Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Horn Blows—And So Does the Movie

Unlike Bob Hope or Red Skelton, movie stardom wasn’t really in the cards for Jack Benny. Popularity on radio didn’t translate to popularity on the big screen. He seemed to go from studio to studio making a couple of pictures along the way, all of which got plenty of publicity but mixed reviews.

Critics seem to agree Jack’s best film was ‘To Be or Not to Be’ (1942). Jack’s writers seemed to agree his worst was ‘The Horn Blows at Midnight’ (1945). At least, they agreed that way when it came to writing a running gag. Jack milked the supposed mediocrity of the movie for practically the rest of the run of his career in radio.

Instead of posting a review, here’s a little insight into the filming from the Vidette-Messenger of Valparaiso, Indiana of October 19, 1945, some six months after the film was released.

Leave It To Comedian Jack Benny To Be Working On An Angle
Jack Benny’s world is coming back to normal these days after a stretch on the Warner lot where the comedian made his latest picture, “The Horn Blows at Midnight,” currently at the Premier Theatre, in which he is co-starred with lovely Alexis Smith.
If Mr. Benny walks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it can be blamed upon Hugh Reticker, art director for “The Horn Blows Midnight,” who designed one of the cock-eyedest sets over seen on a sound stage.
Certain exciting sequences of the picture take place on the roof of a skyscraper hotel in Manhattan. The clock tower and penthouse part of the roof-line were built by Reticker on Stage Seven at Warner Bros. and it looked as though a high wind had tilted it 20 degrees to the southwest.
The cameraman, headed by Sid Hickox, viewed the set with considerable satisfaction and with much less alarm than did actor Benny. To them the odd angle at which it stood was an advantage because it helped them in registering the tower as of great height. above the street.
Part of the roof-top scene was made on the highest available roof In Los Angeles. But the close-ups were photographed on a set built to duplicate exactly, the roof line of the tall building selected.
The tower clock was set at twelve o’clock because that is the moment the script willed for Jack to blow Gabriel’s trumpet.
The hands of the clock were manipulated by hand, so that they could be shown approaching the zero hour in scenes just previous to the midnight one.
The clock was built on a bias but this was straightened out by the camera’s lens without making the cameraman stand on his head to photograph it.
It is all a matter of mathematics, the camera crew told Jack Benny again and again. Nevertheless, it left Mr. Benny loaning more than slightly to the left.
“I go home at night,” Jack complains, “and twist the pictures on the walls into all kinds of ridiculous angles. I’m so used lo seeing things on a slant that I’m convinced my piano at home has one short leg.
“I’ll be glad to get bank to heaven—in the picture—where everything is finally straightened out.”

‘The Horn’ sounded the end of Jack Benny’s starring career in Hollywood. He made a cameo appearance in ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (1963) and a few other films but never again had his name above the title. It hurt nothing than perhaps his ego. His radio career was never affected, he segued into the small screen with no problems and was considered a show business legend before he died.


  1. Given his desire to get into live-action movies, it's actually a shame Warners didn't just let Frank Tashlin handle this as his debut film -- much as Tashlin's scripts and direction have been described as "cartoony", the climactic scene in "The Horn Blows at Midnight" is probably the most cartoony thing Warners ever did in live action features (even the music while they're outside in the giant coffee pot sounds suspiciously like a Carl Stalling score, though AFAIK, Stalling never had any credit associated with the movie). But the other parts of the film are more restrained and needed someone as Tashlin later became who could sprinkle the "can't happen in real life" moments more evenly throughout the picture.

  2. The movie has an incredible shot over the heavenly orchestra; I don't understand how it was accomplished. I oculd watch that shot over and over (and have).

  3. An unjustly maligned film, but the title does have a certain comical rhythm that is perfect for joking. As a school boy in the 1960s, I remember making THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT references with my friends. None of us had seen the film, released and somewhat obscure before our births. Benny continued the gags throughout the TV series and in his personal appearances on talk shows, etc.

    Eventually, the opportunity came my way. I was quite pleased with the picture, directed by the sturdy Raoul Walsh (HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT). I watch it every few years. The rare New Year's Eve comedy movie.