Christmas Songs: “Silver Bells,” From The Film “The Lemon Drop Kid”
This film was broadcast through the mid-Sixties on KGO-7, San Francisco, within the last two weeks before Christmas. The station usually showed it in the mid-afternoon just before the 5:00 p.m. newscast with Roger Grimsby, and sometimes on weekends. That’s the time most kids were back home from elementary school and had some time to burn before homework. It, like the telecasting of White Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer each year, got to be something one expected as emblematic of the season and of growing close to family if not friends.
Then, like what happens to everyone, one grows up and forgets these things until much, much later.
I have my own copy, released by Brentwood Home Video, of this 1951 Bob Hope vehicle. It was based on a short story by Damon Runyon, the journalist and writer who used to chronicle the Broadway characters he got to know during the Jazz Era. Particularly, it was the world of speakeasies, gambling, hustling, vaudeville, and sports; of guys from Brooklyn or midtown Manhattan who “murdered” the English language, if not their competitors. Definitely a lost world for guys–and sometimes, dolls, too.
The Lemon Drop Kid was about a racing tout who gets himself in trouble after he induces a girlfriend of gangster Moose Moran to place a bet on a losing horse to the tune of $10,000. Runyon was dead by the time this film was made, although an earlier version was released in the 1930s. Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced the pleasure of reading his stories first hand. However, I am sure that the original story might not be what the film offers. From what I understand, Runyon’s stories became less and less lighthearted as time went on and focused more on the crime than the comedy.
I went through a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby phase, you might say, and I did watch nearly-forgotten stuff like the Road films. The in-jokes, gags and asides-a-minute reminded me of those in Warner Brothers’ and Jay Ward’s cartoons. They were both bad and funny, but that was the point. You chose your favorite lines in what worked and what didn’t. Some of their musical comedies had more than one song, but they were memorable or seemed that way. I even heard some of them on the radio or sung by others during the holiday season. But I grew out of it, just as I did wrestling and Lawrence Welk a couple of years before. Yes, children develop tastes and grow out of them or enhance them further, even between the ages of six and ten.
I don’t possess the same nostalgia when I hear Christmas music where I currently work. I think Muzak or whoever sells this latest bunch of Christmas songs to supermarkets and malls should shoot their compiler(s) and then examine their brains. Sometimes there are three renditions of the same song on the loop. Oh, I’ve singled out songs by the likes of Michael Jackson–as a child singing Mommy’s Kissing Santa Claus with his brothers–and of Michael McDonald and of Gene Autry, and of Dean Martin and of Nat King Cole (thankfully without Natalie) that I look forward to hearing just for sanity’s sake.
However, I’ve grown to dislike “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” though it was my favorite song for a time after I saw Love Actually. I don’t like that I cannot stand it now. Worse, they’ve revised Bing Crosby’s revered “White Christmas” in an updated, kind of hip-hop fashion. Just like with updating films like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn’s Charade,, desecrations should not be attempted of the originals if they don’t know what the hell they are doing. If I am going to get sick of such songs, I’d rather get sick of Bing’s song as he sang it.
At any rate, this is “Silver Bells” at the moment that it was dropped onto the nation’s movie consciousness. Written and composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, it was first recorded by Crosby and a singer named Carol Richards just after the film wrapped in August 1950. When the song became a hit before the film debuted in March 1951, the studio, Paramount, brought Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell together to record their own rendition of the song for that year’s holiday season.
This clip shows sidewalk Santa William Frawley–who plays Gloomy–standing at the Nellie Thursday charity kettle. As you recall, Frawley later played Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy and grandfather Bub in My Three Sons. Gloomy first growls out Silver Bells as if he’s about to give anyone a “mickey”–that is, a knockout. Hope as The Kid and Maxwell as Brainy Baxter correct him and sing the song themselves as they are checking up on the other Broadway mugs playing Santas through what is supposed to be New York City in winter. There is a rather troublesome part where two Chinese American children come out onto the sidewalk, and Hope sings, “Oh lee, oh lee, oh lee,” and pats them as if their heads are percussion instruments. At least, that’s the sound that’s triggered by the sound effects guys.
It’s the kind of thing that makes me remember that we “lost” China to Mao and the Red Army around this time, and were in Korea on a “police action” as well. The “loss” didn’t seem to correct people’s consciousnesses of Asian people; it was nothing less than a stereotype. That one could knock these kids’ heads as if they were bamboo or something? This is a reason why we “lost” China. I remember being bothered by that scene as a kid, and I still don’t like it.
If you were wondering, Marilyn Maxwell, who played Brainy, died of an apparent heart attack at fifty in 1972. She had performed with Hope, Abbott & Costello and Jimmy Durante on their early TV shows, and was active in the business until the early Sixties.
Sidney Lanfield, who directed The Lemon Drop Kid, later went on to direct episodes of McHale’s Navy and notably, The Addams Family, with Carolyn Jones and John Astin.
A newer version of The Lemon Drop Kid was issued in October by Shout! Factory.
Otherwise, it’s a great moment. Enjoy.