Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock


The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) This film had quite a checkered (chequered?) history. It was begun in 1945, the result of a deal between Preston Sturges and Howard Hughes, when he was beginning to get really crazy. Sturges persuaded Harold Lloyd to come out of retirement. And it wasn’t ready to show until 1947. It got mixed reviews, and Hughes pulled it after only a few showings and began an epic re-edit and re-shoot and re-title—to Mad Wednesday—that lasted into 1950, when it laid an egg again. I saw the later, shorter version long ago, but don’t recall much about it, so this was largely new to me. It’s been rather hard to find for years.

Both Sturges and Lloyd were at the end of their careers, Sturges on his way down, which is a shame, as he was one of the absolute funniest, most sophisticated writer-directors every to work in Hollywood.

There is some very good stuff in here. It begins with an ingenious recap of one of Lloyd’s classics, The Freshman (1923), where he is his usual hapless, rah-rah fellow who through bumbling and slapstick plays manages to win the Big Game in college. A rich businessman sees this, and offers him a job. (The man’s name is Waggleberry. Wouldn’t it have been nice if they could have joined up and formed a new company called Diddlebock and Waggleberry? Can’t you just hear the receptionist answering the phone: “Hello, Dingleberry and Wigglecock. Er … that is, Cockledingle and Picklebuckle. Er …” Just a thought.)

Then there is something that Hollywood used to do so well: a time-passing montage. You can always do it by just saying “Twenty-two years later,” but there is also the old passing-of-the-seasons gambit, with a tree or something losing leaves, covered in snow, budding, etc. Or there’s the calendar pages flying off into space. Sturges here shows Harold sitting down at his new desk, full of vigor and optimism. We pan to the calendar on the wall, which shows the stern face of Warren G. Harding. Fade to the face of Calvin Coolidge. Fade to Hoobert Heever (or something like that), then FDR, FDR, FDR, FDR, Harry S. Truman. 1947, the year I was born. Pull back to discover that nothing at all has changed except Harold, a ragged, spiritless, empty man. Very nice.

But there’s not much else to recommend the movie after that. There is a lot of Sturges’s patented snappy dialogue (sometimes a little too much, actually), and his penchant for quirky characters. But a lot of it just feels strained. Sad to say, most of that is Harold Lloyd (who I adore) trying too hard, and the script giving him too many lines.

What happens is he is fired, made redundant, downsized, whatever, and finds himself on the street with his life savings in his pocket. He makes some new friends, who introduce him to drinking by creating a custom cocktail called the Diddlebock. This so releases his inner risk taker that he’s soon betting on the horses, and he parlays a thousand dollars into a small fortune. Then he spends it all buying a circus. He doesn’t remember any of this, and some of it is funny. But he has to pay the bills to feed over 50 big cats, and all his money is gone.

After that there’s a series of hare-brained schemes to sell the circus, which end up with him and a friend and a tame lion named Jackie hanging on a ledge high on the side of a building. It’s an obvious reference to Safety Last, one of his best films, and it fails to excite because it’s so obviously process shots that it all just looks phony. (Maybe it didn’t seem that way to audiences in 1947.) (The lion actually bit Harold in the first take, but luckily it was on the hand where he had the prosthetic fingers that replaced the ones blown off many years before by a “prop” bomb.) Then the final scene goes on and on interminably. long past the point where we should have had the payoff. I wonder if Sturges edited it? He always had a perfect sense of comic timing, and this is just dreadful.