Director Raoul Walsh was not particularly known for producing lighter cinematic fare. Though his five decade-long filmography ranges from comedies to dramas to Westerns, Walsh is primarily remembered as the director of a string of successful, heavily male-driven flicks in the 1940s, beginning with a trio of Humphrey Bogart-led movies including The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941), and ending with the bravura gangster classic White Heat (1949), starring James Cagney. But within that ten-year period, two films stand out–both of them comedies, both largely romance-driven, with more than a soupcon of sentimentality between them. The first, 1941’s The Strawberry Blonde, is a lovely film, presenting a nostalgic look back at life in turn-of-the-century New York City (Walsh would also direct a remake of the film in 1948, One Sunday Afternoon, but the less said about that one, the better). And the second … well, the second is the very definition of an “odd duck” film, one that boggles the mind and yet provides some curious delights: The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945).
The film is an elaborate fantasy, a daydream courtesy of a weary trumpeter in a radio-show band. Athanael (Benny), one of thousands of souls in the heavenly orchestra, is chosen to go down to Planet 339001, commonly known as “Earth,” and herald the end of the world. The “head office” has determined that Earth’s inhabitants are too corrupted by sin to be allowed to exist, and Athanael is instructed to blow four notes on his trumpet at midnight to trigger the apocalypse.
Though Athanael’s girlfriend, Elizabeth (Alexis Smith), arranged for him to get the assignment, she grows more and more worried about his ability to complete the task. When Athanael misses the deadline–largely due to the shenanigans of two fallen angels who attempt to thwart the end of the world–he despairs at his own now-fallen state. But Elizabeth arranges for Athanael to have one more chance to complete his mission, and to ensure that all goes well, she heads down to Earth herself to oversee the end of the planet and all its tempting delights.
When Walsh commenced filming in 1943, the script was not even complete. This did not exactly bode well for the movie; indeed, throughout the film, the tone vacillates from dark to broadly comedic with little regard. One wonders if the film would have worked better as a strict fantasy rather than being structured, somewhat clumsily, as an obvious daydream, for the framing sequences are all too brief and provide little context as to why Benny’s character escapes into this particular dreamscape. Ultimately, audiences and critics did not respond well to the end product. Neither did the studio, as evidenced by the year that Horn spent on the shelf before finally limping into theaters in 1945. Warner Brothers, it seems, simply did not know what to do with the movie.
Benny would later paint Horn as a low point, labeling the movie a career-breaker, though that was far from the truth–Horn actually turned a modest profit at the box office, though not as much as Benny–and Warner Brothers–would have liked. And while Horn does represent Benny’s final starring role in a picture, his dwindling onscreen success cannot be solely linked to the perceived failure of the film. As for the movie itself, its lack of wide-ranging success can likely be attributed to two causes: timing, and source material. The film was released just as World War II was coming to an end, arriving in theaters scant weeks before V-E day marked the end of fighting in Europe. The film’s themes were not consistent with war-time patriotic cinematic fervor; nor did they fall in line with the subsequent popularity of noir and post-war realism. The height of screwball comedy was past, the genre having grown largely out of favor as the war dragged on. Simply put, 1945 was an awkward time to be a screwball comedy in theaters, and Horn’s delayed release date playing a major role in the film’s relatively poor reception.
That’s not to say that Horn is a bad movie; indeed, it is not nearly as terrible as its reputation in some corners would have us believe. For all its strange construction, Horn is a genuinely funny film. There are moments of comedic brilliance sprinkled throughout, particularly in the more physical bits, as Benny thrashes his body around with wild abandon, fully committed to the daffy gags that have him dangling off rooftops and swimming in a massive cup of coffee. And the familiar Benny one-liners are plentiful here; for instance, when Athanael sees people dancing, he remarks that he must “tell St. Vitus” about it.
Though Benny is the centerpiece, he is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, with some of the biggest character actors from the screwball period making appearances–from Guy Kibbee as Athanael’s skeptical angelic boss, to Franklin Pangborn as yet another in a long line of stuffy managerial types. Alexis Smith, an underrated actress in many ways, is delightful as Elizabeth, and young Dolores Moran, barely seventeen at the time of filming, adds a sense of petulant innocence as the girlfriend of Reginald Gardiner’s smooth criminal, Dexter.
Last fall, Warner Archive released the long-unavailable The Horn Blows at Midnight through their MOD (manufactured-on-demand) service. Though the film has not been remastered, this Archive edition boasts a great, clear print and solid sound.
If you’ve never seen this screwball fantasy, you’re missing out on one of the weirdest and yet most strangely delightful films you’ll ever see. Ignore the film’s undeserved reputation as an unmitigated bomb. Come for the typical Jack Benny shtick, stay for the kooky storyline and fantastic performances from a great cast of characters, and suspend your snarky disbelief at the door.
(And, while you’re at it, marvel at one of the oddest depictions of Heaven you may ever see.)
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of The Horn Blows at Midnight for the purposes of this review.