by Jay Seaver
PRINT SCREENED WAS THE 1950 "MAD WEDNESDAY" CUT: Preston Sturges was just what Harold Lloyd needed, seventeen years earlier. Lloyd was one of the great silent comedians, but his reedy voice and failure to acclimate to the different tempos of sound pictures caused his career to peter out; Sturges was an inventor-turned-playwright-turned-screenwriter who knew how to combine witty dialog and broad slapstick into screwball comedy. By the time Sturges's star had ascended during the sound era, though, Lloyd's had faded away. Nearly a decade passed between his last film for Paramount and this screwball comedy, which Sturges created to coax one of his comedy idols out of retirement.And yet, initially, it seems like no time at all has passed. The film opens with footage of Harold's football heroics from The Freshman, and Lloyd doesn't appear to have aged a day when we see a newly-shot scene of the team in the locker room, where E.J. Waggleberry (Raymond Walburn), an excitable Tate alumnus (shots of him cheering had replaced Jobyna Ralston's bits during the game) offers him a job after graduation. Months later, Harold accepts, only to find out that Waggleberry offers a lot of sports heroes jobs, so even though Harold has ideas for the advertising firm, he'll start at the bottom, in accounting.
"The right movie at the wrong time."
Twenty years pass. The Depression hits, Harold's savings are wiped out, and when the story picks back up in 1947, he's sitting at the same desk, wearing the same suit, looking the worse for the wear. Waggleberry calls him up to the office to fire him, noting the lack of forward momentum over the years. Here's a watch, here's a small pension, now clean out your desk. Which he does, and after one rambling, kind of creepy and kind of sweet discussion with Frances Otis (Frances Ramsden), the pretty graphic artist who works in the same bullpen, he's on the street, dispensing hollow aphorisms to Wormy (Jimmy Conlin), an elderly fellow with too much fondness for both the ponies and the drink. Wormy convinces him to indulge for the first time, and before he knows it, he's lost a whole day (the "Mad Wednesday" of the re-cut film's title)... During which he apparently bought a circus.
It's a shame that Lloyd and Sturges didn't meet and collaborate earlier, as this is the first time Lloyd really seems comfortable speaking on film. In that early exchange between Harold and Frances, we learn that she is the youngest of seven sisters who have worked at the agency, all of whom Harold has fallen in love with, and it's a long, chewy piece of dialog with Harold pouring his heart out and Frances politely aware of everything he's confessing, and it's great because it's not like the dialog in Lloyd's 1930s films. It sounds like two people having a real conversation, and yet it's also exquisitely crafted, with each stammer and interruption as precisely considered and chosen as the individual bits of the old football scene that open the film. It's the first time a screenwriter has really found a voice for Lloyd.
Much of the early going is verbal, and a little long-winded - Waggleberry's firing of Harold, the sequence described above, and the bit where the bartender learns that 50-year-old Harold is about to have his first drink and pauses, telling Harold and Wormy that the occasion inspires the artist in him. Lloyd isn't quite as accomplished playing with words as his co-stars, many of whom were Sturges regulars, but things run pretty smoothly, and he does pretty good at the tennis-match style dialog necessary as he tries to puzzle out what happened the previous day. And, of course, there's the fun had with goofy names - I can't help but notice Harold states his name as "'Diddlebock', with a 'b'" even when people mispronounce it as "Diddlebeck". Or maybe I've just got a dirty fifty-years-later mind.
It's not just a Sturges movie starring Lloyd, though - the climax, for instance, is an old-style thrill bit, as Harold once again finds himself clinging to a ledge on the outside of a building, only this time, he has a lion along with him. He still gives a great double-take, and makes a fine straight man when the world around him gets insane. He's aged gracefully, and shows previously hidden depths as an actor - there's a real pathos about Diddlebock not present in his earlier happy-go-lucky characters.It's a quirky movie, so quirky that producer Howard Hughes sat on it for three years before cutting fifteen minutes (out of ninety) and releasing it as "Mad Wednesday"; the experience put Lloyd off making movies for good. It's a real pity, since even that truncated version is a fascinating look at what might have been, had Lloyd found the right collaborator a decade or so earlier.
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originally posted: 08/17/05 23:35:59