Wednesday, August 2, 2017

THE LEMON DROP KID: Blu-ray (Paramount, 1951) Kino Lorber

The inimitable Bob Hope used to take the opportunity of MC-ing the annual Oscar telecast to flippantly poo-poo the fact he and that little gold bald guy were not exactly on ‘first name’ speaking terms. "Welcome to the Academy Awards…or as it’s known at my house – Passover!” And yet, a quick Trip-tek through Hope’s formidable backlog (he appeared and/or starred in 70 feature films, to say nothing of his countless radio appearances, television specials and USO tours made throughout a legendary and trailblazing career) reveals a painful dearth of instantly identifiable movie-land magic. As a ‘movie star’ Hope was a perennially favorite, though he only achieved the exalted ranking of #1 star in the world in 1949. Cinematically, Bob Hope is perhaps best known today for his ‘road’ outings with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. But even these films lean more toward the ‘programmer’ than certifiable ‘stand-alone’ movie art. What can be said of Bob Hope’s legacy then is that he gave these trifles his all; an affable fa├žade, what with his widely caricatured ski-slope nose, married to a snarky sense of humor, delicious double entendre and brazen self-deprecating glib repartee, occasionally looking straight into the camera to address his audience.
In hindsight, Bob Hope’s great gift to the world was his presence; easily identifiable at a glance, honed, crafted and trademarked by Hope to appeal to our broadest sense of slap-happy immaturity, made slick and stylish by his rakish delivery. Ironically, it is this presence that hampered Hope’s chances of ever distinguishing himself as genuine ‘character’ actor in the movies. Like Cary Grant or Kate Hepburn, Hope’s visage and deportment are what we get – what we always get – and what we always expect to see. It’s part of his charm and more directly linked to our base level of expectation. This made Bob Hope the darling of the Oscars; a record nineteen times its host; elevated by Hope playing at Hope par excellence, if not exactly as he appeared behind closed doors. Was it all just an act or was it really Bob Hope we remember? Hmmm. Not sure. So, how does one repay such an enigma? With humility, I suppose, and an outpouring of reciprocated smiles and laughter…and yes, with many, many renewed thanks for these memories.
Hope fashionably assuages into the realm of Damion Runyon-esque villainy as a wily scamp down on his luck, in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), co-directed by Sidney Lanfield and Frank Tashlin. ‘The Kid’ is a character straight from Character-ville, more closely aligned with Hope’s alter ego/public persona; the immaculately turned out New York City swindler pressed to near extinction before necessity leads to the mother of all inventions – or rather, cons. The Kid’s no good, though lovably so. He cannot help himself and this leads to all sorts of complications in love and his business. Racketeering aside, The Kid is always dealing compliments from the bottom of the deck, his long-suffering gal pal, chorine, Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) unable to disentangle her truest feelings from his more disingenuous ones.  Herein, its Hope’s strain of empathy we come to admire; taking the art out of the con and replacing it with in flux, bittersweet and soft-centered regret. The Kid’s no saint. But he sins, arguably, for all the right reasons and nevertheless manages, even with despicably un-altruistic motives to achieve ‘the greater good’ for all except himself, in spite of himself.  It’s odd too, because we are never more than a stone’s throw away from recognizing Bob Hope as having a very good time pretending to act. He does not give a performance, per say; rather, the inflections and gestures that never quite add up to one; his self-amusement infectious and tumbling forth beyond the footlights. In the end, it’s a good show rather than a great performance. Miraculously, this does not make The Lemon Drop Kid any less engaging.
And had he lived to see it, Hope’s Kid is exactly the sort author and playwright, Damon Runyon would have embraced and championed for his own; Hope’s perfect balance of humor and sentiment in tune with the most Runyonesque gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters ever to grace a movie screen; distinctively half formal/half colorful in all their highfalutin slang and witticisms, affectionately coined as ‘Runyonese’.  The movie opens with an homage to Runyon by way of the following disclaimer: “This is a race track in Florida. Damon Runyon frequented such race tracks, for it was there that he met many of the people he wrote owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms, gamblers, pickpockets....There are many sources from which those who bet receive their information about the horses. Damon Runyon wrote about an interesting source of mis -information called 'The Lemon Drop Kid.'"
The Lemon Drop Kid marked Bob Hope's second foray into Runyonesque territory; his first, Sorrowful Jones (a loose remake of Little Miss Marker made the year before) had been a smashing success with audiences. Screenwriter Edmund Hartmann was again brought in to work out the kinks herein – and there were many along the way. Hope had initially wanted Jan Sterling as his co-star. Studio memos even go so far as to suggest Sterling was primed for the role. Kismet and delays in the script complicated Sterling’s participation, leaving Marilyn Maxwell to step in her stead. Alas, as shooting commenced it became rather transparent, particularly to Hope, The Lemon Drop Kid needed more work. Despite wrapping production in August, at Hope’s insistence, rewrites and reshoots commenced in November; Hope instrumental in bringing noted screenwriter, Frank Tashlin on board with the caveat Tashlin would also direct these retakes. If The Lemon Drop Kid is remembered at all today, it is for Ray Livingston and Jay Evans’ ‘Silver Bells’ – a heartwarming ensemble set piece, staged by Tashlin during the fast-approaching Christmas season and soon to become something of a modern-day Christmas carol; quickly capitalized upon by Mr. Christmas himself, Bing Crosby.
We first meet Hope’s ‘Kid’, enjoying Florida’s sunny horse-racing scene (these sequences actually shot at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, CA), illegally touting horses to orchestrate his latest con. Too bad, one of the Kid’s dupes turns out to be Stella (Andrea King), the gorgeous gun moll of Manhattan kingpin, Moose Moran (Fred Clark). By the time the Kid figures this out it is too late to stop the bet. The horse the Kid told Stella to bet on comes in dead last and Moose demands the Kid pay him $10,000 – the fee he would have recouped from his mislaid $2,000 bet…or else! Moran gives the Kid just 21 days until Christmas to make good on his payment or he will not live to see New Year’s Eve. Desperate and penniless, the Kid packs up his kit and scurries back to Manhattan to drum up some business. His first port of call is sometimes gal pal, Brainey Baxter; a leggy chorus girl who has all but sworn off the Kid after having repeatedly tried to get him to the altar. Brainey works at a nightclub managed by Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) who also harbors a romantic yen for her. But Brainey is still in love with The Kid; even as he lightens her purse, making vacuous promises to live their lives happily ever after.
The Kid appeals to Oxford Charlie to loan him the money. Alas, Charlie is in serious tax trouble. Besides, if Moose has his way, the Kid will be in no condition to hold onto Brainey’s heart. But now the Kid gets a clue, noticing the friendly relations between passersby and a Salvation Army Santa with his kettle. Deviously, the Kid fashions himself a Santa suit and begins collecting donations. Recognized by a passing policeman (Harry Shannon) he is convicted of panhandling and sentenced to ten days in jail because he cannot pay the fine. Ah, but a reprieve is coming as Brainey bails him out and The Kid refines his scam – gone legit, as it were, by creating a charity to represent – or rather ‘front’ for the real cause. The Kid’s front: Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell), a kindly but near penniless woman selling papers on the street corner, cruelly denied entry to a retirement home because of her jailed husband’s criminal past. Organizing a dim-witted entourage of mugs, goons and reprobates, along with Brainey (who fervently believes in her boyfriend’s newfound goodwill) the Kid takes over Moose’s abandoned casino, rechristening it Nellie Thursday’s Home For Old Dolls. Culling a small contingent of elderly women to stay on, and creating makeshift amenities from the gambling and roulette tables, the Kid is granted his all-important city license to collect for his ‘charity’. Unaware the Kid plans to keep all of the money to pay off Moose, his cohorts spread out across the city, netting $2,000 in only a few days.
Alas, fate again will not leave well enough alone. An overjoyed Brainey informs Charlie she is leaving his employ to manage ‘the home’ full-time until after Christmas. Her decision ignites Charlie’s curiosity and, learning of the Kid’s scheme, he decides to muscle in by launching a counter-charity; kidnapping Nellie, Brainey and the elderly dolls, spirited away to his mansion in Nyack. When the Kid returns to Moose’s casino after another profitable collection day he finds the place deserted and all of his ill-gotten gains stolen from his secret hiding spot. Confronting Charlie to hand over the money, Charlie calls the Kid’s bluff, exposing the real purpose of his scheme to all of his cohorts, Nellie, the dolls and Brainey. Although the Kid manages to slip away, Brainey tracks him down to air her disgust. Having reached his Christmas Eve deadline – and still penniless – the Kid elects to break into Charlie’s establishment by posing as a needy elderly woman. After some joyously obtuse banter, the Kid is exposed by Charlie. In the ensuing chaos, the Kid manages to make off with the money and Brainey and the elderly women escape. Now, the Kid returns to Moose’s casino to pay off his debt. But the deal is in jeopardy as Charlie arrives with Moose to demand the Kid reimburse him. Instead, the Kid hits a hidden switch, revealing all of the illegal crap, roulette and poker tables with scores of ‘dolls’ and the Kid’s loyal friends posing as patrons. Having informed the police beforehand, the Kid now allows the authorities inside to arrest Moose and Charlie for running an illegal gambling establishment. In the final moments, the Kid assures Judge Wilkinson (Stanley Andrews) who earlier sentenced him he has reformed and will devote all of his attentions to this newfound philanthropy.  On parole, Nellie's jailbird hubby, Henry (Francis Pierlot) is joyously reunited with his wife.
The Lemon Drop Kid is an amusing, if largely forgettable farce; Hope, the elfin figure of fun playing both sides against the middle, only to come out smelling like the proverbial rose in the end. The movie benefits from an eclectic roster of well-seasoned ham actors; William Frawley as ‘Gloomy Willie’, Jay C. Flippen as Straight Flush Tony, and Ida Moore as Mrs. Feeney – the bird woman among them. This is the sort of character-driven puff piece Hollywood used to know how to produce with shameless, big-hearted charisma. It all comes across as effortless; of course, not at all, given the lengthy gestation and countless edits made along the way to reshape this picture into its present form. But Hope and his cohorts present us with at least the illusion of perfection and it is quite enough to fill our hearts with sentimental high-spiritedness for a simpler time when people were just people. Marilyn Maxwell is delicious as the none-too-wise in love, but thoroughly street savvy gal on the side. She and Hope have great chemistry together. Like most Hollywood product made at the height of the studio system, The Lemon Drop Kid is a refined example of that well-oiled machinery with all pistons firing in unison to produce, if not art outright, then that extra special aura where finely honed commercialism gives way to immense over-the-moon class.
The Lemon Drop Kid arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber and in a very impressive looking 1080p transfer. For the most part, the B&W film elements are in extremely good shape; clean, crisp and showing off Daniel L. Fapp’s deep focused cinematography to its best advantage. With very few exceptions there are no age-related artifacts. Contrast is bang on and film grain looks indigenous to its source. Close-ups are particularly impressive, with fine detail in hair, skin, fabrics, etc. sparkling anew. There are a few instances that belie the insertion of dupe negatives, and occasional stock footage, harshly contrasted and not cleverly inserted to mask the discrepancies in film stock. That said, what’s here is very impressive and free of untoward DNR tinkering. There are natural limitations to the 2.0 sound mix. Aside: you are probably not watching The Lemon Drop Kid for its reference quality audio! Kino has made this a bare bones release and that’s okay because time and money have been spent to improve the image quality somewhere along the way. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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