Bumbling Angel: The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

18 Responses Bumbling Angel: The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)
Posted By Tim Tracy : December 3, 2013 3:54 pm

After hearing Jack Benny’s putdowns of this film, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally saw it. THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT is definitely not the disaster he portrayed it to be. It’s one of my favorite movies because, even though I’ve seen it numerous times now, it always gets me laughing.

Posted By swac44 : December 3, 2013 4:01 pm

I can’t say I’ve ever seen a Jack Benny film I didn’t enjoy on some level, apart from some of his early talkie efforts (by the time of Broadway Melody of 1936 he seems to have found his footing in films). I loved The Horn Blows at Midnight when I finally got around to seeing it, it seemed unusual to see him do comedy that was so physical, but it works, and I agree that final setpiece on the animated coffee billboard is a marvel. I guess it’s just one of those films that improves with time and has to be seen to be believed.

Posted By swac44 : December 3, 2013 4:02 pm

Oops, my html skills are slipping. Sorry about that folks.

Posted By Doug : December 3, 2013 5:51 pm

It’s been too long since I caught this on TCM-if it’s available on DVD, I will but it. It’s almost the patriotic thing to do, as it may take good DVD/streaming sales to convince studios to release more of our old favorites.
Mr. Sweeney, thanks for adding that “Horn Blows At Midnight” radio gag with the security guard-I can hear the exchange in my head. My friends and I enjoyed listening to the radio sketch of Jack with Ernst Lubitch on the Blu ray of “To Be Or Not To Be”.
Still waiting for “George Washington Slept Here” to become available.

Posted By Doug : December 3, 2013 6:00 pm

Christmas came early for me! I should have checked before commenting-Mr. Sweeney told us that “Horn” was available on
DVD, but so is “George Washington Slept Here” AND “Vivacious Lady”
with Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart! All three will now be Amazoning their way to me. C’mon, drone!

Posted By swac44 : December 3, 2013 6:00 pm

Both The Horn Blows at Midnight and George Washington Slept Here are available through the Warner Archive collection (along with the 1930 musical Chasing Rainbows which has Benny in a supporting role). You can get them from the WB website, or online retailers like oldies.com and moviesunlimited.com.

Posted By swac44 : December 3, 2013 8:12 pm

Wow, simultaneous posting, and I had just posted on Nitrateville about seeing Vivacious Lady for the first time this weekend. What a fun treat that was, but then George Stevens seemed to know how show off Ginger at her best.

Posted By Lamar : December 4, 2013 1:03 pm

Benny did a condensed “Horn” in 1952 for the Omnibus TV show. It’s included in the “Lost Episodes” Benny box put out by Shout Factory but only if you buy the set direct from Shout. I’ve long loved Jack Benny and “Horn” and often hear his radio shows on the local Chicago old radio showcase “Those Were the Days” on WDCB FM. The original show about “nothing.”

Posted By AL : December 4, 2013 8:59 pm

I’ve never understood the violent dismissals this film has always been burdened with. It’s one of my Favorites.

Posted By Ken : December 5, 2013 7:19 pm

When Darryl Zanuck was Benny’s radio guest, he complained about THBAM. “But I made that for Warner Bros, not 20th Century Fox.” replied Benny. “Jack,” said Zanuck, “That movie was so bad, it hurt every studio.” Because radio appearances required little time and preparation, many directors and studio heads guested on Benny’s show, always taking a shot at THBAM.
If you’re looking for his radio shows, an amazing number of them are available. CD and DVD collections of over 850 Benny programs and guest appearances (in MP3 format) can be found on Ebay for under $10, shipping included. They also include many interviews and tributes. Look under the Old Time Radio (or OTR) category.
Film and TV never captured the sheer genius of his radio shows, done before live audiences, especially those from the late 30s onward. They set the standard for decades of broadcast comedy.

Posted By swac44 : December 6, 2013 1:32 pm

Another great source for Old Time Radio is Archive.org, and it won’t cost you a dime. I’ve already got one of those Benny collections on CD-ROM, purchased on eBay (my car stereo plays mp3 discs, which makes road trips seem a lot shorter), but on Archive I found stuff like a long run of Fred Allen shows (speaking of Benny) and the radio shows of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, which have some of the same kind of spontaneity as their Colgate Comedy Hour TV shows, and some amazing guests.

I do make an exception for stuff by Bob & Ray, since Bob Elliot is still with us, and there’s a website where you can buy their recordings and the money goes to him. (Yes, I know Jerry is still with us, but I’ve spent a fair bit on his movies over the years, and those shows are technically PD…)

Posted By robbushblog : December 10, 2013 8:17 pm

I have never seen this, but I’ve always wanted to. Should I take a $20 plunge without ever having seen it?

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : December 10, 2013 9:39 pm

RobBush – if you’re a fan of Raoul Walsh or Jack Benny, I’d say it’s a worthwhile investment. Or wait for Warner Archive to do their 5 for $50 sales, which they put on regularly…

Posted By robbushblog : December 10, 2013 9:56 pm

THAT sounds like a good plan of action. Thanks, RES!

Posted By DBenson : December 11, 2013 8:17 am

One more putdown gag. On his TV show, Benny bragged that “Horn” actually broke the house records at one theater. He showed a souvenir poster, which promised Dish Night, free refreshments, a drawing for a new car and more increasingly opulent inducements until coming to the title of the movie, in small print at the bottom of the poster.

Posted By swac44 : December 11, 2013 4:30 pm

RobBush, you could also wait for it to show up on TCM, it turns up once a year or so.

Posted By robbushblog : December 11, 2013 4:32 pm

I know. I always seem to miss it. Thanks, Swac!

Posted By MedusaMorlock : December 12, 2013 8:10 pm

Great to read this critical redemption for something that in any case provided the wonderful Benny with a lifetime of material. Just as he was not in any way the cheapskate he hilariously portrayed, this movie was nothing to be ashamed of.

Jack Benny’s TV show, though different from his radio show, still showcased — especially in the ones that were the more elaborate episodes with guests stars in a filmed story — his completely adorable personality and physical comedy prowess.

Benny is a gem, no matter how we get to see him.

Thanks for a wonderful post, as always!

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