Old Ass Movies: The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

By  · Published on August 1st, 2010

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of a con artist who can handle the cops but can’t handle getting on the wrong side of a mob boss’s temper. Because you want to see Bob Hope dressed like Santa Claus, because you want to see Bob Hope dressed like an old lady, because you value your comedy – you’ll value The Lemon Drop Kid.

Bob Hope made an unreal amount of films during his lifetime. Sadly, aside from the Road to… movies, most people can’t name them. In a strange way, Hope became more famous for his USO presence and his Oscar broadcast hosting than the movies he made. It makes sense. He was a star that crossed over in the late 1930 from the Vaudeville world of New York City to the bustling sunshine of Los Angeles and the Paramount studio system. He was an entertainer more than an actor.

After more than a decade of Road to… success and being funny at the Oscars (but before trying to steal Humphrey Bogart’s statue), Hope starred in The Lemon Drop Kid as a con artist who shares a name with the title and tries his best to shill worthless horse betting tickets on hapless victims for far more than they’re worth. When he tricks a moll belonging to the ruthless gangster Moose Moran (played by Fred Clark), he suddenly finds himself needing to come up with $10,000 by Christmas Eve.

This is not recognized as Hope’s best movie. In fact, it’s unclear what would be characterized as Hope’s best movie. However, it’s got the core of comedy that can still be seen today in the simplicity of giving a comedian some sort of plot to hang his hat on. Here, Hope is allowed to run wild by (wait for it) creating a fake charity and dressing up like Santa Claus to raise money that he’ll actually use to pay off his debt.

He becomes even more unethical in order to make amends on his unethical behavior.

There are countless movies that place the hero at the iron grip of some tough customer who doesn’t take kindly to one thing or another, and there are even more that force the hero to have x amount of money by y date or else face z face-pounding. There’s even a bit of subterfuge and less-than-respectable dealings in most of those films, but where has there been a better example of truly despicable behavior in order to raise the funds? Even modern movies might wince at having the likable main character do something so thoroughly unlikable in order to grab laughs.

That’s why this film deserves to be celebrated. It also deserves to be celebrated because the bulk of the humor comes directly from Hope channeling the Marx Brothers by way of a dry martini punctuated by moments of genuine kindness.

It also features the unnervingly beautiful Marilyn Maxwell (whose real first name is, appropriately, Marvel) as the better-than-he-deserves love interest. She’s the sort of whip smart, drop-dead gorgeous female lead that the time demanded. Beyond the fake retirement home, the Santa Claus costume con, the elderly cross-dressing in order to save the day and the trap our hero sets for Moose – the idea of Maxwell even considering going with Hope is what really stretches the limits on suspension of disbelief in this one.

There’s nothing pretentious or false about the film. It’s high concept, and it lends itself to existing as a platter on which Hope can serve his brand of humor and music. Plus, it introduced the world to the song, “Silver Bells.”

It, however, did not introduce the world to William Frawley growling at people:

The Lemon Drop Kid is a perfectly sweet, very funny film that showcases the best out of its stars. You won’t need to wait until Christmas time (or the next time you owe a gangster some dough) to watch it. Bing Crosby and exotic locales may be nowhere to be found, but Hope holds his own with the help of a beautiful co-star, some of the best character actors of the day and a Santa suit.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.