Notes on “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


One of Preston Sturges’ least known works, “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” is a wry and tenderhearted tribute to American failure — a sort of inverse Horatio Alger story. Sturges uses the movie to comment on the persona of leading man Harold Lloyd (the movies’ quintessential optimist), the culture of the interwar and postwar years, and the gulf that inevitably divides our youthful hopefulness from the realities of middle age. (It and the 1986 “The Best of Times” have more in common than football.) Lloyd is playing an older version of his go-getter of the ’10s and ’20s. Having parlayed athletic fame into a career desk job, he’s come, in the mid-1940s, to a series of sour conclusions. He persists in talking in aphorisms, not because he believes in them, but because they’re all he knows; you sense that without them he couldn’t keep going. He’s so curdled in the juices of his habits that when his crush cozies up to him, he can’t recognize her interest. He’s rehearsed his excuse for giving up on her so many times it’s become an inevitability; he needs to mouth it, the way an actor needs to play his part (it, too, is a kind of aphorism). The movie is courageous in the way it takes on business and financial interests. Diddlebock’s boss, the wonderfully named E.J. Waggleberry (Raymond Walburn), is a man who treats his employees like parts; when one wears down, he swaps him for another. The characterization works in part because Sturges, with his Twain-like nose for guff and charlatanism, is too in love with the caricature to make it villainous. But Waggleberry’s cheeriness makes his actions all the harsher. There’s a commentary here on the deceptiveness of American manners. Like Harold’s aphorisms, those manners can be a dodge — a ruse that we use to avoid painful truths. Yet there’s also much to appreciate in our manners: they’re inseparable from that percolating national style that Sturges did so much to chronicle. Great scenes: Diddlebock ruefully removing the engraved aphorisms from the wall above his desk; Diddlebock’s long monologue about his past loves (all unconsummated); the cocktail scene, especially Edgar Kennedy’s performance as the bartender; the montage of presidential photos, with its long run of increasingly smug Roosevelts. The final section, a skyscraper-set tribute to Lloyd’s silent pictures, is marvelously staged and edited, but it’s probably not as funny as it should be, and its zaniness feels calculated. Several members of the Sturges stock company make appearances, all of them enjoyable. As Harold’s sister Flora, Margaret Hamilton seems to be auditioning for that stock company. It’s a pity this is her only credited appearance in a Sturges film.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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3 Responses to Notes on “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock”

  1. Faze says:

    Much as I like Lloyd’s silent work, his delivery in this has a rat-tat quality that could get on your nerves. But I do like that bar scene.


  2. Kevin O'Keeffe says:

    I’ve loved this movie for almost 30 years now, having inadvertently come across it one day on Comedy Central’s forerunner (The Comedy Channel), back when the first George Bush was still in office. I could perhaps be forgiven for occasionally supposing that no one else had ever seen it.


  3. flulrich says:

    It’s not the worst movie to spend time with, and it’s for free on Youtube. There are still aspects of that platform that are glorious.


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