Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)

Here’s ten minutes that saved my weekend.

The knock on Preston Sturges is that, after a staggering run of comic masterpieces (including The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) that remains the benchmark for a single person’s productivity in Hollywood, his work tails off. He left Paramount, where he cranked out movies so quickly that some were released two years after they were shot, and threw in with Howard Hughes in 1944. The deal gave Sturges his creative freedom, the legend goes, but sapped his talents.

I don’t buy it. Mainly because Unfaithfully Yours (1948), which Sturges made for Fox after his partnership with Hughes collapsed, contains some of the funniest material of his career. Of course, that’s the only film from the post-1944 period I’d seen.

But on Friday night I desperately needed to watch something funny, so I turned to the one movie Sturges and Hughes made together. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock stars Harold Lloyd in a quasi-follow-up to his silent classic The Freshman (1925); Sturges’ movie opens with an extended sequence from the earlier film showing Lloyd’s gung-ho college football waterboy getting on the gridiron and winning the big game. Diddlebock begins immediately after, with Lloyd’s go-getter being offered a job by a grateful alum. He stays there for twenty-two years and accomplishes nothing other than being fired. It’s only then that his life truly starts.

Diddlebock was neither a critical nor commercial triumph. Hughes edited his own version of the film and released it in 1950 as Mad Wednesday. It fared even worse. Diddlebock can charitably be described as uneven. It gets sillier as it goes along, ending with the kind of physical comedy set piece that made Lloyd’s reputation but for which Sturges has little feeling. (The two comic titans respected each other but had differing views of their craft, which led to tension during the production.) But there are flashes of Sturges’ crackpot wit throughout. He could write certain types of characters better than anyone else: rich people, people who have suddenly become rich, and people whose jobs require them to cater to the rich. All three groups are present here.

But the film’s high point is the scene in which Diddlebock, his services just terminated, is coerced by new pal Wormy into having a drink with him at eleven in the morning. The cocktail will be Diddlebock’s first, and bartender Edgar Kennedy is determined to rise to the occasion. What follows is liberation via libation and Sturges at his unhinged best. It’s now my favorite scene set in a bar.