The Domain of Damon Runyon

When I was a kid and heard the name of Damon Runyon (1880-1946) mentioned, I had the wrong idea about what he wrote. I don’t know why, but I somehow got the notion that he was a writer of tough-guy private eye mysteries of the Dashiell Hammett/ Raymond Chandler/ Mickey Spillane sort. His short stories often featured gangsters and the world of crime, but they were much more about a certain New York culture, a fabric of humorous flashy characters he witnessed in the nightclubs and restaurants of the Broadway district, and at racetracks and similar places. He captured their lingo, and embellished and polished it, turning it into his own instantly identifiable style which came to be called Runyonese or Runyonesque. His short stories (he never wrote a novel) were full of characters with names like Dave the Dude and Harry the Horse. Humor is often derived from these underworld characters having unexpectedly having big, sloppy, sentimental hearts, and speaking with a mix of slang and ambitious vocabulary, sometimes (though not always) with malapropisms, and usually with a clipped formal sounding manner of speaking that did away with contractions. Starting in the early 1930s these stories were published as collections in a series of popular books, which very rapidly were adapted for stage and screen. It’s those adaptations rather than the source material that became widely known classics.

Surprisingly, Runyon was not a native New Yorker, though most of his characters came from the outer boroughs. He was a westerner, originally from Manhattan, Kansas, later from Pueblo Colorado. He was a third generation newspaperman, who get his start in Pueblo, later Denver (where he knew Bat Masterson), and finally, in 1910, New York. His beat was what used to be called “sporting news”. Back in the late 19th and very early 20th century, sports and the theatre world were often covered by the same reporters. Boxing, baseball, and horse racing were his special loves, and he is (believe it or not) credited with being one of the inventors of the roller derby. Future columnists Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell both apprenticed under Runyon.

These are the films made from Runyon’s stories:

Lady for a Day (1933): Adapted by Robert Riskin, directed by Frank Capra, with May Robson, Warren William, Guy Kibbee, Glenda Farrell, Ned Sparks, Nat Pendleton, Walter Connolly, Hobart Bosworth, Jean Parker, and Robert Emmett O’Connor

Little Miss Marker (1934): With Shirley Temple, Adolphe Menjou, Charles Bickford, Lynne Overman, Sam Hardy, and Willie Best

The Lemon Drop Kid (1934): With Lee Tracy, Helen Mack, William Frawley, Baby Leroy, Kitty Kelly, Henry B. Walthall, Eddie Peabody, and Dell Henderson

Princess O’Hara (1935) with Jean Parker, Chester Morris, Leon Errol, Vince Barnett, Clara Blandick, and Tom Dugan

Professional Soldier (1935): with Vicor McLaglen, Freddie Bartholomew, Gloria Stuart, Constance Collier. A young Rita Hayworth plays a “Gypsy Dancer”!

A Slight Case of Murder (1938), based on Runyon’s 1935 Broadway play, starring Edward G. Robinson, Edward Brophy, Allen Jenkins, and Ruth Donnelly

Straight, Place and Show (1938): the Ritz Brothers, Richard Arlen, Ethel Merman, and Sidney Blackmer

Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President (1939): with Ann Sothern, William Gargan, Walter Brennan, Jack Norton, Al Shean, Russell Hicks, and Robert Emmett O’Connor

The Big Street (1942) with Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball, Eugene Pallette, Agnes Moorehead, Marion Martin, Ray Collins, Sam Levene, and Vera Gordon

Butch Minds the Baby (1942) with Broderick Crawford, Shemp Howard, Virginia Bruce, Dick Foran, Richard Lane, Fuzzy Knight, and Tom Kennedy

It Ain’t Hay (1943): with Abbott and Costello, Eugene Pallette, Shemp Howard, Eddie Quillan and Richard Lane

From 1948 through 1949, Damon Runyon Theatre ran on radio.

Sorrowful Jones (1949) remake of Little Miss Marker with Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Bruce Cabot, and William Demarest

In 1950, four years after Runyon passed away, Guys and Dolls, the best known theatrical property based on his works premiered on Broadway with Robert Alda, Sam Levene, Pat Rooney Sr, Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully, et al, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, with music by Frank Loesser. Meanwhile, the movie adaptations continued apace:

Johnny One-Eye (1950), directed by Robert Florey, with Pat O’Brien, Wayne Morris, Donald Woods, Lyle Talbot, et al.

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951): remake of the 1934 film with Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell, Lloyd Nolan, Jane Darwell, Fred Clark, Jay C. Flippen, and William Frawley

Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952): with Mitzi Green, Michael O’ Shea, Wally Vernon, et al

Money from Home (1953) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Sheldon Leonard, etc, directed by George Marshall

Stop, You’re Killing Me (1953) with Broderick Crawford, Claire Trevor, Sheldon Leonard, Harry Morgan, Margaret Dumont, and Jack Pepper

Guys and Dolls (1955): with Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine, Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully, Sheldon Leonard, Regis Toomey, and The Goldwyn Girls

From 1955 through 1956 Damon Runyon Theatre ran on CBS television

Pocketful of Miracles (1961): Frank Capra’s remake of his own Lady for a Day with Bette Davis, Glenn Ford, Peter Falk, Hope Lange, Arthur O’Connell, Thomas Mitchell (his last film), Edward Everett Horton, Sheldon Leonard and Ann-Margret (her first film). This was Capra’s last theatrical feature. It was originally to star Sinatra, but he broke with Capra and then made his own very Runyonesque Robin and the Seven Hoods in 1964.

40 Pounds of Trouble (1962): remake of Little Miss Marker with Tony Curtis, Suzanne Pleshette, Larry Storch, Howard Morris, Edward Andrews, Stubby Kaye, Kevin McCarthy, and Phil Silvers

Little Miss Marker (1980): remake with Walter Matthau, Julie Andrews, Tony Curtis, Bob Newhart, and Brian Dennehy

Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989): Matt Dillon, Jennifer Grey, Julie Hagerty, Rutger Hauer, Madonna, Randy Quaid, Syeve Buscemi, et al

Miracles: The Canton Godfather (1989): Jackie Chan movie based on Lady for a Day and its remakes

In 1994, actor Michael McShane acted in a British tv series called Broadway Stories based on Runyon’s writings.