Monday, March 22, 2010

Movie Monday - The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

So my mom, not having any idea what to get me for Christmas, gave me a little money (which I ended up spending mostly on bills), but then, just after Christmas, she also handed me a bag with some vintage public-domain comedies on DVD. And at first I wasn't that interested, but then, on the first one I looked at, there was a title I recognized: "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock," a movie I had never seen, but had watched at least two or three times.

Which sounds like nonsense, but it goes like this: when I was a kid, in the days before cable, our local broadcast stations would air old movies on Friday and Saturday nights. And although they never aired a movie called "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock," they did air a movie titled "Mad Wednesday" a few times, which was the exact same movie with several minutes edited out. So although I had seen the movie a few times, I had never seen the whole thing under its original title.

Written and directed by Preston Sturges and released in 1947, "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" stars silent film star Harold Lloyd in his last film, along with a sparkling supporting cast. Oh, and her...

A credit like that just screams "sleeping with the director," but she actually wasn't too bad. This was her first credited role, and her last, except for a couple of appearances in documentaries about Sturges and Lloyd.

The film is mostly forgotten today, and I've got to say, the opening isn't promising.

It doesn't inspire confidence when the first moments of the film are telling you how good the star was in that other film over twenty years ago, nor when the first ten minutes of the film are actually just a rerun of the climactic sequence from that aforementioned silent film. Lloyd plays Harold Diddlebock, a waterboy who becomes an unlikely college football hero.

Then the movie shifts to a talkie with young Lloyd being offered a job by a rich sports fan. Twenty years later, that same fan, Mr. E.J. Waggleberry, fires Lloyd, who in the intervening years has stayed in the same position at the same desk, and is now a worn shabby shadow of his former self.

He reminds me of pictures of my dad when he was the same age: same glasses, same nose.

Harold cashes out his meager savings and then says goodbye to a pretty girl in his office, "the youngest Miss Otis," whom he has worshipped from afar, as he did her six older sisters who had all previously worked for the same firm over the last 18 years. The scene is clever, like the previous scenes with Waggleberry, but slow-moving. After the frenetic silent-film action, the story takes a while to build momentum again.

Harold goes out job hunting, but all seems lost until he meets a street hustler named Wormy, who takes Harold to a bar to have his first taste of demon rum. Where he meets bartender Jake (Edgar Kennedy in a memorable turn), who, upon hearing that this will be Harold's first drink, says, "You arouse the artist in me."

Wormy suggests a drink called a Texas Tornado, but Jake pooh-poohs the idea.

The Tornado's a perfectly reliable, commercial drink for conventions and hangovers and things like that, but this, this is almost, ah... Is the word 'vestal?' I mean, it oughta have organ music.

Jake mixes up a complex mixture he dubs "The Diddlebock," which inspires a rather unexpected reaction in Harold.

Suddenly transformed into an energetic confident fireball, Harold runs out to find a barber and a tailor, determined to remake himself. And in the barber shop, he encounters several other memorable characters, including a prissy tailor and a sassy manicurist (when the tailor says, "I guess they have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch you in bed," her answer is, "It's been tried.")

Harold impulsively bets a thousand bucks on a horse, through a bookie's rep played by Lionel Stander, and wins on a 15-to-1 shot, which inspires a wild party montage.

And all this time, I'm wondering why I barely remember the film and don't absolutely love it, because the script is clever and the characters are funny and the energy is building and building...

And then Harold wakes up on his couch with a headache and no memory of the last couple of days, being hectored by his sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, and all the energy goes out of the film.

It's like a doughnut, this movie, with a big hole in the middle. Halfway through, and it's almost like starting over. Harold learns that in his drunken revelry, he hired a personal chauffeur (in a horse-drawn carriage, no less) and won a circus in another horse race--a circus that's broke and full of hungry lions.

So Harold comes up with a plan to sell the circus, which involves him going door-to-door to all the banks on Wall Street with a lion on a leash, which of course goes horribly awry when he ends up on a skyscraper ledge with the lion in a scene reminiscent of his most famous silent comedy, the classic "Safety Last!"

And what ends up happening is that you end up with a movie that has a series of good scenes--the football game, Harold's scenes with Waggleberry, Harold's scenes with Miss Otis, the scene in the bar, the scene in the barber shop, the scene where Harold learns just what a nightmare his circus is going to be--but that somehow fails to gel overall. The pacing is too uneven, scenes go on too long. Most of the supporting characters are funny and interesting, but you sort of wish there weren't so darned many of them and that you had more time with the really good ones.

By the end, the film has pretty much worn out its welcome, which is too bad, because its best moments are very good, and it's not every day you see a comedy with "sin" in the title.

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