Tuesday, December 2, 2008

THE LEMON-DROP KID (1951)

Holiday Movie Category: Dreaming of a Hopeless X-mas

THE CARD:

A gaggle of old broads, a horde of cheating Santas, a diamond pooper, scheming Fred Mertz, a mobster named “Moose”, wrasslin’ thesp Tor Johnson, the origin of Silver Bells, and Bob “See, I can come up with a timeless X-mas carol too, Bing you velvet-lunged son-beating S.O.B.” Hope.

THE ANGLE:

Sidney “Lemon-Drop Kid” Melbourne (Bob Hope) is a wisecracking Florida con man who hangs around horse races faking insider information for tips. His crooked game gets him in hot water when he cons the moll of dangerous gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark) into losing $10K. Some hired goons kidnap the Kid and take him to Moose who gives him until X-mas to come up with the money. The Kid travels to New York, meets up with old doll Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell) who’s been evicted from her apartment, cons ten bucks from old flame “Brainy” Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell), and gets rejected by old business friends who want nothing of the Kid’s latest scheme. Wandering the streets of Manhattan during Christmas time, he gets an awfully wonderful idea. He dresses up as a Santy Claus and rings a bell for coins. He then gets thrown in jail for collecting money without a license. While in the can he gets another wonderfully awful idea. He opens a rest home for old ladies in Moose’s old casino to get a legitimate license to put crooked Santas on the street for ill gain. He gets Brainy, Nellie, and some old cons to help and the plan goes off without a hitch. The money starts pouring in, but then a rival gangster gets wise and muscles in on the Kid’s caper, taking the dough, the fake Santas, and the old biddies with him. Christmas Day is closing in, and the Kid is left to dangle. But he’s got a back-up plan. And in the end a universal truth is revealed: transvestitism saves Christmas.

THE FINISHER:

Bob Hope was never funny. At least not by himself. He always needed Bing or Raquel Welch’s ass to eke a chuckle. Did you ever see his awful NBC specials in the 80s where he could barely read the cue cards and churned out hackneyed one-liners about Mr. T’s hair, Reagan’s forgetfulness, and Loni Anderson’s tits? Don’t blame old age. I mean, maybe in those Road to Blah Blah pictures with Bing Crosby where his cornball shtick balanced against Bing’s relaxed coolness was good for a laugh, but Hope solo? No dice. Take Ghost Breakers for example. Putrid. And the Paleface movies. Brutal. Maybe it takes a war to get the funny out of this guy. Given all that – The Lemon Drop Kid is probably an exception. Hope is charming and does bring the laughs. Keep in mind that I hadn’t seen this movie in almost twenty years. It used to be a holiday staple around Casa Tremendo. The Silver Bells scene, the chase through the department store, and Hope’s bit with stealing the clothes off a mannequin bring back many memories. But beneath all the heartwarming chortles, there’s something decidedly evil about the Kid. Firstly, the film is riddled with racist jokes. Hope mocks two Asian kids trying to sing Sirlvel Berrs*, cracks wise about them “redskins”, and insults more Italian Americans than the Sopranos box set. He constantly treats Brainy, who for some reason is madly in love with the doof, like shit. Also, his scheme essentially is not to make money for his crew, let alone help the old ladies, but to save his sorry ass. And on top of all that, he feels no shame at the real possibility of turning out the old ladies into the street once his debt is paid. Is racism, emotional cruelty, self-interest, and elderly abuse fertile ground for holiday chuckles? You betcha, because goodness transformed by a snowfall and a few corny songs always wins in the end. Especially when you’re bafflingly unfunny Bob Hope.

*Yes, I know, so does A Christmas Story. I said it was racist, not unfunny.

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