Back in 1923, Harold Diddlebock (Harold Lloyd) was a college student who enthusiastically joined in with the football team, even if he was only meant to be the waterboy rather than the star player he dreamed of being. But on the day of the big game, Harold proved himself capable of great things when he scored the winning touchdown, an act that was noticed by one Mr E.J. Waggleberry (Raymond Walburn), a wealthy head of a successful advertising agency. When Harold left college, he went to see him hoping for a post, and that is what he got: a dead end job for twenty-two years with no use for his ideas...
An infamous disaster in its day, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock was available in two versions, this one and a recut, shorter verison that producer Howard Hughes took care of; neither went down in history as a financial or artistic success. It doesn't sound half bad, though, and indeed its reputation has grown over the years as an underrated cult item, so how does it stand up today? Beginning with the final reel of Lloyd's silent classic The Freshman was a nice reminder of the comic's heyday, and it's remarkable how well preserved he was, playing 22 while in his fifties, but alas it was all downhill from there.
For much of the film's first half the tone is not so much amusing as depressing, with Harold beaten down by a life that went nowhere, reduced to admiring the love(s) of his life from afar and suffering from an altogether complete lack of prospects. To top it all, when we catch up with him in the forties, he is in the process of losing his job, as if it couldn't get any worse: often with the works of writer and director Preston Sturges his lead character's luck will change abruptly, but here he appears to have lost his sense of a good story and the forlorn Harold here will prompt few to recall the go-getter of the twenties.
After bidding farewell to co-worker Miss Otis (Frances Ramsden, whose film career pretty much began and ended with this), who he had fallen for but done nothing about, Harold takes his final paycheque and winds up chatting to Wormy (Jimmy Conlin) who persuades him to join him at a bar for a drink - that Harold will pay for, naturally. This gives us the opportunity to meet another priceless character actor in Edgar Kennedy, playing the barman who invents a new cocktail in honour of Harold having never partaken of alcohol before. This is the life-changing moment as our hero gets drunk, then wakes up two days later - so what happened on Wednesday?
As usual, Sturges amassed a terrific supporting cast, so cult actor spotters will gladly recognise the likes of Margaret Hamilton as Harold's sister (she wears glasses, too), Lionel Stander as a bookie, and Franklin Pangborn as a tailor. But even with this support, the film never takes off and flies, even when Lloyd begins to find his previous form and we recognise aspects - a facial expression, an attitude - from when he was a megastar twenty years before. He was a brilliant physical comedian, but here Sturges prefers to offer him long, overwritten speeches instead and the sole action sequence, with Lloyd hanging off a building attached to a lion, drags on with no real payoff. So this film is more of an unsatisfying curio than a buried treasure, a chance to see one of the screen's great mirthmakers for the last time; for Sturges, there was a return to his previous high quality with Unfaithfully Yours, but he was already slipping, his brief rise and fall spanning one short decade. Music by Werner R. Heymann.