Monday, December 28, 2009

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945): It Ain't Gabriel

When The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) was released by Warner Brothers in 1945, it was a major box office dud. The comedy-fantasy just wasn't what audiences nearing the end of World War II were looking for. The financial failure was so profound that its star, Jack Benny, used it as comic fodder for years to come on his radio and television shows, and whether or not it was a factor, Benny never made a starring feature again. But, although the film has a reputation for being unfunny, I strongly beg to differ. When I was young, The Horn Blows at Midnight played annually on New Years Eve, due to its theme of great change at the midnight hour. It is filled with one gag and/or joke after another, some timely, many timeless.

The story is cute as well as comedic. As the film starts we find Benny as a trumpet player in a radio station orchestra. The drifting tones of the radio commercial announcer put him to sleep and in his slumber he is transported to Heaven 1945-46 (that's what the screen says, really), where untold scores of angelic heavenly hosts make up the grandest orchestra ever to behold. This lighthearted view of kingdom come offers a corporate scenario of eternity ~ even a Hollywood studio in 1945 perhaps ~ where orders come from "the front office". In Heaven, Jack is a naive, slow witted angel named Athanael, who plays trumpet in the celestial symphony. His girlfriend, Elizabeth, secretary to "the Chief", recommends him for the job of destroying the planet Earth, which has gotten out of hand. The task of planet destruction usually goes to the demolition expert (Gabriel?) but Athanael is given the task, since the Earth is one of the lesser planets, whose creation was "merely a six day job....practically slapped together".

Using the elevator of the swanky Hotel Universe in New York City as his cosmic transport, Athanael descends to find two fallen angels turned playboys, who manage to dissuade the nit wit from his task of Armageddon. Now a fallen angel himself, the bemoaned bugler must make his way around the Big Apple as a babe in the wood, even losing his trusty trumpet to a waiter from "Joisy" because he didn't have enough of something called 'dollas' to pay for his meal.

Gorgeous Alexis Smith is at her glamorous prime as Elizabeth, the harpist/secretary with the heavenly figure. She is merely window dressing for Benny's jokes but displays much style and grace. Also on hand as a pretty trinket is beautiful blonde Dolores Moran, a Warners starlet who always raised the temperature in her scenes. The rest of the cast is simply littered with superb character actors, offering a veritable who's who of supporting players. Suave slimeball Reginald Gardiner; ranting curmudgeon Guy Kibbee; tough and dumb hood Mike Mazurki; classic Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont; Little Rascal cum Baretta Bobby Blake; and the incomparable fussy & prissy Franklin Pangborn, who nearly steals the show. As fallen angels Osidro and Doremus, Allyn Joslin and John Alexander are wickedly decadent, offering the ex-patriot Athanael a job peddling stolen ladies foundation garments ~ Osidro: "The job for you is hot girdles" Athanael: "But I don't know anything about a girdle, hot or cold...I don't even know what a girdle is!"

The Horn Blows at Midnight has become a cult classic of sorts, its virtues and value discovered over time. It's a wonderfully creative film and very 1940's modern. It's Warners version of ultra chic 1945 with laughs thrown in all around, not only verbally but with heavy dashes of slapstick as well, furnishing not one but two hilarious cliffhanging (literally) episodes atop the roof of the Hotel Universe at midnight when Athanael must blow his horn. Clever and engaging, The Horn Blows at Midnight would make a great Christmas/New Years Eve double feature with Christmas in Connecticut (also 1945 from Warners). Try it, you may like it.


  1. I am a huge fan of Jack Benny and I have always loved The Horn Blows at Midnight. I always found it strange that Jack got countless jokes out of this film, when it was actually very good. While it may have been a dud at the box office, it is still one of the funniest films of the Forties.

  2. I agree with you whole heartedly Mecurie that regardless of past opinions, this is a very funny and clever film.....

  3. hmmmm.
    Well, frankly, I saw it years ago and just hated it. I think I fell asleep.

    But, based on your recommendation, and the other commenters, I'll give it a shot again. But only if TCM shows it...I don't think I'll invest in this one just yet :P

  4. I've always wondered about this film. I grew up watching Benny on TV and vaguely recall his occasional joke about it. But it's your description of the story that really has my curiosity sounds like a fscinating little film. And if TCM doesn't show it soon, I'm just going to have to track it down on my own. Thanks, Rupert!

  5. Happy New Year Rupert!

    This was the first movie that introduced me to Jack Benny. It was hilarious. I became a huge fan of his and was elated when a local television station in San Francisco began running his variety show nightly. He is still one of my favorite comedians. He was a master at making people laugh with just a simple facial expression. Thanks for the post.

  6. I watched this many years ago when it came on a TV station with lousy reception, but we watched the whole thing in fuzzy black and white and loved it! Since then I've caught it on TCM a few times and find it hard to believe that it did not work in 1945, but if people were getting tired of the fantasy escapist films at that time, then it was just bad timing. I'd recommend this film to anyone- along with "Buck Benny Rides Again".

  7. Jack Benny is a comedic genius. I'm a classic entertainment geek, and I have a collection of his TV show and an abundance of his radio performances.

    One of the latter is the radio adaptation of The Horn Blows At Midnight. I loved it, and immediately wanted to see it. Sadly, I haven't been able to find a copy ANYWHERE.



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