' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

“Lemon Drop Kid? I just don't believe you're not looking out for The Lemon Drop Kid.” Well, that cuts straight to the heart of the matter. Sidney Milburn (Bob Hope), aka The Lemon Drop Kid, because he puts away lemon drops like antacids, is a self-centered and vainglorious. Why there’s a scene in which The Lemon Drop Kid essentially spends a couple minutes admiring himself in a mirror. I’m not entirely sure what he’s so impressed with since his whole life seems to be one mishap on top of another. But then, he does have stellar comedic timing. He’s played by Bob Hope! But eventually, we assume, since the film is set at Christmas, he will come to see the error of his ways and have a reformation in the nick of time. Right? Won’t he?

Based on a character created by the notorious Damon Runyon, The Lemon Drop Kid – referred to throughout as just “Kid”, because I assume it’s easier – hangs around Florida race tracks, convincing suckers to bet this way or that way to make way for his own bet in order to clean up. But when he convinces a gangster’s moll to make the wrong bet, the movie is off and running. The Kid is summoned before mob boss Moose Moran (Fred Clark) who gives The Kid until Christmas to pay back the $10,000 his betting misdirection caused. Or else…

That’s how The Kid finds himself back in his old stomping grounds, wintry New York, pleading with his former pals for scratch only to find no help forthcoming or that he, in fact, owes them cash. He then checks in on his ex-flame Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell), whose name I unfortunately suspect is meant to be humorously ironic. Seems they were to get married but seems The Kid skipped town and seems Brainey is intent on sticking to the original matrimony plan and seems Kid is intent on re-weaseling out of matrimony. (Would a marriage to Bob Hope be like living in The Improv 24/7?)

The Kid’s off-the-cuff scam to masquerade as a Salvation Santa and collection donations toward his reprieve rather than charity goes belly-up and he winds up in the clink. To the rescue: Brainey. Not that she’s doing him a favor, mind you. She’s doing herself a favor, bailing out The Kid so she can re-demand they wed. I know it's merely a movie about Bob Hope making jokes, some of which are rather funny, but nevertheless, I struggle to reconcile Brainey's desire for marriage with this boor.

Anyway, The Kid reconsiders his unsuccessful scam, re-strategizes and implements Salvation Santa Scam 2.0. Placing his old friend Nellie Tuesday, to whom he owes money, at the forefront, he opens a phony old folks home – Nellie Tuesday’s Home For Old Dolls – in the place of Moose Maron’s shuttered casino which allows The Kid a true-blue charity license and the opportunity to enlist and unleash a whole army of streetside Santas theoretically collecting dough for the old dolls but really collecting it for The Kid. Not that he tells any of the Kris Kringles in his “employment” this, and, hey, he even gets Brainey believing in the non-existent virtue of his actions.

You might know that “The Lemon Drop Kid” made famous the Christmas tune “Silver Bells”, probably playing right now at your local mall. Its sudden presence in the film, which only features one other sing-along, may theoretically sound extraneous, but is quite truly the film’s loveliest moment. For a few minutes Hope retires the wisecracks and Maxwell takes his arm and so they stroll the snowy city streets and sing and you think “Hey, maybe this dude can leave the lemon drops behind. Maybe this is him turning the corner.” Well, it’s not, of course, it’s just the movie adding a musical number, which is fine, but still.

The Kid’s wide-reaching scam gets blown up again but he ferrets out another ruse to bring everyone together so all their attempts to “get him” collapse simultaneously and he gets away scot free. It’d be nice to think that ultimately The Kid has seen the light and that his settling down with Brainey won’t end in divorce after he drops a ton on the ponies up at Saratoga, but the movie really does not even attempt to disguise the fact he hasn't reformed. He's merely emerged in one piece, the same as he ever was. "Honey," he says, "don't ever lose me. It would ruin ya." Would it?

It ends with The Kid and Brainey in each other's arms. I wished it had ended with Brainey punching The Kid in the balls. You know, if he had any.

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