Archive for The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Diddlebocking Around

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2020 by dcairns

“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.

Cast of Characters

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2020 by dcairns

I don’t go in for lists much — I think they’re a bit lazy — but I’m feeling a bit lazy, so I thought I’d list Preston Sturges’ major stock company players and pick my fave role for each one.

William Demarest certainly got his share of major roles. I love him as Sgt. Heffelfinger in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and he has a kind of magnificence as the stubborn Mr. Bildocker in CHRISTMAS IN JULY, the Juror 8 of coffee slogan selection committees, and THE LADY EVE gives him the line he was born to say, “Positively the same dame!” But it’s THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK in which he breaks my heart, as well as his own coccyx (you really shouldn’t try to kick your own daughter, Constable Kockenlocker). “Daughters, phooey!” is nearly as good a signature line for him.

Robert Greig, most butling of all butlers, is staunchly reliable but of course it’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS which gifts him with Sturges’ most serious speech, beautifully intoned and then Eric Blore (the Lorre to his Greenstreet) takes the curse off it.

Al Bridge is a man who doesn’t get enough credit. Sturges clearly loved his saggy sourpuss face and world-weary delivery. Though his terrifying “Mister” in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is a revelation, to see him doing what he does best, MORGAN’S CREEK (“I practice the law and as such I am not only willing but anxious to sue anybody, anytime, for anything…”) and THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (“You couldn’t make me an attractive offer, not if you got down on your bended knee and threw in a set o’ dishes…”) are tops. Do I have to choose one? I’m not going to.

With Luis Alberni I’m going to cheat and take a film Sturges wrote but didn’t direct, Mitchell Leisen’s EASY LIVING, because I love Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis and his garbled English (“Gymnasalum!”)

Jimmy Conlin’s biggest role is as Wormy in DIDDLEBOCK, but his most important is as the Trusty in SULLIVAN’S, where he supplies the only tonal connection between the deadly serious scenes he’s in and the broad comedy elsewhere. His warm reminiscences about his friend the Blowtorch Killer are hilarious.

Julius “This is a talking picture” Tannen is funny in MORGAN’S CREEK as a Russian-accented storekeeper inexplicably named Rafferty, but he’s a real human being in THE GREAT MOMENT, Professor Charles T. Jackson, and it’s startling to see the depths of bile in him. Like Conlin, he was a vaudeville actor, in fact a monologist rather than a player of scenes. But Sturges saw the potential.

Torben Meyer, another dialect wiz, as Mr. Klink in THE LADY EVE has a whole character arc in two little scenes. A Dane, he seems able to vary his accent so that odd bits of colloquial American cut through.

Porter Hall: SULLIVAN’S. Little man talking fast thru a cigar.

Robert Warwick, same film, tall man talking fast without cigar. “Why should I suffer alone?” He was a leading man in silents, you know.

I don’t remember much about Franklin Pangborn’s role in DIDDLEBOCK, but his character name is “Formfit Franklin” and that’s good enough for me.

Frank Moran, MORGAN’S CREEK, “Psycholology.”

Rudy Vallee counts, I guess, he’s in three of them, but the first, PALM BEACH, is the best. “A pathetic creature in the final stages of futility,” wrote Manny Farber of John D. Hackensacker III. “It is one of the tragedies of this life that the men most in need of a beating-up are always enormous.”

Raymond Walburn, who has buttons for eyes, is terrific as the slimy mayor in HAIL THe CONQUERING HERO but his Dr. Maxford in CHRISTMAS IN JULY is aces.

Robert Dudley, the Weenie King, is in more Sturges films than I thought — the IMDb has him down as “man” in MORGAN’S, but of course it’s as the sausage tycoon that he’ll be remembered. “Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh! That’s hard to say with false teeth!”

There were a few women who appeared in more than one Sturges film, but Esther Howard (right) was the only one who got showstopping comedy scenes. The randy window Miz Zeffie in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, partnered by the sour Almira Sessions, is her finest achievement.

Lots more actors did a couple of Sturges films, and of course Joel McCrea starred in three, which is a different matter. And he obviously liked Victor Potel and Harry Rosenthal and Jimmie Dundee and Georgia Caine and mild-mannered Harry Hayden, who gets another of his great speeches as Mr. Waterbury in CHRISTMAS IN JULY: “I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.”

Sturges wrote, “My bosses could never understand why I kept using practically the same small-salaried players in picture after picture. They said, ‘Why don’t you get some new faces?’ I always replied that these little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures. I guess Paramount was very glad to be rid of me eventually, as no one there understood a word I said.”

Here come the waterworks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2011 by dcairns

What the hell is wrong with me? I never used to cry all the time — well, I was a crybaby kid up to the age of about 16, but that was bawling for entirely selfish reasons. I fell down, grazed a knee, wanted attention. Eventually got that under control — if you’re bullied at school, you don’t also want to be a hysteric — and didn’t cry once until the age of about 28, in which I had a dream my mother died and woke up teary. Floodgates opened? I then became somebody who might blink furiously at a moment of high emotion, suppressing the urge to blub with manly dignity — actual weeping was still practically unheard of.

But lately I’ve been more and more a soft target for sentiment — this was brought home to me spectacularly when I screened THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK for students. Now, Sturges uses schmaltz almost shamelessly, that is he ladles it on with barefaced cheek, but he also peppers it with humour, declaring that he’s really above that sort of thing. When I first discovered his work, I felt like he was making fun of the sentimentality of Hollywood movies, and I was completely with him on that. Any set-up to a moment of emotion in a Sturges film is likely to be savagely punctured by the pinprick of laughter.

There are exceptions in the noirish crime stuff in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the social conscience stuff in that same picture (a social conscience film parodying the impulse to make social conscience films), and certainly in the screenplay of REMEMBER THE NIGHT, maybe my favourite Christmas film, and THE GREAT MOMENT, but neither of those were executed by Sturges alone: the first was directed by the great Mitchell Leisen, who was compelled to shorten Sturges’ script, and the second was subject to egregious studio interference by Paramount boss Buddy DeSylva, whose talents as songwriter did not transfer to his productorial or narrative activities.

I still feel that, in a major sense, Sturges’ use of pathos is all part of the set of tricks he uses to bum-steer the audience before hitting them with gags. And yet there I was, blinking back great salty globules of eye-water as Trudy Kockenlocker and Norval Jones are brought together by an outrageous narrative contrivance which ought to achieve the heights of Brechtian alienation by virtue of its sheer implausibility.

It’s a very real problem. If this goes on, I may require a Perrier drip just to stop me dehydrating from the leaking of clown-spray eyeballs. A dog-weepie like the terrific DEAN SPANLEY would make me shrivel to Angelo Rossetti size, a wailing wrinkled dwarf saved from complete desiccation only by the fact that I would be unable to see over the heads of anybody in front of me in the cinema. If I attempted to watch Jack Clayton’s sublime THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE again, I would probably dry up and blow away like so much dandruff. As it is, handkerchiefs may soon become hopelessly inadequate, as if one stood in the path of a bursting damn or DeMille’s Red Sea, holding up a tiny swatch of fabric before the tidal onslaught. I would need to carry a couple of buckets everywhere to wring my face out into. Or attach suction pumps to my tear ducts to drain off the excess fluid into a plastic bag strapped to my leg, maybe. Perhaps a Fremen stillsuit, as modeled by Kyle MacLachlan in DUNE, would be the ultimate answer.

Can you see me in one of these?

What’s more worrying about this than the idea of evaporating mid-sniffle is what it may do to my critical acumen, such as it is. It seems to be quite hard to take against a movie that makes you cry, and if all movies make you cry, where are you? I’ve had conversations with people who cried at DANCER IN THE DARK, and they seemed to think that proved it was a good movie, or at least suggested that it might be. I wanted to say, Your emotion is real, you had a genuine emotional experience, and I don’t intend to belittle it. But that movie is a turd, a giant unspeakable shit, as thick as a kettle, taking 140 minutes to emerge into the light, unspooling on the floor in great drooping coils, hissing noxiously to itself the while, reeking of effluent and paraffin. No wonder your eyes watered. But I didn’t say that.

I felt coolly superior to those saps then. Not anymore. Not anymore.