Bob Hope Rings “Silver Bells” in 1951's THE LEMON DROP KID
One of the most enduring Christmas songs of all time was actually written for a movie released in March. “Silver Bells” has been a holiday hit for everyone from Bing Crosby to Martina McBride, but the popular standard was penned for The Lemon Drop Kid, a Bob Hope comedy released in the spring of 1951.
Based on a Damon Runyon story first adapted for the screen in 1934, Lemon Drop stars Hope as Sidney Milburn, a low-rent grifter with a taste for sour candies and sweet old ladies. After he gives a bad tip on a horse race to the moll of sadistic gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark), the Kid has three weeks to make good – or celebrate Christmas “in the river with a cement bathing suit.”
With the clock ticking toward December 25 and a $10,000 debt to pay off, the Kid concocts a Christmas miracle: he’ll use New York City street-corner Santas to raise funds. But he needs a legitimate charity as a front. Enter Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell), an “old doll” who’s unwelcome at the retirement home because her husband’s current address is the state penitentiary. With the help of a motley collection of con men and his occasional girlfriend Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell), the Kid converts an abandoned casino into the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls. But when the money starts rolling in, the gangsters start rolling up.
Bob Hope was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1940s and early ‘50s, a fact that is sometimes overlooked today. His Road film team-ups with Bing Crosby remain well-loved by classic film fans, but his solo efforts can be inconsistent and distractingly jokey. Hope’s best movies allow him to emulate the loose, wisecracking persona that made him a fixture on radio and TV for decades, and the winking sarcasm of Lemon Drop’s script fits perfectly with the comedian’s rapid fire delivery. The jokes never slow down the action and there are plenty of inventive sight gags from director Sidney Lanfield, who had worked with Hope on five of his early films, including 1942’s My Favorite Blonde.
Ironically, the sequence for which The Lemon Drop Kid is best remembered today was not actually directed by Lanfield. Paramount songwriters Jay Livinsgton and Ray Evans wrote “Silver Bells” for the film and Lanfield staged it straightforwardly, as a chorus number featuring the entire cast. After production wrapped in mid-August of 1950, Crosby recorded a duet of “Silver Bells” with Carol Richards that became a chart hit as the holidays approached. Sensing an opportunity to make the song the film’s centerpiece, producer Hope asked gag writer Frank Tashlin to devise a plan to re-stage the number. Tashlin agreed – on the condition he could direct the re-shoot. Hope said yes and the elaborate new sequence was filmed on the Paramount lot in November. The Lemon Drop Kid had its signature number, Frank Tashlin had a brand new directing career, and Hope and Lanfield had an unceremonious end to their working relationship.
The Lemon Drop Kid has risen in stature as a Christmas film in recent years, and the increased attention is well deserved, particularly for its strong supporting cast. Marilyn Maxwell (Hope’s frequent leading lady on USO tours) makes a perfect foil as Brainey and their real-life chemistry is hard to miss (you can read up on their off-screen relationship in any Hope biography.) I Love Lucy star William Frawley (who also appeared in the 1934 version) is hilarious as Gloomy Willie, with arguably the film’s best jokes. And Jane Darwell, an Oscar winner for The Grapes of Wrath, brings tons of heart to the role of “old doll” Nellie. Add Plan 9 From Outer Space star Tor Johnson, film noir tough guy Jay C. Flippen, frequent Adventures of Superman villain Ben Welden, and Sid Melton (Sophia’s husband Sal in flashbacks on The Golden Girls) and you have more good actors than the North Pole had reindeer.
Plus, Livinsgton and Evans also contribute two other unforgettable songs: “It Doesn’t Cost a Dime to Dream” and “They Obviously Want Me to Sing.” But the sequence you’ll always remember from The Lemon Drop Kid is Bob Hope and his colorful crew of spurious Santas shaking down Big Apple residents as they croon “Silver Bells.” You’ll never sing “It’s Christmas time in the city” in quite the same way again.
Don’t miss The Lemon Drop Kid on Wednesday, December 21 at 11 pm ET/8 pm PT (after Bing Crosby and the Sounds of Christmas at 10 pm ET/7 pm PT).