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Comedian Jack Benny had several ongoing schticks in his wildly popular radio and television programs of the 1940's and '50's: his age, perennially 39; his miserliness; his screechy violin playing; and his unsuccessful movie career, especially the film which he considered his biggest bomb. "When I did The Horn Blows at Midnight, it blew taps for me," Benny was fond of saying.
Yet The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) was an imaginative screwball comedy with exceptional production values, and top talent in front of and behind the camera. The fanciful story begins when Benny, a trumpet player in a band, falls asleep and dreams that he's an archangel sent to earth to blow his horn at midnight, signalling the end of the world. Benny misses his cue, and spends the rest of the film trying to evade a pair of fallen angels who are out to stop him.
Both Jack Benny and co-star Alexis Smith, who plays a fellow heavenly creature, were making their second films with director Raoul Walsh. Walsh would later write in his autobiography that when the two men made Artists and Models (1937), Benny was "already a past master of that elusive quality show people call timing. When Artists and Models was finished, he belied his later public image of stinginess by buying expensive presents for everyone connected with the picture."
The Horn Blows at Midnight was also a reunion for Walsh, Smith, and cinematographer Sid Hickox, who had worked together on Gentleman Jim (1942). Hickox, who had begun his career in silent films, was one of Warner Brothers' most versatile cameramen. His films ranged from musicals like Busby Berkeley's Dames (1934) to films noir like Dark Passage (1947). In the 1950's, Hickox switched to television, and was the cinematographer for the Andy Griffith TV series. The talent involved in The Horn Blows at Midnight also included composer Franz Waxman, whose work on the film ranged from jazz to heavenly choral music, and veteran character actors Reginald Denny, Guy Kibbee, and Margaret Dumont. Look for child actor Bobby Blake (Little Rascals), who grew up to be adult star (and accused murderer) Robert Blake.
Jack Benny's biographer, Irving Fein, notes that "although his motion picture career wasn't particularly distinguished, it was not as bad as his radio gags made it....Jack's movies never lost money. Even The Horn Blows at Midnight managed to end up in the black, and a few of his films were very successful." Among the successes were Charley's Aunt (1941), which did very well at the box office, and To Be or Not to Be (1942), which did very well with the critics and is probably Benny's best film. It certainly was one of Benny's favorites, and he was thrilled to work with director Ernst Lubitsch. In 1942, Benny signed a long-term contract at Warner Brothers, which got off to a promising start with the film version of the Broadway hit, George Washington Slept Here (1942). But his next film, The Meanest Man in the World (1943) was only fair, and he didn't have another leading role until The Horn Blows at Midnight.
In fact, Benny's kidding about The Horn Blows at Midnight may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy which was responsible for the fizzling out of his movie career. Except for an occasional cameo, Benny never appeared in another film. In 1974, he was scheduled to co-star in the film version of Neil Simon's stage hit, The Sunshine Boys (1975), with his lifelong friend George Burns. Just two weeks before production was to start, Benny died of cancer. The role was played by Walter Matthau.
Producer: Mark Hellinger
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Sam Hellman, James V. Kern, based on an idea by Aubrey Wisberg
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Editor: Irene Morra
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker, Clarence Steensen
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Jack Benny (Athanael), Alexis Smith (Elizabeth), Dolores Moran (Fran) Allyn Joslyn (Osidro), Reginald Gardiner (Archie Dexter), Guy Kibbee (The Chief), Franklin Pangborn (Sloan), Margaret Dumont (Miss Rodholder)
BW-78m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri