From the early 1930s until his death in 1974, Jack Benny was one of the most popular and influential comedians of his time. It’s been reported that Johnny Carson, who idolized Benny, broke down in tears upon the news of his death. Though Benny was most prominent in radio and later on television, he did make a few attempts at finding stardom on the big screen, a common practice during the 1940s, where sometimes even entire radio programs would get big screen adaptations like the horror/suspense series “The Whistler” and “Inner Sanctum Mysteries.”
In the early ‘40s, Benny signed a picture deal with Warner Brothers studios, and two of the four films that were made from that deal have been released on DVD by Warner Archive. The first film Benny made for the studio, 1942’s “George Washington Slept Here,” and his last film for Warners, 1945’s “The Horn Blows at Midnight.” The latter film was such a notorious flop that its failure became a running gag on Benny’s radio and TV programs for years. But is “The Horn Blows at Midnight” worthy of decades of Benny’s jokes about it, or is it a film that actually holds up better than one may think? I’ll get to that in a moment, but first…
1942’s “George Washington Slept Here” serves as a sequel of sorts to Warner Brothers widely successful film “The Man Who Came to Dinner” that was released early in the year. Like “Dinner” before it “George Washington Slept Here” was based off a Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Additionally, both films star Ann Sheridan, and share the same director, William Keighley.
Benny plays Bill Fuller, a city loving apartment dweller whose antique loving wife Connie (Sheridan) secretly buys a dilapidated country house where George Washington supposedly stayed one night. What follows is the kind of comedic farce centered around the joys of homeownership, setting the tone for future films like “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” and “The Money Pit.”
Warner Brothers re-dressed the set of “Arsenic and Old Lace” to serve as the dilapidated farmhouse. Which you can see if you know that film’s layout, particularly when characters stand around the main entrance to the home. “George Washington Slept Here” is a fun, funny movie. Though it doesn’t quite translate to the screen as well as that previous Kaufman and Hart work, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Benny does a great job being constantly flummoxed by his new home he didn’t ask for. There’s one great gag where he walks upstairs and into a room with arms full of luggage. Followed by a crash, and Benny walking out of the downstairs kitchen, arms still full of luggage.
Where does one quite begin with “The Horn Blows at Midnight?” I’ll go as far as to say it’s one of the most offbeat and unusual comedies ever made during the classic Hollywood era. The gist is this: Benny plays Athanel, an angel who is sent to earth to blow the first notes of the “Judgement Day Overture” signaling the end of the world. However, another pair of fallen angels does all they can to keep Athanel from his horn and starting the judgment day. I can’t imagine how the pitch meeting for this movie went, so I can imagine softening the “blow” of the plot it’s all framed around Benny being a horn player in the orchestra of a radio program, who falls asleep while the show is on the air and dreams the story.
Compared to other comedies of the era “The Horn Blows at Midnight” is decidedly quirky, there’s a good bit of humor mined from Benny gently telling mortals that “their worries for tomorrow are unfounded.” It’s an odd film to say the least, but rather charming in what a bold comedic exercise it was for the time. People have debated for years why the film flopped so hard, some have attributed it to the subject material, while others have said that it was the film opening shortly after the death of sitting President Roosevelt.
At a brisk 78 minutes “The Horn Blows at Midnight” moves at a breakneck speed. It’s just the right length for the film too, it never has time to linger or anyone gag or tire out the premise. It just goes and goes and goes. It’s a fun movie, and one that I think holds up much better than Benny thought after making it a punchline for years. One notable moment from one of Benny’s TV shows is when Benny pulls up to the lot of Warner Brothers and the guard won’t let him in. Benny protests “But I made a movie here, The Horn Blows at Midnight!” to which the guard replies “I know, I DIRECTED IT!”
Both “George Washington Slept Here” and “The Horn Blows at Midnight” come to DVD with new transfers from Warner Archive. Both films look good, the black and white are clear with minimal dirt and specs in the prints of each respective film. A trailer for each film is included as well. It’s a good effort from Warner Archive, and it’s nice to have both of these Benny films out to see whenever one wants. If you want to explore something a bit out of the ordinary, or if you’re just a comedy nerd like me, you owe it to yourself to pick up “The Horn Blows at Midnight,” and “George Washington Slept Here” to complete the Jack Benny double feature. See you next week.