Jack Benny blah blah

Jack Benny (second from left), tries to get a rise out of Alexis Smith (left).

Yup, what they say is true: Timing is everything.

Once upon a time, comedian Jack Benny starred in a movie that did so poorly at the box office it became a running joke for the rest of his career. The reason it bombed? The timing of its release.

The infamous WWII comedy The Horn Blows at Midnight, about an angel sent to destroy the earth, opened in theatres a few days after the 1945 death of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Now, can you imagine: (A) a wartime comedy about the destruction of the earth; and (B) Jack Benny as the Tool of Destruction? Exactly.

However! The Horn Blows at Midnight is surprisingly good. The film is so fun, in fact, we watched it twice in a row.

Benny is a trumpet-playing angel who is unexpectedly summoned to the office of heaven’s Deputy Chief of Operations. This Deputy Chief angel instructs Benny to take a special horn down to earth and blow it at exactly midnight to signal mass destruction. (Heaven has decided to get rid of earth due to all the violence, something to which war-weary audiences could relate.)

One would think that such an important task would not be allocated to just anyone; however, heaven feels everybody deserves a chance. This is comforting theology, but bad project management.

Benny descends to earth and prepares to blow the Trumpet of Doom at the appointed location (on top of a New York hotel), but he runs afoul of two “fallen angels”. These are formerly good angels who were sent on prior missions to do heaven’s bidding, but decided instead to stay on earth where they could drink hard liquor, smoke cigars and throw lavish parties for beautiful women.

Benny, as an angel, is unfamiliar with earth’s customs, which makes for plenty of great lines. There is a little dark humour as well. In one scene, Benny tries to find out what time it is, because it’s important he blows the trumpet precisely at 12:00 a.m. He approaches the clerk at the front desk of the hotel:

Clerk: “Are you staying overnight, sir?”

Benny: “No, and neither are you.”

There is also a running gag about the elevator in the hotel being commandeered by angels descending from heaven, while frustrated hotel patrons grumble angrily about not being able to return to their rooms.

The supporting cast could not be better. Franklin Pangborn is the house detective who is dispatched to solve the mystery of the disappearing elevator. Reginald Gardiner is a glib, oily-haired thief who hangs about the hotel, targeting rich older women. Benny’s romantic interest is Alexis Smith, who is exceptional in what might otherwise be a forgettable role.

This movie is obviously written for Benny, and he isn’t asked to stretch his abilities as an actor. But Benny is good in his role as a hapless angel who strives to do the right thing while battling circumstances beyond his control. He delivers his lines like the seasoned pro he is. In one scene, Delores Moran is trying to seduce Benny so a hoodlum can steal the Trumpet Of Doom.

Moran: “Can’t you see what my eyes are saying to you?”

Benny: “Yes, and you should watch your language.”

There’s a reason Benny is considered one of the all-time great comedians. He was often the butt end of jokes on his own radio program, and his writers gleefully latched onto the box-office failure of The Horn Blows at Midnight. It’s to Benny’s great credit that he encouraged these gags instead of squelching them.

The Horn Blows at Midnight deserves recognition as an amusing film that pokes fun at life on earth. Its observations of human foibles are as timely today as they were in the 1940s.

The Horn Blows at Midnight: starring Jack Benny, Alexis Smith, Dolores Moran. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Written by Sam Hellman and James V. Kern. Warner Brothers, 1945, B&W, 80 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

18 Comment on “Jack Benny’s Box Office Bomb

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