The pages are flying off the calendar like in those old movies as we near Christmas. It’s time to consider the most urban of what might be called the secular advent songs from the Golden Age of American holiday music. Like It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas and other songs it captures the vibrancy, bustle, color, and excitement of the season but sets it on the crowded streets of a big city. Other songs captured nostalgia for by-gone Christmases, country villages, and sleigh rides but Silver Bells, sometimes called City Sidewalks, was set squarely in the modern post-World War II era.
In the year of the Coronavirus pandemic, those bustling sidewalks themselves seem a nostalgic glimpse of a vanished era. This year most city streets are nearly deserted gone are the Volunteers of America Santas and the Salvation Army can’t recruit nearly enough attendants for their Red Kettles. Those that are out, mostly in front of suburban strip mall stores have to offer the option of swiping credit cards to those afraid of the human contact of throwing coins or stuffing bills into the Kettles. Those Silver Bells are mostly silent.Songwriting team Ray Evans and Jay Livingston celebrated their first Academy Award win for Buttons and Bows with Jane Russell, Bob Hope's co-star in The Paleface.
The song writing team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans were commissioned to produce a song for the movie The Lemmon Drop Kid in 1950. The pair specialized in songs for film and their hits included Buttons and Bows for the The Paleface, Mona Lisa for Captain Carey, U.S.A., and Que Sera, Sera for The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Tammy for Tammy and the Bachelor. After Buttons and Bows won an Oscar for the Bob Hope and Jane Russell vehicle with in 1947 Paramount Studios was eager to have the pair work on a song for Hope’s new movie.
Lyricist Evans first titled the song Tinkle Bells but in an oft told anecdote he described being called off by his horrified wife who reminded him of the mom slang for wee wee.
As was so often the case, Bing Crosby first recorded the song with Carol Richards while the movie was in post-production. It hit the charts in October of 1950. In an already shot scene the song was almost a throw away with guff voiced vaudevillian William Frawley singing and the stars Hope and Marilyn Maxwell briefly chiming in. With the success of the record Hope and Maxwell were called back to shoot a more elaborate street scene version with them carrying most of the song.The title card for Paramount Pictures' 1951 release The Lemon Drop Kid which featured Silver Bells.
Released in 1951 The Lemon Drop Kid was based on one of Damon Runyon’s Broadway short Stories. The title character was a small time race track tout and swindler who got into a jam with a gangster and had to raise $10,000 by Christmas or he “won’t see New Year’s Eve.” The kid concocted a phony charity scam featuring street corner Santas collecting money for an Old Dolls retirement home. Abetted by his trusting girlfriend, even assembled a bunch of old dolls—former girl friends of cheap hoods, chorines, and hostesses at mob joints—and plunked them down in an abandoned casino. Needless to say, complications arose with both cops and gangsters closing in but the Kid determined to win back his disillusioned girlfriend and out of a genuine affection for the Old Dolls however reluctantly did the right thing and everyone lived happily ever after.
Hope reprised the song, which had become almost a second theme song behind Thanks for the Memories, on his annual television Christmas specials in the ‘60’s through the ‘90’s teaming up with such guest stars as Gale Storm, Olivia Newton-John, Marie Osmond, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, and his own wife Dolores Hope on his final original special in 1993.Frail and unwell, Bob Hope sang Silver Bells with his wife Dolores, a former band singer, on his last annual Christmas special.
Silver Bells has been covered by a host of artists becoming a staple of many holiday albums and seasonal specials. Among them are Doris Day, Dean Martin, The Supremes, Elvis Pressley, Anne Murray, the Oakridge Boys, Martina McBride, Mariah Carey, Reba McEntire, and Michael Bublé.
But by the 21st Century the song had become as much a nostalgia piece as the sleigh ride songs of fifty years earlier. Even before the pandemic the urban street scene that Hope and Maxwell strolled with its thick crowds of shoppers, street vendors, cops on the beat, and now embarrassing ethnic stereotypes has long vanished. It was supplanted first by the suburban mega malls and big box stores and now even those are now falling victim to on-line shopping. Busy street life has been replaced by the isolation of the computer and smart phone.
So let’s go back to the original movie scene.