December 3, 2013
For Jack Benny The Horn Blows at Midnight was a punchline, the crowning clunker in his failed movie career. He made it the object of self-deprecating scorn on his radio and TV shows, and as late as 1957 on The Jack Benny Program he staged a slow burning sketch that ended with a security guard spotting Benny on a studio lot: “-Jack Benny? -Yes. -The one that starred in The Horn Blows at Midnight? -Yes, yes. I made that for Warner Brothers years ago. Did you see it? -See it? I directed it!” As his last feature in a starring role, Benny kept the film alive as a joke, but as the recent Warner Archive DVD release shows, it’s worthy of more than his deadpan putdowns.
A true oddity that seeped through the Warner Brothers studio filter, it depicts heaven as a corporate bureaucracy in which Jack Benny is just another angelic cog, a variation of which Albert Brooks used in Defending Your Life. Earth is an anonymous planet slated for destruction by harried middle manager Guy Kibbee, who sends Benny to do the deed. After a series of mortal mishaps, Benny gets stuck in NYC, and cultivates a liking for the finer things in flesh-bound life. The script is a pileup of increasingly improbable gags, which director Raoul Walsh speeds through with verve and a definite lack of religious deference. Aided by the kaleidoscopic special effects of Lawrence Butler, the celestial choir is turned into a faceless mass of cardboard cutouts, making life in the swing clubs and ballrooms all the more desirable.
The Horn Blows at Midnight avoided accusations of blasphemy in the Production Code era by framing the story as Benny’s dream, after he zonks out on stage during rehearsals for a dreary radio program sponsored by “Paradise Coffee”. The movie was briefly banned in England, but no serious objections were raised in the States that I could find. The bonkers story idea came from Aubrey Wisberg, previously known for his WWII propaganda programmers like They Came to Blow Up America and Betrayal From the East. Raoul Walsh had just completed a trio of dark thrillers with Errol Flynn (Desperate Journey (’42), Northern Pursuit (’43) and Uncertain Glory (’44)), and this lighter assignment must have come as a surprise. Actor Richard Erdman recalled that the production was “the talk of the Warner Brothers lot” but that it was “considered ruined because Walsh was the wrong director for the light-footed comedy.” But Walsh had excelled in knockabout hijinks in his silent smash What Price Glory (’27) through his 1930s masterpieces like The Bowery and Me and My Gal. While Horn is not on their gut busting level, it still exhibits Walsh’s interest in framing gags.
The most elaborate occurs in the finale, when Benny is draped over the edge of a skyscraper and tumbles into a giant mechanical Paradise Coffee logo, complete with milk and sugar. Working with effects man Lawrence Butler, Walsh cuts between sets, miniatures and mattes to create a dizzying sense of verticality on a budget. The complex matte paintings of the city were made by the uncredited Charley Bonestell, who included moving cars with headlights in his creations. Walsh balances all of these crafts into a delirious whole, as he depicts the city’s advertisements about to devour Benny. Neither fascistic heaven nor capitalist Earth is safe for a good man like Benny – he’s either lost in a crowd or ground into bits by a sugar spoon. Before the town eats him up though, he is inducted into the many sensorial pleasure of urban life as a grounded angel.
Benny, as the angel Athanael, deploys his patented slow-burn reactions to the marvels of modern Earth-city life. The movie is split into a series of fish-out-of-water sketches, many of which seemed improvised on the spot. Walsh biographer Marilyn Ann Moss reports that the script (by Sam Hellman and James V. Kern) was not completed by the time shooting started. Used to filming on the fly from his silent days, it’s likely scenarios were conceived on the set. And while Benny never held the film in high regard, he felt fondly towards Walsh. One of the irascible director’s prized possessions was a silver cigarette case that Benny gave him, engraved with, “Dear Raoul, This case is for cigarettes so that you don’t have to roll your own.”
The sketches seem to arise from necessity, churning jokes out of whatever location is available. They got a diner, so one sequence finds Benny eating everything in stock in revolting combinations. He doesn’t have an Earth-bound palate, you see. Pickles and ice cream slink down his gullet, similar to Will Ferrell’s creative eater in Elf. As on so many SNL sketches though, it takes one joke and extends it into infinity. By the time Benny unwittingly skips out on the tab, the laughs are but a memory. More lasting is a clever bit at a nightclub. In need of quick cash to pay off his meal, this former member of the biggest band sits in on a “hot” jazz group at a local dance hall. Coming from the regimented sight-reading of the heavenly choir, he is totally adrift at this manic improvisation. When it’s his turn to solo for a few bars, he stands and repeats the same facile phrases over and over. He gets fired before he can finish, the ill-tempered jitterbuggers ready to riot over this square’s lack of rhythm. Heaven, it turns out, does not get jazz.
Audiences did not get The Horn Blows at Midnight. While not the gigantic flop that Jack Benny implies (his biographer claims it made back its money), it was still perceived as a failure. In a 1948 editorial in The Screen Writer, the trade publication of the Screen Writers Guild, Collier Young responds to criticisms of studio “story experts”: “Mr. Taylor’s article does generally presuppose that the writer…is total master of his craft. Thus it follows that all ‘story experts’ are heavy-handed louts who wander about the studio with stray pages from The Horn Blows at Midnight sticking between their toes.” But rather than the toejam of ignorant studio flacks, The Horn Blows at Midnight is yet another example of the genius of the Hollywood system. A group of craftsmen were left to their own devices and created an anarchic absurdity.