It’s a Wonderful Life is a good movie. Really, it is. The creativity going into shaping the characters, the way it builds itself up—it is a finely crafted film, if a fluffy one at times. It doesn’t deserve the derision it’s been getting due it’s “we are forced to see this thing on TV every year” proliferation.
But then, it doesn’t really deserve the extreme elevated status it is given by some with fuzzy feelings for everything ritualistic. And no, it is not the greatest Christmas movie ever made.
That would be The Lemon Drop Kid . Never heard of it? It starred Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell (one of the prettiest actress in world history, despite the almost colorless hair), and was based on a tale from the great Damon Runyon. I do mean the great Damon Runyon.
Many films of the great Bob Hope are dis-jointed collections of gags and stunts (frequently well-done) with no real reason for the movie itself. Not so here. Lemon Drop Kid is the story of a small-time con-worker, short on brains but long on personal intensity.
Well, dear old Sidney Melbourne (aka Lemon Drop) has just conned Moose Moran (by way of Moosie’s belle of a mistress) out of ten grand. Not so bad, except Lemony hasn’t got the dough either. The race track does. And Moose is about ready to sick his personal surgeon on Melbourne’s kidneys and other parts.
But, the Christmas spirit (and the promise of repayment) gets to the crime boss. He generously gives the Lemon Drop Kid the 23 shopping days until Christmas to get to N.Y. and pull a big enough job to repay the lost loot. If the punk don‘t come through, to quote Moran addressing the Kid, “come Christmas Day you’ll find your head in your stocking.”
And what’s the big plan with the big payoff? Use a bunch of destitute old broads to con every man, woman, and child in New York out of their pocket change, then dump the old dolls right out on the street. How much Christmassier can ya get?
Of course the beautifully conceived designs soon encounter obstacles. One is a local tough with agonized feet (who actually pays his income tax) named Oxford Charlie. Charlie plans to muscle in and over on the title character: take the dough, get in good with Moose, and let Sam the Surgeon open the kid up for Christmas.
The show closes with a bang, believe me.