One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. However, because of legal complications, this particular title was not included in the original television package and was not televised until many years later. See more »
This 1934 film version of Damon Runyon's story 'The Lemon Drop Kid' has been legally suppressed, due to Paramount's remake starring Bob Hope. The remake has its merits, but this '34 version is closer to Runyon's original plot. Hope played the remake for broad comedy: this version starts out going for broad laughs, then moves into drama and finally pathos.
I have a high regard for Runyon's work but I don't actually enjoy reading it. His characters speak in deeply contrived slang and implausible grammar. This script lumbers Tracy with a steady stream of dialogue that's both too slangy and not believable enough. When a major catastrophe befalls him, instead of yelling some simple interjection, he actually says "This is my unlucky day, or I don't know a mare from a gelding." For most of the movie, he talks like that.
I was also intrigued, but not entirely impressed, that Tracy's character here kept speaking in rhyming slang, such as saying "willows" when he means "pillows". Rhyming slang is used by racetrack touts in Britain and Australia, but I've never heard anyone in the States use it. Also, Tracy keeps defining his slang terms for the benefit of the other characters (and the audience), when the whole point of rhyming slang is to baffle outsiders.
There's a splendid performance by William Frawley as a tout nicknamed 'the Professor'. Frawley gets to warble a song at one point, and he does it very well ... though he accompanies his vocals with those incredibly bad hand gestures that some movie actors use when they pretend to be playing piano. There's also a fine performance by Minna Gombell in what could've been a stereotypical "seen it all, dearie" role. Splendid work by director "Mickey" Neilan.
There's a too-brief performance by vaudeville banjoist Eddie Peabody, and I was amused to see Kitty Kelly playing with a Sam Loyd puzzle. Black actor Sam McDaniel shows up as Robert McWade's bathchair attendant, and I was delighted that McDaniel was permitted to play a realistic black man with nary a "Yassuh". Speaking of which: why do the fictional characters in this movie (and so many other 1930s Hollywood movies) persist in using mispronunciations such as 'deef' for 'deaf' and 'raddio' for 'radio'? I've never heard an actual American use either of those mispronunciations.
SPOILERS AHEAD: One key event, an armed robbery, takes place offscreen ... possibly to help maintain sympathy for Tracy's character. He's cried the Lemon Drop Kid because he keeps eating lemon-flavoured acid drops, yet (even when he has no money) Tracy seems to have an infinite supply of these in his pocket, as if he's Harpo Marx. I disliked a scene in which the Lemon Drop Kid, a widower, gets arrested in the presence of his infant son. He's understandably concerned for himself, yet neither he nor the arresting officers seem to think about who will take care of the infant: Baby LeRoy is just left there while the Lemon Drop Kid gets hauled off to chokey. Earlier, Helen Mack gives a deeply touching performance as Tracy's wife, who gives birth to their child but knows she's going to die from the complications.
There are a couple of awkward time-jumps in this movie, which takes place over the course of about three years. The transition from frothy comedy to deep pathos is a bit disorienting, but Tracy (an under-rated actor) handles it splendidly. My rating for this one is 8 out of 10.
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