Comedy

The Sky in Billie Burke’s World

Billie Burke (2nd from left, seated) sdkfj asdlfkj sd Image: skdjf
Billie Burke (2nd from left, seated) offers no sympathy to Pola Negri (standing). Image: polanegri.com

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:

  1. Burke: Will she recover her swindled fortune?
  2. Menjou: Will his scam prove to be a money-maker?
  3. Negri: Does she believe Menjou is having a dalliance with a nightclub singer?
  4. 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.

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21 thoughts on “The Sky in Billie Burke’s World

  1. Sounds a great little film. I normally find Billie Burke’s characters irritating but your description of this film makes me want to see it

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  2. I’ve never seen (or heard) of this film before, but you make it sound like a pleasant way to spend an evening. I have always enjoyed the Burke movies I have seen, for all the reasons you have mentioned. I look forward to adding this one to my watch list; despite the title. Thanks again.

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  3. Ruth, you make HI DIDDLE DIDDLE sound delightful! You had me at “[This] is a picture with a purpose… Try to find it.}”And let’s face it, it’s not every day that you see a 1940s film that co-stars both Billie Burke (who we love for both WIZARD OF OZ and THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER) AND silent film star Pola Negri. I’ll keep an eye out for it, pal!

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  4. This sounds like a great movie, even if Ms. Burke isn’t the lead. I must check it out. I have to say that this blog is one of the very few that give me a smile just about every time I find an email notifying me of a new post. Today’s post is a case in point. How could I not smile when I see Billy Burke’s name in a post’s title? Thank you for that. 🙂

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    1. Aww, thanks for your kind words. Billie Burke always makes me smile – I get excited when she appears in a film. In a weird way, she helps me put life in perspective, i.e. to not take things so seriously. I admire that she could play such funny, frivolous characters after losing her husband and facing an enormous mountain of debt.

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  5. Super decriptions of Billie. Kind of continuing a theme from Jeanne Cooper& Barbara Hale post, I reckon most of our generation came at Billie Burke from Wizard of Oz and worked backward to discover her airheadedness (skating through life indeed) in the other films. haven’t seen this but her work in Dinner at Eight, Topper is fun. I’m reminded of a Gilmore Girls episode where Ed Hermann wanted to grow a moustache to look like Adolphe Menjou…

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  6. I’ve been surfing online more than three hours today, yet I never
    found any interesting article like yours. It’s pretty worth enough
    for me. Personally, if all web owners and bloggers made good content as you did,
    the internet will be much more useful than ever before.

    Like

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