September 20, 2016

In the first scene of Girl Missing (1933), Guy Kibbee tries to seduce Mary Brian with the line: “I don’t feel fatherly, I feel…hotcha!” And so begins this randy, money-grubbing, mystery-solving pre-code starring Brian and motormouth Glenda Farrell. They are two out-of-work chorus girls indulging in some gold-digging to leach cash from old lechers. But in the wildly convoluted plot that races through 68 minutes, they get roped into the murder of a mafia bookie and the disappearance of a society dame (or so she seems). It’s a trial run for Farrell’s tamer post-code Torchy Blane (nine films between 1937 – 1939) movies, in which she played a sassy investigative newsgal sans sexual innuendo. In Girl Missing Farrell machine-guns her dialogue to mow down con-men, con-women, and anyone else who has the misfortune to walk past her in the frame. It airs tomorrow on TCM at 6:15AM, and is also available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Girl Missing was the first film that Robert Florey directed for Warner Brothers after a tendentious run at Universal (he was removed from Frankenstein after extensive pre-production work) and a short one at independent studio K.B.S. Florey’s career continues to fascinate – he was a French born artist who worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg who made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928, watch here), directed with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland. A mournful satire of an artist getting chewed up by the movie business, Florey would go on to have a long career in the Bs and then on television. He acclimated to WB’s quick and snappy style, finishing shooting on Girl Missing in thirteen days at a cost of $107,000, per the AFI Catalog. It is no surprise then, that his work pleased studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who sent Florey a memo after viewing an early cut: “a very fine job…in record time. I am certain that the picture will cut up into a fast moving melodrama with a lot of swell comedy and a lot of unusual angles.”

Zanuck is not far off the mark, although there are no unusual angles – the expressionism that Florey was identified with from his work on Murders in the Rue Morgue is not on display, as there couldn’t have been time for any elaborate set-ups – plus the scenario didn’t lend itself to elaborate stylization. This is a film about speed in front of and behind the camera, and Florey does his job obligingly. He received his next assignment, Ex Lady, within days of finishing Girl Missing. Zanuck called him at 3AM to be at the set in a few hours. Florey responded that he “wanted to know if it was a comedy or drama; who was the star of the film; and perhaps I could get the script…or was it too much to ask?” He finished shooting that in 18 days – and I wrote about that one here.

Girl Missing concerns the disappearance of Daisy Bradford (Peggy Shannon), who was due to marry the super-rich Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon). Kay Curtis (Glenda Farrell) and June Dale (Mary Brian), are out-of-work chorines not above digging for gold who stumble into a plot to bilk Gibson out his cash.  They recognize Daisy from their hoofer days – she is not the society dame she presented herself as, and a whole conspiracy begins to unravel at their feet. Girl Missing loses its tempo when Farrell is off-screen, which occurs far too much in a film barely over an hour. There is a lot of futzing about with the rich Henry Gibson (a deadly dull Ben Lyon), which had me checking my watch until Farrell stalked back on-screen with her sassy Sherlock Holmes routine.

Farrell had yet to be paired with her acid-tongued blonde counterpart Joan Blondell, but Mary Brian is game as her gamine accomplice. Their early setup works with Brian as the bait and Farrell as the staller, the one who keeps the old horndogs from getting too handsy. Farrell is the bane of Guy Kibbee’s existence (my main complaint with the film – not enough Kibbee), putting everyone off with pungent dialogue (credited to Ben Markson). There are such gems like, “Working for a living’s old fashioned, but on the other hand so is starving to death.” Or her reaction to Daisy’s nuptials: “When I think of it I could bite a battleship in two.” Joan Blondell described Farrell’s working methods for Hollywood magazine in 1936:

“When she goes into a scene she never follows the script to the sacrifice of her naturalness. She acts just as she would if the same situation arose in her every-day life. In other words, she suits the part to her personality instead of trying to suit her personality to the script. She handles dialogue the same way and never tries to twist her tongue around expressions foreign to her own way of speaking. Before we go into a scene, we go over our lines together and revise them, without changing their meaning, until they fit our mouths.”

Everything is a little snappier when it comes out in Farrell’s nasally purr. We should be thankful she was around for the pre-code era, which gave her the freedom to make these B movies faster, funnier, and more like herself.


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.