While watching Diamond Jim (1935), it was hard for me to unglue myself from the sheer excitement of actually seeing it, since it was one of those movies I dreamed of watching for a long, long time. (And, hadn’t it been for the generosity of one remarkable Finn, it would have stayed but a dream to this day.)
Thus, it’s almost impossible for me to assess the film objectively. I have a feeling it’s something less I wished it to be, though. I imagined it funnier, for one thing. Here, even the elements that will serve as comedy in Sturges’ future projects (like seeing a grown man getting drunk for the first time in his life; see The Sin of Harold Diddlebock ) – are played off in a serious manner. Still, that’s not a vice.
But there’s something else that bothers about the movie; something that has to do with the mere portrayal of James B. Brady. It’s not that I mind Edward Arnold’s performance, because it’s carefully thought out and executed. It’s more the script that I mind: it doesn’t really make Jim a true dreamer I think he ought to be.In Sturges, you have three kind of dreamers: hopeless (Eddie Bracken in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek ), starry-eyed (Dick Powell in Christmas in July ) and those flaunting a steely determination (Joel McCrea in The Great Moment ). Now, the way Edward Arnold comes off in Diamond Jim is a bland mixture of those three, with neither one taking over. Jim’s dreams don’t seem dreamt hard enough – his drive is wiped out, all we’re left with is his success and his erotic longing.
Now, the latter is portrayed very well, and it’s Jim’s unhappiness when it comes to love life that I find the movie’s strongest asset. There’s genuine anguish in Arnold’s performance, and the scene in which Jim prepares a surprise wedding for his sweetheart, after which she bursts into tears, making him lie pitifully that “It was all a joke!”, pierces one’s heart. This is the only Sturges movie that ends in suicide (I apologize all the auteurists out there, by the way, but it’s really hard for me to think about this one as a A. Edward Sutherland’s work!). It’s the kind of suicide that John Merrick commits in The Elephant Man (1980) – one dies allowing oneself the only pleasure that is available, because the happiness one dreamed of is unattainable. With Merrick, it was sleeping without a pillow; with Jim, it’s stuffing oneself with oysters. A sad ending of an ultimately sad movie – the only one in Sturges oeuvre that I would label as such.