November 18, 2020

The midnight hour


ccording to various Christian traditions, it is the archangel Gabriel who will blow the horn announcing the Lord's return to Earth and the Time of Final Judgment, as described in the Apocalypse of John.

With that as the preface, I thought that, since we've been spending some time lately looking at "cultural" programs of the past, it would be appropriate to continue the trend with The Horn Blows at Midnight, Jack Benny's fabled comedy, as seen in a live television broadcast on Omnibus from November 29, 1953, and introduced by the series host, none other than Alistair Cooke. Before we get to that, though, a little background.

The Horn Blows at Midnight originally debuted as a big-screen movie in 1945. It tells the story of a studio musician, played by Benny, who falls asleep and dreams that he's Athanael, a junior grade angel ("third phalanx, fifteenth cohort") who's been given a small but important assignment: to travel to one of the fairly insignificant planets—Earth—and blow the horn that signifies the end of the world. A variety of complications ensue, all of which conspire to prevent Benny from carrying out his assignment, at which point Benny awakens from his dream and returns to reality.

I don't know if the word "bomb" is an appropriate description for the movie's reception, but it certainly underperformed, critically and at the box office, considering the presence of a star like Benny. Shrewdly, Jack adopted the movie as one of his longest-running punch lines on both his radio and television programs, building it up (or tearing it down, as it were) until it had attained a status as an epic failure, if not one of the worst movies ever made. ("When the horn blew at midnight," he once said, "it blew taps for my movie career.") This, of course, gave the movie far more publicity than it would have gotten otherwise (after all, people thought, it couldn't possibly be that bad!), burnishing Benny's reputation for self-deprecating humor, and helping the movie recoup its investment.

Benny with angelic girlfriend Dorothy Malone
and Lester Matthews as The Chief 
A version of The Horn Blows at Midnight was produced for the radio program Ford Theater in 1949 with Benny reprising his role, and this version differs a bit from the movie, most significantly in the dropping of the framing device that begins and ends the story. Here, it's no dream; Benny actually is Athanael the angel, and he really has been sent to blow the horn and drop the curtain on Earth's existence. However, as Athanael goes from one predicament to another, with the clock edging ever closer to midnight, he begins to question his assignment, asking "whether or not the people of Earth, just suffering World War II, deserved to be extinguished with the Earth or given another chance." In the end, after Athanael pleas for mercy on behalf of humanity, The Chief (God? St. Peter? Gabriel?) relents, giving the planet and its people one final chance. It is the radio verison, rather than the movie, that serves as the basis for the Omnibus adaptation. 

The change adds a level of genuine poignancy to the story. Athanael looks at the suffering residents of Earth, many of whom bear no responsiblity for the atrocities of the global war, and confronts the implicit moral dilemma as to whether they should pay this price without even having had a chance to build a world of their own. With a compassion and humility not unlike that of the Old Testament prophet Abraham praying for God to spare Sodom from destruction, Athanael pleads that the people of Earth be spared. He tells of the good, decent people he's met, and the young couple who've learned that their love for each other is more important than any other problems that might exist. "There are millions of others just like them, just hoping and praying for a better world. If you'd just give them a little more time," Athanael explains to The Chief. "You’ve waited so long, thousands and thousands of years, suppose you wait just a little while longer, and then maybe everything can straighten itself out and be exactly the way you want it to be." 

Before we completely let the curtain fall on this bucolic scene, however, we'd do well to consider that final exchange between Athanael and The Chief. Reflecting on a conversation he'd heard between a couple of taxi drivers, Athanael points out that "if there’s another war, the whole world would destroy itself and then there’d be no more Earth." Then he appeals to The Chief's sense of justice, as well as his practicality: "Remember Chief, if that happened, then the responsibility wouldn’t be yours. You wouldn’t be to blame." Won over by Athaneal's argument, The Chief agrees to stay his hand—for now. It is, if not a happy ending, at least a hopeful one.

I know what you're thinking: don't go there. And I shouldn't, but I can't not. There is, of course, more than one way for the world to end; it can happen, as T.S. Eliot put it, "not with a bang but with a whimper." In our headlong rush toward iconoclasm and nihilism, we seem—quite literally—hell bent on self-destruction. And so, we should be hoping that The Chief shows as much patience with us as he did in 1953. Either that, or we have someone as eloquent as Jack Benny pleading our case for us 

Meanwhile, night falls, and the clock continues to go tick, tick, tick . . . TV  

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