Small-time con man the Lemon Drop Kid (Bob Hope) lands in hot water when he gives a bad horse-racing tip to the girlfriend of mobster Moose Moran (Fred Clark). When the horse loses, Moose gives the Kid till Christmas to pay back the money he lost or his thugs will tear him apart. Searching frantically for a fast way to make big money, the Kid hatches an outrageous scam involving a phoney home for old ladies and some pals in Santa suits collecting for a bogus charity. After all, Christmas is the time of giving to the needy and the Kid figures no-one is more deserving than himself.
However, at Bob Hope’s request Paramount hired Frank Tashlin to bolster the gag quotient with additional scenes. In his first live action directorial work Tashlin stages some fast-motion slapstick along with a mildly saucy sight gag with a nude mannequin and a mechanical Santa that evoke his animation background. The pair extended these cartoon sensibilities when they re-teamed the following year for one of Hope’s funniest films: Son of Paleface (1952). Tashlin also directed the most famous among the film’s handful of musical sequences, in which Hope and love interest Marilyn Maxwell (allegedly off-screen as well as on) stroll through the snowy streets of New York singing that yuletide standard “Silver Bells.” Strangely derided today, both song and sequence are really quite charming and went on to be a big hit for none other than Hope’s frequent sparring partner: Bing Crosby. The sequence underlines The Lemon Drop Kid’s status as one of the more idiosyncratic Christmas movies, capturing the spirit of the season through its tale of redemption yet retaining enough grit to sidestep the saccharine.
First glimpsed getting a racing tip literally straight from the horse’s mouth (“Thanks baby, take two carrots from the petty cash”), quip-master Hope takes to the Runyon-esque rapid patter like a duck to water. The opening scene alone wherein the Kid effortlessly cons a succession of gullible marks by adopting different personae proves Hope was far more gifted an actor than many acknowledged at the time. Co-star Marilyn Maxwell ably holds her own as the well-scripted, feisty if long suffering squeeze, Brainey Baxter. Love those names. Keep an eye out also for Ed Wood regular Tor Johnson as - what else? - but a Swedish wrestler. In keeping with Runyon’s offbeat combination of hard-boiled with soft-centred, the plot exhibits compassion for the downtrodden and disenfranchised of New York through the character of Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell), an old lady evicted from her home whom the Kid cynically latches onto as the perfect front for his charity scam. As a Runyan adaptation this is admittedly less faithful than the 1934 film and the Kid’s climactic conversion is less convincing (“I’m turning over a new leaf, I’ll never be caught again”) but the gags are routinely hilarious including Hope on the run disguised as a little old lady being rescued by a helpful boy scout.
American director whose films were heavily influenced by his years spent working in cartoons. In his 20s and 30s, Tashlin worked at both Disney and Warner Brothers in their animation studios, before moving into comedy scriptwriting in the late 1940s, on films like Bob Hope's The Paleface. Tashlin moved into directing popular live-action comedies soon after, with Hope in Son of Paleface, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust, and most notably Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? These films were full of inventive, sometimes surreal touches, and used many of the techniques Tashlin had learnt as an animator. Continued to work during the sixties, but without the success of the previous decade.