Archive for Jack Benny

Apocalypse of an Angel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 2, 2018 by dcairns

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.

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The Sunday Intertitle: The Gag Man

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2018 by dcairns

This is, I think, the only funny intertitle in THE GENERAL, the only one that even attempts to be funny. And even then, it’s just alliteration, not some kind of wisecrack.

It’s a shock to see Keystone films after watching mature Keaton or Chaplin, because at Keystone they tried to cram gags into every title. I think the idea was to take what had been filmed and punch it up with another layer of comedy. Whereas Buster and Charlie knew what they’d got was good enough. Harold Lloyd would do funny titles — “When the man with the mansion met the miss with a mission…” — really witty ones. And they seem to be more intimately connected to the story — that one, from FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, was going to supply the movie’s original title.

Keaton does gag titles in his shorts, but again, they’re plot-based, as with the boat’s name in THE BOAT. “Damfino.” “Well I don’t know either.”

Weirdly, the writing credit on THE GENERAL names directors Buster and Clyde Bruckman, but adds, “Adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith.” Smith was an actor, who plays the heroine’s dad in the film. And Boasberg was a joke writer from vaudeville who had helped shape the personae of everyone from Jack Benny to Milton Berle and Burns & Allen. Keaton referred to him as an example of how that kind of verbal humour wasn’t needed on his films, and the credit seems likely to be a compensation to Boasberg for not having any of his work used. The straightforward, purely functional titles of the film could be entrusted to a minor actor with, I suspect, Keaton more or less dictating ~

 

Smith.

Boasberg’s trumped-up credit reminds me of H.M. “Beany” Walker, who got writing credit on all the Laurel & Hardy shorts, despite the fact that the story was already in place when he came on, and so he’d write a dialogue script full of one-liners which the boys basically ignored. Those titles at the start of many L&H talkies would end up being his major contribution.

But it’s nice Boasberg got a credit because his name goes unmentioned on a lot of films he DID contribute to — notably A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, where he seems to have originated the legendary stateroom scene, a scene dependent on his speciality — verbal quips which not only fit the situation, but the speaker’s unique comic personality.

Info from Ben Schwartz’s amazing bio essay, The Gag Man, available in The Film Comedy Reader.

The Christopher Movement

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2018 by dcairns

This is the only film Leo McCarey shot between GOOD SAM in 1948 and MY SON JOHN in 1952.

It’s a sort of documentary made for the Christopher Movement, a Catholic organisation dedicated to, I guess, getting more Catholics into government, education and labour organisation. It’s not, I would argue, a very distinguished piece of film. Although it’s meant to be factual rather than entertaining, it’s entirely staged. A bunch of Hollywood types discuss the movement with Father James G. Keller. Notes follow ~

  1. The best thing about the film is the wonky telecine job performed on it by the uploader or his associates. We keep zooming and panning in sudden drunken lurches at every edit, giving the conversation a woozy, drugged-out quality.
  2. William Holden may have become McCarey’s opponent on SATAN NEVER SLEEPS but he was happy to donate his time to this thing.
  3. Normally, a film with these people would be bound to be interesting, though it’s hard to think up a plot that could realistically incorporate roles for Holden, Paul Douglas, Jack Benny & Rochester, Ann Blyth, Loretta Young and Irene Dunne.
  4. Who invited the mermaid?
  5. It’s not really fair to judge Keller on how he comes across here since he wasn’t a trained actor. But I find him damned sinister. Also, he looks a good bit like McCarey. Great cheekbones.
  6. Paul Douglas’ rendition of the Declaration of Independence is not as effective as Charles Laughton’s* in RUGGLES OF RED GAP. Context is key.
  7. Despite everything, Irene Dunne gets a laugh around 13.30. She was one of McCarey’s regular visitors when he was dying, as he is here.
  8. Jack Benny gets some laughs at around 23.
  9. Bob Hope might have gotten a laugh but the sound effect is timed badly.
  10. Oh Leo, Leo, Leo.

*See comments for correction.