A Special New Year’s Edition of On Second Look!
What I remember:
When I was a kid, this movie used to show on one of the local New York channels every New Year’s Eve. Right after the ball would drop, I remember flipping through the stations, and this movie would come on. Most of the time I would watch the first 15 minutes or so, and then go to bed or watch something else. However, one year I decided to watch the whole thing, and I liked it. I was probably 11 or something.
Back then, my New Year’s Eve routine would be to go over to my cousin’s apartment, blow up water balloons and drop them on the best-dressed people we could find from his window. I am still amazed we never went to jail. OK, maybe that’s not true. But I am amazed that we weren’t made to go to bed without supper, or whatever punishment was in vogue back in the Mesolithic era. By the way, this was never my idea….I didn’t do things like that. I was way too much of a coward. My cousin was a year older than me, much smarter, richer, bigger and stronger. If he said do something, I did it. I admit that this criminal activity was hysterically fun, so I cannot act like I was the little angel in this scenario.
Anyway, after terrorizing and occasionally drenching Manhattan’s well-to-do, I would amble the few blocks back to my place (carefully avoiding the area under my cousin’s window), and watch the last few minutes of the year tick away. When I finally had enough energy to watch the entire movie, it was kind of the perfect brainless comedy for my state of mind. As I got older, the only thing I ever heard about the movie was that its star, Jack Benny, never made another feature film afterwards, and that it was such a huge box-office failure that it became fodder for his self-deprecating routines for years.
I’ve had this on DVR waiting for the right time to watch for over a year. I finally got around to it today, New Year’s 2014. 48 or so years later. What do I remember? He plays the trumpet. He has to blow it at midnight. It’s all a dream.
“Are you diggin’ this cat? He’s gonna ‘manage’! So your boots are laced, Junior? All reet, all reet, all reet!” Trumpeter in the “Slippy Tompkins and His Twelve Tom-Cats” band.
A trumpeter (Jack Benny) in a radio show big band falls asleep during the lengthy ad for Paradise Coffee (“The Coffee That Makes You Sleep”), and has an extended dream. In the dream he is an angel named Athanael who is charged with blowing the special horn that will destroy the Earth. He must blow it exactly at midnight. Upon arriving at Earth he encounters two fallen angels who try and derail the plan, since they are enjoying the material goods available, aka living the high life. Athanael fails in his first attempt, but gets another chance. A different angel, Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) comes down to help, but things get a little mixed up when a jewel thief is hired by the fallen angels to steal the horn.
I guess if there’s a moral here, it’s don’t fall asleep on the gig.
A quick personal story:
The weekend after my daughter was born, I had probably had a sum total of 5 hours sleep in 4 days. I had a lunchtime wedding gig, and at one point in the 2nd set we started the song “Sea Of Love”, which is a standard 12/8 moldy oldie. The 1st measure is G, and my part, the keyboard part, has me hitting that G chord 12 times in the measure. Then the next measure changes to B7. I fell asleep about halfway through measure 1. When the band switched chords, I continued to play the 8th notes, but didn’t switch chords. OUT COLD, but still playing. The guitarist subtly smacked me in the head with the neck of his Telecaster.
I did not dream that I was an angel.
Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, but really grew up in suburban Waukegan, Ill. I can only imagine how sleepy Waukegan was in the early 20th Century. He did get his start in Vaudeville, but it was as a violinist. The story goes that Minnie Marx, mother of the greatest comedy team the film world has ever known, discovered him. He began doing comedy when he was playing for the troops in WW1, and they started heckling him. His defensive ad-libs showed a talent for comedy, and this led him to add it into his act. Eventually his comic routines pushed the musical part of his act to the side. I really credit Benny with the popularization of self-deprecating humor. He certainly was a master of it.
His character in “The Horn Blows at Midnight” is pretty bad at trumpeting, that’s made clear. Somehow, he’s gotten the gorgeous harpist to like him. Once in the dream, he continues to be incompetent, and yet even in the dream, the harpist, now an angelic secretary, still likes him.
The dream borrows from “The Wizard of Oz”, in that all the characters from the radio show appear in different roles in the dream. The producer/director is the angel chief, the composer is the jewel thief, the two other trumpeters are the fallen angels, the bassist is the tough guy, etc.
Speaking of borrowing, it’s a good thing Benny and the Marxes stayed good friends, since he outright steals a line from Groucho: “If I held you any closer, I’d be behind you”. The film also borrows longtime Marx player Margaret Dumont, in her typical dowager role.
There’s not a lot of originality in the script. Most of the laugh-out-loud moments are physical. There’s a ton of fish out of water jokes, especially when Athanael does an on-the-job audition with a jump band. He has no idea what’s going on, and when he takes his solo, it’s about as square as you can imagine. While kids are Jitterbugging away, he begins his solo, and they stop dancing and start booing.
This would be in contrast to today, wherein the squarest guys are the most successful. For God’s sake, don’t swing or play an extended harmony. I thought we were supposed to get more and more sophisticated with each generation.
OK, sorry. I’m off my soapbox.
He really pulls out the stops in the final sequence, when Athanael is drowning in the cup of the giant Paradise Coffee Billboard. There are also some great matte shots in heaven with the humongous orchestra Athanael is in. It's fun to compare this vision of heaven with the one proffered in "A Matter of Life and Death". Both are major accomplishments for the special effects and set designers of the '40's.
Walsh is not quite as successful in the many scenes wherein someone is hanging from the edge of the hotel roof. These shots are neither believable or particularly funny. Compared to Harold Lloyd stunts, these scenes are pathetic. Benny is simply not that kind of physical comedian. His strength is from the neck up...and his legendary timing. This set of skills is so much better suited for the small screen.
The best physical comedy comes in the scene where sexpot Delores Moran and World class tough guy Mike Mazurki are trying to wrest the horn from Athanael. The timing and almost balletic movements of the three combined with the camera are nearly Keatonian. Moran is unsuccessfully seducing Benny, while Mazurki keeps reaching around the couch to try and grab the horn. It's been explained to all that violence against an angel will have the direst consequences, so Mazurki knows he can't just slug Benny.
Mostly the movie swings and misses, depending on tired old jokes and situations. It's probably a combination of a weak script and a formulaic approach.
I've already pretty much covered Jack Benny, so let's concentrate on the role players. Beautiful co-star Alexis Smith is strikingly gorgeous, and isn't given a lot to do but be the only character who doesn't think Athanael is a total loser. Moran is given a much meatier part, and from the first time you see her, you can't take your eyes off of her. She is sexy in a way that Smith is not, not just in costume, but in demeanor. Apparently she was well known for her scandalous behavior in Hollywood, much more so than for her acting. It's true that she is no Kate Hepburn, but she does just right by this part.
The fallen angels have a moment or two, especially when they get the "twinges", every half hour. Dumont has a very small part, and is unremarkable. The part of the deli waiter is stand-out funny played by John Brown, and there is also a bit part for child actor Robert Blake as his son.
The dual role as Hotel detective and radio engineer is given a nice turn by one of my favorites from the period, Franklin Pangborn. Ubiquitous is an understatement when describing Pangborn's supporting career in comedies. Nobody plays "officious prick" better, and he is also great in befuddlement. Mike Mazurki is typical, his range is what it is. Don't cast him as an Indian, like they did in "Comanche". You don't want to hear that Bronx accent deliver the "White man speak with forked tongue" line. It comes out "White man speak wit fawk tung." Moose Malloy ("Murder, My Sweet") is much more his speed, as is this role.
ON SECOND LOOK
Like I said, I didn't really love or hate this movie when I watched it almost 50 New Years Eve's ago. I just wanted to recapture that time and period, you know, the way a song or a particular smell can. It didn't work. I spent 90 minutes basically wishing I had watched something new instead, or something old that had some originality about it. "The Horn Blows at Midnight" should not be considered a bomb, it's far better than that. But it is pretty unmemorable, and sadly not too funny.
On First Look: ✭✭✭ On Second Look: ✭✭