a lot of crazy things trying to get out of trouble. A Bob Hope movie.

The more modern image on the box is probably more indicative of the content than the poster, which is most likely depicting the most outrageous, but minor, sequence. “Bob Hope wearing a dress! Hilarious, right?” But I stick to theatrical posters, and there was no other option.

Apparently this is a Christmas movie, but I didn’t realize that when I decided to watch it. Imagining refreshingly cold winter air is probably welcome right now.

After watching the movie:

Sidney Milburn is known as the Lemon Drop Kid because of his habit of feeding horses at the racetrack lemon drops to get marks to think he has inside information, the scam being that he convinces a lot of different people that different horses are going to win, and then gets a cut from the one that does for the “tip”. Unfortunately, one of his marks was the girlfriend of gangster Moose Moran, who demands that the Kid pay him the $10,000 he would’ve won if the Kid hadn’t dissuaded her from the bet she’d been instructed to make. The Kid manages to convince Moose to give him until Christmas Eve to go back to New York and make up that money rather than pull it out of his guts right then. Unfortunately, all of his friends in New York are either wise to his schemes, don’t have enough for themselves, or both. Noticing all of the charity Santas around, he tries spoofing one, but is quickly arrested for panhandling, as he has no charity license, whereby he comes up with his greatest scam idea of all. An elderly woman and friend of the shady community Nellie Thursday, rejected from a seniors home because of her husband’s conviction, needs a place to live, so why not found the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls, get a license to collect money for the Home, and convince all of Nellie’s friends on the street to ring the bell for her, then pocket all the money and run? It’s such a good racket, local crime boss Oxford Charlie has plans to make it his own.

The poster is massively misrepresenting the sequence that inspired it. At one point, Sidney needs to infiltrate the home from the outside and poses as an elderly lady. No vamping, no awkward flirtation, no flashing. Bob Hope makes a surprisingly convincing old woman, until he’s put in a room with other old ladies and barely holds up to their casual expectations of him as one of them. I’m glad I didn’t let the poster put me off.

“Silver Bells” is credited to have debuted in this movie, though the single was released earlier, and due to its popularity, reshoots were ordered to expand the number. And its inclusion feels incredibly cynical. It’s introduced by Hope’s character telling one of his Santas that in order to get money out of people at Christmas, money is the last thing you talk about, you have to appeal to their sentiment, and then he demonstrates by singing. So this very lovely song in a lovely scene is not only being used in a movie as a calculated move to try to create the next Christmas classic, but also within the movie itself it’s a con.

I could argue that the ending is a bit pat and easy, but it’s a vehicle story. There’s been 90 minutes of antics and it’s time to wrap it up. It seems like there’s an attempt to suggest that he’s not going to go entirely straight (not that he’s grown enough to particularly warrant a change in his ways), but it could also read as one last thing to get off on the right foot. I’ll just be impressed that there are multiple sympathetic roles for older women in this movie and consider it done well overall. It’s some time having fun with Bob Hope, and Christmas trappings help make it a potential perennial favorite.

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