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Director Preston Sturges coaxed legendary silent comedian Harold Lloyd out of retirement to star in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947, aka Mad Wednesday), a film that he wrote with Lloyd in mind. It opens with footage cleverly lifted from Lloyd's 1925 silent classic The Freshman in which Harold's go-getting character scores the triumphant winning touchdown for his college football team. Picking up where The Freshman left off, Harold is offered an entry level job as a bookkeeper by wealthy businessman E.J. Waggleberry (Raymond Walburn). It looks like great things are in store for his future. Twenty years later, however, Harold finds himself stuck in the same position and going nowhere. When he gets unceremoniously fired from his job, Harold is talked into having the first alcoholic drink of his life by a slick hustler (Jimmy Conlin). The local bartender whips up a custom-made concoction for Harold, which unleashes a whole new uninhibited side of him. Harold embarks on a hilarious two-day spree that changes the course of his life.
In 1944 Preston Sturges decided not to renew his contract with Paramount, the studio at which he had made some of his best and most popular films including The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). Sturges turned down lucrative offers from other studios as well and announced that he was going into business with Howard Hughes.
Hughes, an eccentric businessman who had dabbled in Hollywood before as a producer on such films as Hell's Angels (1930) and The Outlaw (1943), had become friendly with Sturges a decade earlier and thought they would work well together. The two men officially formed the California Pictures Corporation in late 1944. Sturges would serve as the Executive Producer and oversee all creative aspects of their film productions while Hughes would provide the financing. As Sturges explained in his 1990 self-titled memoir, "Howard wanted someone to manage his motion picture activities while he devoted all of his time to his aviation projects." Howard Hughes added in a press conference at the time, "I want to make one thing clear - I can't devote any time whatsoever to the motion picture business until (World War II) is over. Sturges is the man in whom I have complete confidence. I am happy to turn over to him the full control and direction of all my motion picture activities."
Shortly thereafter California Pictures announced that the company's first project would be The Saga of Harold Diddlebock (the "Saga" in the title was eventually changed to "Sin" as a winking reference to the 1931 film The Sin of Madelon Claudet). Although there was no script in place, Preston Sturges described the story as "sort of a satire on football heroes." Sturges had long been an admirer of the great silent film comedian Harold Lloyd and wanted to work with him. When he got the idea to use the clip from Lloyd's The Freshman as the beginning of The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, he hoped that he could get Lloyd himself to star in the film. Lloyd, however, had not made a film since 1938's Professor Beware and was unofficially retired from the silver screen living comfortably off a lifetime of lucrative investments. Lloyd turned out to be a fan of Sturges' work, however, and jumped at the chance to work with him. Together, Lloyd believed they had the potential to make a terrific comedy.
The teaming of Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd - two comedy greats - was truly inspired, and the pair couldn't wait to work together. When production began on The Sin of Harold Diddlebock in September 1945, things started smoothly. Sturges tried to tailor the film to suit Lloyd's comic style, even including a daredevil sequence that involved dangling off of a building while attached to a live lion - the sort of stunt that had made Lloyd famous in films such as Safety Last! (1923). Lloyd later recalled, "Any scene I had to do, (Sturges) said, 'Harold, how do you figure you'd like to play this?' I'd say, 'I'll think it over and bring it to you in the morning.' I'd come in the morning with a version of how I thought it should go. He'd say, 'That's it.' We had no trouble. We just seemed to be in complete harmony."
As shooting progressed, however, problems began to emerge. Sturges and Lloyd were both strong personalities who were used to calling the shots. Even though they liked and respected each other, they had fundamentally different approaches to comedy which often left them at odds. Sturges was a man of words, famous for his snappy dialogue. Lloyd, however, was a master of physical comedy and sight gags. "I couldn't make suggestions to (Sturges)," said Lloyd years later. "There was too much talk, talk, talk and not enough sight comedy."
Eventually Sturges and Lloyd made an agreement to shoot every scene two ways: one would be how Sturges wanted it, and the other would be how Lloyd wanted it. Harold Lloyd recalled, "I didn't agree with how (Sturges) wanted me to play the character. I had a section in my contract that if I didn't like it, I could play it the way I wanted, but I also had to do it the way he wanted. That meant that in the projection room, we had to argue it out, and we didn't fare any better in the projection room than we had on the set. For about two weeks, we made two versions, two scenes, each way...He didn't want gags to come into it, he wanted this dialogue...I came to him with business (Lloyd's term for physical sight gag humor) and he said, 'Hell, the business is too good for my dialogue!' I said, 'Preston, this is terrible.' He said, 'It'll kill my dialogue.' I said, 'Let it kill the dialogue, what are we after? We're after entertainment, laughs.' (Preston said), 'Harold, I can't do it.' So I stopped looking for business. There was the difficulty we had."
When The Sin of Harold Diddlebock was released in 1947 neither Sturges nor Lloyd was happy with it. Even more disappointing was the lackluster reception it received at the box office. Howard Hughes quickly pulled the film from distribution and spent three years cutting and re-cutting it without input from either Sturges or Lloyd. After significantly shortening the length and tacking on a new ending, Hughes re-titled the film Mad Wednesday and re-released it through RKO in 1951. The changes to the troubled film, however, made little difference, and Mad Wednesday suffered the same fate as its previous version.
The entire experience was a major disappointment for Sturges and Lloyd. It was Sturges' first flop after riding a long wave of hits. His partnership with Howard Hughes was dissolved shortly thereafter. For Lloyd, it was a lackluster return to the big screen in what should have been a major triumph. Lloyd ended up suing Howard Hughes, California Pictures and RKO for $750,000 according to Lloyd's granddaughter Suzanne, "charging that they deliberately attempted to damage his reputation by not giving him top billing on the re-release." The case was eventually settled for $30,000. Lloyd never made another film. In his 1928 autobiography Lloyd wrote, "When the time comes I shall not try to fool either the public or myself, but will bow my way out as gracefully as I can manage..."
There are still plenty of hilarious moments in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, and any fan of Preston Sturges or Harold Lloyd will find the film a fascinating collaboration. Character actors Edgar Kennedy (known as the "king of the slow burn"), Lionel Stander, Margaret Hamilton and Franklin Pangborn are excellent in supporting roles.
Producers: Howard Hughes, Preston Sturges (uncredited)
Director: Preston Sturges
Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Cinematography: Robert Pittack
Art Direction: Robert Usher
Music: Werner R. Heymann; Harry Rosenthal (uncredited)
Film Editing: Thomas Neff; Stuart Gilmore (re-issue)
Cast: Harold Lloyd (Harold Diddlebock), Jimmy Conlin (Wormy), Raymond Walburn (E.J. Waggleberry), Rudy Vallee (Lynn Sargent), Edgar Kennedy (Jake), Arline Judge (Manicurist), Franklin Pangborn (Formfit Franklin), Lionel Stander (Max), Margaret Hamilton (Flora), Jack Norton (James R. Smoke), Robert Dudley (Robert McDuffy),Arthur Hoyt (J.P. Blackston).
by Andrea Passafiume