Thursday, June 9, 2011

Benny is Excellent in an Otherwise Strange Film

Jack Benny was one of the finest comedic performers in his, or any other, generation before him or since. In my opinion, he was just as clever as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin before him. And like Keaton and Chaplin, Benny didn't need elaborate story lines and props to make us laugh. This film, from 1945, actually contradicts what I just wrote, but I believe it's still relevant. The story is complex, and there is a prop involved. First and foremost, it's a film centered around the talents of Jack Benny.

The film opens with Jack Benny as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Paradise Coffee Program. The program's slogan is "Paradise Coffee...the coffee that makes you sleep." And that's just what happens. Benny falls asleep, and therin lies the film, an elaborate dream sequence. In the dream, Benny plays Athaniel, an angel in heaven who is given a mission. He's sent to earth to blow his trumpet promptly at midnight, in order to destroy earth. When they find out of this plan, two gentleman, Osidro and Doremus, two fallen angels who have stayed on earth to enjoy an extravagent life, enlist the help of debonair jewel thief Archie Dexter to steal the trumpet, therefore making it impossible for Athaniel to return to heaven. His first attempt, however, is foiled by Archie's beautiful accomplice, Fran, played by Delores Moran. Fran is desondent over a botched jewel heist, and she ends up on the same roof where Athaniel is about to carry out his plan, intending to commit suicide. Little does she know that the man who saves her is a so-called "angel of death". Athaniel decides to enjoy earth for one day, until midnight of the following night. The first thing he does is to do what mortals call "eating". Unknowing of our ways, when asked to pay his bill with something called "dollas" (the waiter is equipped with a thick New York accent), his trumpet is held in lieu of payment. Hilarity ensues. Athaniel gets his trumpet back, and then, with the help of fellow angel Elizabeth (who is also the harp player in his reality) he continues to carry out his mission. The climax of the film has the film's entire cast hanging from a high rise building, as midnight approaches. At the bottom of the chain of mortals and angels hanging from the building is Athaniel, desperately hanging to the legs of those above him with one arm, and clutching his beloved trumpet in the other.

I can only speculate, as this film was made nearly fourty years before I was born, but it seems to me that this film inspired the stories of films about angels sent to earth. The one that immediately comes to mind is John Travolta's "Michael", or even the Disney film "Angels in the Outfield". But neither of those films have the dark undertones of this film. While it's certainly a comedy, as one would expect from a film starring Jack Benny, it's really more of a dark comedy, a film that begins as a film centering around the idea of destruction and death. The look and aura of the film is also worth noting. It has a very noir-ish style to it. This is thanks to director Raoul Walsh, who was also the man behind one of my absolute favorite films "White Heat". This film, as well as "White Heat" use very strong female characters. Both female roles, Fran and Elizabeth are very strong and outspoken. This was one of Walsh's signatures. He always wrote female roles so they wouldn't just fade away behind their male counterparts, but instead, they would lend support and be able to stand their own ground next to the male leads. They were both ultimately able to lend comedic support to Jack Benny, one of the most excellent comedic talents of the twentieth century.

The film is a bit conviluted, and, without Jack Benny, it would have just been that, and I wouldn't be writing about it right now. But Jack Benny made a strange film about an elaborate dream, and made it worth watching. It's worth watching just to see Jack Benny crack a joke, but not cracking a smile. His deadpan delivery makes the joke all the more hilarious. This film is strange, but very intriguing.

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