PRESTON STURGES GOES INDEPENDENT: THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (1947)

August 25, 2009

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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.

Two 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.” 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.

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.

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.

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