>> Sunday, August 2, 2009
USA/B&W-89m./Dir: Preston Sturges/Wr: Preston Sturges/Cast: Harold Lloyd (Harold Diddlebock), Jimmy Conlin (Wormy), Raymond Walburn (E.J. Waggleberry), Frances Ramsden (The youngest Miss Otis), Edgar Kennedy (Jake the bartender), and Jackie the Lion (Himself)
The final films of the movies’ finest funnymen are almost always disappointments if not outright disasters. Charlie Chaplin had the flawed A Countess From Hong Kong (1967), W.C. Fields had the forgettable Sensations of 1945 (1944), Laurel and Hardy had the infamous Atoll K (1951), Abbott and Costello had the tired Dance with Me, Henry (1956), and Groucho Marx had the misguided Skidoo (1968). Bespectacled silent comedy star Harold Lloyd fared much better with his final foray into film. It’s true that his last outing, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, was a box office bust. However, while the film was nowhere near the best that Lloyd produced, it contains moments of brilliance, including a barroom scene that is simply the best filmed sequence of cocktail creation--surpassing even the “Alaskan Polar Bear Heater" scene in The Nutty Professor (1963).
Lloyd portrays Harold Diddlebock, a college football hero that takes a bookkeeping job in an advertising firm, certain that he will work his way to the top. However, after twenty-two years with the company, Diddlebock has failed to advance; and his boss (Raymond Walburn) fires him so that his stagnation will not spread to his fellow employees. With $2,946.12 savings in hand, Harold hits the streets, where he runs into a horserace-loving boozehound named Wormy (Jimmy Conlin), who convinces the discouraged Diddlebock that what he really needs is a drink. Under the invigorating spell of his very first cocktail, Diddlebock goes on a bender, building up his bankroll by betting on long shots and using it to purchase a circus on a whim. He awakens two days later with foggy memories of Tuesday’s drunken spree, but he has no recollection of what he did all day Wednesday (until a revelation at the picture’s end).
Writer/director Preston Sturges, the greatest comic mind of the 1940’s, idolized Harold Lloyd, and given complete freedom for the first time in his career--he had just left Paramount Studios for Howard Hughes’ independent California Pictures--he decided that he would create a movie to lure the silent comedian out of retirement. The picture would be a continuation of Lloyd’s silent classic The Freshman (1925), showing what happened to Lloyd’s water boy character after he scored the winning touchdown. Unfortunately, what started as a labor of love for the two comic greats became an arduous shoot due to clause in Lloyd’s contract that allowed the comic to demand that a scene be re-shot if he didn’t like the way Sturges had filmed it. Since Sturges was the movies’ greatest master of rapid-fire comic dialogue and Lloyd was a physical comedian, they argued over nearly every scene and continued to fight in the editing room over the many multiple takes.
Despite the contentious set, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock turned out to be a pretty good film and a small celebration of Lloyd’s comic gifts. Like many of Lloyd’s silent characters, Diddlebock is an underdog that eventually triumphs through perseverance (and in this case with the help of fermented fluids), and there is even a ledge-walking sequence toward the end of the picture that is a salute to Lloyd’s silent thrill comedies like High and Dizzy (1920) and Safety Last (1923).
The film's biggest failing is that it is a little slow-moving (unusual for a Sturges film) up until the 28-minute mark when Diddlebock enters a bar to taste his first adult beverage. However, the scene that follows is one for the ages. The bartender (Edgar Kennedy) brightens when he discovers that Diddlebock is a booze virgin, and insists that he create something special in the teetotaler’s honor. It turns out that the bartender is a genius with a cocktail shaker; and he proceeds to query Diddlebock about his life and preferences, using Harold’s answers to direct his hand toward alcoholic ingredients that he then cobbles together to form the honorary cocktail. The resulting drink, "The Diddlebock," is a delicious and potent elixir that causes Harold to bray like a mule and gives him the strength to take charge of his life for the first time in twenty-two years. The barroom scene is a comedy classic, punctuated by some of Preston Sturges’ most sparkling dialogue. From that point forward, the film races along, fueled by the boost from the Diddlebock cocktail.
While some reviewers have erroneously referred to “imbibing” as the “Sin” in the title, Harold’s true sin is stagnation, and booze provides the kick in the pants he needs to set his life in motion and win the girl of his dreams. Sturges film is not only a salute to the silent film work of Harold Lloyd. It is also a celebration of the power of strong drink to prevail over depression, to loosen inhibitions, and to provide stimulating inspiration. I’ll drink to that.
A Note of Warning--Howard Hughes was so disappointed by the poor box office receipts from The Sin of Harold Diddlebock that he pulled the film from theaters and re-edited the movie himself. The greatly shortened version was re-titled Mad Wednesday and was re-released in 1950. Avoid this 76-minute version, and seek out Sturges’ more satisfying 89 minute cut.
Drinks Consumed--The Diddlebock (whiskey, vodka, and other unnamed ingredients), champagne, and unnamed hard liquor
Intoxicating Effects--Loosened inhibitions, public disturbance, harmonizing, passing out, and memory blackouts
Potent Quotables--WORMY: Brother Diddlebuck, uh beck, uh… What’s the matter with me?
WORMY: Oh yeah, bock, is in some kinda trouble.
JAKE (the bartender): Who isn’t?
WORMY: He’s about to have his first drink.
JAKE: His first drink? Well, drown my kittens! This is quite a moment. You mean his first this morning or really his first ever and ever since he was weaned?
DIDDLEBOCK: I have never partaken. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I…
JAKE: Yes, sir!
WORMY: You never know how the other half lives.
JAKE: You arouse the artist in me.
DIDDLEBOCK: It was just an impulse.
WORMY: Well, obey that impulse. Why don’t you have a cigar?
DIDDLEBOCK: Have a cigar?
JAKE: Yes, sir! I’d like to make you something. Hmm? Something you would remember.
DIDDLEBOCK: I wouldn’t want anything… I mean, if I had anything at all… nothing potent, you understand.
JAKE: You’ll never feel it.
WORMY: I was thinking of a Texas Tornado.
JAKE: Oh, not for an occasion like this, Wormy. A Tornado’s a perfectly reliable commercial drink for conventions and hangovers and things like that, but this… This is almost, uh… Does the word vestal?
JAKE: I mean it ought to have organ music.
DIDDLEBOCK: I wouldn’t want anything…
JAKE: I mean opportunities like this come along all too rarely for a man with his heart in his work.
Video Availability--The Sin of Harold Diddlebock has fallen into public domain and has been released several times in budget DVDs with slightly blurry prints. It can also be viewed in its entirety at The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/). That video is embedded above.
Similarly Sauced Cinema--Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) also encounters a temporary memory blackout after a few drinks and a blow to the head in Preston Sturges’ comic masterpiece (and my favorite film) The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944).
The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection Vols. 1-3 (DVD Set)
Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian (Hardcover)