Released at the tail-end of the screwball comedy era, The Lemon Drop Kid represents the genre at its most friendly and benign. The biting social critique of Preston Sturges and the elaborate verbal battles of Leo McCarey are noticeably absent in Sidney Lanfield’s breezy tale of a con man in debt to a violent gangster for $10,000. The whimsical narrative cares more about momentary charm than weighty issues, as the titular candy-eating Kid played by Bob Hope croons through the proceedings with such effortless glee that the lack of thematic heft soon becomes irrelevant to the film’s child-like vision of friendship, forgiveness, and loyalty. The Lemon Drop Kid envisions a playfully innocent world where people might believe a horse could whisper racing tips into a man’s ear, threats of decapitation slide right off the shoulder, and constant deception is cute rather than contemptuous.
Despite the constant backstabbing, thievery, and extortion, the only extreme thing about The Lemon Drop Kid is the weather. Blinding Florida sunlight illuminates the film’s opening scenes at a cozy racetrack, where the Kid con’s tourists and the casual gambler out of their hard-earned money. But when he gives out a fake tip to the girlfriend of noted thug Moose Moran (Fred Clark), the Kid makes haste to the unforgiving wind and snow of New York City to hatch a scheme to pay back the money. In a fitting twist of fate, the Kid decides to set up a fake “old folks home” for a group of aged widows in order to collect charity money during the Christmas holiday. As one gangster says, “That’s the most legal double-cross I’ve ever heard,” and Hope’s exploits never truly endanger the safety of the innocents being abused.
From here, the paper-thin narrative acts as a device to get Hope from one charming situation to the next. The most irreverent of these comes between the Kid and his on-again off-again flame Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell), a love-struck singer who can’t help but fall for every trick in the Kid’s book. A collective of likeable character actors including Jane Darwell and Tor Johnson provides a necessary sense of structure to the wacky proceedings, keeping The Lemon Drop Kid from going completely off the rails. By the end of the film, every character has played a role in transitioning the Kid from fleeting con artist to the less morally ambiguous role of husband/caretaker.
Musical numbers, fast-motion chase scenes, characters in drag, and a final double-cross make The Lemon Drop Kid a constantly evolving series of genre conventions. The film can never seem to slow down and address anything close to serious, and Hope laps it up the entire time, tiptoeing around danger, avoiding long-term relationships, and finally poking fun at the absent Bing Crosby. Of course, in the end, the women of The Lemon Drop Kid regain order, tying the Kid down to a normal existence. Still, one can’t help but get caught up in the juvenile insanity, and The Lemon Drop Kid reminds of a cinematic time where even the most heinous criminal acts had a sugary coating.
Supposedly created from a new high-definition master print, Shout! Factory's transfer is nothing extraordinary in terms of visual clarity. There are print scratches throughout, and images are blurred when they aren't supposed to be. The sound design is even more problematic, and some character's dialogue scenes are out of synch with the visuals. But the musical numbers are well mixed and lend the film a restrained and polished rhythm outside of Bob Hope's chaotic performance.
The Lemon Drop Kid might not be a classic screwball comedy, but it remains a joyous and rambunctious series of mad-hatter schemes that occasionally transcends its childish roots.