Earlier in the week Charles and I had watched a truly bizarre movie from Andrew Stone Productions in 1943, Hi Diddle Diddle, starring Adolphe Menjou as Col. Hector Phyffe, scapegrace father of Navy servicemember Sonny Phyffe (Dennis O’Keefe), who’s in town on a leave and hopes to marry his girlfriend Janie Prescott (Martha Scott) before he has to ship out again. The film’s irreverence is showcased by its opening sequence, in which a cartoon introduction gives way to a series of shots of O’Keefe saying to Scott, “This time it’s going to be different!,” in a variety of locations, which suggests that what we’re about to see is going to be a film in which O’Keefe and Scott are playing a couple of movie stars attempting to sustain a relationship in the face of career pressures. The running gag’s payoff comes in the last clip, when it’s she who says to him, “This time it’s going to be different!” The film’s main plot is that Hector is a scapegrace who puts on elaborate pretenses to make people think he has money when he really doesn’t, while the Prescotts are genuinely rich and intend to throw a lavish wedding for their daughter —and they expect Hector to come up with a gift sufficiently elaborate and expensive to back up his pretensions. Hector brings in a bouquet the management of the local opera company has given to his wife, diva Genya Smetana (Pola Negri, attempting a comeback a decade after her starring run in silent films in Europe and the U.S. was brought to a screeching halt by the advent of sound — I can’t say for sure whether the singing voice is her own but it’s good enough we can believe in her as an opera star as she warbles bits of Wagner from Tannhäuser and Walküre), and presents it to Janie — but it also contained an incredibly valuable diamond bracelet, while the replacement bouquet Hector gets her is a bunch of old, dying flowers with a note saying that this is what the giver thinks of her — and of course she thinks she’s been insulted and responds by threatening to cancel out of her current round of performances. Most of the movie is about a stock deal involving Atlas International Copper, a worthless stock Hector tries to talk up to various investors in hopes that he can make a killing bidding up its price by spreading rumors that the company has discovered a new vein of copper.
Andrew Stone was one of those filmmakers who did his best work in his early “B” years before he got bigger budgets and used them to make more pretentious and more tacky entertainments. His best-known film is probably The Last Voyage (1960), a doomed-ocean-liner tale anticipating The Poseidon Adventure and the James Cameron Titanic for which, not content to do special-effects work with models, Stone and his wife and co-producer Virginia bought an actual ocean liner that was about to be scrapped, filmed the entire movie aboard it and sank it for real to provide their film’s climax. There’s also some French-farce aspects as Sonny and Janie attempt to sneak out for a honeymoon under World War II rationing conditions (earlier it was established that every guest to their wedding had to contribute food coupons!) and finally spend the wedding night in what they hope will be private circumstances in the Prescott home, and a typically ditzy performance by Billie Burke as Janie’s mother, who in her best scene shows off her own pretensions at opera singing and does a (mostly) wordless version of “Je suis Titania” from Ambroïse Thomas’s Mignon. There’s also a female character who pops in at the oddest places and breaks the frame when she explains both to the characters and to us, “I’m a friend of the director. He said he’d put me in the movie everywhere he could.” Hi Diddle Diddle could have been a good deal better with W. C. Fields in Menjou’s role — Fields was super-skilled at playing this sort of lovable rogue whereas Menjou was always too testy for this sort of part, as if he could do the rogue superbly but had trouble with the lovable part — and I would have liked a Bank Dick-style plot twist at the end in which it turns out that Atlas International Copper really did find a new strain of ore and therefore Sonny didn’t help swindle his new in-laws by selling them worthless stock. But even as it stands it’s a film of almost Sturgesian weirdness, an expert deconstruction of some of film’s hoariest conventions and a welcome return to screwball comedy at a time when most of the major studios had left it for dead.