Sorrowful Jones (Bob Hope), a shifty Broadway bookie, becomes a reluctant foster parent when a desperate gambler leaves behind his five year old daughter, Martha Jane (Mary Jane Saunders) as collateral. When the father is murdered by mobster Big Steve Holloway (Bruce Cabot), Sorrowful enlists his kindly ex-girlfriend Gladys (Lucille Ball) to help hide Martha Jane from the authorities, lest the poor girl get tossed in an orphanage.
Adapted from the most archetypal and enduringly popular comical crime story of author Damon Runyon, Sorrowful Jones had a plot that already served as a Shirley Temple vehicle back in 1934 and was recycled again as the sloppy Tony Curtis farce 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962) that marked the directorial debut of Norman Jewison and the superior Little Miss Marker (1980) featuring Walter Matthau as possibly the definitive incarnation of Sorrowful Jones opposite Julie Andrews and Curtis returning in a villainous role. For legendary comedian Bob Hope, the 1949 version marked a rare chance to flex his acting muscles as the cynical, tight-fisted and seemingly hard-hearted small time crook who could be downright dislikeable were it not for the star’s effervescent charm. Hope had an underrated knack for playing acerbic hustlers and making them likeable. His pitch-perfect performance gets to the heart of Runyon’s work, which keeps one foot in both the realm of the hard-boiled and the sentimental, with characters that bury their sensitivity beneath a street smart facade. As Gladys puts it: “You know, Sorrowful, under that hide of yours, you’re practically a person.”
The film proved a big hit for Hope and not only led to his second stab at a Runyon story, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), but proved the first of several films co-starring sitcom legend Lucille Ball including Fancy Pants (1950) and The Facts of Life (1960). Ball was among the few leading ladies with comic energy to match Hope though in this instance the winning duo sidestep broad farce and play for pathos. The relationship between Sorrowful and the tough but endlessly forgiving Gladys is well drawn and anticipates that between Nathan Detroit and his equally long suffering Adelaide in the most famous Runyon screen adaptation, Guys and Dolls (1955). Hope shares even greater chemistry with his other leading lady, little Mary Jane Saunders who never graduated to Shirley Temple levels of child stardom but proves suitably adorable nonetheless.
There are a lot of cute gags but Sidney Lanfield wisely retains the harder edges of Runyon’s story that keep the soft-hearted plot from getting too sappy. Opening with suitable machinegun narration from newsman Walter Winchell (a close friend of Runyon’s, he donated his fee to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund), the plot includes murder, menace and a somewhat contrived but still compelling accident, each of which adds to Martha’s status as a symbol of hope and redemption for a group of people in danger of losing their humanity. Embroidered by Hope’s witty one-liners, the film gallops along as briskly as the horse featured in the third act. However, Lanfield and the screenwriters fail to milk the comic potential in several instances including the climax with Hope causing chaos at a hospital with the runaway nag or find a way for Sorrowful Jones to outwit his enemies without falling back on a cavalry charge by dogged Detective Reardon (Thomas Gomez). Even so, the finale is satisfying but does make one wonder whether Runyon was at all familiar with Silas Marner.