Friday, 3 June 2016

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)

Considering the fact that writer/director Preston Sturges is one of my great favourites, it's odd that I have never written about him or his films on this blog. Going back to my archives, I find that he was only mentioned as a screenwriter in reviews of "The Good Fairy" (1935) and "Easy Living" (1937). So we shall put that to rights today and look at his meteoric rise and fall.

Sturges (1898-1959) was born into wealth and after a spell in the services during World War I, briefly worked for his mother's cosmetic empire (where he invented the first 'kiss-proof' lipstick). He then pottered with other genius-like but commercially unviable inventions. He did not take up writing -- initially plays and short stories -- until he was 30. He eventually migrated to Hollywood in the hope of earning big bucks for his screenplays, where he scripted a number of 30s classics including "The Power and the Glory" plus the two above and was uncredited on others such as "Twentieth Century". However he soon became disgusted by directors tampering with his scripts and yearned to exercise full control by directing them himself.

He sold his script for "The Great McGinty" (1940) to the studio for one dollar in exchange for the director's chair (and the film went on to win the Oscar for best screenplay). Then in a four year period Sturges churned out some of the most anarchic and successful slapstick comedies of the period: "The Lady Eve", "Sullivan's Travels", "The Palm Beach Story", "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek", and "Hail the Conquering Hero". He was a master of madcap plots, the exquisitely-turned phrase and the pratfall, and he made sneaky inroads into the Breen Office's production codes with his politically incorrect scenarios. At a time when the combination of writer and director was unknown and simply perceived as two separate talents, he briefly became one of the highest paid people not just in Hollywood but in the United States, and he paved the way for other multi-talents like Billy Wilder. He was also the forerunner for today's iconoclastic writer-directors like Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. His legacy is enormous.

However when his next film "The Great Moment" flopped -- the studio was not ready for a movie (albeit a very good one) about a dentist inventing laughing gas -- the moneymen washed their hands of him. There was then a three-year gap before he directed three more Hollywood movies (including the one above). All were failures at the box office and he retired to France, where he made his last film in 1955 "The Diary of Major Thompson" (also known as "The French they Are a Funny Race") which frankly is not particularly good.

What occasioned today's topic was reading that "Diddlebock" has just re-emerged on disc. When this movie -- financed by Howard Hughes no less -- flopped, Hughes took control of the film, let it sit on a shelf for three years, re-editing it and re-releasing it in 1950 as "Mad Wednesday". I suddenly realised that I had only seen this re-edit (which I recall as being hilarious on my first viewing), but I had never seen the original movie as Sturges meant it to be seen -- some fourteen minutes longer. That situation has now been rectified although I would have to re-view the 1950 edit to tell you definitively how they differ. (I've not done that yet but shall.)

Anyhow the movie is still a treat. Sturges coaxed Harold Lloyd out of retirement to star in his first feature for many years. The film opens with the first reel of Lloyd's 1925 hit "The Freshman" and then considers what has become of the inadvertent college football hero some 22 years on. Offered a job by an erstwhile enthusiastic football fan, he has languished in a dead-end post all these years, before being summarily dismissed. On that day in question where he seems to have no viable prospects, he falls in with Jimmy Conlin (one of Sturges' many stock company actors). He then has his first ever drink (a new bartender concoction christened 'The Diddlebock'). After a number of these drinks and some surprise gambling wins, he awakens the next day to find himself the owner of a garish new suit, a horse, carriage and coachman, and a failing circus with a large number of very hungry animals. There is one lion in particular who has taken a shine to the man and the mayhem ensues. Some humour never dates and we have a replay of Lloyd's famous roof-ledge antics over a city's streets, but this time with a lion in tow.

Bless Preston Sturges for giving us so many memorable movie moments.  For more information, seek out the 1990 American Masters documentary "The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer". As Sturges said of himself, 'The most remarkable thing about my career is that I had one'.      
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