The Horn Blows At Midnight
Athanael earns his living as a trumpeter for the Paradise Coffee Program; a radio hour of soothing lullabies intended to help listeners go to sleep. It turns out the programming works only too well, as he falls asleep on the job and dreams that he’s an angel in Heaven’s celestial orchestra. Thanks to the machinations of his lovely harpist friend Elizabeth he’s called out of the orchestra to help The Chief in charge of Small Planets to aid in the destruction of a small, unimportant orb called Earth. To do this Athanael must blow his trumpet at precisely midnight; a seemingly simple task turned awry through a combination of inadvertent human intervention and the deliberate interference of two fallen angels who know that once their life on Earth ends, their stay “Down There” begins. Much amusing mayhem ensues until our hero finally wakes up and gets his chance to really toot his own horn.
One of the strangest aspects of the artistic world is the way in which certain works attain a reputation for failure that often has nothing to do with their actual quality. Most often this happens to projects with famously tumultuous creative processes that upon their release do little to justify the heroic effort and expense required for their creation. Ishtar and Waterworld are two very famous examples of this. Since their release the titles for both films have become quick and easy shorthand punch lines available to anyone who wants to make a joke about an obvious financial fiasco.
Yet when either film is discussed amongst people who have actually seen them, more often than not someone will express the opinion that neither film is as bad as their reputation suggests. “Actually, Ishtar is pretty funny,” someone will say, while another will point out, “Y’know once you factor in worldwide gross, Waterworld turned a profit.”
As is so often the case, perception has little to do with reality—the punch line mattering more than the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than with a now-forgotten B-Movie (from back when the term described the shorter, less-expensive second feature of a 4-hour movie program and not the kind of exploitation fare people associate it with today) that—thanks to its star—was once famous for being one of the worst movies ever made, despite the fact that the handful of people who actually did see it had to admit that it was actually pretty good.
As time marches on, people talk less and less about Jack Benny. Once one of the most popular comedians of his time, his work garners less attention that it deserves these days for a handful of reasons. The first is that his greatest triumph came in radio, a medium many no longer have any interest in. The second is that having died in 1974; he didn’t live long enough to earn the fourth act career resurgence enjoyed by his best friend George Burns (a fourth act that was spurred on by Burns Oscar-winning performance in The Sunshine Boys in a role originally offered to Benny, but given to Burns after his friend’s unexpected death). And the third is that the key to Benny’s success as a comedian had been his ability to develop one of the most recognizable characters in radio and television history. Anyone who encounters Benny’s comedy today will likely be lost if they come to it without knowing of the famous quirks he and his writers spent decades nurturing.
In fact the character of “Jack Benny” is a major reason why his film career never took off like it should have. Having so perfectly established his famous persona on radio (and later on television), people had difficulty accepting him in other roles. Even when he appeared in a controversial masterpiece like 1942’s To Be or Not To Be, his audience made it clear that they preferred it when he played “himself.”
Of course the irony is that the character of “Jack Benny” bore little resemblance to the man who shared his name. Rather than having been developed fully formed, “Jack Benny” was instead the culmination of whatever jokes had gotten the biggest laughs during the course of his career. When, early on, another character suggested Benny was cheap and it got a laugh, Benny and his writers took note and escalated his penny-pinching ways until he was one of the cheapest men in the world. Somone whose personal vault was guarded by alligators and who could earn one of the longest laughs in radio history merely by having a criminal threaten him with, “Your money or your life.”
So it was with The Horn Blows At Midnight. At the time of its release the film had been a mild B.O. and critical disappointment, but in the hands of Benny and his writers, it soon became the hugest debacle in cinema history—the worst film ever made. Whenever a guest appeared on his show who had suffered a public personal embarassment, Benny would soothe them by reminding them that he had starred in The Horn Blows At Midnight and the guest would concede that was far worse than what they experienced.
Since so few people had actually seen the film, Benny’s mockery of it was taken at face value and everyone assumed it had to be as terrible as he suggested. But as is so often the case, this perception had little to do with reality and those who had seen it could be heard to protest that it wasn’t anywhere as bad as people claimed. Having just watched it myself, I can report that this is the case. In fact, far from being a disaster, The Horn Blows At Midnight is actually a very entertaining light-weight comedy that had me laughing out loud several times during its brief 78-minute running time. What few faults it does have I suspect are more the result of interference from the censoring Hays Office than any outright artistic error on the part of its filmmakers.
While many of those who worked during that period have been known to suggest that the edicts of the Motion Picture Production Code (Hollywood’s self-appointed censorship body which was better known as the Hays Code after the former Postmaster-General, Will Hays, who was chosen by the studios to organize it) forced filmmakers to be cleverer than they would have been without it, I’ve always felt it ultimately did more harm than good. The Horn Blows At Midnight offers a good example of this with a very interesting premise that is neutered by its “Only a dream” narrative and inability to actually name the biggest danger the hero faces (the word “Hell” being verboten by name if not concept).
The most fascinating aspect of the film is that it is one in which the protagonist’s goal is the destruction of our planet—“…A six day job…” that has ignored all of the obvious signs its Heavenly lords have thrown its way and “…gotten completely out of hand.”
Unfortunately the chutzpah of this is significant lessened by the film’s main action taking place in a consequence-free dream. Without the Wizard of Oz-esque wraparound segments (as in Oz all of the characters in Athanael’s dream have real world counterparts) the film would have forced us to truly question where to place our loyalties. Do we cheer on Athanael in his quest to destroy our world merely because he’s a likable protagonist we can identify with or do we cheer for the villainous cads who are out to stop him purely for their own selfish needs, even though their interests are ultimately our own?
Today filmmakers would have the freedom to play with this concept however they wished, but in 1945 audiences were saved from such uncomfortable moral ambiguities. This is especially apparent in the film’s climax where Athanael is awaken from his dream just when he’s supposed to blow his horn. Even in a dream we are not allowed to see him succeed in blowing up the world, which not only leaves the viewer who spent the film cheering for him feeling unsatisfied but also leaves the film’s overall theme as something of a dangling question mark.
Still, for all they couldn’t get away with, director Raoul Walsh (White Heat and The Roaring Twenties) and screenwriters Sam Hellman and James V. Kern do manage to get some amusingly cynical licks in. The world Athanael sets out to destroy is one filled with some really lousy people, typified by Reginald Gardiner’s charismatic thief who can barely be bothered to ask, “What stopped you?” when a spurned lover admits his rejection caused her to try to jump off a hotel’s roof the night before.
That said, there are some benefits to the dream narrative. Mostly in how it allows us to forgive the film’s frequent lapses in logic (Apparently Heaven and New York are in the same time zone) and focus on the most charming aspect of the film, the nascent romance between Athanael and Elizabeth.
Benny does great work in the film, but the performance I found myself focusing on was Alexis Smith’s. Based on the IMDb she’s one of those actors who I have seen many times before, but never actually noticed until a specific role caught my eye. She’s great here—the perfect love interest and not just because her heavenly robes were clearly tailored to flatter her admirable figure. More than anyone, she’s responsible for us siding with Athanael as he valiantly attempts to destroy our world, because he’s clearly doing it to impress her and we want her to be impressed.
But as much as I enjoyed the romantic aspect of the picture, the parts I’m most likely to remember are the wild slapstick set pieces that build on the film’s dream logic and allow it to achieve a true cartoon reality. This is most evident in the film’s climax which finds Athanael, along with his allies and foes, on the edge of the hotel’s rooftop attempting to claim the trumpet before midnight. It all comes to a head in the kind of massive advertising creations that do not exist anymore and—I suspect—never really existed to that degree even then.
So the message of The Horn Blows At Midnight is that you should never base your judgment of a movie based solely on its reputation alone. Too often such reputations have little to do with the actual quality of a work, but instead outside factors that have absolutely nothing to do with the enjoyment you feel while watching them.