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Thanksgiving Turkeys: The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

Adam and Samantha review the movie Jack Benny starred in and loved to ridicule.

A: In The Horn Blows at Midnight, Jack Benny plays the angel trumpeter Athanael, who is sent to Earth to blow the note that will signal the apocalypse. He arrives via elevator into a swinging hotel whose occupants include a gentleman thief and his seductive girlfriend accomplice plus two fallen angels now settled into the decadent pleasures of Earth. Fish out of water Athanael’s mission is thwarted by the thieves, hedonists, waiters (who charge something called bucks for their food), and little rascals that inhabit this planet. Will he sound the reveille of Revelation at the stroke of midnight? After watching this, I prayed for the end of times.

S: I had only ever heard about this movie in the Jack Benny radio show, where he frequently joked about how bad it was. My expectations were that it wouldn't be that bad, and maybe it would even be good. And in the grand scheme of things, it really isn't that bad. But it isn't good. And in comparison with Benny's other films, it's probably the worst.

A: There are quite of few films from the 1940s that explore the afterlife: Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait, It’s a Wonderful Life, Between Two Worlds, and the British film, A Matter of Life and Death. None of them are quite as silly as this.

S: This movie starts out okay but as soon as that first rooftop scene happens, you know they're going for cheap laughs and peril humor, which to me is never funny or all that exciting. The hero isn't going to die. There are no real stakes. The rest of the movie is full of cheap laughs via ridiculous sight gags and highly dense characters. There is a difference between naïve and just plain dumb. Also Benny steal's Groucho's famous bit when he says, "If I got any closer I'd be behind you." It didn't make me laugh; it made me groan. And the "twinges" the fallen angels get made me cringe. Apparently director Raoul Walsh thought seizures were funny.

A: What you said about there being no real stakes is exactly right! Athanael’s mission seems arbitrary. The jokes about there being no tomorrow do nothing to make it seem more real. The film was a box office bust but I was curious what critics thought upon its release. Surprisingly, the reviews were largely positive. The Chicago Daily Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington Post recommended the film. The latter tempered their praise with a very diplomatic statement best read with a haughty, cultivated accent, “There are occasions when its largely successful attempt to merge mannered comedy, the supernatural and sheer slapstick falls futilely upon the funnybone.” The New York Times was the only major newspaper to slam the film. Bosley Crowther wrote, “It is a batch of old-fashioned nonsense put together without distinct charm. And Mr. Benny rambles through it with a lackadaisical air…”

S: There are funny parts. I liked the exchange with the hotel front desk clerk for example.

ATHANAEL: Excuse me, is that time correct?

DESK CLERK: Yes sir.

ATHANAEL: You’re quite certain?

DESK CLERK: Positively sir. The sun rises and sets by that clock.

ATHANAEL: Oh you’ve been misinformed my man. Solar movements are completely independent of terrestrial influences. However, I will accept the time as 7:15.

DESK CLERK: Thank you, sir. I’m sure Western Union will be deeply grateful.

A: The movie could have used more of that understated humor. Instead, the filmmakers went big. I’m game for nearly any type of movie but big budget, high-concept comedies are generally repellant. Pick a random Jack Benny Program radio show—comprised of nothing more than a roomful of seasoned performers in front of microphones reading a script—and I guarantee more laughs than this movie. Benny’s humor gets lost amidst the elaborate special effects, ornate sets, and complicated scenario. Despite the great supporting cast, including Guy Kibbee, Franklin Pangborn, and Mike Mazurki, the film lacks heart. The chaotic ending on the rooftop is particularly shrill and annoying.

S: Dolores Moran is very beautiful. One thing I always notice in old movies is that almost no one had perfect teeth. In this instance, it works very much to Moran's advantage. Her tiny jaw sinks in her cheeks and gives her a permanent pout. Alexis Smith is billed over Moran but her fauxhawk poodle hair isn't doing her any favors. Mazurki isn't someone you would expect to be in a comedy, but he is basically playing a heavy here, a very unsuccessful thug. Pangborn is doing what he does best, mugging about the elevator that keeps mysteriously disappearing. As someone who works in an old office building whose elevators are often on the fritz, I had to question who built this hotel with only one elevator. I did like the rooftop billboard, the giant animated Paradise Coffee cup with milk and sugar. But can you imagine how many dead birds and squirrels would be floating around in such a display?

A: I’m very interested in the teeth of the stars. I’m filing (no pun intended) that idea away for a future post.In February of ’45, a nationwide midnight curfew (can you imagine having a curfew?) was federally mandated to conserve energy for the war effort. It’s interesting that the opening of The Horn Blows at Midnight coincided with the lifting of this curfew, as evident by the ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer, “The curfew blows at midnight but the laughs go on forever!!!” That same ad also shows Benny blowing a tuba, so along with the claim that the film is “terrifically funny,” it is a blatant case of false advertising.

S: My 4-year-old son watched the end of the movie with me, and when it was over, he said, "Oh, it's one of those movies." Because even to a 4-year-old, the plot was familiar.

A: He gets it! He should join in our film discussions. The punchlines about this movie on Benny’s radio show are terrific. For instance, Rochester

asks Jack why he’s home so early from his night out at the movies. Jack replies that they were playing The Horn Blows at Midnight and the projectionist killed himself halfway through the film. We’re supposed to be thankful at this time of year, so let it be known that I’m thankful for caustic self-deprecating humor. I will reluctantly pardon this turkey and award it a generous score of two birds.

-S: This is definitely a two turkey movie. It isn't the worst film. It has its moments and the maturity level is on the same plane as Zombies on Broadway which we awarded two pumpkins in October.

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I've seen this film twice, the first time years ago at Toronto Film Society and more recently a year or two ago at home. Perhaps I now know why I can't recall the story--except for the elaborate coffee rooftop display. How disappointing considering the production, director and cast. But maybe I'll have to watch it again to see if I agree :)

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