There are not too many authors that I can think of who have had more of their stories adapted to screen than Damon Runyon (1880-1946). He has had at least sixteen movies based on his short stories (and one based on a play). The most famous are Lady For A Day (1933 – directed by Frank Capra), Little Miss Marker (1934 – the film that made Shirley Temple a star), A Slight Case of Murder (1938 – based on a play, stars Edward G. Robinson) The Lemon Drop Kid (1951 – with Bob Hope), the musical and movie adaptation of the musical Guys and Dolls (musical premiered in 1950 and the movie, with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, was released in 1955), and A Pocketful of Miracles (1961 – Capra’s remake of A Lady for a Day), though I think it is unfair to judge Runyon by the movies. Although his plots could be sentimental – though sometimes they’re quite serious and sad despite the lighthearted narration – he was also an extremely cynical writer with a surprising amount of death, violence, larceny, poverty and tragedy that, if included in a film, would probably turn the film into a serious gangster noir. And without that cynical and disengaged tone of the narrator, all that gets left in the movies is the sentiment (though Capra’s Lady for a Day comes the closest to being Runyonesque – a sentimental fairy tale mixed with gangsters and the underlying tragedy and hopelessness of the depression, all treated with a light touch; it’s a very good film).
But I recently read Guys and Dolls and Other Writings, a collection of many of his short stories, some of his trial reporting and a few essays, and found Runyon a delight to read. He was a reporter and short story writer, well-known for his reports on baseball and on certain trials. He was actually a friend of people like Al Capone, and he made his name immortal by writing what has become known as his Broadway stories, those stories that are noted for his colorful characters and his prose. And he would always have that little twist at the end of a story, much in the way that O. Henry would have a twist.
The Broadway stories are those tales, narrated by an unnamed man who is presumably Runyon himself, about the guys and dolls who inhabit Broadway (though certain of these Broadway characters occasionally leave their environs and visit other parts of the world, always bringing their Broadway ethos with them). He wrote his first story in 1929 and most of his good ones occur during Prohibition and the Great Depression. Runyon is not necessarily considered a very accurate recorder of real gangsters and the criminal underworld; it all came out of his imagination. But he set the tone for what can be called “gangster chic.” His world almost seems like fun (if it wasn’t so dangerous).
Runyon’s world is full of reappearing characters and locations (some of which are based on real people and places) and he had a gift for unbelievably colorful, almost poetic, and unforgettable character names. “Big Nig” Skalsky is a crap shooter and owns a road house who always seems to be hanging around. There is Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John, who are from Brooklyn and generally engaged in some larcenous activity, like snatching people for ransom or breaking into a safe. Dave the Dude is a gangster boss. Nathan Detroit is the guy who runs the craps games in various locations. Sam the Gonoph is always hawking tickets to sundry sports events. There is Big Jules, Liverlips, Regret the racetrack gambler, Waldo Winchester the newspaperman (based on the real Walter Winchell). Good Time Charley owns a bar, but never gives his friends any of the awful liquor he sells there; he gives them some of his private stash. And they often seem to hang out at Mindy’s (based on Lindy’s), often eating a meal at four in the morning. In fact, this is often where the narrator hears the stories that he tells. There are various women, dolls, who always seem to be making some guy cry for love, but this is really a man’s world. His dolls are generally smart dolls, though.
Damon Runyon had a style all his own. He wrote in present tense, never used contractions, and would repeat certain words, creating an energy and flow that mirrors the rush and noise of Broadway. When a guy is rich, he is said to have plenty of potatoes or cucumbers or coconuts. He even invented some words, like ackamarackus and phedinkus. Somebody’s face is their “kisser” and guys get punched in the “snoot.”Here is an example of his style from his first Broadway story, “Romance in the Roaring Forties” (the forties referred to a street, as opposed to the actual 1940s – it was written in 1929).
Only a rank sucker will think of taking two peeks at Dave the Dude’s doll, because while Dave may stand for the first peek, figuring it is a mistake, it is a sure thing he will get sored up at the second peek, and Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you.
But this Waldo Winchester is one hundred percent sucker, which is why he takes quite a few peeks at Dave’s doll. And what is more, she takes quite a number of peeks right back at him. And there you are. When a guy and a doll get to taking peeks back and forth at each other, why there you are indeed.
The short story, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” is one of the stories that the musical “Guys and Dolls” is based on about a high-flying gambler named Sky Masterson who falls in love with a mission worker named Sarah Brown and tries to win some souls for her by betting his money against the souls of other gamblers.
Well, when word goes around that The Sky is up at Nathan Detroit’s crap game trying to win Brandy Bottle Bates’ soul for Miss Sarah Brown, the excitement is practically intense. Somebody telephones Mindy’s, where a large number of citizens are sitting around arguing about this and that, and telling one another how much they will bet in support of their arguments, if only they have something to bet, and Mindy himself is almost killed in the rush for the door.
Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid from 1951 has absolutely nothing to do with the short story, except that there is a character called the Lemon Drop Kid because of his habit of eating lemon drops and who is a racetrack tout. The movie is a usual Bob Hope vehicle and a Christmas story, though the short story is not a Christmas story and is quite dark, with a bitter, ironic twist at the end. The Lemon Drop Kid almost achieves a wholesome American dream of clean work and wife, only to have it blow up in his face.
The musical Guys and Dolls is a reasonably close adaptation of several of Runyon’s stories and is generally considered to be Runyonesque, though I feel that Runyon is worth reading for his own sake, if only for that narration. I love how he constructs his sentences. They seem loose and run along without appearing to go in a direct line, filled with slang and casual asides, but there’s nothing lazy about his writing. And the irony is that no matter how sentimental the story might be, the narrator is never in the least impressed by it. He always maintains a certain emotional distance from what is going on around him. But the result is almost like poetry.