January 4, 2010
An obscure public-access channel on our Comcast system showed “The Sin of Mr. Diddlebock” last night — an historic film in the sense that it was Harold Lloyd’s last.
Lloyd was such a genius at film comedy that I’m not sure anyone can be said to have surpassed him. This is not a good example of his work, and yet — because it’s Harold Lloyd — it’s worth watching anyway. Lloyd was coaxed out of retirement by Preston Sturgess, who wrote and directed this movie, but the two men fought bitterly throughout the production. In fact, there are two cuts of this film — the Lloyd version and the Sturgess version, the latter titled “Mad Wednesday.”
In what is probably the only instance of its kind in film history, Sturgess opens this 1947 sound film with a scene from Lloyd’s 1925 silent feature “The Freshman” in which the water boy on a college football team gets into the game and scores the last-minute winning touchdown. Lloyd charged Sturgess $50,000 for the use of that clip.
“The Sin of Mr. Diddlebock” ostensibly picks up the story of the same character — though with a different name — as he takes a job “at the bottom” of an advertising agency with the promise that he will get an opportunity to move up and express his bright ideas. Twenty years later, he is at the same job in the basement bookkeeping department when his boss hands him a watch and about $2,000 in savings and shows him the door. Out on the street, Diddlebock meets a panhandler and agrees to have a drink with him — the first drink of Diddlebock’s life. This is the occasion for a hilarious scene in which the bartender played by Edgar Kennedy — a wonderful comedian — mixes an original and potent concoction to make the maiden voyage memorable. You can watch that scene at THIS LINK.
Under the influence of the drink named in his honor, Diddlebock unwittingly stumbles through a series of adventures that end with him owning a horse-drawn cab complete with driver, and a penniless circus complete with 27 hungry lions.
The resolution comes complete with a dose of Lloyd’s trade-mark, nail-biting high-jinx on a ledge many stories above a city street.
Besides Kennedy, the cast includes Margaret Hamilton, Franklin Pangborn, and Rudy Vallee. The film — juvenile and clumsy at times — is not in the same class of the earlier work in which Lloyd was more prolific and more financially successful than Chaplin or Keaton. But Sturgess’s dialogue shows some of the old flair and Lloyd, at 54, is still able to pull off that boyish exuberance.
There is a sequence of scenes in this movie in which Lloyd and other actors work closely with a lion. Some of these scenes are quite physical, and they reminded me of a story Jimmy Durante once told on the David Susskind TV show. Durante said he did a routine with an elephant in the Broadway production of Billy Rose’s “Jumbo,” which was later a movie in which Durante also appeared. In the stage show, Durante did a stunt in which he lay down on the stage while the elephant used its foot to crush a cinder block that was next to Durante’s head. According to Durante, Frank Buck — the big-game hunter — came backstage after one performance to meet the cast. He mentioned the scene with the elephant and told Durante, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars. You can never trust an elephant.” Well, Lloyd and his colleagues trusted a lion a lot more than I would — I don’t care how well fed, sedated, trained, or elderly the animal might be.