Sometimes, when we watch Billie Burke on screen, we feel a little envious at her ability to portray blithe characters who skate across life, leaving barely a scratch.
These are not people who burden themselves with the Deep Questions Of Life. They take life as it comes, refusing to get sucked into its undertow. Fortunately for us, scriptwriters usually endow these characters with very witty dialogue.
In the 1943 wartime comedy, Hi Diddle Diddle, Burke plays the mother of a young bride-to-be (Martha Scott), whose wedding is planned during her fiancé’s 48-hour leave from the navy. Alas, this will be the ultimate econo wedding because Burke has been swindled out of $50,000 by a young man infatuated with Scott. Said young man believes the naval fiancé to be after Burke’s money, so he’s going to spend it all first. (?!)
(Burke, however, is still able to put on a lavish pre-wedding breakfast by telling guests not to accept the invitation without giving her food coupons – and people oblige!)
Hi Diddle Diddle, like the nursery rhyme of a similar name, is a movie that does what it wants and doesn’t seem to care what you think. It’s a comedy that operates under its own set of rules, made by independent filmmaker Andrew L. Stone, who didn’t have a major studio meddling in things.
The tone is set in the opening title card: “[This] is a picture with a purpose… Try to find it.” Stone is winking at us; he knows he’s whipped up a frothy confection and he ain’t going to to pretend otherwise. We respect that in a picture.
Billie Burke is a perfect fit in this madcap film. Her warble-y dialogue is a treat, a wonderful contrast to the other characters. The cast includes Adolphe Menjou as the naval fiancé’s father, a gruff man with dodgy business practices. Pola Negri is Menjou’s new wife, an over-the-top-but-endearing opera singer who wonders about Menjou’s extra-curricular activities.
In a film brimming with great dialogue, Burke is not the only one with laugh-out-loud lines, but hers are the most memorable. For example, when she meets a new mother holding twins, she chirps, “Twins are so practical. It’s always nice to have a spare.”
This film is not about Burke, sadly, which means she doesn’t have much screen time but we, as an audience, are so busy trying to keep up with all the subplots that we don’t notice it till later. There are so many questions:
- Burke: Will she recover her swindled fortune?
- Menjou: Will his scam prove to be a money-maker?
- Negri: Does she believe Menjou is having a dalliance with a nightclub singer?
- Scott: Will she discover her naval fiancée is not, in fact, on a secret government mission?
See what we mean? All of this in 73 minutes. The mind reels!
Still, there could have been a wee bit more room made in the script for the talented Burke who made a career out of playing fluffy, rich women. Burke was married to Florenz Ziegfeld, who died in 1932 and left her deeply in debt. Even though she loved the stage, Burke worked in film to pay off Zeigfeld’s debts, and even received an Oscar nomination for 1938’s Merrily We Live. Her impressive filmography includes Dinner at Eight, The Wizard of Oz, Topper and, of course, our movie today.
We’ve been wondering why Hi Diddle Diddle isn’t more well known. Perhaps the title makes people gag – but don’t let that put you off. We think you’ll like this unconventional screwball comedy featuring the gifted Billie Burke.
Hi Diddle Diddle: starring Adolphe Menjou, Martha Scott, Pola Negri. Directed by Andrew L. Stone. Screenplay by Frederick Jackson. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1943, 73 mins.