Sunday, December 24, 2006


Damon Runyon was a popular writer in the first half of the 20th century whose stories romanticized members of the New York City underclass: gangsters, bookies, gamblers, chorus girls, panhandlers, and assorted Broadway hangers-on. Even if you've never read him, you know his characters from movies like GUYS AND DOLLS and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES. They're all scam artists but most of them are also at heart nice guys (and dolls), and they speak in a colorful style that uses slang, unusual phrasing, precise grammar, and long sentences, as in this line from GUYS AND DOLLS: "For two weeks I gambled in green pastures; the dice were my cousins and the dolls were agreeable with nice teeth and no last names." I find most of the Runyon movies a bit too precious, though they all have their moments of charm--I like POCKETFUL best, though most movie buffs prefer its original source, the 1933 LADY FOR A DAY. This one is better known as a Christmas movie as it takes place during the holidays and introduced the song, "Silver Bells," one of my very favorite modern carols, but overall it doesn't have a strong Christmas flavor. Bob Hope is the title character, an affable con man who we first see at a racetrack in Florida, running a touting scheme and scamming folks into thinking that he can talk to the horses. He cheats well-heeled mobster Fred Clark out of $10,000, and Clark gives him until Christmas to pay him back. Hope is sure he can raise the money back in New York (where Clark will be by the 25th , trying to sell an old casino of his) but his hoped-for backer, low-level racketeer and nightclub owner Lloyd Nolan, doesn't come through. Hope starts a charity scam, dressing as Santa Claus and raising money to use Clark's empty casino for a home for "Old Dolls" who are no longer able to make ends meet on the streets. He gets a bunch of street pals to dress as Santas and help collect funds, and he takes a group of old ladies in at the casino, but he plans to abscond with the money on Christmas Day to pay off Clark. Nolan gets wind of the plan and tires to muscle in, going so far as to kidnap the dolls. Naturally, this being Damon Runyon's world, Hope has a change of heart and manages to cross up both Clark and Nolan in the process. Marilyn Maxwell plays Hope's main squeeze, who (like Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS) has been trying to get her man to marry her for years. Jane Darwell is Nellie Thursday, the "old doll" who inspires Hope; Andrea King is Clark's gal; William Frawley, Jay C. Flippen, and Sid Melton are also in the cast. An early scene of Hope, dressed for Florida but arriving in New York during a snowstorm, is very funny, and when Hope and Maxwell sing "Silver Bells" while strolling along the city streets, it becomes a full-fledged production number, and one of the best Christmas moments in any Hollywood film. Hope doesn't try to build a character; he really only has a line or two of dialogue that sounds authentically Runyonesque, and it might have been better if he hadn't tired at all. Amusing, if not quite a timeless classic. [VHS]

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