Well, we’ve survived the Mayan End of Days; but can we survive Jack Benny? That pretty much is the plot of 1945’s The Horn Blows At Midnight, a story about an angel sent to destroy the Earth with one blast on his trumpet. That sounds like one of the grimmer scenarios from The Book of Revelations, but the movie is a comedy. Mainly because the angel is played by Benny. There’s something blackly absurdist in the thought of the Earth’s demise at the hands of Jack Benny. You can just picture him standing there, in his famous, slightly fey pose, one arm crossing his waist like a guard wall, one hand delicately propping the jowls at his chin, his head at that quizzical tilt that sets him at a remove from the messiness created by other members of the human species. He doesn’t look appalled by what he sees; merely detached, like a far-off observer diverted by the savagery of fleas. If the world were to end beneath that aloof gaze, its owner would probably do no more than flick an eyebrow and murmur, “Well…”
In hindsight, you can place The Horn Blows At Midnight within a mid-1940s eschatological-themed cinema, which includes A Matter of Life and Death, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, It’s A Wonderful Life, Down To Earth, Cabin in the Sky, A Guy Named Joe, The Cockeyed Miracle, Between Two Worlds, Heaven Can Wait, Angel On My Shoulder, and even Abbott and Costello’s The Time of Their Lives. No doubt these movies were in response to World War II and death on the grand scale. The films may vary in quality and tone, but the overall impulse seems to have been to soothe. Chaos and despair are replaced by images of antiseptic calm, a blanketing sense of order. A number of these films depict the Afterlife as a vast bureaucracy, where angels establish office protocols and meticulously process and docket records. (We find that a little dismaying—you finally get to Heaven, and then you have to work?) The presentation may have been a little tongue in cheek, but the import was serious. There’s significance in the fall of a sparrow and in every record in the Celestial file. Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life receives his own angelic counselor when his life goes awry; and when, in A Matter of Life and Death, the intake numbers don’t match up, alarm bells go off throughout the Cosmos.
The Horn Blows At Midnight follows this trend, but with a satiric twist. Earth’s existence falls under the Department of Small Planet Management, and its undoing is treated as a matter of waste disposal (the department chief phones the Salvage office to “stand by to pick up a load of scrap at midnight”). Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the film flopped on its release; after a world war, audiences could no longer be amused at the thought of terrestrial destruction. Benny himself salvaged what he could from the film’s failure by making it a running gag on his shows, claiming that the movie ended his film career (and it was his last starring film role). Maybe Benny knew what he was doing. The film achieved its own peculiar afterlife with a reputation as a Bad Movie. Our own curiosity to see it was piqued by its notoriety: Just how bad could this Bad Movie be?
Honest, The Horn Blows at Midnight is not bad at all. It’s not a masterpiece, but, in its own goofy, disarming fashion, it’s lots of fun. We’re glad it exists. And with its title, it’s apt viewing for New Year’s Eve. Not just for its end-it-all theme, but for its style. It’s loose and silly and doesn’t take itself seriously. We attribute that in part to its director, Raoul Walsh. You might be surprised that tough-guy Walsh was the helmsman here, but the movie has that juvenile slapsticky clowning sometimes found in comic episodes in his other films, such as the Alan Hale sequences in The Strawberry Blonde and Gentleman Jim or Errol Flynn and Co. in Desperate Journey. It’s like kids tumbling together on a bed, laughing at their own dumb jokes (they know they’re dumb, that’s the point). Watching the film with a congenial party crowd, where everyone’s a little high and happy, you can giggle like a kid yourself at its slapstick routines and corny jokes. Sample: Benny as the angel Athaniel signs in at the Hotel Universe, where he’s to blow his fatal midnight blast. “Are you staying overnight, sir?”, asks the hotel clerk. “No, and neither are you,” Athaniel replies. Benny gives the line a classic Benny reading; he delivers it with such benign blandness that you’re caught a little off-guard when you grasp his portent. We could hear echoes there of “that great, great actor, Joseph Tura”; it has that Bennyish quality of being coyly suggestive without ever committing itself to a definite meaning. Benny’s onscreen persona had a touch of the same quality; it could be arch and simpering, and we’re never sure when watching him how much to read into it.
Some of the film’s other jokes might make you groan, such as references to Methuselah (“you should live so long”) or George Washington, whose portrait Athaniel is delighted to discover on a dollar bill—“remind me to tell George about this when we get back.” Or there’s the really obvious, as when Athaniel watches a couple perform a swirling, Spanish-style dance: “I must tell Saint Vitus about this.” What are you expecting, Molière? This is a Jack Benny vehicle. Its story rambles, like one of the star’s radio or later TV shows, in which Jack encounters odd situations and persons, and then you watch his reactions. Much of the fun was waiting to see who he would react to and how. What’s so great about Benny is that he didn’t hog comic space (unlike Bob Hope, who always seems to be fighting for the last gasp of air in the room). He was relaxed and generous, allowing his guest stars and co-players to steal the show (watch a Benny-Rochester routine, or, even better, watch Benny and Mel Blanc do their classic “Si-Sy-Sue” number, and see who gets the laughs). We just love the man for that.
Benny’s given plenty to react to in The Horn Blows At Midnight. So many great character actors appear, playing off Jack and each other. Oh, look, you crow in recognition, there’s Guy Kibbee!, always with that frazzled air of a man who can’t quite remember which shoe goes on what foot. And look, there’s Paul Harvey, doing his Exasperation bit; Franklin Pangborn doing his Fussbudget bit; Margaret Dumont doing her Grande Dame bit; Dolores Moran doing her Sexy bit (with mounds of blonde hair and as skimpy an outfit as could get past the censor); Mike Mazurki doing his Dumb Palooka bit; and Ethel Griffies doing her Indignation bit (when, on waiting for a stalled elevator, she raises a wrathful arm and exclaims, “What am I supposed to do on fifty dollars a day? Climb ropes?”, you can’t help but see her doing that). And right at the end is darling Jack Norton doing his Drunk bit, guzzling a shot of whiskey and wiping off its residue round his face and all the way to his back hair. No matter how many times he did it, Norton always found something—a gesture, a grimace—to make his bit fresh. Watching him, and these other beloved actors, do their shtick over and over, satisfies that deep, childhood urge in all of us for repetition—a subconscious reassurance that the sun will rise tomorrow and the world will continue turning.
Other joys are to be found in the film. There’s a witty Franz Waxman score, which subtly underlines the gags (a reference to “Down There” is accompanied by an ominous belch from a tuba). There’s its wildly Greco-Rococo-Art Deco art design, a mix of puffy curls, scrolled capitals, and block lettering that looks like Rockefeller Center whipped up into a wedding cake. There are also fun special effects, particularly the giant advertising display of a coffee pot pouring out coffee into a cup. In the bravura final sequence, Benny falls into the cup and is sucked with the liquid back into the pot; the whole thing plays out like a nightmarishly funny re-enactment of a Freudian birth trauma. And then there’s elegant Reginald Gardiner air-conducting Tchaikovsky. His routine is self-contained yet it’s not out of place; it’s part of the film’s anything-goes aura (he did a similar routine in 1936’s Born to Dance; perhaps it’s an intertextual reference). We single out this particular bit because these kinds of performance specialties no longer exist in movies. They’re as extinct as vaudeville. But Gardiner’s piece is great performance art; it’s almost post-modern in how it comments on fantasy and role-playing. Gardiner makes it more than a weird stunt; he captures the flamboyant physical and emotional absorption of real conductors. He’s so caught up in in what he’s doing, he throws everything into it—shoulders, arms, hands, head, and hair flopping over his eyes; even his bared teeth get into the act. Now there’s a man who loves his work.
The Horn Blows At Midnight is not often seen today. It’s not yet had a DVD release (though it previously came out on VHS) and is rarely shown on TV/cable. That’s a shame; maybe it’s a minor film, but it yields many pleasures. And it does have a place in film history. In some ways 2012 has not been a good year for classic film or for classic-film buffs, with the projected demise of 35mm film and the diminishing DVD market. In a sad paradox, new technologies seem not to open new doors to golden-age Hollywood’s riches but to shut them off; our options narrow. More and more of our cinematic past is receding from us. Warner Bros. Archives may do what it can, but can one company stop what may be a tidal wave of oblivion?
Well … we classic-film bloggers will also do what we can. Like balletomanes or obsessive opera fans, classic-era film buffs thrive on re-seeing the old with new eyes; by re-visioning the past, we renew the present and move on to the future. And as long as film exists, in some form or other (whether 35mm, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, DCP, TCM, Netflix, even YouTube), these golden-age films can still exist; they’re still here to delight us. There’s always a bit of apocalyptic giddiness about New Year’s Eve; things do come to an end—the year passes, the world finishes a rotation, Time crosses a cosmic divide, and the tax deadline slips by—but, as we toast in the new, we still have something of the best of the old to hang on to, some things that give, however lightly, a sense of the enduring.
Here’s to watching old movies that endure. Happy New Year.