The Fabulous Forties #43: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (dir by Preston Sturges)


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The 42nd film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was a 1947 comedy called The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.

As a classic film lover, I really wish that The Sin of Harold Diddlebock was better than it actually is.  The film was a collaboration between two of the biggest names in cinematic comedy history: director/writer Preston Sturges and legendary actor Harold Lloyd.  In fact, this was the first film that Sturges directed after leaving the studio system so that he could make bring his unique brand of satire to life without having to deal with interference.  He managed to convince Harold Lloyd to come out of retirement to star in the movie and the film even works as a quasi-sequel to one of Lloyd’s most beloved silent comedies, The Freshman.  In a perfect world, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock would have been a comedy masterpiece that would have perfectly shown off the talents of both men.

Unfortunately, that’s really not the case.  The Sin of Harold Diddlebock is consistently amusing but it’s never quite as funny as you want it to be.  This is one of those films that sounds like it should be hilarious but, when you actually watch it, you see that the film is oddly paced and Lloyd never seems to be fully invested in his role.  I suppose the natural inclination would be to blame this on interference from the notoriously eccentric Howard Hughes, who co-produced the film with Sturges.  After Harold Diddlebock failed at the box office, Hughes withdrew it and spent three years personally reediting the film before re-releasing it under the title Mad Wednesday.  However, by most reports, Hughes wasn’t really the problem.  If Wikipedia is to be believed (and God do I hate starting any sentence with that phrase), Lloyd and Sturges did not have a good working relationship.  As sad as that is, it’s also understandable.  Geniuses rarely work well together.

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock does get off to a good start, seamlessly incorporating the last reel of The Freshmen with footage shot for Harold Diddlebock.  (Somewhat sweetly, the film starts with a title card informing us that the what we are about to see was taken from The Freshman.)  After college freshman Harold Diddlebock scores the winning touchdown in a football game, impressed advertising executive J.E. Waggleberry (Raymond Walburn) offers Harold a job.  However, Harold wants to finish college so Waggleberry tells Harold to look him up in four years.

Four years later, recently graduated Harold goes to Waggleberry for a job and discovers that J.E. Waggleberry has totally forgotten him.  Harold ends up working in the mailroom but is told that, as long as he is ambitious and smart, he will easily move up in the company.  22 years later, Harold is still working in the mailroom.  He is secretly in love with Miss Otis (Frances Ramsden).  Of course, he was also in love with each of Miss Otis’s six older sisters, all of whom worked at the company before the current Miss Otis.  Harold bought an engagement ring when the oldest Otis sister was with company.  Years later, he’s still carrying it with him and dreams of giving it to the current Miss Otis.

However, that might be difficult because Harold has just been fired.  J.E. Waggleberry feels that Harold’s unambitious attitude is setting a bad example.  As severance, Harold is given a watch and $2,946.12.

The normally quiet and reserved Harold reacts to losing his job by doing something very unusual for him.  He goes to a bar and, with the help of a con man (Jimmy Conlin) and a bartender (Edgar Kennedy), he gets drunk.  The bartender even creates a special drink called the Diddlebock.  Harold drinks it and wakes up two days later, wearing a huge cowboy hat and owning a bankrupt circus…

And it only gets stranger from there….

While The Sin of Harold Diddlebock doesn’t quite work, I appreciated the fact that it not only created its own surreal world but that it just kept getting stranger and stranger as the film progressed.  It was Harold Lloyd’s final film and there’s even a scene where he and a lion end up on the edge of a skyscraper that’s almost as good as the famous comedic set pieces from his silent classics.  It’s a pity that the film doesn’t really come together but I’d still recommend seeing it just for history’s sake.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #15: Casablanca (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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(This review contains spoilers but seriously, you should know all of this already.)

Is there anything left to be said about Casablanca?

Probably not.

As a film reviewer, I’m not supposed to admit that.  I’m supposed to come up with some sort of new, out-of-nowhere, batshit crazy way to look at Casablanca.  I’m supposed to argue that Rick was actually meant to be a survivor of abuse or that Victor Laszlo was some sort of precursor to President Obama or something.  Or, if that doesn’t work, I’m supposed to intentionally troll everyone by writing something like, “10 reasons why Casablanca is overrated” or “I hate Casablanca and I don’t care who knows it!”

But I’m not going to do that.

The fact of the matter is that Casablanca is as good a film as everyone says it is.  It is a film that everyone should see.  It is a film that quite rightfully was named best picture of 1943.  It deserves to be celebrated.  It deserves to be seen.  In fact, stop reading this review right now and go watch it.  Don’t let me waste another second of your time.

The thing with Casablanca is that it’s such an iconic film that everyone knows what happens, regardless of whether they’ve actually watched the entire film or not.  They know that the film takes place in Casablanca during World War II.  They know that Casablanca is full of refugees, spies, and people who are hiding from their past.  They know that Casablanca is policed by the charmingly corrupt Capt. Louis Renault (Claude Rains).  They know that Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) is the Nazi in charge.  (I nearly said that Strasser was the “evil Nazi in charge” but when you identify someone as a Nazi, is it really necessary to add that they’re evil?)  They know that Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the American expatriate who owns Rick’s Cafe Americain and that everyone comes to Rick’s.  They know that Rick’s slogan is that he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone but they also know that his cynicism hides the fact that he’s still in love with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).  They know that when Ilsa shows up at Rick’s and needs him to help her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), escape from Occupied Europe, Rick is forced to decide whether or not to get involved in the resistance.

And, whether you’ve seen the film or not, you know that it all ends on a foggy airstrip.  Ilsa wants to stay in Casablanca with Rick but Rick tells her that she has to get on the plane with Laszlo because, if she doesn’t, she’ll regret it.  Ilsa goes with Laszlo, leaving Rick behind.

And it may have been the right thing to do but how many viewers would have done the same if they had been in Ilsa’s high heels?  Throughout the entire movie, we hear about how wonderful Laszlo is but, whenever he actually shows up on screen, it’s always a little bit surprising to discover just how boring a character Victor Laszlo really is.  Unlike the troubled and deceptively cynical Rick, there’s not much going on underneath the surface with Laszlo.  Just as Rick overshadows Laszlo, Bogart’s performance overshadows Paul Henreid’s.  Bogart and Bergman have all the chemistry and the charisma.  Henreid, on the other hand, comes across as stiff and a little dull.  But, as the film suggests, World War II was not a time for self-doubt and self-interest.  World War II was a time when the world needed straight-forward, determined men like Victor Laszlo.

And, if the world needed Laszlo and Laszlo needed Ilsa, then that meant Ilsa had to get on that plane.

That said, I’ve always liked to think that Ilsa ended up leaving Laszlo in 1945 and immediately made her way back to Morocco.  Rick and Ilsa belonged together.

But until Ilsa comes back, Rick has his friendship with Renault.  “Louis,” he says, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Did Bogart realize, when he delivered that line, that literally thousands of people would be repeating it decades later?  Bogart’s performance is probably one of the most imitated performances of all time.  Anyone who sees Casablanca thinks that they can talk about gin joints and hills of beans in Bogart’s trademark style.  Of course, they can’t and it’s a testament to the power of Bogart’s performance that it remains effective even after being endlessly imitated.

On Valentine’s Day of 2014, I saw Casablanca at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin.  It was an amazing and romantic experience.  See Casablanca on the big screen.  It’ll make you love life and bring life to your love.

Needless to say, Casablanca is an intimidating film to review.  So, I’ll just say this: Casablanca is even better than you think it is.  If you haven’t seen it, go watch it.  If you have seen it, go watch it again.

Just resist the temptation to say, “Play it again, Sam,” in your best Bogart-like voice.

Because, seriously, Rick never actually says that line.