Sturges Goes Independent: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)

Harold Lloyd

In 1944, Preston Sturges had his first flop for Paramount. After numerous battles with production executive (and storied songwriter) Buddy DeSylva, The Great Moment was released in a studio-mandated cut, which Sturges said

was a bitter story about the discovery of anesthesia which I intended to sweeten a little with some funny moments. The studio decided that the picture should be cut for comedy. As a result, the unpleasant part was cut to a minimum, the story was not told, and the balance of the picture was upset….  I was certain the picture would have a mediocre and shameful career in that form and with that title [he wanted it to be called Triumph Over Pain], a guaranteed gilt-edged disaster that would do neither me nor the studio any good.

He was right, of course, and Moment was the only film in his Paramount run to lose money. Negotiations over a new contract collapsed over Sturges’ request that he have a two-week period after each production to annul the deal. He wanted leverage in case of future studio meddling, but he was rejected outright. Thus ended one of the greatest Studio-Director runs in Hollywood history.

He spent the next few years in the independent picture business, when an eccentric millionaire straight out of The Palm Beach Story, Howard Hughes, offered him a job later in 1944. Sturges claims that Hughes wanted someone to run his movie interests so he could focus on aviation, and so the California Pictures Corporation was born. With Sturges’ artistic and commercial pedigree tied to Hughes’ deep pockets, there were high hopes for the company. Manny Farber stated in The New Republic that “it would be likely to cause the large studios surprise and worry”, while Sturges laid down an optimistic statement of purpose: “to invest full authority in young writers, directors, and producers to act on their own initiative.” He wanted to give directors the freedom he found ever so briefly at Paramount. Unfortunately Hughes’ eccentricities soon torpedoed this optimism.

diddlebockTwo productions were on the table. Sturges was to direct The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, a comedy luring Harold Lloyd out of retirement, and he hired Max Ophuls to direct his screenplay for Vendetta, an adaptation of Prosper Merrime’s Colomba (read Lutz Bacher’s Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios for a more in depth history of this troubled production). Things fell apart quickly on Vendetta. Bacher claims that Sturges pushed Ophuls out of the director’s chair because of his perfectionism, only wanting to see his vision on the screen. In his autobiography, Sturges claims that Hughes fired Ophuls because “he didn’t like foreigners and didn’t want them working for the company.” The truth lies with Ophuls. In any case, Hughes dissolved the partnership in 1946, citing cost overruns.

Both films were later re-edited and re-shot by Hughes. Diddlebock bombed in a brief release in 1947, so Hughes pulled it back within a few weeks. He did some re-shoots (including a scene with a talking horse), and released Diddlebock as Mad Wednesday through RKO in 1951.  Vendetta was hacked apart even more, with nothing of Struges’ script remaining. Stuart Heisler completed principal photography, and then Mel Ferrer was brought on to do further re-shoots (he received the sole directorial credit). It was released through RKO in 1950 and sunk like a stone. Luckily, Sturges’ version of Diddlebock still exists, and it’s the version that airs on TCM (next time on Oct. 19th at 11:30AM).

It’s an unfairly neglected work in Sturges’ career, cited only as part of the “decline” narrative that defined this part of his filmography, and which Yacov Freedman outlined earlier today. Its interest lies first with Harold Lloyd, who hadn’t appeared in a film since 1938′s Professor Beware. The film functions as a sequel to Lloyd’s The Freshman, following that film’s hero through the twenty years following his improbable college football heroics. Sturges boldly opens the film with the final quarter of  The Freshman‘s championship game, inter-cutting it with new footage of E.J. Wagglebury in the crowd (Raymond Walburn), an ad executive who later offers Diddlebock a job.the-sin-of-harold-dibblebock

This bit of film history leads to a beautifully bittersweet sequence of workplace inertia. After Wagglebury promises Diddlebock the fruits of the American dream, he installs him as a bookkeeper, and Sturges shows the Presidential calendar fly by from Harding to Truman. The camera pans over to Diddlebock, still hunched over the same desk, his ramrod posture gone stooped and haggard. This sarcastic sequence is not only a biting comment on the idea of upward mobility, it also acts as a metaphor for the fate of the silent comedian. Harold Lloyd had fared better than most, due to some wise investing, but in reprising his most famous silent character, he acts as a stand-in for the faded Hollywood stars of Keaton and Arbuckle and the rest. Chaplin would do similarly bitter-nostalgic work in Limelight in 1953.

But that’s just the opening sequence. There are a few classic Sturges runs regarding Diddlebock’s decline, including  Lloyd’s monologue  on his crushes on a succession of sisters, seven in all, from Hortense to Harriet, who ran away with a headstone salesman. Further emphasizing Diddlebock’s entropy and passivity (he’s tossed over for death), Sturges quickly charts the intervening years as a series of lost loves and a rapidly disappearing future (in a timely aside, his pension is piddling because he lost most of it in the Crash). Lloyd’s Diddlebock just seems lost. Sturges axiom Jimmy Conlin notices his empty stare, needles him for some cash, and promptly jolts this teetotaler full of booze. In an elegant bit of vaudeville, the bartender (“the king of the slow burn”, Edgar Kennedy), peppers him with esoteric questions in order to concoct a deadly cocktail, The Diddlebock. He soon blacks out, and the increasingly chaotic narrative attains the character of a dream:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TP0GJoofjs&hl=en&fs=1&]

The plot kicks into gear with a bit of capitalist carnivalesque, as a drunkenly placed $1000 bet leads to a cascade of money and the purchase of a debt-laden circus. Aghast at the actions of his id, he goes a little mad, gloriously, grabbing a lion by the tail and dangling off of a rooftop, barely escaping death. Clad in a Franklin Pangborn special (see top photo), he whizzes around the city, reconstructing his drunken evening and desperately trying to sell this big top money pit. His life literally becomes a carnival and it trails along with him wherever he goes as he gleefully turns Madison Ave. into riotous display of animal anarchy. With such publicity, the bankers can’t help but line up to take the zoo off his hands. It’s a wild send-up of capitalism and a loving tribute to Lloyd and the silent film tradition.

Lloyd complained afterward about their clashing comedy styles. Sturges focused on the verbal, Lloyd on the physical. Lloyd claims they shot two versions of every scene, one to please each of them, but the director inevitably won in the editing room. Lloyd eventually sued Howard Hughes over his billing on the re-release. Whatever their differences, the sweet chaos of their work is up there on the screen. Take a look.

0 Response Sturges Goes Independent: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)
Posted By Patricia : August 25, 2009 4:18 pm

I’d avoided “The Sins of Harold Diddlebock” for years because of the negative things I had read, but when I caught it on TCM (last month?) I found myself entertained and laughing out loud. Worked for me.

Posted By Patricia : August 25, 2009 4:18 pm

I’d avoided “The Sins of Harold Diddlebock” for years because of the negative things I had read, but when I caught it on TCM (last month?) I found myself entertained and laughing out loud. Worked for me.

Posted By suzidoll : August 25, 2009 4:33 pm

In some twist of fate, this film has popped up on my radar about half dozen times this spring and summer, either in conversation or in something I am reading. I think the gods are telling me to watch this one. Nice post on a movie that now I just have to see.

Posted By suzidoll : August 25, 2009 4:33 pm

In some twist of fate, this film has popped up on my radar about half dozen times this spring and summer, either in conversation or in something I am reading. I think the gods are telling me to watch this one. Nice post on a movie that now I just have to see.

Posted By John Hall : August 26, 2009 7:15 am

Any suggestion on which company has released the best version of this on DVD?

Posted By John Hall : August 26, 2009 7:15 am

Any suggestion on which company has released the best version of this on DVD?

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : August 26, 2009 10:38 am

John, I haven’t seen any of the DVD releases of the film, but I believe they are all public domain versions, which are always a gamble. The print on TCM is acceptable, but certainly not pristine. As I mentioned in the post, it airs again on October 19th at 11:30AM, and watching it there is your lowest risk move.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : August 26, 2009 10:38 am

John, I haven’t seen any of the DVD releases of the film, but I believe they are all public domain versions, which are always a gamble. The print on TCM is acceptable, but certainly not pristine. As I mentioned in the post, it airs again on October 19th at 11:30AM, and watching it there is your lowest risk move.

Posted By Cool Bev : August 27, 2009 3:21 pm

The Sin is one of my favorite movies – possibly my favorite Harold Lloyd, who is one of my favorite actors. The structure is brilliant:
* Setup, establishing Harold as a sadsack
* The drunk scene, showing Harold getting loose
* A gap – Harold wakes up 2 days later, with no memory of the previous day, “Mad Wednesday”
* The scramble to figure out what happened and deal with the consequences.

It’s the gap that does it.

I have a few copies of this, on VHS and DVD. Since it is public domain, it’s easy to find for a few $$. Quality is not too bad. Pick up a copy from the bargain bin.

Posted By Cool Bev : August 27, 2009 3:21 pm

The Sin is one of my favorite movies – possibly my favorite Harold Lloyd, who is one of my favorite actors. The structure is brilliant:
* Setup, establishing Harold as a sadsack
* The drunk scene, showing Harold getting loose
* A gap – Harold wakes up 2 days later, with no memory of the previous day, “Mad Wednesday”
* The scramble to figure out what happened and deal with the consequences.

It’s the gap that does it.

I have a few copies of this, on VHS and DVD. Since it is public domain, it’s easy to find for a few $$. Quality is not too bad. Pick up a copy from the bargain bin.

Posted By Rick : August 30, 2009 5:39 pm

DIDDLEBOCK rules! One of the most misappreciated auteur comedies of all time and, in my opinion, BETTER than some of Sturges’ more celebrated films like HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK … those films so strongly linked to the times, the latter, with its once “daring” contexts as well, have dimmed their glow over the passing years. DIDDLEBOCK, on the other hand, is both a model auteur piece, brimming with Sturges eccentric characters/dialogue and that unconventional narrative style which made him so unique, at the same time playfully homaging his own metier (as he did in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS) by showcasing screen icon Lloyd, then bending his characterization to new heights of tomfoolery and twisted profundity. While it helps the viewer to have a grounding in cinema folklore (eg. references to THE FRESHMAN) you don’t need to be a film historian to appreciate the basic “worm turns” scenario, or even the SAFETY LAST connection taken to mischievous extremes with Jackie the Lion (though unfortunately compromised by the use of process photography and sets, dubbing for Lloyd’s “genuine” palm-sweating feats of yore).

I’ve never been able to figure out why this film didn’t make more of a splash when originally released, although it is known that the Hughes/Sturges partnership was a troubled one, which may have trickled down to distribution … and the original title may have handicapped it as well. The re-release title, MAD WEDNESDAY, was actually a more congenial moniker, and while it failed to reverse the general apathy towards the film, the Hughes tweaking and trimming of that version managed to actually benefit it to some degree. In WEDNESDAY, some of the longer dialogue scenes were discretely trimmed (without losing their punch), and while one doesn’t necessarily condone tampering with a “director’s cut” (which DIDDLEBOCK apparently was), the Hughes revisions made it a tighter, consequently even funnier version, carefully subtracting and adding small bits of footage, but ending with a DIDDLEBOCK some ten minutes shorter. The only really discernible omission being a scene with Rudy Vallee (whom Hughes reportedly personally disliked), and of course its most famous addition, the talking horse (cleverly animated by Jerry Fairbanks), which actually works rather well!

The original DIDDLEBOCK cut gets more play these days since it has fallen in “public domain” (hence the plethora of p.d. DVD releases which, quality-wise, do the film no justice). However Hughes retained the copyright on MAD WEDNESDAY, though never bothering to re-release it … then when all the Hughes holdings were picked up by Universal in the 80’s, it was (sparsely) distributed. Anyway, Universal has pristine prints of MAD WEDNESDAY, but have never bothered take advantage of the fact for video or DVD release, probably anticipating a weak seller. Since the film doesn’t have much of a reputation, its prospects probably aren’t very promising, but perhaps if it was properly promoted (with a TCM tie-in??) it might surprise everyone and become a sleeper DVD revival!

Posted By Rick : August 30, 2009 5:39 pm

DIDDLEBOCK rules! One of the most misappreciated auteur comedies of all time and, in my opinion, BETTER than some of Sturges’ more celebrated films like HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK … those films so strongly linked to the times, the latter, with its once “daring” contexts as well, have dimmed their glow over the passing years. DIDDLEBOCK, on the other hand, is both a model auteur piece, brimming with Sturges eccentric characters/dialogue and that unconventional narrative style which made him so unique, at the same time playfully homaging his own metier (as he did in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS) by showcasing screen icon Lloyd, then bending his characterization to new heights of tomfoolery and twisted profundity. While it helps the viewer to have a grounding in cinema folklore (eg. references to THE FRESHMAN) you don’t need to be a film historian to appreciate the basic “worm turns” scenario, or even the SAFETY LAST connection taken to mischievous extremes with Jackie the Lion (though unfortunately compromised by the use of process photography and sets, dubbing for Lloyd’s “genuine” palm-sweating feats of yore).

I’ve never been able to figure out why this film didn’t make more of a splash when originally released, although it is known that the Hughes/Sturges partnership was a troubled one, which may have trickled down to distribution … and the original title may have handicapped it as well. The re-release title, MAD WEDNESDAY, was actually a more congenial moniker, and while it failed to reverse the general apathy towards the film, the Hughes tweaking and trimming of that version managed to actually benefit it to some degree. In WEDNESDAY, some of the longer dialogue scenes were discretely trimmed (without losing their punch), and while one doesn’t necessarily condone tampering with a “director’s cut” (which DIDDLEBOCK apparently was), the Hughes revisions made it a tighter, consequently even funnier version, carefully subtracting and adding small bits of footage, but ending with a DIDDLEBOCK some ten minutes shorter. The only really discernible omission being a scene with Rudy Vallee (whom Hughes reportedly personally disliked), and of course its most famous addition, the talking horse (cleverly animated by Jerry Fairbanks), which actually works rather well!

The original DIDDLEBOCK cut gets more play these days since it has fallen in “public domain” (hence the plethora of p.d. DVD releases which, quality-wise, do the film no justice). However Hughes retained the copyright on MAD WEDNESDAY, though never bothering to re-release it … then when all the Hughes holdings were picked up by Universal in the 80’s, it was (sparsely) distributed. Anyway, Universal has pristine prints of MAD WEDNESDAY, but have never bothered take advantage of the fact for video or DVD release, probably anticipating a weak seller. Since the film doesn’t have much of a reputation, its prospects probably aren’t very promising, but perhaps if it was properly promoted (with a TCM tie-in??) it might surprise everyone and become a sleeper DVD revival!

Posted By XAVIER SANS EZQUERRA : February 11, 2010 5:12 pm

Creo que la razón del fracaso de este film es principalmente esta: para tratarse de una comedia es demasiado triste. El protagonista, Harold, es despedido con buenas maneras, le dán calabazas con buenas maneras, todos los parasitos se arriman a él yse aprovechan de los ahorros de su vida con buenas maneras, (ver la preparación de cocktail Diddlebock con un estupendo Edgar Kennedy como Barman); y él esta hastiado de todo y de todos y además borracho como una cuba. Tiene un sueño infantil, poseer un circo, pero a veces los sueños pueden convertirse en pesadillas. Su hermana le tiraniza y él harto se lanza a la calle como un Quijote, va a pedir un credito a los bancos de Wall Street con un león de su circo, -me parece sublime cuando uno de los banqueros (Jack Norton), tiene una crisis de histéria ante el caos ocasionado por el león-; “No bebo pero este es un buen momento para empezar a hacerlo”,-dice-; como me parece estupendo el homenaje al Hombre Mosca. Para mí un más que digno homenaje a Harold Lloyd, quien está fantástico en su papel. Mi cómico favorito Buster Keaton no tuvo tanta suerte con el cine sonoro.

Posted By XAVIER SANS EZQUERRA : February 11, 2010 5:12 pm

Creo que la razón del fracaso de este film es principalmente esta: para tratarse de una comedia es demasiado triste. El protagonista, Harold, es despedido con buenas maneras, le dán calabazas con buenas maneras, todos los parasitos se arriman a él yse aprovechan de los ahorros de su vida con buenas maneras, (ver la preparación de cocktail Diddlebock con un estupendo Edgar Kennedy como Barman); y él esta hastiado de todo y de todos y además borracho como una cuba. Tiene un sueño infantil, poseer un circo, pero a veces los sueños pueden convertirse en pesadillas. Su hermana le tiraniza y él harto se lanza a la calle como un Quijote, va a pedir un credito a los bancos de Wall Street con un león de su circo, -me parece sublime cuando uno de los banqueros (Jack Norton), tiene una crisis de histéria ante el caos ocasionado por el león-; “No bebo pero este es un buen momento para empezar a hacerlo”,-dice-; como me parece estupendo el homenaje al Hombre Mosca. Para mí un más que digno homenaje a Harold Lloyd, quien está fantástico en su papel. Mi cómico favorito Buster Keaton no tuvo tanta suerte con el cine sonoro.

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