Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Horn Blows at Midnight directed by Raoul Walsh (starring Jack Benny, Alexis Smith, Dolores Moran)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Video Vista. Copyright 2002.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945). Screenplay by Sam Hellman and James V. Kern from a story by Aubrey Wisberg.

The Horn Blows at Midnight is the infamous film about which Jack Benny constantly expressed shame on his radio show (the movie was a flop on release and became his last lead role). And while it's by no means a classic (in fact, it's probably only as well known as it is because he made so much fun of it), it's not that bad.

Yes, some of the jokes are obvious. Yes, Benny is pretty much playing himself. But not only are there several character actors worth seeing, but the storyline is also innovative (Doomsday is presented in a light, cheery manner), the performances are top-rate, the fallen-angel duo are a terrific comic team, and Dolores Moran steals every scene she's in.

Benny stars as a bad trumpet player who falls asleep during a radio commercial and dreams that he is Athanael, an angel chosen to go to Earth and blow the Doomsday trumpet, heralding its end. All he has to do is blow the horn precisely at the stroke of midnight and the world will end, getting him promoted to Angel Senior Grade. But of course things keep getting in his way, including two fallen angels who are living it up on Earth.

Benny's escapades on Earth comprise the bulk of the film, making room for several fish-out-of-water scenes (eating at a restaurant and not knowing to pay) and references to famous dead people (upon seeing a dollar bill, Benny recognizes George Washington and makes a note to tell George about it on his return).

Director Raoul Walsh has assembled a stellar cast of character actors — many with whom classic film fans will be familiar — that give Benny fabulous support. Alexis Smith is Elizabeth, Athanael's girlfriend; Guy Kibbee plays "the Chief," who assigns Benny his task; and Reginald Gardiner is suavity at its utmost as Archie Dexter, thief and aspiring conductor.

Preston Sturges stock player Franklin Pangborn is in fine pomposity as Sloan; Mike Mazurki has perfected the role of lovable goon by this point, but this is by far the largest role I've seen him in; and Allyn Joslyn and John Alexander are Osidro and Doremus, the fallen angels who don't want to go back. They are the American "Caldicott and Charters."

Former Marx brothers' foil Margaret Dumont also has a small role, and Bobby Blake, fresh from his Our Gang days, plays bratty-punk personified.

Lots of gags and quick pacing keep The Horn Blows at Midnight interesting. The climax is funny and suspenseful, involving all the main characters hanging off the side of a building. Good actors doing their best to entertain us is always fun to watch, as are all of the set pieces, especially one involving an oversized cup of coffee. On the downside, I wish they had stretched the ending out, giving viewers time to realize the story is ending, instead of compressing it into an unfunny punchline.

1 comment:

Rupert Alistair said...

Despite its bad reputation as a dog, I've always loved this movie. It used to play on New Year's Eve when I was a kid, and I'd watch it every year. I think it's hilarious ("I've got dollas")and both Alexis Smith and Dolores Moran are hotties.
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