Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Making of The Horn Blows at Midnight

Jack Benny’s final movie got more mileage on his radio and TV shows than it ever did on the big screen. To hear Benny’s characters talk about it, “The Horn Blows at Midnight” was such a stinker that even corpses got up and walked out on it. You may wonder if all the negative publicity caused studio bosses to take a pass on hiring Benny to appear in any more films. It’s not true. The movie made money and columnist Erskine Johnson reported (March 9, 1948) Jack was still being offered roles—and turned down all of them. One was “The Good Humor Man” which Jack Carson finally made. He did make a cameo appearance in Bob Hope’s “The Great Lover” (1949) at the behest of producer Ed Beloin (a former Benny writer). And he played himself in “Somebody Loves Me” (1952), the film about vaudeville friend Blossom Seely and produced by Bill Perlberg, who sold his house in Palm Springs to Jack. But that was it. He told Johnson (September 13, 1952) he had retired from the screen because he couldn’t concentrate on movies, TV and radio simultaneously and “I simply cannot afford to make a bad picture.”

We mentioned one of the challenges of making the movie in this post, but there were others. Let’s check out the United Press from November 10, 1944.

Jack Benny Is Reducing To Play A Slender Angel

Hollywood, Nov. 10. (BUP)—Today we had lunch with an angel. Only the angel didn’t eat much because he was overweight. And anybody knows angels can’t have too many bulges—not when they're making a picture.
The name of the angel was Jack Benny. And he gained the extra poundage on a USO tour of the strictly unheavenly South Pacific.
Mr. Benny is making a picture for Warner Brothers called The Horn Blows at Midnight. It’s Angel Benny’s job to blow the horn.
“Sounds simple, huh?” he said. “Well, did you ever try to perch on the edge of a skyscraper and toot a trumpet loud enough to blow the whole darn world to little bitty pieces?”
That, in a word, is the plot of the picture. Mr. Benny is a Milquetoast sort of angel who gets appointed by the heavenly chief in charge of small planet management to finish off the world. It’s in that bad a mess.
What happens to keep him from tootling the race into eternity is a surprise ending. And that ending lasts eight minutes and costs the Warner family the tidy sum of $350,000.
Ending Was Too Weak
“We had the picture all finished before I took my show to the South Pacific,” Benny explained. “But when they ran it off they decided the ending was too weak. So here I am, back for retakes.”
Benny said he had a fine time on the tour. Got plenty of rest and food and reported back for work in tip-top condition. He thought.
But Director Raoul Walsh took one look at Benny's roly-poly frame and moaned. Said the word for his ex-angel was tip-top-heavy. He couldn't even squeeze into his wings any more.
So that’s why Benny is on a diet and he hopes the ending ends pretty soon because he’s working up a fine appetite.
The ending involves what studio officials describe as a highly technical process whereby Angel Benny falls off the skyscraper and goes hurtling toward the street.
Studio officials are very proud of that ending. They won’t tell how it works, but they guarantee it will fool all the technical know-it-alls in town.
Benny’s plenty willing to be fooled, but right at the moment he’s just a little worried. They haven’t even explained it to him yet, and what he wants to know is:
Does he really go hurtling through space, or does it just look as if he does?
He’s waiting for that part of the picture as anxiously as the makers I hope the audience will be.

The movie came out the following April. The International News Service dutifully reported:

Jack Benny Must Wear Kiss Muzzle
HOLLYWOOD, May 5.—As a screen lover Jack Benny seems doomed to be thwarted and thwarted.
Just as he was about to start rehearsing a luscious kiss with fascinating Dolores Moran for Warner Bros.’ comedy hit, “The Horn Blows at Midnight,” he came down with a heavy cold; had to do his romancing from, behind a flu mask!

Moran’s Hollywood career was a bust. If Carlisle Jones’ column of May 25, 1945 is right, her concentration during filming was divided.

During those same weeks in which Dolores Moran worked hard at making Benny’s mission difficult for him in The Horn Blows at Midnight, she was hard at work, between scenes, with books on philosophy, English literature and psychiatry, subjects which she is studying at the University of California at Los Angeles. She graduated from Warner Brothers lot high school a year ago with the highest general average in grades ever received by a student there.

Columnists offered mixed reviews. Jimmy Fidler (April 11) wrote the movie “blows a note that is very sour.” But Walter Winchell (May 14) raved the film “is crowded with so many howls some laughs have to wait in line.” And all Dorothy Kilgallen said was Fred Allen went to the preview; evidently she didn’t bother to toss him a straight line about what he thought of it. Regardless, the film provided Benny will more ammunition in his comic arsenal, much to the delight of his fans who thought they were in on another Hollywood inside joke.


  1. I saw the film years ago on TV. Not a masterpiece by any means but better than Jack (and his writers) made it out to be..

  2. To tie this to cartoons - it should be noted that Carl Stalling scored one reel of THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT as a favor to Leo Forbstein. This is mentioned in Mike Barrier's interview with Stalling in FUNNYWORLD #13 - which is posted here:

    1. The scene with Benny and the 'fallen' angels battling for control of the horn outside the building, and interacting with the giant coffee pot and cup, is as 'cartoony' a scene as anything Frank Tashlin would later think up for live action. Stalling's score fits perfectly there.

  3. No mention of Benny's cameo in "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"?