Movie post!

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

For quite a few recent years, the understanding of Harold Lloyd as the third portion of some kind of Holy Trinity of silent film comedy has been exceedingly academic for all but the more devout videocassette hunters - remarkably little of Lloyd’s output had been available on dvd, with the rights to all but the public domain portions of the catalogue kept under lock and key by the Harold Lloyd Trust, awaiting a satisfactory offer. It’s one of the bigger ironies of Buster Keaton’s career that much of his current fame stems in part from bad business and the comparative low grosses of his films (as William K. Everson noted in his excellent overview of the time, American Silent Film, there’s much conflict as to which of the silent clowns were really on top of the box office, but little doubt that it was Keaton constantly bringing up the rear among the ‘A’ list): because most of his filmography has fallen into the public domain, his work tends to be among the first to show up in new home viewing formats, and his fandom is strong enough that a certain level of presentational quality is maintained. It’s different with Lloyd, and certainly more profitable for him and his descendants, though some had feared that his work was being ‘protected’ straight out of the realm of accessibility.

It’s different now, as New Line has recently released The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, which compiles the entirety of Lloyd’s feature length silent work into a 7-disc set, along with scads of shorts, home movies, and even a selection of Lloyd’s amateur experiments with 3D photography (glasses included). Many other shorts have been collected by Kino’s two-volume The Harold Lloyd Collection (note the shorter title), with three discs in total, and some overlap with the New Line release. So naturally, I’m going to talk about something entirely different, a film that was made long past Lloyd’s prime, and has been one of the few Lloyd features available on dvd for a while.

Indeed, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, shot in 1947, represents a meeting of three larger-than-life figures, all of them arguably with their greatest filmic work behind them: star Lloyd, writer/director/co-producer Preston Sturges, and co-producer/financier Howard Hughes. Lloyd in particular was well out of the game; his last film had been made in 1938 (though he'd since produced a pair of films for RKO); he was now over fifty years old. Sturges had broken away from Paramount, the studio at which the likes of Sullivan’s Travels and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek had been made, and was looking for a fresh start - Hughes, who had only produced two pictures in the prior decade, was responsive (to give a sense of the time period of Huges’ life in which the production took place, this was also around the time he smashed that experimental aircraft into Beverly Hills). Sturges, an appreciative fan of slapstick comedy and Lloyd in particular, wrote his script, a sequel to Lloyd’s wildly popular 1925 feature The Freshman, to lure the star out of retirement. It worked.

And as a film, it sort of works - it’s a half-success, and the parts that don’t work are honorable failures. It’s most successful as a study of Lloyd’s own career, most specifically the philosophy his ‘Glasses’ character (which is reprised here) embodied - less stylized a character than Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd’s Glasses character embodied an everyman’s enthusiasm and unflappable will to succeed, surviving all brands of peril. It was an eminently positive outlook, so naturally Sturges opted to contrast this outlook with the (then) present day. Thus, we begin literally in the Silent Era, as the first ten minutes of the film are actually the final ten minutes of The Freshman; actually, it’s more of a heightened ‘silent’ film experience under Sturges, as all intertitles have been removed, with all onscreen dialogue conveyed only through the bleating of horns, timed to match the movements of characters’ lips. There also some inserts of Raymond Walburn tossed in to bridge this footage to the film proper, and the end of The Freshman neatly segues into some newly-shot scenes set in the same time period, as Walburn’s wealthy banker offers Harold (the last name of The Freshman’s iteration of the Glasses character is changed from ‘Lamb’ to the more Sturges-appropriate ‘Diddlebock’) a job at his headquarters. Many a fine speech is made about enthusiasm and Ideas and moving forward through hard work, and Harold (naturally!) agrees. Lloyd looks eerily like his own image of over two decades prior in these scenes.

And then, he sits down to work, and the camera pans over to a calendar, and a lovely strain of America the Beautiful sparks up, and years pass to the present day via fades, and then the camera pans back over to the same desk, where Harold is still sitting. And now he definitely looks older (though he doesn’t look to be in his early-50’s - the always preternaturally youthful star quite conveniently looks to be only around his late-30’s, which is how old the Glasses character would be, given the movie’s timeline). And the same boss calls him into his office, and has him fired, basically for being a drag on the business - it’s unstated but obvious that the environment Harold was in did not afford him any opportunity to advance anyway; it squelched his enthusiasm, and then hypocritically exacted a toll over the conditions it created itself. Harold is downcast, and it’s genuinely distressing seeing him aged and frowning, his former brightness finally beaten down; it’s an effective play off of Lloyd’s carefully-tuned persona, and the actor himself sells it nicely. He rips down a wall of positive quotes he’s kept by his desk, and he drops one on his way out - we see people trampling on it as they pass by.

Ah, but this obviously isn’t the end. At his lowest, Harold meets up with Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin, a drink-loving gambler, who convinces Harold to go with him for some liquid refreshment; a teetotaler, Harold is utterly naïve about alcohol, which sparks the attentions of the bartender (“You arouse the artist in me.”) who invents a very potent drink called the Diddlebock. The quaffing of such a beverage (the ‘Sin’ of the title) has a weird effect - it unlocks the beaten-down (but not dead, only hidden) fire in Harold’s soul, and he becomes once again something like his young self, a winner and a born comedian. The present can’t keep him down.

Naturally, this being a Preston Sturges film, there are complications, and reams of curling dialogue and sparkling wit. Lloyd nicely holds his own in these displays of verbosity; he’s actually quite capable with dialogue, and this is better dialogue than most. There’s a superb scene in which Harold confesses to a pretty young graphic designer his love for not only her, but each and every one of her six sisters, taking them one by one. “Your mother kept making them better every year,” Harold remarks at the height of it, though the conversation ends on a note of defeat; the film, after all, is really about Harold finding himself again, and about the spirit of silent comedy returning to inform the modern day - it won’t be replacing it, but it’ll be interacting with it, which is what Sturges’ film intends to do. But that’s where it doesn’t quite succeed.

As the plot moves forward (and I should note that for most of its runtime the film feels more like a collection of sketches and situations than an entirely cohesive film, which is ok - the same went for many silent comedy classics), Harold winds up the owner of a circus, and prone to alcohol-powered blackouts as to what exactly he’s done to get there. The animals are getting hungry, so he and Conlin try to hash out a money-making plan; fortunately, Harold no longer needs alcohol to embody his old self, and the two of them wind up running around Wall Street with a lion named Jackie on a leash, storming into banking headquarters and terrorizing America’s finest capitalists into realizing the value of doing good things, like purchasing a circus to hold for the poor. It’s a wonderfully anarchic sequence as it is - at one point, Lloyd is speaking and the lion quite obviously (and unexpectedly) snaps at his hand. Without missing a beat, Lloyd says something like “whoa there, Jackie,” and immediately resumes his lines. What a pro!

But then, Harold reclaiming the spirit of the past being apparently not enough, the film explicitly transforms into a prime-period Lloyd feature, or at least the most easily recognizable portions thereof: the 'thrill' comedy. It’s like the film itself is becoming soaked in Harold’s returning enthusiasm, so the film climaxes with Lloyd (and Conlin, and Jackie) hanging off a skyscraper. The problem is, this scene goes on for quite a long time, and Sturges and his team don’t seem to know how to shoot this sort of thing. It's just dull. It’s overloaded with dialogue and screaming, the special effects aren’t very convincing (the film can’t hope to match the free-wheeling spirit of Lloyd’s silents here, since those would often involve Lloyd actually hanging off of a tall building), and it’s edited without grace, just a lot of straightforward shots to accommodate the effects. It’s kind of a letdown, and a nasty reminder that the power of silent comedies can’t entirely return - circumstances are too different, and maybe newer filmmakers can’t quite do it the same way. There’s no doubt in my mind that Sturges understood the era and what it could mean better than most, but he still couldn’t really execute it in the way he wanted. It’s kind of a letdown, and in a crucial moment.

But it’s still a fascinating work; a genuine effort on the part of a comedy master to interact with an earlier brand of comedy, and relate it to the present in interesting and emotional ways. While the end of the film is quite happy, it wasn’t so in real life - the budget ran well over (some say by $1 million), and Hughes wasn’t happy with the final cut. It sat unreleased for years, until a reworked, shorter version re-titled Mad Wednesday hit theaters, where it proceeded to flop. Lloyd returned to retirement, never to emerge onscreen again, save for in revivals of his old vehicles. Sturges toiled away on another Hughes film, Vendetta, before quitting to work at 20th Century Fox, which also didn’t suit him. And we all know what happened to Howard Hughes. But as far as last hurrahs for silent comedians go, this is a fine one, if not a perfect one. It’s fortunate that as sensitive a film as this exists to form some type of bridge from one era to the next, as so many silent clowns simply faded away.