Classic Cinema #19: The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) – By Jason S. Lockard

My name is Jason Lockard and here it is one of my favorite times of the year, Christmas when the Holiday films are endless, but about seven years ago I discovered a Christmas classic on DVD and I’ve watched it every year religiously since. That film is the 1951 comedy gem ‘The Lemon Drop Kid’ starring the king of comedy Bob Hope!

Bob Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope May 29, 1903 in Eltham, London, England, the fifth of seven sons. His father, William Henry Hope, was a stonemason from Weston-super-Mare, Somerset and his Welsh mother, Avis Townes, was a light opera singer who later worked as a cleaning woman. Than in 1908 the family moved to Cleveland Ohio emigrating aboard the SS Philadelphia and passed inspection at Ellis Island on March 30, 1908. From the age of 12, he worked at a variety of odd jobs at a local boardwalk. He entered many dancing and amateur talent contests and won prizes for his impersonation of Charlie Chaplin. He also boxed briefly and unsuccessfully under the name Packy East, once making it to the semifinals of the Ohio novice championship. In 1918 at the age of 15 he was admitted to the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio. Formerly known as the Ohio Reform School, this was one of the more innovative, progressive institutions for juvenile offenders. Later Hope as an adult would donate sizable sums of money to the institution. Leslie became an American citizen in 1920 at the age of seventeen Hope’s legal name is given as Lester Townes Hope.

Silent film comedian Fatty Arbuckle saw one of his performances with his first partner, Lloyd "Lefty" Durbin, and in 1925 got the pair steady work with Hurley’s Jolly Follies. Within a year, Hope had formed an act called the Dancemedians with George Byrne and the Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins who had a tap dancing routine. Hope and his partner George Byrne had an act as a pair of Siamese twins as well, and both danced and sang while wearing blackface, before friends advised Hope that he was funnier as himself. In 1929, he changed his first name to "Bob".

In one version of the story, he named himself after racecar driver Bob Burman. In another, he said he chose Bob because he wanted a name with a friendly "Hiya Fellas!" sound to it. After five years on the vaudeville circuit, by his own account, Hope was surprised and humbled when he and his partner (and future wife) Grace Louise Troxell failed a 1930 screen test for Pathé at Culver City, California.

After many successful years on the vaudeville stage Paramount Pictures signed Hope for the 1938 film The Big Broadcast of 1938. During a duet with Shirley Ross, Hope introduced the song later to become his trademark, "Thanks for the Memory". He made many hilarious films through the years and in 1951 Paramount released our film for this month ‘The Lemon Drop Kid‘.

Hope stars as Sidney Melbourne aka The Lemon Drop Kid, who is a New York City swindler, illegally touting horses at a Florida racetrack. After several successful hustles, the Kid comes across a gullible woman who is about to bet a boat load of money on the favorite, but The Kid convinces her to switch her bet. Unfortunately for The Kid the woman and the money belonged to notorious gangster Moose Moran. Par for the course The Kid’s choice finishes dead last and a furious Moran demands the Kid provide him with $10,000 (the amount he stood to win) by Christmas Eve, or he promises the Kid "won’t make it to New Years."

Having no other choice The Kid decides to return to New York to try to come up with the money. He first tries his on-again, off-again girlfriend Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell). However, when she turns their conversation to marriage, the Kid quickly makes his escape, with her money for the marriage license to boot. He than stops at the local hoodlum "Oxford" Charlie’s establishment. This quickly falls through as Charlie is facing tax trouble and does not particularly care for the Kid anyway. As the Kid leaves "Oxford" Charlie’s establishment he notices a corner side Santa Claus and his kettle. The light bulb goes off! So the Kid fashions a raggedy Santa suit a beard [that has to be seen to be believed] and begins collecting donations, but this soon fails as well as he is recognized by a passing policeman, who remembers his previous underhanded activity well. The Kid than lands in court, where he is convicted for panhandling and sentenced to ten days in jail cause he can’t pay the fine.

After a short stay in jail, Brainy arrives to bail him out. He then sets about restarting his Santa operation, this time with legitimate backing. The Kid remembers Nellie Thursday, a kindly neighborhood resident, has been denied entry to a retirement home because of her jailed husband’s criminal past as a safecracker. So Kid converts an abandoned casino (ironically belonging to Moose Moran) into the "Nellie Thursday Home For Old Dolls".

The Kid receives the all-important city license and recruits local thugs to dress up as Santa’s and collect. While looking over his recruits The Kid finds a bottle of booze in Gloomy Willie’s [William Frawley] coat Kid exclaims, "Santy Claus don’t drink." to which Willie responds, "Oh, no? Well, how come he’s always falling down chimneys?"

Does The Kid get the Money before Christmas Eve or does Moose Moran fit The Kid with cement shoes well, you’ll have to watch the film to find out! This film is very touching and extremely funny. Also look out for Bob & Marilyn’s duet of Silver Bells!

Hope became one of Paramount’s biggest stars, and would remain with the studio through the 1950s. Hope’s regular appearances in Hollywood films and radio made him one of the best known entertainers, but what endeared him to Americans most might be that he perform for our American troops over the years!

In 2000, Hope’s health steadily declined and he was hospitalized several times. Than in June 2000 he spent nearly a week in a California hospital after being hospitalized for gastrointestinal bleeding. In August 2001, he spent close to two weeks in the hospital recovering from pneumonia.

On July 27, 2003, Bob Hope died at his home in Toluca Lake at 9:28 p.m. According to one of Hope’s daughters, when asked on his deathbed where he wanted to be buried, he told his wife, "Surprise me." After his death, Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, confirmed that Hope had converted to Roman Catholicism years before he died and added that he had died a Catholic in good standing. He was interred in the Bob Hope Memorial Garden at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles, where his mother is also buried.

Bob Hope continues to make us laugh almost a decade after his death and his films will still make us laugh 100 year from now! Hope’s comedy is timeless. So this Holiday season treat yourself to a true holiday comedy Bob Hope as The Lemon Drop Kid!

Moral Rating: Nothing Offensive
Audience: Family
Genre: Holiday Comedy
Length: 92 min.
Released: 1951
Our Rating: A