Friday, August 9, 2013

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (Preston Sturges, 1947) (aka Mad Wednesday, 1950) Sturges' first film out of his Paramount Studios contract, and with his film company California Films in partnership with millionaire polyglot Howard Hughes. Sturges adapted his script idea "The Sin of Hilda Diddlebock" (about a young girl's misadventures in Hollywood) for a favorite silent film star, Harold Lloyd—who was under the impression that he'd get to direct some sequences.  

It must have been "going around," as Sturges was under the impression he had free reign over the film.  But when it opened "soft," Hughes took over control of the film, re-editing it (in his painstaking way), finally releasing it in 1950 as "Mad Wednesday" (because a title with "sin" in it might not appeal to audiences throughout the nation—although it was probably that very enticing nature that led Sturges to title it that way in the first place).

The version we saw is the Sturges version, in desperate need of some sort of care and restoration—the black and white images are soft and dark looking, like it was shot in perpetual twilight, several splices mar the flow and interrupt a couple jokes here and there, and making one want to see the mangled version just to see if it's (ironically) in better shape.

It's hard to determine what "sin" Sturges is talking about. The film starts with a sequence from Lloyd's The Freshman (made in 1925) intercut with some recent scenes that act as bridging sequences as Lloyd's water boy manages to score a winning touchdown, impressing a business owner who (in new scenes filmed by Sturges) hires him on the spot.  Sturges keeps the sequence silent and primitive to mesh with the earlier filmed sequences and Lloyd looks young enough to pass for his younger self.

But, that's where the film starts.  Diddlebock's moment of glory results in his getting a job as an accountant for the man's firm.  Twenty years later, he's still there, passed by by other employees, including a series of sisters he admired and all moved on, leaving the youngest as Diddlebock's work colleague.  He's laid off, given a severance, and kicked out without prospects and no goal posts to run towards.

Already, the film is a commentary on American business, its spoiling of potential through pigeon-holing and compartmentalization, and the efficacy of "glory days."  But this is the first ten minutes.

Out on the street, Diddlebock gets way-laid by a racetrack tout (Jimmy Conlin) who sees him as a case of arrested development—one with a lot of disposable income—and after a two decades recess, Diddlebock goes back to school, as taught on the street.  First step: a bar, where he has his first adult beverage, an event that inspires the bartender (Edgar Kennedy)—"You arouse the artist in me"—to create a grand concoction of mixology, the sipping of which elicits a primal scream somewhere between the ubiquitously used red-tail hawk cry and a high-pitched ape roar.  A couple of toots of those and it's a trip to the barber's for a complete make-over, including a garishly nightmarish checkered suit, and the investment in short-term futures at the horse track, which pays off huge dividends, further inspiring high living, a blackout for an indeterminate length of time, and the investment in a defunct circus, including a menagerie of animals and one particularly cranky male lion that becomes Diddlebock's nearly constant companion and chief collateral throughout the rest of the movie.  Hilarity—and Sturges' unique brand of hysterical panic—ensues.

It's the maddest of screwball comedies with Diddlebock a cyclone of disruption wherever he goes, trying to unload the results of his bleary recent past and only finding himself with more problems, more prospects and an ever-growing number of acquaintances...the freak accidents of American success.

Even with Sturges' frenetic timing, the results are a bit off in tone and pace, as if somewhere along the way, the directorial edict became "faster..." (which, for Sturges, approaches the super-sonic).  Still, even though its uneven, it's still full of bizarre child-like invention and scrupulously drawn character types.

The dialogue is snappy and so is the lion—a couple of times making a lunge for LLoyd's hand, while the plucky silent star (probably to avoid further takes with the animal which he was terrified of) keeps going with the take, not missing a beat.  Amazing.

No, it wasn't successful; Sturges might have lost some of his homespun touch after so many frustrating years in Hollywood, despite his successes for Paramount.  Parallels can be found with Diddlebock, who hits the jackpot and keeps on hitting, despite being beset by day-to-day "small stuff" that he has to sweat.  But Sturges can still mine comedy gold out of his self-analysis, as he did with Sullivan's Travels.  He would continue to struggle, while still walking the thin line between message and entertainment.  He would only make three more films.

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