When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

ALL TOGETHER NOW:  Wizard of Oz's Billie Burke, ex-child vaudeville performer June Havoc, silent movie vamp Pola Negri and assorted bit players burst into the Pilgrims' Chorus from Wagner's Tannhäuser for the Grande Finale of HI DIDDLE DIDDLE

[This review is dedicated to the gifted show business survivor, June Havoc, who passed away March 28th. –DB ]

In Hollywood many years ago, I heard stories of life on the set of movies directed by W. S. Van Dyke.  One story went that every afternoon a portable cocktail bar was rolled onto the soundstage and everyone took a liquor break.  This aided the easy-going, devil-may-care attitude that shined in some of the best moments of movies such as THE THIN MAN, SAN FRANCISCO and TARZAN, THE APE MAN.  However, watching the 1943 musical comedy HI DIDDLE DIDDLE, I start to think that this cast and crew cranked up that method of operation by a few notches:  the whole movie reads like everyone involved had a few Bloody Marys each morning for breakfast.

HI DIDDLE DIDDLE was an indie production, so it didn’t have the polish of a major studio release.  But like most indie films today, the lack of a studio’s parental supervision gave the creatives an opportunity to break some rules and to color outside the lines.  For some film afficionados, seeing a movie from the image-conscious, controlled, slick and glossy 1940s that’s a little rough around the edges and doesn’t take itself seriously is quite disturbing, sort of like watching your mother take a hit from a bong.  As for me, I love this film (as for seeing my mom take a bong-hit, well that’s a long, complicated story…).

Even before the credits, the first frames are animated by Looney Tunes producer Leon Schlesinger in a Disney-esque opening of billing and cooing birds that pans down to live action romantic leads Martha Scott and Dennis O’Keefe.  Ms. Scott always had alternative tastes in life and her career:  married to jazz legend Mel Powell, her first film role of Emily in the highly stylized indie film of OUR TOWN gave her an Oscar nomination (as a first-timer, she was thrown into competition against Bette Davis in THE LETTER, Katharine Hepburn in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and others), yet film work was sporadic throughout her life.  She turned down the role of Mary in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE but grabbed the role of a hardass’d nun in AIRPORT 1975.  Later in life her quirky comedy talents brought some classic moments to the 1970s Bob Newhart sitcom where she played Bob’s mom.

O'Keefe -- with Martha Scott -- at his romantic prime, after a dozen years as an extra and right before he found a niche as a Film Noir tough guy.

Dennis O’Keefe had talent, looks and tenacity.  He spent his twenties as an extra in over 200 movies (many of them classics, such as Garbo’s ANNA KARENINA) before stepping into leading roles during World War II when he was well into his thirties.  By the time he was pushing forty, post-War cynicism and the slow erosion of his pretty boy looks made him a perfect male lead for the age of Film Noir.  His work in classics such as T-MEN and (my favorite) RAW DEAL earned him a special place in film history.

But HI DIDDLE DIDDLE is a comedy with music.  It doesn’t have the best gag writers or tunesmiths, but it works.  At its core it’s what scriptwriters back then called a “DF” (Delayed F*ck) film.  O’Keefe plays a sailor granted a 48-hour leave to marry Scott.  The ceremony goes on without a hitch, but layers of subplots keep the couple from escaping to the nearest bedroom to consummate the nuptials.

Within my own twisted universe, the initial signal that HI DIDDLE DIDDLE was cinema extraordinaire came when I could identify the first actor introduced after the opening credits:  Queen of the Extras Bess Flowers (in one of her rare speaking roles).  On Bess’ heels entered Billie Burke as Martha Scott’s mom doing that ditzy rich lady schtick that she did better than anyone.

The antics that keeps the would-be-honeymooners at sexual first base are financial woes:  the bride’s mother has made a bad investment and has lost her money.  Meanwhile the groom’s father (Adolphe Menjou) is strapped for cash yet wants to make an impression at the wedding; he’s keeping his financial woes a secret from his new wife, a Wagnerian opera diva (legendary silent film star Pola Negri).

Charlie Chaplin and Adolph Hitler had 3 things in common:  they were born the same week of April, 1889; they both had trademark toothbrush mustaches; and they both had raging sexual desires for Pola Negri.  [Her first night in Hollywood, Chaplin whisked Negri away from a party; she spent the next few days shacked up at his manse.]  In the silent days Negri had a huge reputation for temperament and attracting publicity.  (Her autobiography said it all:  Memoirs of a Star.)  On the day of Valentino’s funeral, reporters were gathered on Negri’s front lawn.  Leaving her house to pay her last respects, Negri took a few steps and then ‘fainted’ dead away.  Discovering that none of the reporters had their cameras ready, she jumped up off the ground, went back inside, and did it all over again. 

In her Berlin days, Pola Negri had been a comedienne for Lubitsch [their greatest comedy together was DIE BERGKATZE (aka The Wildcat)].  So Negri easily got into the breezy spirit of the proceedings, bringing charisma and wit to her scenes.  Although in the 1930s she turned down the entreaties of Hitler to be his Number One star in Third Reich cinema, this film and 1964’s Disney adventure THE MOONSPINNERS with Haley Mills were her only films after turning her back on the dictator.

Sexy and comedic
June Havoc

June Havoc (younger sister of proto-stripper Gypsy Rose Lee) plays a nightclub chanteuse who’s old pals with Menjou and helps him and his son in money-making schemes.  Since she’s a sexy blonde seen with these two recently married men, more comic sidebars are generated by Havoc being caught by wives in various compromising situations with their husbands.

The movie’s not witty or sophisticated, but the film is breezy, self-referential and tries everything once:  O’Keefe mugs straight to the camera before giving Martha Scott a big wet one; there’s a running joke of a shapely blonde who keeps showing up at the strangest places and giving Menjou the come on; and there’s loads of sight gags.  It doesn’t hit the indie zaniness of 1945’s IT’S IN THE BAG (which also has a Bess Flowers sighting) with its script by Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock, but it comes close.

Looney Tunes animators give life to Pola Negri's wallpaper pattern of Richard Wagner.
When the whole cast starts murdering his music, he packs up the family and gets the Hell outta there.

The goofiness goes into overdrive in the last scene as the cast bursts into the Pilgrims’ Chorus from the Wagner opera Tannhäuser in the opera diva’s apartment.  The diva’s wallpaper pattern is of Richard Wagner, which becomes an animation scene once the singing gets out of hand.  Wagner grabs his family, loads them in a carriage and drives off, while Adolphe Menjou throws back a stiff drink and waves the composer goodbye.

So there you have it:  newlyweds with sex on their minds, a Bess Flowers sighting, a shirtless Dennis O’Keefe, a cartoon version of Richard Wagner, a silent screen diva doing comedy, sexy blondes with great legs, scenes that break the fourth wall, and even a Soundie (the earliest format of music videos).  It’s a sweet package.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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2 Comments to “HI DIDDLE DIDDLE (1943)”

  1. I’m with you on this film; I just LOVE it – it’s one of those under-the-radar 40s B flicks that deserve a cult following. Your Bloody-Mary theory is as good as any explanation to account for its wiggy charm and loose humor. What makes it so fun is that all the cast seems in on the joke, even the imperious Ms Negri; and its animated-wallpaper ending is inspired. (I also love It’s In The Bag, which, as you note, is even funnier – in a just world it would get a major DVD release; preferably Criterion. With extras.)

  2. Doug says:

    I’m so happy to find another HI DIDDLE DIDDLE aficionado! I totally agree that IT’S IN THE BAG should get a Criterion release. Any other under-the-radar movies from the 1940s you can recommend?

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