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Mad Wednesday
A scene from The Freshman and from Mad Wednesday as well

Mad Wednesday

1945. California Pictures Corp. Written and directed by Preston Sturges. With Harold Lloyd, Jimmy Conlin, Rudy Vallee, Raymond Walburn, Lionel Stander, Margaret Hamilton, Franklin Pangborn, Edgar Kennedy

The first ten or fifteen minutes of Mad Wednesday come from another film entirely—Harold Lloyd's The Freshman, made 22 years earlier. I can't think of any other movie that uses old footage this way. It's not uncommon to see a story where a character who's an actor watches one of his/her old performances, like the Hudson sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? watching old Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies on TV. But the sequence "quoted" in Mad Wednesday is not there as a movie, but as an actual event from our hero's earlier life. It shows us the youthful Harold as a gung-ho but hapless college student, accidentally winning the big game for his team. And then, after a "Years Pass" bridge, Mad Wednesday picks up the same character (still played by Harold Lloyd) as a middle-aged office worker who has lost his zest.

At the very least, this solves the problem of finding a young actor who bears enough resemblance to the star to play the star-as-a-lad.

And it does a great deal more. It broadens what is on the surface a story about a man regaining his go-getter spirit into a story about the movies trying to recover their own youthful innocence and exuberance. The experiment is not a complete success but the attempt is a noble one, especially for 1945, when nostalgia was hardly in vogue. This movie deserves a better reputation than it has.

Sturges is renowned for his verbal humor, but he's an heir of the silent physical comedy tradition as well. Every Sturges movie features a solid pratfalls and carefully set-up gags involving machines and/or animals. He has an early-movie eye for striking faces and physiognomies (Ben Turpin has nothing on chicken-faced Jimmy Conlin). And Sturges manages to revive the antic spirit of Sennett and Roach: he cheerfully uses cinematic techniques like wipes, intertitles, and jokey visual transitions, along with music cues as horsey as any silent-movie organist's. Still, literally updating a fondly-remembered silent comedy strikes one as a bold experiment.

The climax of Mad Wednesday tries to recreate Lloyd's famous building-ledge routines. This hommage would have been unmistakable to any adult in the 1945 audience. It reminds us that this movie is not about clerk "Harold Diddlebock" but about comedian Harold Lloyd, and that we are here not just to see the toll of 22 years on one character or even one actor, but on a whole cinematic tradition. Lloyd is, of course, not as supple as he once was. Back-projection is used in place of the clever optical illusions that made the originals so hair-raising. There's a constrained, studio-set feeling about the whole thing that contrasts with the open-air spontaneity, crowds, and sweeping camera movements of the football game from The Freshman. In a way he probably didn't intend to, Sturges shows us how much has changed since 1922. (The response to Mad Wednesday—unenthusiastic—shows that audiences had changed too.)

(Mad Wednesday is also known as The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Multiple names are usually a sign of production difficulties; this film was made in partnership with Howard Hughes, need we say more? The version I saw opened with a title saying: "The football game you are about to see was actually photographed in 1923 as part of Harold Lloyd's famous picture, The Freshman." I think we should attribute this notice to contractual obligations and not take it as part of Mad Wednesday's self-referentiality.)

I'm always interested to see old footage quoted in later movies, particularly when it is not clearly framed as such. Can anybody think of other examples where the cinematic past is incorporated more or less seamlessly? It seems like there should be movies where a teenge Mickey Rooney turns, perhaps in a flashback, into the 7-year-old Mickey Rooney, or where a clip from National Velvet is used to set the stage for a story starring the grown-up Elizabeth Taylor, but I don't really know of any.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein