When Harold Lloyd Met Preston Sturges: How a Career Comeback Became a Career Ender
June 10, 2009 § 3 Comments
Preston Sturges is revered in Hollywood as the writer and director of some of the wittiest comedies ever written; in an unparalleled winning streak between 1940 and 1943, he wrote and directed eight classics, including “The Great McGinty,” “The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” Sturges was also Hollywood’s first writer-director (and later, writer-director-producer), commanding such princely sums that at his career peak he was the third-highest earner in the film industry. (More on this period, as well as his madcap European upbringing, in future installments.)
But by the late 1940s, Sturges was in a career slump. In 1944, he had left Paramount, the studio where he had all his hits, to team up with producer Howard Hughes in order to gain Chaplin-like filmmaking autonomy. The partnership–called Cal-Pix–instead deprived Sturges of both his stock company and the studio’s vertical integration. Instead of having access to Paramount’s expert crews, Sturges now how to hire every grip and makeup person–as well as favorite actors like William Demarest, who was under contract at Paramount and would have to be “borrowed” at huge cost.
Sturges’s volatile personality met its match–and not in a good way–with that of Howard Hughes. (More on him later, too.) Hughes, who had suffered repeated concussions in car and plane crashes, was already displaying the paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder that would characterize his tragic end as a Las Vegas recluse, while Sturges had a talent for alienating everyone around him–bosses, co-workers, friends, wives and lovers. By 1945, he needed a slump-buster. Enter Harold Lloyd.
Harold Lloyd didn’t need an acting job (see below), but the idea intrigued him. He was 52 and hadn’t been in front of the camera since “Professor Beware,” in 1938, though he stayed in the public eye via radio shows and the movies he produced for RKO. A man of considerable energies, Lloyd’s hobbies ranged from 3-D photography to chess to breeding Great Danes, but they couldn’t compare to his feat of making an average of 11 films a year between 1913 and 1929.
Preston Sturges was a huge admirer of Harold Lloyd, and Lloyd’s influence can be seen in the slapstick in his films. Sturges came up with an amusing story incorporating footage from Lloyd’s film “The Freshman,” that would trace the accidental football star’s life through thirty years of non-events, until forced unemployment leads him to take his first drink. Success and adventure, including the purchase of a circus, follow.
“The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” was plagued with cost overruns, hiring problems and creative differences between Lloyd and Sturges. Lloyd’s comedy style was physical and Sturges’s cerebral, with slapstick used mainly as a respite from copious dialogue. When the film finally wrapped, it was $600,000 over budget and 52 days late.
After releasing “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” to mixed reviews in only a couple of theaters, Hughes pulled the film, cut it substantially and–after buying RKO–re-released it in 1950 as “Mad Wednesday.” That version didn’t work either; moreover, it provoked Lloyd into filing a $750,000 breach of contract lawsuit against RKO for removing his above-the-title credit. Lloyd settled the suit for $30,000 and never acted again.
Sturges directed three more films, including the underrated “Unfaithfully Yours,” but all were box office bombs. He spent what was left of his career writing scripts and died broke, at 62, in 1959. His passing was sudden and occurred in New York, where he was writing a new play and an autobiography called The Events Leading Up to My Death.