Damon Runyon used to be a household name. He was famous for two reasons: his reportage, often covering some of the most sensational stories of the first half of the 20th century; and his fiction, featuring thinly disguised real people in occasionally outlandish situations, written in a narrative style uniquely his own.
Nowadays Runyon’s reputation rests almost entirely in his “Broadway stories,” such as Guys and Dolls. In an introduction to The Bloodhounds of Broadway and Other Stories by Damon Runyon, biographer Tom Clark characterizes them this way:
Damon Runyon’s Broadway tales are ironic mini-comedies based on the American outlaw code. It is the old Code of the West, transposed to Manhattan and the twentieth century. To live outside the law you must be honest, the saying used to go. Runyon rearranges it to read: To live outside the law you must be an interesting character, and anyway, no one is more honest than he has to be.
Moreover, Runyon possessed something indispensible to a professional writer:
One of Runyon’s most remarkable faculties was his gift for preserving (and often himself adopting) the speech patterns of others. Throughout the 1920s he was able to sit around in speakeasies and record in his head the syntax and vocabulary of Broadway night life and underworld characters, much of which made its way into that crowning reporting job of his career, the “guys and dolls” short stories. “He has caught with a high degree the actual tone and phrase of the gangsters and racketeers of the town. Their talk is put down almost literally.” So claimed one knowledgeable critic of the epoch, Heywood Broun. “To me the most impressive thing in Guys and Dolls is the sensitivity of the ear of Damon Runyon.” That sensitive ear was the ear of a guy who was strictly asking for coffee at all times.
People who knew Runyon well claimed his hardboiled exterior concealed a cultured and sensitive interior. In any case, he was friends with the infamous (Al Capone was a neighbor) as well as the famous (in accordance with Runyon’s wishes, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker flew low over Broadway and scattered his ashes over the district).
“The Lemon Drop Kid”: Story
One of Runyon’s “ironic mini-comedies” involves a racetrack tout named The Lemon Drop Kid. A tout, for the uninitiated, is a hustler who pretends he has inside information on an upcoming race (when, in fact, he has none), and who by getting some sucker to get in on the betting is able to clear a few “bob” for himself, the sucker usually being happy enough to cut the tout in on the winnings — but being very unhappy when the tip doesn’t pay off as advertised.
This is called “telling the tale,” and The Lemon Drop Kid is normally very good at it.
But on this particular occasion, The Kid accidentally misdirects his mark, and through a major misunderstanding takes it on the lam to escape what he mistakenly assumes will be retributive justice in the form of The Kid’s tender flesh.
And so he literally runs away from the racetrack, with his mark in hot pursuit.
Eventually, The Kid will find love for the first time in his life, but the experience will prove bittersweet . . . .
The Lemon Drop Kid: Films
Runyon’s story has been filmed twice, once by Paramount in 1934 with Lee Tracy, Helen Mack, and William Frawley (remember the growly landlord in I Love Lucy?); and a second time by Paramount in 1951 with Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell, Lloyd Nolan, Fred Clark, and William Frawley again.
The 1934 version, we are told, adheres more closely to the original story. Those who have seen it say it starts out a comedy and ends up on a more serious note, very much like Runyon’s tale. The claim has been made that Paramount suppressed this film in favor of the remake.
The 1951 edition takes the idea of The Kid misinforming someone about a bet and runs with it; the whole thing is played for as many laughs as possible (e.g., The Kid initiating a scam on little old ladies, Bob Hope in drag — you get the idea).
To give you an idea of how much the 1951 movie differed from Runyon’s story, get a load of this list of characters’ names that never appeared in the original tale: Sidney Melbourne, ‘Brainy’ Baxter, Oxford Charley, Nellie Thursday, Moose Moran, Straight Flush, Gloomy Willie, Sam the Surgeon, Little Louie, Singing Solly, The Bird Lady, and Goomba. “Sidney Melbourne” was the moniker they gave The Kid and “‘Brainy’ Baxter” was gorgeous Marilyn Maxwell.
If you’re cheap like me, you can read Runyon’s “The Lemon Drop Kid” at the Project Gutenberg Australia site. Just click on the link and scroll halfway down the page. The same collection features “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” which we briefly discussed last year.
If you’ve never heard of him, you can read about Damon Runyon on Wikipedia here.
A Damon Runyon Radio Theatre premiered in 1949 and ran for several years. You should be able to find “The Lemon Drop Kid” audio here.