Jack Benny claimed 1945’s THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT killed his movie career. After rewatching it, I can’t understand why. This comedy/fantasy is just as good as any Bob Hope or Red Skelton film of the era. Yet the critics of the time savaged it, and Benny spent the rest of his life cracking jokes about what a turkey the movie was. I disagree, and think THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT deserves a second look.
Jack plays Athanael, a third rate trumpeter playing third trumpet for a radio show sponsored by Paradise Coffee (“the coffee that makes you sleep”). Lulled to sleep himself by the dulcet tones of the show’s announcer, Athanael dreams he’s playing his trumpet in a heavenly orchestra. Beautiful harpist Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) recommends him to the chief angel (Guy Kibbee) for an important mission. It seems Earth has been acting up, with “persecution and hatred everywhere”, and The Big Boss (aka God) has decided to eliminate it. Athanael is sent to play “the first four notes of the Judgment Day Overture” precisely at midnight and signal the end of the world.
Our hero lands at a swank hotel, where he’s spotted by two fallen angels (Allyn Joslyn, John Alexander) who’re comfy with their corrupt lives. Athanael saves a desperate cigarette girl (Dolores Moran) from suicide and misses his chance at blow at midnight. He loses the trumpet when he can’t pay for a meal and Elizabeth is sent to straighten out the mess. The fallen angels conspire with a slick thief (Reginald Gardner) to steal the horn. A merry mix-up ends with everyone hanging from the hotel’s rooftop scrambling for the horn.
I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say Athanael wakes from his dream to deliver the punchline. There are lots of historical and heavenly puns (seeing people jitterbugging on the dance floor, Athanael exclaims “I must tell St. Vitus about this”)and plenty of silly sight gags. The score by Franz Waxman adds to the fun, aided by music cues you’ll surely recognize from Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes (an uncredited assist from cartoon maestro Carl Stalling).
The cast is loaded with comic actors like Franklin Pangborn, Margaret Dumont, ex-wrestler Mike Mazurki, and Hollywood’s favorite souse Jack Norton. And then there’s Jack. He’s perfect in the role, and his impeccable timing, comic delivery, and that unmistakable mincing walk are on full display. Director Raoul Walsh was better known for his tough, manly films (THE ROARING 20’S, HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT), but handles the comedy with a sure hand.
While THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT is no classic, it’s not as bad as you may have heard. It’s certainly not as bad as Jack Benny made it out to be all those years. He certainly got some mileage out of making fun of it, though. Watch and judge for yourself. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Then again, I’m a huge Jack Benny fan, in case you haven’t guessed, so I may be a little biased.