Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1951, 91 min., Black and White
Not rated (would be G)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
“Silver Bells” clip
Amazon link

If the title isn’t a tip-off that this is a Damon Runyon story, the rest of the nicknamed character roster ought to be a dead giveaway: Brainey Baxter, Oxford Charlie, Nellie Thursday, Moose Moran, Straight Flush Tony, Gloomy Willie, Sam the Surgeon, Little Louie, Singing Solly, and Goomba.

Runyon famously wrote about colorful characters he met on Broadway and at the racetracks in Florida—guys and dolls, racketeers and henchmen, horse trainers and grooms, bookies and touts, and just plain down-and-outs.

Like Pocketful of Miracles (1961)—which was also inspired by a Runyon short story—The Lemon Drop Kid is set around Christmas, a film in which the main character wavers between being a selfish Scrooge or an unselfish giver. He’s the only character who has any kind of arc at all; the rest are stock types or foils.

Like the Shirley Temple film Little Miss Marker and the Bob Hope remake, Sorrowful Jones (both based on another Runyon story), it revolves around a debt or a bet. In this case, The Lemon Drop Kid (Bob Hope) touts a horse to a woman holding $10K, and that horse loses. What’s worse, the woman turns out to be the girlfriend of notorious racketeer Moose Moran (Fred Clark).

Naturally, Moose wants his money back, and he gives the Lemon Drop Kid until Christmas to settle the score . . . or else. So the Kid goes to New York and looks up his old girlfriend Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) and also racketeer Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) to see if he can get a loan. When that falls through, the Lemon Drop Kid gets a brainy idea of his own: seeing a Salvation Army bell-ringer dressed as Santa, the Kid decides to ring a bell in a Santa Suit with a kettle and a sign that reads “Save a Life.” Meaning, his own.

When the Kid is arrested and realizes he needs a legitimate charity to work that scam, he starts the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls” and gets every known Broadway hustler to help him raise money, because don’t they all love Nellie? So did audiences of the time. Nellie was played by Jane Darwell, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and might be familiar to a later generation as the “Feed the Birds” woman in Mary Poppins.

Will the Kid come through for Nellie? Will he end up at the bottom of the East River? Will he complete the scam, repay the money and beat it back to Florida? Viewers don’t really know, and we’re not so sure the Kid does either. All we know is that the Kid’s desperate plan involves dressing like a little old lady.

Directors Sidney Lanfield and Frank Tashlin don’t give Hope the same long leash to improvise and mug for the cameras as he normally has, but that’s in keeping with the spirit and tone of the Damon Runyon tales. The closest the film gets to bad schtick or goofy slapstick is when we see Sam the Surgeon (Harry Bellaver), Moran’s “persuader,” in full operating-room dress as he tries to extract a dime that someone was holding out. Or when Hope acquires his dress from a store window display in full view of a crowd . . . and a beat cop.

Small children may need to shake a few presents while they watch, but if older children can get past the black and white there’s a lot here to entertain. And fans of I Love Lucy will enjoy seeing William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, as Broadway hustler Gloomy Willie. Most of the humor is situational—a clever line here, or a wry remark there. But there’s something in The Lemon Drop Kid that’s endearing enough to make it a nice alternative to the usual Christmas movies that families watch together every holiday season. After all, it’s the film that introduced the song “Silver Bells.”