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By Phil Hall | February 15, 2013

BOOTLEG FILES 467: “The Horn Blows at Midnight” (1945 comedy film starring Jack Benny and Alexis Smith).

LAST SEEN: The entire film was on YouTube, but it was recently removed.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A famous but missing link in the Jack Benny canon.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It should turn up sooner or later.

For Americans over a certain age, the mere mention of the 1945 comedy film “The Horn Blows at Midnight” will generate a nostalgic chuckle – not because of the film itself, but because it was the subject of numerous jokes regarding its allegedly poor quality. And the man who made all of those jokes was the film’s celebrated star, Jack Benny.

During the 1930 and 1940s, Benny was among the biggest comedy stars on radio. Yet the success he achieved in that medium never completely transferred to the big screen. Although he appeared in a few memorable productions, most notably “Charley’s Aunt” (1940) and “To Be or Not to Be” (1941), the bulk of his screen appearances were mostly forgettable.

In the early 1940s, Warner Bros. decided to sign Benny to a five-year screen contract. But rather than create films designed around Benny’s beloved radio comedy persona, they placed the comic into roles that could have easily been played by any performer. “George Washington Slept Here” (1942) and “The Meanest Man in the World” (1943) were benign efforts, but in both films it seemed like Benny’s talents were being squandered. (During this period at the studio, Benny reportedly wandered over to the set where “Casablanca” was being filmed and quietly mingled in as one of the extras without being later observed by audiences.)

Benny’s next film for Warner Bros. was “The Horn Blows at Midnight.” Warner Bros. had a great deal of hope in the film’s commercial viability. One of the studio’s major directors, Raoul Walsh, was assigned to helm the project, while popular leading lady Alexis Smith was slated as the female lead and high-caliber character actors Allyn Joslyn, Reginald Gardiner, Guy Kibbee, Franklin Pangborn and Margaret Dumont rounded out the cast.

However, “The Horn Blows at Midnight” had the same core problem as Benny’s other films: the role was not particularly tailored for his talents. Indeed, any reigning comedy star of the era could have easily played the part. That being said, Benny made the best of the situation and gave the role a sense of energy and enthusiasm that was often absent from his previous movies.

In “The Horn Blows at Midnight,” Benny plays a third trumpet in a radio station orchestra. During a pause in his performance, he falls asleep and dreams that he is the angel Athanael, who plays third trumpet in a Heaven-based band. Athanael is called the Department of Small Planet Management and is given a job: it seems the raucous planet called Earth has become such a mess that it needs to be destroyed. Elizabeth, the receptionist for the department’s manager, nominated her boyfriend Athanael for the job.

Athanael is sent to Earth with instructions to blow a special horn at the stroke of midnight, at which point the planet will be destroyed. But his mission is not without peril. A pair of fallen angels, Osidro and Doremus, had been sent earlier but failed to accomplish the same mission. As a result, they are doomed to live on Earth, where every hour they experience harsh convulsions.

Athanael arrives on Earth and takes a spot on a hotel roof, where he is ready to trumpet away the Earth. However, he spies a young woman who is planning to jump from the roof after being dumped by her jewel thief boyfriend. Athanael saves her life but misses his cue to destroy the world.

Now stuck on Earth, Athanael auditions for a jazz band, but his performance is atrocious. Without means of support, he is forced to leave his trumpet in a diner in exchange for a meal. Meanwhile, Elizabeth persuades her boss to give Athanael another chance. Elizabeth arrives on Earth, but Osidro and Doremus get wind of her arrival and there is a mad rush by all parties to gain the trumpet. Needless to say, things become frantic and chaotic, with Athanael somehow falling off the hotel roof and into a giant coffee cup that is part of an elaborate billboard advertisement. But, fear not – before the Earth can be destroyed, the film ends with the radio orchestra trumpeter awakening from his bizarre dream.

To its credit, “The Horn Blows at Midnight” moves at an extraordinarily crisp pace – the convoluted plot is shoehorned into a tight 78 minute running time. Film critic Dave Kehr attributed the rapid pace to Raoul Walsh, observing that the director “seems to have decided that if the jokes weren’t good, the least he could do was get through them fast.”

The film’s rapid speed and its surplus of memorable supporting players helped to make sense of the absurd story. And if Benny was not ideally suited for the Bob Hope-level of bumbling misadventures or the Harold Lloyd-worthy climax involving a drop from a hotel rooftop, he gamely pushed ahead to keep the comedy at its patently ridiculous level.

“The Horn Blows at Midnight” was shot in late 1943 and early 1944, but the studio executives were unhappy with the initial cut and requested new scenes. However, Benny had left the country as part of a USO tour of American military bases, and he was unavailable to complete the film until later in 1944. The film was released in theaters in April 1945, but the reviews were not particularly encouraging, with Variety noting that “Jack Benny works hard for his laughs and some come through with a sock, but generally the chuckles are dragged in and overworked.”

For years, Benny would score laughs by his comic insistence that “The Horn Blows at Midnight” was a box-office flop that effectively killed his movie career. In one of his jokes, he claimed, “When I did ‘The Horn Blows at Midnight,’ it blew taps for me!”

But that was not entirely correct. Benny biographer Irving Fein noted that despite the so-so quality of his movies, they still made profits. And for the remainder of his career, Benny deliberately focused on radio and television, making only a few guest appearances in films. Although Benny would make fun of the production, he was fond of material and would later star in a 1949 radio version and a 1955 television adaptation of the story.

In the years after “The Horn Blows at Midnight,” Benny only made two attempts to secure a niche on the big screen. In 1950, he lobbied for the starring role in the MGM comedy “Father of the Bride” and even agreed to do a screen test (which was very unusual for a performer of his magnitude). Sadly, he was passed over in favor of Spencer Tracy. In 1974, Benny was signed to star in the screen version of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” but a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer prevented him from taking the role; he would be dead before the year was over.  At Benny’s insistence, the role went to George Burns, who later won the Academy Award for his performance.

“The Horn Blows at Midnight” has turned up on television over the years, and it was released on VHS video in 1993. To date, there has been no DVD release, although unauthorized discs have been sold on collector-to-collector sites. The film had been on YouTube until recently, and its removal suggests that a commercial DVD release may be in the near future.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Sergio Mims says:

    Midnight was just released last week on the DVD-On-Deamd Warner Archive label along with George Washington Slept Here

  2. Steve Burstein says:

    Note that Benny’s character in the dream is ignorant of everyday things that his waking self would know! I suspect that the dream framework was an afterthought filmed after after the bulk of the production wrapped.

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