Jack Benny Meets Raoul Walsh: The Horn Blows White Heat at MidnightA column article, Riding Shotgun by: Don McGregor
Jack Benny meets Raoul Walsh at the top of the world: Heaven.
This pairing of two such disparate talents, the collaboration of the inimitable stand-up comic master of the verbal pause and perfectly timed response with the director who took Bogart to High Sierra and Cagney to White Heat Momma's boy obsession and psychotic violence, is as bizarre as the concept for the movie The Horn Blows at Midnight, that they meet creatively for one time only.
Maybe the pairing isn't as bizarre as the plotline for the movie itself.
Jack Benny plays an angel junior grade named Athaniel, who is a trumpeter in a vast celestial choir where everybody dresses the same and plays strictly according to the fearsome angelic conductor. Basically, Jack is a schlub angel, a common guy angel wanting to make good. Athaniel needs to earn his wings.
Angels in The Horn Blows at Midnight do not earn their wings by showing some human the error of their ways, or what they should do about living a life of pleasure and sex. No, not here. Here, an angel is sent to Earth, as in It's A Wonderful Life, but to earn their spurs they must annihilate the entire human race by blowing a horn precisely as the hour of midnight. When the gong sounds, you have twelve strokes of the bell to blow your horn, or you fail.
Mankind doesn't get wiped out. And the angel fails not only to earn his wings but apparently some kind of banishment.
This…is the comic premise.
A nice comic strip arrangement of panels showcasing how visual the skyscraper top setting is. Beautiful Downshots abound. Personally, I'm heading for the Lobby.
But remember, the angel is Jack Benny.
Not Jack Benny playing the persona of Jack Benny as he did throughout his long, impressive career, as the comedian who influenced so many other comedians right on into today.
This is Jack playing Athanael, the bewildered angel assigned to blow the horn in New York City at the appointed hour of doom.
And remember, this is Raoul Walsh, speeding things along, not in a dramatic race to a world blowing up in a criminal's face, but at a sardonic clip that whirls with delicious vitality and visual imagery.
It's unusual to see Jack Benny in this kind of scenario, with really beautiful, spectacular special effects for its time (and holding up extremely well in 2014, thank you very much).
It is not that Jack Benny never used visual gags in his stand-up routines (he did) and props to propel a humorous visual to the proceedings, but his forte was his exquisite timing, the pause and effect, the subtle change of his expression on his face, in his eyes, the tone of his voice as he finally delivered the expected comic line, much to his fans delight.
In fact, Jack used The Horn Blows at Midnight many times as a punchline in his comedy routines, and until this recent release on DVD by Warner Home Archives, it was a rarely-seen film, known more for the jokes Jack built around it.
The film did indeed fail at the box office. The premise is, without doubt, bizarre.
But when you have a chance to see the film, there's not a doubt that you'll find both Jack and Raoul, and Alexis Smith and the cast around them, and especially the special effects people like Lawrence Butler and Chesley Bonestell (who did not even receive an on-screen credit but did some intricately accomplished New York City matte paintings for the action sequences). All of these people contribute to making this bizarre rarity a visual delight, and give it speed and texture.
This rarity opened only days after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died.
The original title card at the opening of the film.
When Jack as Athanael is sent to Earth via a cosmic elevator from tufts of clouds in heaven to a department store conveyor overseen by Franklin Pangborn at his exasperated best, the angel's reactions almost seem to imply Athanael is alien to human beings, kind of bemused by everything that he sees and/or happens around him, unless it deals with frantic events at high places.
Longtime comic book lovers and Batman fans know that Dick Sprang used to love to have Batman and Robin fight criminals on rooftops adorned with gigantic promotion props. The rooftop setting for ringing in the end of the world could not be more apt if Dick Sprang drew it.
The place where Athanael is to blow his horn is at the top of a New York skyscraper adorned with a huge working advertising display of a mechanical exhibit that consists of a gigantic coffee pot that tilts and seemingly pours coffee into a small swimming pool size coffee cup. When the cup is filled with dark liquid, a huge spoon lifts out of another gigantic prop, a sugar bowl, and deluges the cup with thick snowfall-like sweetener! When that is done, a lovely mammoth creamer deluges its contents, a torrent of milk.
This place has it all, and Jack and the others, trying to end the world, or stop it, or just caught up in the frantic free-for-all way up over the city midnight streets, would play this for suspense and laughs much, I'm sure, to the pleasure of those who fondly remember that time period in Batman's comic book life.
Check it out. See if I'm not right.
The waiting rooms in Heaven have high walls that can't reach to heaven because you are already in heaven. Lots of space in heaven, unless you play in the choir. Alexis Smith gets to sit at the reception desk.
By the way, in the mid-1940s, apparently coffee was shilled as being a drink that soothed your nerves and lulled you to sleep.
Huh? Who knew?
And also, if you were drunk, people poured caffeine down your throat as if it cured an all-night drunk.
At least in the movies.
And in comic books candy bars were sold as, I kid you not, "health foods." I suspect there is a part of me that still believes that is true. Or at least, wants it to be true.
The angels returning to earth might not remember food or money, and have to relearn all over about it. Maybe they should have talked about it over a cup of that soothing beverage, coffee.
Jack is besieged by fallen angels who were condemned to stay on earth, but suffer severe shakes with radio commercial regularity, and the sultry Dolores Moran, who tries to seduce Athanael's horn from him - you can read any symbolism here you want.
Ann's seduction of Jack is as ribald as it could be in 1945. Ann is all over Jack, and at one point, gives him one of the best lines of the movie:
"Athanael, can't you see what my eyes are saying?"
The Jack Benny pause. Waiting. Waiting.
And finally Jack deadpans: "Yes, and you ought to watch your language."
Fans of Baretta and Little Beaver in the Red Ryder films will enjoy seeing Bobby Blake and Jack Benny playing together.
Not once, but twice, during the film, Athanael has a chance to kill us all. He fails the first time because he tries to save an individual woman from suicide, thus screwing up his "mission statement", as it is known in current day parlance, to save everyone from sin and suicide by decimating the whole damn lot of humankind, female and male.
In The Horn Blows at Midnight, angels get a second chance to redeem themselves at mass slaughter, if they have an angel like Alexis Smith to plead their case.
The end sequence uses all these visually pleasurable props in pleasing ways. Raoul Walsh never lets any time for serious thought enter the fray. The writers, Sam Hellman, James V. Kern and Aubrey Wisberg, don't let anything get in the way of momentum and laughs.
Jack is carried on coffee current through coffee pot spouts, swims sporadically in the flooded coffee cup, gets stirred with sugar and drowned with cream. Everyone else is fluttering around. The end of the world is nigh.
Will this be like Raoul Walsh's White Heat:
"Who was that?"
"That was Cody Jarrett. He made it to the top of the world. And it blew up in his face."
A choir of angels, devoid in their immensity of individual identity, is visually impressive and unexpected in this sequence in a drone-like heaven. Raoul Walsh sweeps the camera over the playing hordes of the domesticated orchestra, with an eye-opening sense of scope of players with no spontaneity or spark of spirit. Until it finds Jack in some nameless row of players and zeroes in on him. Nice entrance shot of the lead character.
Could a comedy truly end with the end of the world, itself?
Hey, this is Warners in the 1940s, when Looney Tunes would do anything for a laugh, so you never know. Stanley Kubrick might try it with Dr. Strangelove a whole lot of years later. But in 1945?
In this age of people going crazy about Spoilers, you don't think I'm going to tell you how the film ends, do you?
What you want to know is that this rare combo of Jack Benny and Raoul Walsh, seldom seen, is now available on Warner DVD. The B&W print is sharp and clear, the print is uncut, the visuals will delight you, and however it ends, you'll have a good time along the way.
It's nice when a movie turns out that way.
It's even better when life turns out that way.
Copyright © 2014 by Don McGregor
You can find, buy, see and hear Jack blow his horn right here at Warner Archives
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