The Horn Blows at Midnight
Jack Benny got a lot of mileage out of this perceived cinematic failure on his radio and television series. Listen to just about any episode after this movie was released and you’ll likely hear Benny or one of his ensemble quip about its failure (or perceived failure). It’s referenced enough in the shows to make me curious to want to seek it out and see if it’s really as bad as everyone says it is. I have vague memories of seeing it on VHS years ago and thinking it wasn’t nearly as terrible as Benny and his cast made it out to be. But I couldn’t be sure so when it recently came in TCM’s rotation of films, I decided to give The Horn Blows at Midnight a second look.
And while it’s certainly no cinematic masterpiece, I think it’s a movie that isn’t nearly as terrible as it was made out to be on Benny’s programs. But it’s not exactly a cinematic masterpiece either. I feel like it’s in a similar vein as It’s A Wonderful Life — a movie that audiences weren’t quite ready to embrace in its initial release.
Like The Wizard of Oz, it’s a frame story with Benny’s character dreaming most of the movie’s main story. The framing device is that Benny is a trumpet player in a late night orchestra who is lulled to sleep by the announcer’s soothing voice and text about how a certain brand of coffee can lull you off to sleep. In the framing device, we see all the players who will come into the story during Benny’s dream sequence. In his dream, Benny is a junior grade angel named Athanael who plays a trumpet in the heavenly orchestra. His girlfriend pulls a few strings to get Benny the assignment to come to Earth and blow his horn at midnight, signaling the end of the world. Benny has to meet the deadline or else risk becoming a fallen angel and spending all of eternity somewhere less pleasant.
At odds with Benny a duo of fallen angels who are enjoying life on Earth and are willing to do just about anything to keep Benny from blowing the horn and ushering in the end of the world as we know it.
Hilarity ensues with Benny’s character losing the horn and going to great lengths to get it back. He’s also given a second chance to blow the horn and not face eternity in somewhere less desirable than heaven.
The Horn Blows at Midnight has some amusing moments and set-piece, but the biggest failing of the film is that Benny’s casting doesn’t add much to the overall film. You could just about any leading man in his role and it would probably still work. Benny worked hard to cultivate a certain comedic persona and there’s little or none of it in evidence here. Even his best screen work in To Be Or Not To Be at least makes hay by playing to many of the strengths of the character Benny created for himself on the radio and television. It’s hard to fathom why there wasn’t something similar done here — whether it be having Athanael being convinced that his trumpet playing is great when it maybe isn’t necessarily so (ala Benny and his violin) or having his character have a bit of the short temper that Benny’s persona does. (You’ll notice I didn’t go to the miserly part because I don’t think that would necessarily work within the context of the film).
And yet despite it’s shortcomings, I’d still recommend seeing The Horn Blows at Midnight the next time it rotates through on TCM’s line-up — and not just because it was such a great punchline for so many years. Running just under ninety minutes, the film has a solid pace and never lags. It fairly flies by, going from set-up to set-up with ease and grace. Well, that is until the final set-piece involving a giant cup of coffee and the horn which feels a bit too stretched out for its own good. But I’ll admit I had a smile on my face for much of the film and found myself chuckling at the film and even enjoying it at times. It’s certainly not Benny’s best on-screen work, but it isn’t quite as terrible as all those punchlines would have you believe.