The Lemon Drop Kid (1951): Bob Hope and Silver Bells

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“Don’t look like you’re handling hot reindeer” – Bob Hope as The Lemon Drop Kid

There blows the infamous Lemon Drop Kid a racetrack scrounger feeding the populous phony tips. In another context, he’d be one slimy stooge a la Richard Widmark, but played by Bob Hope, he’s nothing but a lovable dope. As with any Hope vehicle, it does seem as if the part was tailor-made for him with the gags to boot, and he has his usual repertoire ready.

It all slides along with the usual endearing hiccups until it hits a brick wall. The Kid inauspiciously steps into a booby trap of a southern gal whose actually with feared mobster Moose Moran (Fred Clark) of all people. He pays off his friends handsomely and his enemies not so much…

Because The Kid made him lose out on a sure thing — $10,000 in cold hard cash — he’s put out an ultimatum. Either The Kid gets him the dough by Christmas Eve or else he’ll find his head in his stocking on Christmas morning. It makes the craven grifter shiver just thinking about it.

He’s got to get a move on with his days running down. The main problem — or else there would be no movie — is the fact he has little capital to work with. He’s broke and everyone he knows is either in the pokey, homeless, or not too keen to dish out their hard-earned cash. It’s these odds and Bob Hope’s own persona that allow us to root for such an incorrigible loser.

He pays a house call on his best girl Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) who fits into the latter category. She’s not about giving out handouts, and she has good reason. However, after a few minutes of schmoozing about a marriage license, The Kid has run off with more of her money.

Local New York boss Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) is the next stop and not being too fond of the Kid himself. Given their history and his own financial straights, he’s not about to oblige. The Kid does reconnect with an old chum Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell), but she is the worst off of all of them with her husband about to be paroled from the clink and the two of them having barely enough money to get by on.

To swipe a phrase from Dr. Seuss, a street-corner Santa gives The Kid an awful idea –The Kid has a wonderful, awful idea. Although knowing Hope, he bungles it. The first time he dons his bearded costume and gets out his bell and tin can, it lands him in the clink for panhandling. The host of elves jailed with him let him have it. But he gets smarter once bail is posted.

Soon he’s wrangled together all the lovable scum of the earth to help him salvage Christmas — and his life — from being completely abysmal. These are the most gratifying scenes for bringing in such grouchy talents as William Frawley, Sid Melton, and Jay C. Flippen. They pull off the parts well providing the manpower for The Kid’s regiment of Santas.

Soon with Nellie as their real-life poster doll, they turn a casino into an old folks’ home completely on the level. The Kid is the only one in it for himself. Everyone else thinks they’re genuinely in it for the ladies, and it pays heavy dividends in a matter of days. People appreciate the extra goodwill during the holidays.

In fact, the platoon of reformed Santa Clauses do fine work. Brainy is happy, we have the birth of “Silver Bells;” it even looks like The Kid might live to see New Year’s. Oxford Charlie is also visually impressed. So impressed he decides to elbow his way into the racket taking the old dolls as hostages to live in his own home, leaving The Kid high and dry.

In his typical self-aware fashion, Hope mentions Milton Berle in passing, so what better gag than to take a cue from Mr. Television himself? He infiltrates Charlie’s base. However, the only problems left to be solved are how to deal with Oxford Charlie and then Moose Moran.

Thankfully, the movie ends with the right ribbon on top with the good guys beating the bad, the guy getting the girl, and one final jab at Bing Crosby as the curtains go down. The Kid has finally learned about selflessness even if Hope still plays up his usual vanity. He wouldn’t be Bob Hope without that, now would he?

It won’t win major accolades, but if you’re a fan of our star or crave alternative Yuletide entertainment to fill out your holiday festivities, The Lemon Drop Kid has something to offer. It’s corny and full of the kind of good-natured cheer that just about everyone could use more of during Christmastime. If you don’t, you know who you are.

3/5 Stars

A Tree Grows in Brookyln (1945): The Precursor to I Remember Mama

ATreeGrowsInBrooklyn1945Poster.jpgThe reveries of a Saturday afternoon in childhood are where A Tree Grows in Brooklyn chooses to begin and it proves a fine entry point, giving us an instant feel for the world the Irish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Its contours are impoverished, even harsh, but also richly American.

There is a mother (Dorothy McGuire) who is practical and ever-resourceful, scrimping and saving to eke by an existence for her family. She faithfully pays her family’s due to the door-to-door insurance man Mr. Barker, who is always ready to sow some juicy gossip around the community.

It occurs to me that Katie Nolan (McGuire) is a precursor to Irene Dunne’s role in I Remember Mama. But there is also a near-callousness that is lacking in the latter part, which is mostly sunshine. In this regard, it gleams with a certain individual truth. Struggling  to make ends meet, Nolan asserts, “My kids are going to be something if I have to turn into granite rock to make them.” She dishes out tough love and makes difficult decisions in what she deems is their best interest — an extension of her undying love for them.

There’s an extraordinary shot showing bickering wives, stories up in their apartments, with clotheslines strung up every which way and a man trying to fix the source of their problems.

Nearby sits the little girl enthralled with her book and you understand first hand the power of the library. Because with the internet, television, and movies we’ve deluded them but, at a certain time, books were a way of escape, of learning, and open avenues to distant places.

Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) is, without question, the emotional center and if we are to extend the earlier juxtaposition further, she is an analogous version of Barbara Bel Geddes’s character in I Remember Mama. We view the memories of the past through their impressionable eyes.

She too is captured by her imagination — the rapturous escapes that stories and music can provide a fanciful mind like hers in the station of life she finds herself in. Francie’s deepest wishes are granted when she is able to attend a fine school where her benign teacher gently cultivates her passions.

The advice passed down to her is empowering as Francie is inspired to be a writer. She must write about the things she knows imbuing them with truth, which can then be dressed up with the whims of her imagination.

It’s true Francie maintains an underlying sweetness and innocence even in the midst of heartache. For instance, there is the annual Christmas ritual retrieving discarded trees and boy do the kiddies bring home a whopper. Its presence alone puts some yuletide cheer and the smell of evergreen into their holidays.

It only takes such a minor yet meaningful Christmas scene to humble us in our modern tendencies so that we realize how off-base our modern celebrations are. These folks have nothing and yet to look into their eyes you see such contentment in the singing of a song and quality time spent together.

However, the most debilitating ideology in the film is the concept of neverending cycles — believing the lie that change is impossible and things will never be different. Because already you have a self-fulfilling prophecy. We see it most obviously in the marriage of Francie’s parents.

Johnny Nolan is an ebullient father bred on dreams and singing. There’s always a song in his heart whether “Swanee River” or “Sweet Molly Malone” and unfortunately, for the sake of his family, a bottle in his hand. His daughter memorializes him aptly, “He had nothing to give but himself but this he gave generously like a king.”

The words stand tall and true. To my mind, I have not seen such a compelling father finger as Johnny Nolan in some time and the reasons are as obvious as his flaws. He’s an alcoholic. He makes promises he can never keep. He’s practically useless when it comes to providing for his family. And yet through all his shortcomings shines a light of generosity and geniality that positively warms the cockles of our heart. We cannot condemn him without loving him just as deeply. There you have the testament of a truly impactful character.

Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) proves another bright spot in the film and her vivacity, much like her brother-in-law’s, injects the film with a buoyancy making us grow fond of them even as their flaws are laid fully bare. Sissy has her own struggles holding onto a marriage with a couple of husbands already coming and going. Her escapades leave her baby sister shaking her head and hoping to shield her kids. And yet even Aunt Sissy has her admirable qualities.

The local police officer Mr. McShane (Lloyd Nolan) walks his beat with a quiet integrity, disregarding any stereotypes of policemen and fashions them into compassionate people the world could probably use more of. Meanwhile, kind old Mr. McGarrity (James Gleason) heaps neighborly generosity on the Nolan’s in an effort to help the overextended Mrs. Nolan make ends meet.  It’s the benevolent spirits in the film who are quietly memorable.

Too blinded by the resonating sentiments, I failed to see the obvious denouement of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which nevertheless proves deeply satisfying. As its title suggests, out of death and decay can grow new hope. It comes from hardy stock and dutiful cultivation, which all seem integral to the American way of life.

For me, it’s almost unthinkable to think the man who played a small part as Googie in City for Conquest only 5 years letter would alight on a directorial career that shook Hollywood over and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. He brought us Brando and Dean, conquered stage and screen and left an indelible mark on film acting forever. Of course, we’re talking about Elia Kazan and here he has his first prominent muse Dorothy McGuire (a founding member of the La Jolla Playhouse) who is often an unsung star fitting as she’s playing an unsung heroine

It seems a fitting entry point into Kazan’s career as it is an immigrant story and he came from such a family. It makes no difference that he wasn’t Irish because we can surmise the essence is much the same. He believes in the American dream no doubt and the love and integrity that can see people through the turbulence of life.

However, perhaps the most striking acknowledgment has to do with the fact this story does not thrive on intensity — one might see that as being a marker of Kazan’s most noted works — it’s tenderness mostly. But then if you stop a moment and think of Brando slipping on the glove belonging to Evie (Eva Marie Saint) or James Dean crying to his father (Raymond Massey), you realize he never lost those sentiments. What made his films was the real emotions that reach out to us. He never allowed for those sensations to waver. There you have an integral element of his success.

4/5 Stars