Apocalypse of an Angel

THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT is a 1945 comedy-fantasy which became a punchline in its own right when star Jack Benny took to joking about how terrible it was. Decades later, Jon Stewart would revitalise this self-deprecatory schtick by ruefully trashing his own work in DEATH TO SMOOCHIE. But, in fact, neither film is terrible — at worst, they’re unsuccessful but interesting.

THBAN fits snugly into the ’40s fantasy cycle involving the afterlife, which seems to have been some kind of reaction to the mass-slaughter of WWII. Though the Heaven in this film is relatively inactive as a destination for the dead — the traffic is all the other way, with various angels descending to Earth to trigger the planet’s destruction. But, just like in the simultaneously made A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, Heaven is portrayed as a vast bureaucracy. This is all a dream, of course, not even an ambiguous one like AMOLAD — the whole movie is a dream wrapped inside a slender framing structure in which nothing really happens.

But setting aside the frame, the main story is an odd one in which we are supposed to root for Jack Benny to destroy our planet. Mind you, what the film shows of New York would seem to support such a plan — the place comes across as a stinking vespiary writhing with brats, crooks, sneaks and rich creeps. With the mild-mannered Benny getting scammed and pushed around by just about everyone he meets, it’s easy to root for him to bring about the End of Days.

We get two pseudo-Harold Lloyd skyscraper dangling routines, both inserted to build further suspense as Benny tries to kill us all. We’re supposed to feel suspense (and laugh) both about whether he’ll plunge to his death on the sidewalk and whether he’ll sound the final trump and destroy the world.

It’s all fairly manic — like a kind of Thorne Smith story on PCP — the music score never lets up, and we even get the Loony Tunes theme tune at a carnival — and fairly funny. There are also some SPECTACULAR special effects. The skyscraper stuff is inventive, with lots of miniatures, dolls and rear projection, but I’m a purist about these things and the only trickery I’ll accept in these scenes is the perspectival illusions achieved by Harold Lloyd building sets on real rooftops. But the fake cityscapes are nice,

It’s the afterlife stuff that really impresses. I saw this recently excerpted in Joe Dante’s THE MOVIE ORGY and it blew my mind. The vast celestial orchestra looks at first like it might be a patchwork made up of different bits of live-action footage, duped and conjoined to turn one big crowd into a VAST one. But then the camera soars over the heavenly throng and I couldn’t work out HOW this was being done.

Seeing it again in sharper definition at least some of the technique was revealed — Fiona spotted it first. though the front rows appear to be real, a considerable crowd, the angels further back are cut-outs. It’s beautiful, like a 3D moving Sgt. Peppers album cover.

The whole strange thing is directed by Raoul Walsh, and it’s quite far from the kind of film he’s celebrated for most, but his career does contain a lot of really odd outliers.

When you gaze into THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT, THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT gazes also into you.

The film has an unusually distinguished cast, featuring Joseph Tura, Louisa van der Luyden, Mme. Hellene de Bursac, Albert Van Cleve, Hillary Ames, Scattergood Baines, ‘Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster, J. Pinkerton Snooperton, Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, Loyal Muke, Mrs. Bundy the celebrated ornithologist and Mr. ‘Moose’ Malloy.

9 Responses to “Apocalypse of an Angel”

  1. Saw this for what I thought was the first time a year or so ago. The climax with the coffee billboard was instantly familiar. As a little kid I’d seen at least that part of it, and for decades thereafter expected to see it reappear in any old TV movie that placed characters on rooftops.

    The film is as you describe it. I got very frustrated because they spent a lot of time setting up plot and rules and finally throwing them all out instead of offering SOME kind of resolution. In a short or a cartoon you might use the dream copout to get the hero out of trouble, but on a feature it’s a dirty trick. At the very least, if you leave the dream in a mess you should have a solid payoff for the framing story.

    There was a 1949 radio adaptation. It dispensed with the framing story and much of the original plot, playing more as an extended Jack Benny comedy skit. But it does offer a resolution of sorts.

  2. ‘The Horn Blows at Midnight” is pretty marvelous and so is “Death To Smoochy” which us a particular favorite of Kenneth Anger’s. Perchance Jon Stewart (who isn’t the lead in it) thought it was going to be a different sort of satire than it was.

  3. Maybe Stewart and Benny just didn’t like their own performances? But it’s as likely they both saw the possibility of making a running joke about having been in a terrible film, and picked one obscure enough that they could get away with it. In Stewart’s case, the title is helpful because it’s intentionally absurd.

    Will listen to the radio version. Yes, I wanted JB to at least blow his trumpet as he’s falling to earth at the end of the dream. Having him wake up as a way to avoid having the movie end the world would be then more acceptable.

  4. “I once drove up to the studio lot and Warner Bros., and told the guard at the gate ‘I made a movie here called The Horn Blows at Midnight. Ever see it?’ And he replied ‘See it? I directed it!'”

    – Jack Benny

  5. chris schneider Says:

    I remember thinking it odd that, as far as Warners Style is concerned, comedy doesn’t work in the live-action features of this period. Only in cartoons. Why, oh why, weren’t Michael Maltese and Tedd Pierce on-call?

  6. …because the Warner top brass paid no attention to Termite Terrace. Jack Warner: “The only thing I know about our cartoons is that we do Donald Duck.”

    Warners best comedies are probably the pre-codes, and they’re often not pure comedy (eg Blessed Event is also a melodrama). They did make plenty of good ones in the forties and fifties, but they’re all offbeat, in some way they feel like flukes, whereas other studio machines manufactured great comedies almost, seemingly, without effort.

  7. “Thank Your Lucky Stars” is pretty damned wonderful

  8. Never seen it! Added to the list.

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