Holiday Classics: “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951)

Bob Hope appeared in many, many movies over his long life and career. And yet, he’s remembered more as an entertainer than an actor, his most recognizable films being the “Road” comedies he starred in opposite Bing Crosby beginning in 1940 and into the 1950s. But that doesn’t meant that Hope’s filmography is entirely unremarkable. In fact, many of his movies deserve to be remembered more, in particular the 1951 Christmas-set comedy “The Lemon Drop Kid.”

Based on a story by Damon Runyon, Hope plays the titular Kid, a New York City swindler whose racetrack con goes south when it turns out that the woman he conned is the girlfriend of notorious gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark) and was betting on his behalf. Moose tracks down the Kid and tells him that he needs to pay him back the amount he would have won in the race- $10,000- or else he “won’t make it to New Year’s.” After a series of attempts to get people on his side, including his sometimes-girlfriend Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell), fail, he sees a streetcorner Santa collecting money in a kettle for charity, and comes up with a scheme. Enlisting local crooks to be Santa’s, the Kid creates a phony charity as a front to collect the money he needs to pay Moose.

Marilyn Maxwell and Bob Hope sing “Silver Bells” in “The Lemon Drop Kid”

The Kid’s scheme may be nefarious, but “The Lemon Drop Kid” is still a film that’s full of Christmas cheer, from the opening credits that linger over Christmas tree ornaments to, most notably, the debut of the now-classic holiday song, “Silver Bells.” Written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, Hope and Maxwell performed the song as a duet when they filmed the scene in the summer of 1950. While that may have been the first time the song was performed as we know it today, it was Hope’s longtime screen partner Bing Crosby who made the first studio recording of the song later that year. It was a big hit, and the song’s success prompted Hope and Maxwell to reshoot their scene, making the number more elaborate. The final result is a delightfully Christmas-y scene that touts the wonders of the holiday season in the city, a contrast to the majority of holiday songs that up to that point in time primarily focused on rural life. As Hope and Maxwell sing, they stroll arm-in-arm down the sidewalk, snow falling, the bells of the streetcorner Santa’s gently tinkling, and vendors selling flowers and chestnuts chiming in.

The “Silver Bells” segment is the highlight of “The Lemon Drop Kid,” but the movie that surrounds it is still a pleasant watch. There’s some fun dark humor that comes courtesy of a group of con men trying to play Santa Claus. Hope is appropriately cast as a bumbling crook who gets in way over his head, and Maxwell is good, even if what she sees in Hope’s Kid isn’t really clear. An uncredited Frank Tashlin was supposedly brought in the finish the first film for director Sidney Lanfield, but any potential behind-the-scenes drama doesn’t come through on screen. “The Lemon Drop Kid” deserves to be better remembered not just as a highlight of Hope’s filmography, but as a Christmas classic. And don’t worry—Hope still manages to squeeze in a jab at his old pal Bing.

“The Lemon Drop Kid” is not currently streaming, but a decent print of it can be found on YouTube. Runtime: 91 minutes.

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