The Sin of Harold Diddlebock: A Screwball Comedy Coda

In 1944, after an unbroken string of seven financial and critical successes in just four years, having transitioned from the highest paid writer in Hollywood to the first fully recognized auteur of the talkie era, Preston Sturges parted ways with his home studio, Paramount Pictures. Their separation was not of his choosing, rather the result of the studio cutting up one of his more dramatic fares to play like a zany comedy and subsequent contract disputes that led to their falling out. By then, Sturges had built himself a reputation as one of the finest workhorses in Hollywood, having wedged his way into the director’s chair by famously offering a hot new screenplay for a measly ten dollars, provided he be the one to bring it to the screen. From there, he directed two pictures a year on average, a number of which became instant classics. In 1941 alone he directed both The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, two films which exhibit his unrivaled skill for rapid-paced, witty dialogue carefully rehearsed and directed with plenty of raucous pratfalls as a throwback to the kind of slapstick comedy that cracked him up as a youth. One such star who defined this influential arena of comedy was Harold Lloyd, the mild-mannered everyman of the silent era whose drive for success was matched only by a predilection for blunder. Sturges greatly admired Lloyd, and Lloyd had a fondness for Sturges’ films in return. These two filmic legends would fortuitously come together for a comic collaboration in the wake of Sturges’ departure from Paramount, coaxing Lloyd out of an unofficial nine-year retirement to star in a signature screwball romp which built off the legacy of his silent persona with the witty repartee and deft direction Sturges had made his name with. 

Harold Lloyd and Preston Sturges on the set of The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.

Today, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) is not known for being the triumphant comeback of Harold Lloyd, or as the start of a new chapter in Preston Sturges’ filmmaking career. If it’s remembered at all it is for the finality it brought to both men, and the production company for which it was the sole feature. Sturges had teamed with Howard Hughes — eccentric billionaire, aviation enthusiast, and sometimes movie producer — to form California Pictures, an independent production company which Hughes would bankroll and Sturges would oversee. Their relationship was fickle, the studio flimsily established on the merit of a handshake and with the understanding that either man could dissolve the company at any time with a simple phone call. It wasn’t long after the production of Diddlebock that Hughes did precisely that, presumably over a misconstrued charge of a riding horse to the production company. Hughes’ controlling temperament went beyond the dissolution of the company, as he pulled the picture after only a few trade showings in 1947, cut the film with a new ending, changed the title to Mad Wednesday, and waited to release the film until 1950, at which point it was a financial flop. Though initial reviews even at the time of its 1947 release were mixed, the tarnished reputation of this ill-fated collaboration has more to do with Hughes’ bungling of the release than its own objective quality. Sturges more or less disowned the film after Hughes’ mangled re-edit, and Lloyd later sued after his star billing was shifted below the title of the picture. It would be Lloyd’s last appearance in any film, and the second box office disappointment for Sturges in a downward trajectory he’d never bounce back from. Both versions of the film survive, however, and we can see that Sturges’ vision was not some misguided hackneyed ploy to lure an idol of his into a vanity project bereft of artistic value, but a film very much still indicative of the director’s keen comedic sensibilities and a star perfectly suited to that uniquely comic brand without losing those trademark characteristics which made his silent classics so enduring. Seen today, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock is not a death knell for Sturges, but rather a continuation of that peerless comedic streak which cemented his lofty reputation. 

Harold Lloyd in his collegiate comedy classic, The Freshman.

Sturges’ inspiration in writing this comeback for Lloyd was not merely as a spiritual successor to his silent films, but a literal one. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock begins with about five minutes of recycled footage from the climax of Lloyd’s film The Freshman (1925), chronicling the unlikely success of a youthful collégien’s victory on the football field whereupon he’s offered the promising opportunity of a bookkeeping job from which he can work his way up the corporate ladder and fulfill the American Dream. His new boss lauds the ideals of pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps, the joy that comes from starting at the bottom and rising your way to the top, all the while bemoaning how his father gifted him this successful insurance company, depriving his heir the chance to experience such personal accomplishment. “Every man is the architect of his own fortune,” Lloyd quips in naive consensus, excitedly settling into his dingy corner desk while a patriotic tune sardonically initiates the passage of time. A calendar featuring the portrait of Warren G. Harding, 29th President of the United States, indicates to us the time at which this enthusiastically driven young man, the kind Lloyd so proficiently depicted in his own youth, begins his quest for success. We see a year go by, and the portrait of Harding’s image change to that of his successor, Calvin Coolidge. Then, to Herbert Hoover, followed by Franklin Roosevelt. Then we see Roosevelt a second time, and then a third time, and finally a fourth portrait of Roosevelt, before resting on the image of Harry Truman, president only because Roosevelt’s lifeless body could no longer lead the nation. This comical repetition of one of our most beloved presidents is not merely a sly dig at his unprecedented twelve years in office, but a way of foretelling the inevitable stagnation of plucky Harold’s supposed rise to the top. 

Twenty-two years later, an aged and dismayed Harold labors away in his bookkeeping job, beaten down by the abject monotony of his base level career, having failed to progress even a single step up the ladder as the supposed fortune of American meritocracy had predicted. In this we can see the genuine thespian skills of the veteran Lloyd, proving himself more than capable not only as a fully pronounced dialogue performer, but an actor capable far beyond the tenacious youths he once portrayed. As such, Sturges’ true intent in reviving Lloyd’s signature character some two decades later becomes clear: the spirited embodiment of the so-called Roaring Twenties has been eroded away, decimated by the insurmountable woes of the Great Depression and the subsequent desolation of World War II. For Harold, these societal calamities are the barriers upon which he hangs his inequities; platitudes which his boss unsurprisingly perceives as thinly-veiled excuses for an insufficient work ethic. The battered middle-aged Harold is called into his boss’ office, an all-consuming disparity pervading his entire demeanor. Having parted from Paramount, Sturges no longer had access to his reliable stock company of favorite supporting actors. The signature talents of William Demarest, Chester Conklin, and Porter Hall were not available to him for usage in his first independent production. He did manage to recruit a number of second string favorites, starting with Raymond Walburn as Harold’s boss, befittingly christened with the Sturgesian name, R.J. Waggleberry. Waggleberry proceeds to harangue Harold with the kind of quick-witted floridity Sturges’ writing defined and codified. “You are the living proof of the low-quality work we demand of our employees and a bad example to the younger employees who figure that if you can get away with it they can too and they don’t have to be any better than you are, which is zero!” he barks, before providing him his paltry severance pay and sanctimonious Swiss watch, as is customary when unceremoniously firing someone after decades of devoted work. “I want you to know this is hurting me much more than it’s hurting you,” Waggleberry sneers before escorting Harold out the door, smugly insisting that the woes of the rich are shared with those they continue to subjugate. 

An elder, dejected Harold recently let go from his job in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.

Despite his relatively privileged upbringing, having spent his childhood bouncing between the bohemian life his mother led in Paris and running about the floors of the New York Stock Exchange where his adopted father worked, Sturges remained sensitive to the little man throughout his life. The majority of his films deal directly with the dissonance in class hierarchy, pitting the wit of the impoverished against the arrogance and absurdity of the idle rich. The Lady Eve skewers the ineptitude of trust fund babies with Henry Fonda’s oblique cluelessness and outrageous pratfalls, while Sullivan’s Travels serves as a total indictment of the arrogant elite by demonstrating not just how out of touch they are with the misfortunes of the poor, but indeed their overt indifference to assisting them in any meaningful way. Sturges himself put it most succinctly when, in evaluating his motives in making The Palm Beach Story (1942), he sharply opined, “Millionaires are funny.” The Sin of Harold Diddlebock heartily continues this trend, inflating the pomposity of fat cats like R. J. Waggleberry and squaring all sympathies strictly with the maligned Harold. Having been freed from the shackles of mediocrity, affixed by the stringent hands of oligarchic capitalism, his mission becomes one of self-actualization, of fulfilling that once promised dream of ordaining his own destiny. All he needs now is one final push to shed the inhibitions propagated onto him through twenty years of wage slave work culture. 

Harold’s first brush with impulse comes at the hands of a lowly street hustler named Wormy. Jimmy Conlin had played a part in every one of Sturges’ films up until this point, and with his final appearance for the eclectic director he was given the most significant and prominent role of his career. Wormy first engages Harold by troubling him for a few spare dollars, promising, as all gambling addicts do, to repay him once the winning horses come in. Harold rebuffs him at first, but after oscillating between a handful of quick-witted proverbs similar to those seen hanging on his workplace wall, he relents and pulls out the sizable stack of cash representing his mild monetary savings. Astonished and appreciative of the disgruntled Harold’s lackadaisical generosity, the humbled beggar offers to buy his benefactor a drink. After an additional series of reparteed proverbs, comprised primarily of the merits of old dogs and their penchant for sleeping, barking, and biting, Harold again defers to the elder gentleman and submits for his first ever alcoholic beverage. Wormy escorts Harold to a little bar tucked away from the public eye, introducing him to the bartender who lights up when told his nervous customer has never ever had a drink in his life. “You arouse the artist in me,” he proclaims, as he eagerly peers over his stock for inspiration. He proceeds to concoct an astrological elixir for Lloyd, an individually oriented drink which aims to help his personalities get together. What better catalyst for discarding one’s inhibitions than the proverbial hair of the dog itself. Mixing together a little of this and a little of that, and with a dash of that other thing for good measure, the barkeep presents the two men his curious concoction, dubbed “The Diddlebock.” With due caution, Harold takes the drink to his lips, noting the attractive aroma before imbibing a slight taste. “It’s very mild,” he reports, with a pleasant expression. The barkeep warns, however, that the drink’s potency will sneak up on him. “It has always seemed to me that the cocktail should approach us on tiptoe, like a young girl whose first appeal is innocence.” The three men toast to innocence before taking another large sip, as Harold’s trepidation begins to melt with each subsequent drink. Soon enough, he’s confidently gulping down the entire mixture. Having successfully shaken off his prior inhibitions, he lets off an ear-piercing, uncontrollable roar. 

Jimmy Conlin and Harold Lloyd partaking in their miracle brew in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.

“EEEOOOOAAAAA!!!” He howls, having not noticed the involuntary screech himself. “What was that yelling?” He says, before rattling off another intensive roar. “To innocence! And still, more innocence,” he cheers, before going to take another drink. With profound concern, the barkeep attempts to wrangle the drink away from the newly zealous man, warning him of the dangers copious consumption can have. With unseen confidence and vigor, Harold throws back another glassful, requesting an additional batch before letting out yet another guttural cry. With but the slightest of provocation, the once meek and apprehensive Harold explodes into a manic surge of animation. In quick succession, he verbally accosts a cop, berates his own reflection, and vociferates on the qualities of men like George Washington and the pioneers. He rants and raves with bombastic fervor, demanding the services of a barber and a tailor so that he may revitalize his drab appearance, bellowing out his animalistic shriek all the while. Harold and his calamitous crew quickly move upstairs for his preposterous suit fitting. He picks the loudest outfit he can find, a garishly plaid monstrosity that’s either toxic green, bright crimson, or some unholy combination of the two based on promotional materials. To compliment this obnoxious attire, Lloyd dons the only hat befitting such an extraordinarily egregious wardrobe selection: a wide-brimmed ten-gallon Stetson. There’s no telling how twenty years of simmering social conformity will manifest when suddenly let loose from its cage, how one might react when given the first taste of total freedom in their life — both from the constraints of societal expectations and the self-imposed suppressions of good manners and taste. One imagines, though, that Sturges’ approximation of a wild-eyed and demented Harold Lloyd throwing away his life’s savings on vulgar fashion choices and 30-1 racehorse odds is almost reasonable in imagining how such a ridiculous mid-life crisis might manifest given the circumstances. 

After a full night of bawdy celebration, complete with dancing girls and many a reckless wager, Harold wakes up with a fuzzy memory of all that came before. Sobriety hits hard, as he observes his obscene apparel with remorseful disgust, while his sister Flora reminds him of his boorish behavior upon returning home that last Wednesday. Utterly embarrassed, Harold bemoans the idea that anyone may have seen him like that. “You probably didn’t attract any more attention than Lady Godiva in Macy’s window at noon,” his sister caustically remarks. Slowly, slivers of memory start to come back to Harold. He remembers his fortunes, tens of thousands of dollars won by virtue of hedonistic impulse. But alas, the riches are nowhere to be found. “It was a drunkard’s dream,” his sister declares, and aside from his ostentatious attire and a pocket full of garters, it appears his mania may very well have been little more than a liquor-induced stupor. Upon emerging from his home again, with renewed disgrace, Harold is greeted by a horse carriage cabbie — played, with a thick cockney accent, by another Sturges alum, Robert Greig. The comically British horse driver, who Harold saw fit to designate with a series of Shakespearean titles, informs the befuddled boozer that not only did he indeed win copious stacks of cash through his impetuous gambling, but he already spent most of it on a whole host of insane investments, including the enlistment of his buggy services for the foreseeable future. He soon learns a horse drawn carriage is not even the most ridiculous thing he purchased that night, as Wormy runs up to ask Harold how they’re gonna feed all the lions they’ve procured with their new circus. And with this, the incredulity of Sturges’ madcap machinations are well upon their way.

Harold Lloyd poses with his ferocious costar, Jackie the lion.

Throughout his career, Harold Lloyd seemed to court danger of one kind or another. During a press event in 1919, what was thought to be an inactive prop bomb went off in his hand, resulting in the loss of his right forefinger and thumb. He wore a skin-tight glove with prosthetic fingers for the rest of his films, gesturing with his left hand and occupying his injured hand with props to distract from the immobile digits. Even despite this handicap, Lloyd continued to make his signature brand of thrill comedy pictures as he moved from short films to features, and even into the talkie era. Scaling tall buildings and engaging in reckless car chases is one thing, but working with a lion was a whole new matter for Lloyd. He was no stranger to working with animals, having starred alongside all manner of dogs, cats, horses, monkeys, and even a particularly combative turkey in one instance, but nothing near the vicious nature of a large jungle cat. Even when Charlie Chaplin stepped into a lion’s cage for The Circus (1928), he managed to keep the animal largely sedate throughout the brief three-minute sequence they shared together, apparently through the calming use of an on-set organ accompaniment. For Sturges’ film, Lloyd would spend a great deal of intimate screen time with the creature, forced to squirm and squeal as the carnivorous beast idly brushed against him. How much of Lloyd’s comical floundering is at the behest of Sturges’ direction and how much is simply a natural reaction to having an unrestrained honest-to-God lion casually baring its fangs in close proximity to your face remains undetermined. This first scene in which Harold is introduced to one of his newly acquired lions — a vain attempt to sell back his drunkenly purchased circus to the disinterested previous owner — gives us some of the best renditions of his famously articulate facial expressions. Though the bulk of this collaboration benefits largely from Sturges’ biting penmanship, these scenes of fever-pitched lunacy would not function if not for Lloyd’s extraordinary insinuations of shock and alarm. His wide-eyed, open-mouthed expressions of panic were some of the defining characteristics of his silent persona, and they adapt with equal comic credibility to the anxiety-ridden articulations of his stutteringly flustered speech. 

Stuck with a white elephant of a conundrum, Harold and Wormy return to their cab to begin brainstorming a solution. “I used to solve problems all the time when I was in college,” Harold says, calling back to the inception of the story and how far he’s drifted from his promising ambitions. “You know something, I don’t think I’ve thought in years,” he states paradoxically, remarking how the routine habits of a systematic work environment rotted away his ability to solve problems and generally assess the world around him. “You have to get up at the same time everyday, eat the same breakfast, go to the office in the same car, work on the same ledger all day, then go home the same way you came to the office except backwards.” Harold even starts to appreciate having been fired, realizing the monotony of the forty-hour work week had been draining the very essence of life from him these past twenty years; only since this recent mad Wednesday had he truly begun to live. He begins formulating a plan by which to turn his sinkhole of a circus into a money-making venture, starting with the logical provenance of all financial success: Wall Street. Much like with depictions of gluttonous business moguls represented in R.J. Waggleberry, Sturges venomously satirizes the greed of Wall Street with this romp through New York’s financial district. “I hate bankers,” Wormy repeats ad nauseum, affirming the prejudice that all bankers are money-grubbing profiteers who don’t pay their taxes and are despised by all. Sturges depicts these Wall Street elites with utmost disdain, rapturously partaking in the seizure of homes and refusing to see anyone without an appointment. To overcome this hurdle, the plucky twosome must put their noses to the grindstone to find a way in. A wedge with which to batter their way through so that they may proposition these capitalist misers. “What we need is an Open Sesame,” Harold proclaims, finding the magic words in the form of his intimidating new pet.

“As you know Mr. Smoke you are loathed by everyone, because you are a banker.”

As Harold enters the bank with lion in tow, dressed again in his flamboyant checkered suit and oversized cowboy hat, everyone begins to flee in a panic, tripping over themselves in what can only be described as a cavalcade of pratfalls, for which Sturges must have been very proud. They were, above all else, his favorite comedic tool. It starts with the banker tripping over his desk, the sound of the alarm plunging the scene into immediate chaos. His secretary then bumps into him, knocking him to the ground a second time as the panicked crowd floods the room for more pandemonious delight. Three more people tumble over the cowering banker in quick succession, while scores of others dash past them screaming in terror. After finding his way out from under the surge of scattering employees, even the banker finds himself in stitches as he looks upon the farcical madness with sheer delight. As a demonstration of Sturges’ abiding control over stupendous comedic chaos, only the Ale and Quail Club from The Palm Beach Story can compare. Harold swaggers in with his trusty lion in stead, urging the banker to fund his year-round free circus for children, adults fifty-five cents. If there was any question as to how dangerous working with an actual honest-to-God lion is, even in such a small capacity, we can see the risks undertaken as the lion attempts to maul Harold’s hand mid-scene, to which he very quickly recoils and amazingly remains in character. At no point is it evident that any kind of post-production process was used to put Lloyd and the lion together in a scene, similar to the techniques seen in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938). It’s just Harold and the lion on screen together for the entirety of the film’s hysterical climax, which becomes all the more impressive and exciting when the lion springs from Harold’s grip and onto the scaffolding of the next bank they visit, some innumerable stories high. 

As the ultimate homage to Harold Lloyd’s singular comic career, Sturges penned an ending which reflected the films he was best remembered for. Lloyd would later lament in a number of interviews that despite the hundreds of different films he made throughout his life people associated him most with the five or so “thrill comedy” pictures he made. The most iconic image of Harold Lloyd comes from the greatest of these thrill comedies, Safety Last! (1923), in which Lloyd is seen dangling from the hands of a clock tower precariously hung on the side of a mountainous Los Angeles high-rise. By blending together the constant peril of potential death and a comedic onslaught of errors pushing his hysterical protagonist closer to the edge, Lloyd achieved a magnetic combination by tapping into two disparate ideals and using the merits of both to feed into one another. When an errant plank of wood threatens to send Harold careening into the crowd below it manages to be both horrifying and hilarious, as the ludicrous nature of the scenario seems only to inflate the effect of both polarizing emotions. Sturges channels that same manic fusion for this ultimate sendoff of Lloyd’s hapless persona. This time, however, it won’t be a flock of birds or a random net threatening to knock Harold down to the street below. For his final building balancing act Harold must contest with an actual honest-to-God lion attached to his leg — it doesn’t get any more deranged than this. Though it’s clear that some rear-screen projection had to be used in creating this maddening comic triumph, as it’s unlikely any producer, or even Lloyd himself, would be so reckless as to film on top of actual buildings as they had done in the silent days, the effect nonetheless achieves the same electric synergy of comedy and terror which defined Harold Lloyd’s legacy. The tension and laughs mount in equal measure, resulting in not only the most perfectly madcap finale for Sturges’ film, but indeed the most befitting comic climax for Harold Lloyd’s prestigious career. 

 Lloyd dangles in the air one last time for the screen in a glorious apotheosis of his career.

Generally regarded as the pariah of Sturges’ filmography — the nail in the coffin which cemented his fall from grace — The Sin of Harold Diddlebock shows itself to be more than the lone black sheep of his herd. It maintains all the clever wit, biting satire, proficient direction, bountiful supporting cast, absurd scenarios, and uproarious pratfalls associated with Sturges’ unique brand of comedy. It’s another notch in the belt, a comedy knockout in the same tradition of all his prior successes. Indeed, its humor and craft are as deserving of praise as all his other works of comic genius. The argumentative repartee between Harold and his sister is as good as that exhibited in the opening minutes of Sullivan’s Travels; the comic tumbles taken in the frenzy of the banks are as good as those seen in The Lady Eve when Henry Fonda upends himself over the side of a couch; the scathing exposure of fallacy in the ideals of American Exceptionalism is just as sharp as when he tackled the dangers of unwavering patriotism in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); and the increasing absurdity of its outrageous and unbelievable climax is on par with that of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943). The Sin of Harold Diddlebock was not even the end of Sturges’ career. Afterwards, he went on to direct the critically acclaimed Unfaithfully Yours (1948), in which a composer daydreams of confronting his allegedly adulterous wife in three distinct fantasies, set to the musical compositions of Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. Sturges’ doomed collaboration with his comic idol was only a failure in the sense that it was hobbled in its release and has struggled to find an audience ever since. In fact, it’s not a black sheep at all, but rather, a stout and regal lion — segregated from its pack but triumphantly courageous just the same. The only difference between this princely beast and its palatial predecessors is its suspension in the air, perched on a precarious ledge instead of its rightful throne in the heralded comic canon. 

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Avid film enthusiast. I watch, write, collect, and dissect all things film and film history. Proud resident of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, I relish in sharing my thoughts and critiques with all of you wonderful people out there in the dark.

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