The first half of The Sin of Harold Biddlebock kicks off promising, however, the second half grinds on like a car in stop and go traffic. It has its good spots but it’s a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. One would believe, or at least hope, that the combination of Harold Lloyd and Preston Sturges would yield a solid golden treasure. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The film displays bits of social commentary that keep it interesting. Of course, it gave us one last chance to see the great Harold Lloyd on screen. Still, in careers filled with so many highs, it remains a minor effort for both the director and star.
The film had a troubled history. It was Preston Sturges first film after leaving Paramount where he left behind a string of classic comedy films: The Great McGinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan Creek (1943) and Hail, The Conquering Hero (1944). All remain brilliantly written satires on American society and memorable to watch today as they were then.
Sturges and Howard Hughes became partners in what the director states was a hand shake agreement. Together they formed California Pictures. The partnership would quickly sour. First Sturges wrote a screenplay for a film called Vendetta, to be directed by Max Ophuls. Soon after principle photography began, Hughes demanded Sturges fire Ophuls for no other reason than he was a foreigner. Howard did not like foreigners. Hughes then brought in other writers along with director Stuart Heisler who completed most of the principle photography. Hughes was still not satisfied and brought in Mel Ferrer to direct additional changes he wanted. The film was finally released in 1950 by RKO Pictures which by that time Hughes acquired. Thus, The Sin of Harold Didddlebock would be the only film ever produced by California Pictures.
Sturges seduced Harold Lloyd out of retirement, his last film was the 1938 dud Professor Beware, by promising Lloyd he would become a producer/director with the new studio. However, with the breakup of the company after the one film, the deal with Lloyd as producer/director would never be fulfilled. Additionally, the two strong willed artists butted their creative heads a lot and their relationship would eventually sour.
The first half of the film is rather magical and gives one hope. Right at the beginning there is a forward that states “The football game you are about to see was actually photographed in 1925 as part of Harold Lloyd’s famous picture ‘The Freshman’ the story of a water boy who thought he was a member of the team.” Subsequently, what we are about to see can be viewed as of a sort of an unofficial sequel to Lloyd’s silent classic. Some new footage is neatly intercut with the football scenes, specifically, scenes of E. J. Waggleberry (Raymond Walburn) an alumni and a millionaire, the kind of individual who had everything handed to him in life by his father. Wagglebury runs an advertising firm. He tells Harold after the game that upon his graduation to come see him. He has room for a go-getter like Harold. After Harold graduates he does as he was told. Only Waggleberry does not remember him. Harold, a man of ideas, gets a big pep talk from the businessman…
“We don’t start people at the top, you understand. That would be too easy. We do it the American way! We give them an opportunity to work up! – from the bottom. What satisfaction! What a feeling of accomplishment you will have.” He then tell Harold how he wishes he had that opportunity to start at the bottom. “How I envy you,” he says, “my father unfortunately left me the business.”
He assigns Harold to a low-level bookkeeping job. Next to his desk, on the wall, Harold hangs signs filled with quotations fitting an ambitious young go-getter with plans to get ahead with hard work. On another wall hangs a calendar showing it’s 1923 and Harding is President. The years go by, as do the Presidents, until we are in 1945 and Truman’s photograph now hangs on the calendar. What has not changed in twenty two years is Harold. He still at the same desk, doing the same job. He is no longer the ambitious go-getter. His clothes are worn and he looks like a beaten man. When he is called into Waggleberry’s office, the boss tells him…
“You have not only ceased to go forward, you have gone backward. You have not only stopped progressing, you have stopped thinking! You not only make the same mistakes, year after year, you don’t even change your apologies. You have become a bottleneck!”
Waggleberry rants on how he is setting…
“a bad example to the younger employees who figure that if you can get away with it, they can too and they don’t have to be any better than you are! Which is zero.”
Harold is handed the proverbial gold watch. Finally, Waggleberry adds…
“Goodbye and good luck. And as a parting thought, I want you to know that this is hurting me much more than it is you, Harold. Much more!”
The remarks are typical corporate thinking. Harold now is too old, dead weight the company can no longer afford to carry. They can’t have an old man corrupting the young and upcoming employees. After more than twenty years Harold is left with a watch and meager severance pay, having lost all his savings in the 1929 crash based on the advice of his boss who came out of it fine.
This is followed by an extremely humorous scene where Harold says goodbye to a female office worker, Miss Otis (Frances Ramsden), whose sisters, Hortense, Irma, Harriet, Maggie, Claire and Rosemary he fell in love with when they worked there, but something always came in the way. He gives the ring, he originally bought for Hortense, to Miss Otis telling her that she should hold on to it. Maybe someday she will meet a boy who can’t afford a ring and they can use this one. The scene is smartly written and nicely played by the two performers.
At this point, the film begins to go on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Harold takes the first alcoholic drink of his life, encouraged by some new friends, including a small time racetrack hound named Wormy (Jimmy Conlin), and soon finds himself the owner of a circus he cannot afford. The rest of the film is spent on Harold’s attempt to rid himself of the circus and the expenses that come with it. His solution is to sell it to Wall Street bankers. After all, everyone hates bankers; they have all the money. His plan is to convince them that if they buy a circus it will change their image making them come across as more consumer friendly. With Jackie, a circus lion in hand, he and Wormy go from one bank to another pitching their plan. Hey, with a lion by your side who is going to stop them as he makes his pitch from one banker, including Rudy Vallee, after another? Then it happens. The lion gets loose! The lion, followed by Harold and Wormy chasing after him, makes his way up a skyscraper building and out on its ledge. This gives Lloyd a chance to sort of recreate the daredevil stunt he did way back in Safety Last. The problem is in Safety Last, Lloyd was outside on a real ledge, high up many stories up while in this film it’s clearly a process screen behind the actors. Needless to say, it loses a lot in comparison to the original. The duo, and Jackie, eventually find themselves arrested which was part of Harold’s plan. He figured the bankers would come to bail him out once they realized his plan would work in their favor. A bidding war would start for the circus. Instead it’s Miss Otis who bails them out. He’s disappointed his plan didn’t work, where are the bankers? He soon finds out the newspapers printed they were being held at a different police station. The bankers eventually do bid but Ringling Brother,s fearing competition, outbid everyone! It all turns out well for Harold as Waggleberry rehires Harold and he finds Miss Otis wearing that ring.
After a terrific start, the film turns silly and lethargic though there are a few moments that still reflect signs of the two great film artists. Even the reconceived version of Harold’s famous skyscraper ledge scene originally done in Safety Last goes on for way long. Editing would have been a blessing. It goes on forever, long passed it being funny or scary.
The most interesting aspects of the film lies in its social commentary; Harold’s firing by his rich born boss who is patently false in his attempts to empathizes with Harold. This as well as Harold’s take on how much Wall Street and it bankers are hated by most Americans who feel disenfranchised and used. Harold’s ‘Sin’ seems to be that he is a regular guy. He’s not rich. He’s smart, ambitious, but like so many, he is eaten up and beaten down by a system that is rigged against the common man.
Lloyd’s female co-star, Frances Ramsden, was a model who caught the eye of Preston Sturges. Her only previous experience in acting were small extra roles in Lost in a Harem (1944) and Kismet (1944). Romantically, involved with the director, Ramsden, twenty-six, was given the plum role opposite Lloyd who was fifty-three at the time of filming. She never made another film. Other cast members includes, Edgar Kennedy, he of the slow-burn, Franklin Pangborn, Lionel Stander and Margaret Hamilton. Jackie, the Lion played himself.
The film never made its money back. This was mainly because Sturges and Lloyd disagreed so much on how scenes should be shot. They ended up doing two different versions of many scenes causing the budget to overflow. Released in 1947, critics were happy to see Lloyd back on the screen, however, most found the film uneven. Howard Hughes, like he had done so many times in the past, had to meddle. He removed the film from circulation and re-edited, in the process leaving Rudy Vallee with just a couple of minutes on film and even added a talking horse at the end. It was released again in 1950 with a new title, Mad Wednesday. The critics were no kinder. The New York Times calling it, “too inconsistent for complete satisfaction.”
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