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Jay Livingston and Ray Evans needed a hit. The songwriting duo at Paramount hadn't written any salable music in a while, and their six-month renewable contract would lapse pretty soon if they couldn't come up with a tune. Worse yet, their bosses had requested a Christmas song, one of the most crowded and overdone genres of popular music. They were stumped until one of the men noticed a tinkly little bell on their shared desk. They started brainstorming lyrics: "Tinkle bells, tinkle bells. It's Christmas time in the city."
"Silver Bells" (wisely renamed after Livingston's wife pointed out that "tinkle" was kiddie slang for "urinate") is unique among Christmas songs in that, instead of the nostalgic rural setting described in "Jingle Bells" or "O Christmas Tree", it's set in a modern, urban milieu of "busy sidewalks" and "strings of street lights". It's a perfect fit for the tough yet sentimental The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), a holiday movie based on a story by literary tough guy Damon Runyon.
Runyon, a newspaper man whose stock in trade was gritty chronicles of Prohibition-era New York, had his work adapted previously for the screen in Little Miss Marker (1934) and its remake Sorrowful Jones (1949). Bob Hope had earned critical applause for his role in that remake, and he was ready to try a Runyon story again, with the same director Sidney Lanfield, this time playing a glib con man who conjures up a comical scheme involving street-corner Santas as a way to pay off a scorned gangster.
As usual, Hope took an active role in production, insisting on casting unknown Marilyn Maxwell as the female lead because he liked her comic timing and screen sex appeal. "I worked with her in New York," Hope told studio brass. "She's good. I want her and that's enough for me." (It also helped that he and Maxwell were having a clandestine affair, a personal and work partnership that lasted through many movies, tours, and TV specials.) He also complained to studio president Barney Balaban that Lanfield's cut of the finished film was lacking. Not only did Hope feel he'd been slighted on screen time, but Lanfield missed the sentimental angle that was crucial to Sorrowful Jones' success.
One particular sticking point was the "Silver Bells" number. In the original staging, Lanfield simply stood all the cast members shoulder to shoulder in the shady interior of a vacant casino, in what Hope biographer Lawrence J. Quirk described as "in the manner of a Hollywood choir." Hope knew the "Silver Bells" number had the makings of a showstopper. He'd previously done well with "Buttons and Bows", another Livingston/Evans tune performed by Hope in The Paleface (1948). (That song earned the songwriting duo the first of three Academy Awards). Besides, his "road movie" pal Bing Crosby had just recorded a version of the song with Carol Richards. Hope, not to be upstaged, recruited joke writer Frank Tashlin to rewrite the scene. Tashlin drove a hard bargain. He'd labored in Hollywood for years as a gagman and was hungry to direct his own movies. He wanted to direct the scene, and Hope agreed. (Lanfield was so incensed to learn that Hope had ousted him that he never worked with the comedian again.)
Tashlin's revision wisely moved the scene to a busy shopping thoroughfare in the city, using the song to link vignettes of urban good cheer. Hope, dressed in a ragged Santa costume, strolls arm-in-arm with Maxwell through the lightly falling snow as kids eye toys in store windows, peddlers sell chestnuts and mistletoe, and shoppers smile at all the holiday decorations. The number ends on a wide shot of a snow-kissed metropolis, the light in every skyscraper window twinkling like a star.
Tashlin went on to direct Technicolor comedies like The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), while Livingston and Evans were forever grateful for the royalties earned by their now-classic Christmas song, a perennial tune that's sold over 500 million records and been covered by everyone from Stevie Wonder to the Chipmunks to Twisted Sister. But while audiences enjoyed a cozy Christmas in theaters, the perennially restless Hope was already on the road. The first day of shooting for The Lemon Drop Kid was also the first day of the conflict that became The Korean War. In between squabbles, rewrites, and reshoots, Hope was also busy organizing the biggest USO show to date - 50 entertainers, including a radio crew and every member of the Les Brown big band - for troops in the Pacific, a Christmas tradition that would continue until 1995, when Hope retired from military touring at the age of 92.
Producer: Robert L. Welch
Director: Sidney Lanfield; Frank Tashlin (uncredited)
Screenplay: Edmund Beloin, Damon Runyon (story); Irving Elinson (additional dialogue); Edmund L. Hartmann, Robert O'Brien, Frank Tashlin
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin, Hal Pereira
Music: Victor Young
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Cast: Bob Hope (Sidney Melbourne - The Lemon Drop Kid), Marilyn Maxwell ('Brainy' Baxter), Lloyd Nolan (Oxford Charley), Jane Darwell (Nellie Thursday), Andrea King (Stella), Fred Clark (Moose Moran), Jay C. Flippen (Straight Flush), William Frawley (Gloomy Willie), Harry Bellaver (Sam the Surgeon), Sid Melton (Little Louie).
by Violet LeVoit
"What's In A Song? Silver Bells" NPR, Dec 25 2005
Quirk, Lawrence J. Bob Hope: the road well traveled. Thorndike Press, 2001
Strait, Raymond. Bob Hope: A Tribute. Pinnacle, 2002
Faith, William Robert. Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy. Da Capo, 2003