The Sin of Harold Diddlebock
Preston Sturges comic dialogue
Preston Sturges had a very brief career as a writer-director, the funniest man in Hollywood, more or less the decade 1939-1948. He was a strange man who could not help appearing very arrogant—it is the hardest thing to be comical without seeming contemptuous, especially when it’s a job & professional pride adds to the danger—& it is the most damning thing in America, to be thought to seem superior when one is not independently wealthy… In 1948, he made two remarkable comedies that reflect on what it means to be a comic poet in America. One of them is called The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock, starring Harold Lloyd, the most famous all-American comic, whom Sturges somehow convinced to come out of a long retirement. Lloyd was such a daring man he wrestled lions in this movie; even more daringly, he made a screwball comedy after Americans lost their taste for slapstick; the movie was largely ignored, sometimes despised, but it’s quite wonderful. The image of the comic poet here is that of a circus ringmaster, a P.T. Barnum figure; Americans are not only moralistic businessmen—they also like parades, fairs, & freak shows—& where respectable success is not possible, there is always the alternative, as being notable & notorious can never quite be separated in a society. So watch this movie if you like Old Hollywood comedy—the beautiful filming, the witty dialogue, the physical comedy…
I’ll leave you with a hilarious exchange between hangdog Harold & a beautiful young woman, on the day he gets fired. He’s a boy scout, an American good guy whom America has left behind because he’s incurably shy & it’s a world of go-getters. The scene cuts both ways—you see his heartbreaking misery, he’s a loser among equals; but you also see the odd comic criticism of Romantic love, our obsession with our uniqueness, & our inability to understand ourselves. Sturges dialogue at its best has this combination of innocence & wit.
Miss Otis, when your older sister Hortense came to work here some seventeen or eighteen years ago, I fell in love with her. She was a lovely girl!
Yes, I know. I mean, that you fell in love with her. She told me...
Oh, I see. She swept me off my feet! My circumstances at that time did not permit even the contemplation of marriage...
I know, she told me...
Well, she very wisely stopped waiting for me & married the gentleman whose life she's since illuminated. I felt that my own life had ended, that I would never love again, that the sunshine had withdrawn permanently, behind the clouds.
I was mistaken!
Because when your next elder sister Irma came to work here, I fell even more deeply in love with her than I had with Hortense.
I know, she told me. Hortense even got a little burnt about it...
Well, she needn't have, because when Irma in her turn got married & was replaced by your next elder sister Harriet, I felt that everything had gone on before was merely an appetizer.
I know, she told me, too.
It was getting better & better. Your mother seemed to be making them nicer every year!
Haven't come to you yet. When Harriet ran away with that headstone salesman, I was inconsolable.
None of us felt very good about it...
I was gonna propose the very next day!
She didn't know that.
I had the ring in my pocket. I had just made the last payment on it, the one I started for Hortense.
You came so close...
I never felt so defeated in my life, I never thought I'd smile again.
Till you met Margie-
That's right, she was even better than the others.
Mother had more practice.
Practice makes perfect! By then, of course, I'd been wiped out in the market-
Oh, was that it? She never knew.
That's right, I started to get on my feet again when your sister Claire came to work.
Why didn't you ask her? Didn't you like her?
Like her! I worshipped her! Only that moment—that irresponsible lout who had married my sister chose that moment to kick the bucket—to pass on—without leaving even a dime's worth of insurance, so I found myself with a ready-made family.
Poor mister Diddlebock! I suppose you were in love with Rosemary, too, when she was here.
Naturally. Of course, I was so in the habit of being in love with your mother's daughters by then that it was impossible for me to even see one without—without-
Without what, Mr. Diddlebock?
I presume you know I've adored you since the first morning you punched your first time card... You knew it, didn't you?
Well, I suspected it, my sisters had warned me...
Of course! Imagine! Being exposed to seven Miss Americas & muffing the whole seven of them.
Poor mister Diddlebock...
I'm leaving today.
Oh, no, mister Diddlebock!
That's what I wanted to tell you. I don't know where I'm going & I probably won't see you again, so I want you to just take this, it's all paid for. Someday, when you meet some young man who's really worthy of you & who has everything but the engagement ring, you can take that excuse away from him & well...
So tis is my movie recommendation for the weekend. It’s a little-known movie with amazing stunts & slapstick jokes, a throwback to an earlier comedic era &, I think, a very good template for comedy in our own times, when the combination of the painfully shy & the crazy is much more common—just look at social media. This could easily be remade as a story about going viral…