Diddlebocking Around

“Have I ever seen THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK?” asked Fiona. I serve as her backup memory bank for these things, though she remembers the music and TV stuff.

“Only halfway,” I said. Because I recalled her being blown away by the first half and then abruptly tuning out, around the part Preston Sturges, the film’s writer-director, lost interest himself. (He laboured intensively over writing the first half, then finished in a day or two, according to his secretary.)

My friend and occasional co-writer Alex never finished it either, and when the subject is raised he gets traumatic flashbacks of Jimmy Conlin screaming “AAAARGH MISTER DIDDLEBOCK!” which to be fair there is quite a bit of. We can generally agree that it was a mistake to stage another skyscraper sequence, and to do it in a studio with unconvincing process shots.

It’s quite a weird sequence, filmed with some very nice crane movements to begin with, but with the outside world excluded, so we’re looking flat-on at a building frontage and there’s no sense whatever of being high up.

Fiona was talking about how misjudged the routine was, and I reminded her that she had been laughing hysterically at Harold dangling from a lion’s leash. “Only because it was so stupid,” she said. But that’s the point. Sturges wanted to alternate high and low comedy in all his stuff, hence all those pratfalls. He even has Veronica Lake praise a John L. Sullivan picture for its stupidity. “Oh, it was stupid, but it was wonderful.”

Worth reading all the way through.

Jimmy Conlin actually wakes up screaming, himself the victim of a traumatic flashback, in the next scene. In this he is reprising Barbara Stanwyck’s shriek in THE LADY EVE. Sturges’s characters are not only put through hell, they suffer PTSD.

I’m curious to see the MAD WEDNESDAY, Howard Hughes’ alternate version, which is apparently longer and features not only Hughes interpolations such as a talking horse, but maybe Sturges deletions. You can spot moments in the shorter version which don’t quite make sense, with characters assumed to know things they haven’t been told, and it’s clear Sturges chopped bits out because he wasn’t altogether happy. The collaboration with Lloyd was MORE trouble-strewn than that with Hughes.

“I could make you a very attractive offer.”

“You couldn’t make me an attractive offer, not if you got down on your bended knee and threw in a set of dishes.”

The IMDb lists Al Bridge’s morose ringmaster as “Wild Bill Hicock,” but he’s actually referred to by Conlin as “Wild Bill Hitchcock,” which is funnier.

There’s often a cynical edge to Sturges’s happy endings. (Spoilers, unavoidably, follow.) Usually this comes as a result of the plot twists which precipitate them being utterly unbelievable, but having been “established” in surreptitious manner early one — THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK smuggles its get-out clause in via the title and the opening pre-credits/credits/post-credits non-linear McGinty cameo, THE PALM BEACH STORY likewise slips its comedy-of-errors sub-sub-sub-plot in while the titles are still rolling, and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO pulls off its jubilant fade-out by making its entire population fundamentally stupid (it worked in THE MUSIC MAN too, and may not be so much of a stretch.)

The later films are darker. It’s possible to read the ecstatic last scene of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS as delusional, and imagine that Linda Darnell is in fact cheating on Sexy Rexy, is, in fact, playing a proper Linda Darnell role. And there’s a slight oddness and offness to THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND (OK, a lot of oddness & offness) — Betty Grable has been impersonating a seemingly dead schoolmarm. I was fully expecting the teacher to turn up alive and well, because (a) this would clear up a wholly inappropriate note of tragedy and (b) it would make things hot for Grable. But it never happens. The poor educator is really deceased.

TSOHD has an ending that’s REALLY cynical. The problem energizing our hero in the film’s last section is what to do with a circus he’s purchased in a drunken haze. He can’t afford to run it, but nobody wants to buy it, or even accept it as a gift. Harold gets the idea of a FREE circus for all the poor children in town. It’s a dream he’s always had. He can get a rich banker to run the show, because everybody hates bankers and this would be great positive publicity.

But that’s not what happens. What happens is that the Ringling Bros. buy the circus to PREVENT a competitive free circus stealing their trade. Harold gives up his childhood dream with nary a backward glance, even though the bankers are all clamouring for a chance to prove they’re not all meanies. The Ringling Bros. offer more dough, so that’s that.

In the breathless frenzy of a typical Sturges conclusion there’s no time to linger on this sour note, of course. But it inescapably flavours one’s impression of the film as THE END (with or without a talking horse) superimposes itself. And may have contributed more than its share to the film’s underperformance and enduring lack of popularity. After all, Harold Lloyd has always been an icon of go-getting, energetic, ultimately masterful American will-to-success, always offered to the audience as an unironic winner in whatever dramatic situation he’s placed in, emerging on top of the heap and with the girl on his arm. Having already undermined the movie’s romance with bitter glee (Miss Otis is merely the latest in an endless stream of sisters), Sturges now makes his hero at least a bit of a money-grubbing louse. How did this escape Lloyd, Hughes, and the other supposed grown-ups? (I use the term… wrongly.) Did Lloyd have any inkling what he was doing to himself here?

THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK stars Harold Lamb aka Speedy; Trusty; Mayor Everett J. Noble; John D. Hackensacker III; Officer Kennedy; Hortense O’Dare; J. Pinkerton Snoopington; Cornelius Cobb; Miss Gulch; A. Pismo Clam; Prof. Summerlee; Man in Talking Pictures Demonstration; The Mister; Hives – the Butler; Slave Girl; ‘Sourpuss’; J.J. King; Colored Porter; Ape Man; Snug – the Joiner; and the Masterblaster.


13 Responses to “Diddlebocking Around”

  1. Fiona Watson Says:

    The best bit in the entire movie – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFNGRLDNqi4

  2. Fiona Watson Says:

    “Yes. She told me.” And, “We all felt bad about that.”

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I know Sturges’ secretary — a marvelous jazz singer named Ruth Olay. Ruth has told me Sturges dictated his screenplays out loud. This explains the declamatory mode of o many of his plots and characters and underscores the improvisatory nature of their creation. The hero’s big speech about the woman he fell in love with and her successive sisters that he fell for likewise is a perfect example of this. What he was doing in “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” (its title echoing “The Sin of Madelon Claudet”) is his declamatory mode (the first part) with Harold Lloyd slapstick in the second. I for one think it work. It also provides Franklin Pangborn with one of this best roles. Never seen “Mad Wednesday.” it’s a great title but a talking horse in a Sturges film? Yikes!

  4. The horse is right at the end, apparently. It suggests Hughes’ sensayuma was as highly developed as his other aesthetic tastes.

    Sturges is, I think, a lot more skilled with dialogue than slapstick (he films too close, excludes the feet, and cuts away to reactions too fast and often), but I do find the goofiness of it amusing and I certainly admire William Demarest’s pratfalls.

    Actors always said Sturges’s dialogue was wonderfully easy to remember and say, which I think is partly a result of his using dictation to produce it.

  5. ROGER ALLEN Says:

    I’m sure I saw this years ago in a complete Harold Lloyd season at the BFI, but I have no memory of it at all.
    What became of Frances Ramsden? Was she put off cinema and acting for life by her experiences here?

  6. I think her career was launched by Sturges and Hughes and when all three split up and the film kind of bombed, any heat she had going for her fizzles. A shame. She’s a very modern, introverted underplayer, though, and might not have fitted in with the times. Today we can appreciate her.

  7. Randy Cook Says:

    The talking horse is a SINGING horse, supplying a smutty ditty which needlessly underscores the fact that Harold had spent his Wednesday blackout getting married and Honeymooning Miss Otis’ brains out. Hughes also deleted the entirety of Rudy Vallee’s part. I happen to love SOHD, except for the skyscraper stuff.

  8. Wow. A smutty singing horse tops everything.

    I’d heard – or Fiona had read – that there’s a version where Vallee has a much BIGGER part, but maybe that’s wishful thinking on somebody else’s part.

  9. ROGER ALLEN Says:

    Considering Hughes’s attitude to women whose careers he launched, you can understand it if Frances Ramsden lost her enthusiasm for Hollywood.

  10. dbenson Says:

    In “The Parade’s Gone By”, Lloyd claims creative control up to the barbershop. He then pans Hughes for cuts , specifically from the barroom scene, but says nothing about additions.

    I recall seeing it at a college screening back in the 70s. His speech about the sisters went over big (“Thank you.” “I haven’t gotten to you yet.”). Also Edgar Kennedy as the bartender thrilled to get a virgin drinker — how often did he get to register enthusiasm instead of a slow burn? And this being a college crowd, the near-throwaway about the Ringling Brothers topping all bids went over huge. But the first real laugh was the series of FDR calendars.

    The thrill stuff with the lion was a misfire on multiple fronts. Besides the obvious set fakery, Jackie the lion never seems to carrying any real weight on that leash. One of the very rare occasions where a man in a gorilla suit could have made a scene more credible, or at least consistent.

    Point of interest: Harold — his character, anyway — is in his early 40s when he’s downsized. Agism is nothing new, but a bit startling to realize the over-the-hill Mr. Diddlebock was as young or younger than a lot of leading men, even then.

  11. Lloyd, though hardly downsized, had been out of pictures for nine years, so the sense of him being mothballed and then dumped has a certain bite.

    There’s some impressive, even if unconvincing, trickery with the lion, such as a closeup of its paws leaving the ground as if its being pulled by the wait on its leash. Persuading Jackie to be jerked around like that must have taken all Sturges’s powers.

    The IMDb insists that Jackie was not only the title character in Fearless Fagan, but also appeared in Tarzan the Mighty in 1928, in the important role of “lion.”

    Kennedy’s great in this. It does seem like, once Sturges had worked with a comic a couple of times, he was ready to give him something magnificent to do, and this was EK’s turn. Also Arline Judge gets some good stuff, and she was regularly undervalued.

  12. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “Sir you rouse the artist in me!”

  13. chris schneider Says:

    I have a dim memory of having seen MAD WEDNESDAY in the ‘70s, but nothing specific lingers with me. I wasn’t happy with it at the time. I’ve not seen DIDDLEBOCK.

    As for the physical comedY … it doesn’t work for me, as a rule, with Sturges. Still, so many of his scripts being so *very* verbal, perhaps it works best as punctuation. Something for the characters to do when they stop talking.

    Oh, yes, and I remember a quote from one of the Sturges biographies to the effect that, since Miss Ramsden was inexperienced, all she was qualified to do was play the lead

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