Fiddling Around with Jack Benny’s Film Legacy

The film legacy of actor, comedian and violinist Jack BennyWhen you consider why Jack Benny’s legacy in American entertainment has continued to endure for two generations after the comedian’s passing, his 30-plus-year run in the mediums of radio and TV, of course, takes up the better part of the pie graph, with his toils in Hollywood accounting for a modest slice. Helping to fuel this perception back in the day—and since—was Benny’s frequent, self-deprecating dismissiveness of his movie output in the context of his act.  The running gag probably had its grounding in Jack’s own understanding of where his bread was buttered; the film opportunities may have come first, in the dawn of the talkies, but it was broadcast that lifted him from mid-card vaudevillian to household name. He thrived on live audience response to his impeccable timing, a rush that’d be lacking after the umpteenth take of a scene on-set. After the critical/popular rebuff to the charming The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Benny almost exclusively saved his energies for the airwaves, and the handful of screen credits he racked up over the remainder of his life were limited to cameos and walk-ons.  The public Jack might have been his own harshest critic of his celluloid resume, but the best of his flicks stand as enjoyable entertainments that have ably captured his comic gifts for posterity.

As a thumbnail, the kid born Benny Kubelsky in Chicago and raised in Waukegan, Ill., dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a vaudeville violinist. In the course of his service with the Navy in World War I, Benny got in touch with his flair for getting laughs while performing in camp shows; he returned to the boards after his discharge, spending the Jazz Age honing his comedic gifts. While a 1928 Vitaphone short first captured his stage act for celluloid, a 1929 stint at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater caught the eye of MGM honcho Irving Thalberg, who tendered a contract. Jack would make his feature bow with The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), serving as emcee for a hodgepodge of skits, set pieces, and concert performances designed to showcase the advent of the talking picture, and the adaptation of the studio’s star-studded talent roster thereto.

Returns were less significant for his featured support in the backstage musical Chasing Rainbows (1930), however, and he was soon thereafter let out of his deal. After headlining with a semi-straight performance in the Poverty Row programmer The Medicine Man (1930), and following with a handful of shorts for Paramount, radio was looking better all the time; he cut his first deal with NBC in 1932, setting the stage for a 15-year run with the network in which the familiar self-consumed cheapskate persona, as well as the comic rapport with regulars like Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Mel Blanc, and real-life spouse Mary Livingstone, would evolve.

jack-benny-broadway-melody-36Still, we’re talking about the man’s movies, and Jack continued to keep his options open in Hollywood as his broadcast career burgeoned. After joining the ensemble for RKO’s shipboard murder mystery Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (1934), and returning to MGM as the comic heavy for Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936) and a starring  vehicle in It’s in the Air (1936), Jack settled back into Paramount for the balance of the decade. He’d join good friends George Burns and Gracie Allen for top billing in the mixed-bag entertainments The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936) and College Holiday (1936), then got to carry the lead in Artists and Models (1937), as an adman out to rig a beauty contest in favor of his client.

The film was successful enough to warrant the in-name-only follow-up Artists & Models Abroad (1938), and he got another effective headline gig with Man About Town (1939), as a producer who hits on noblewoman Binnie Barnes to make star Dorothy Lamour jealous. Reportedly, the more the studios traded on his radio persona in lieu of crafting a different kind of showcase, the more dissatisfied Jack got; the syndrome peaked with his last two efforts for Paramount, which challenged him to show his range by playing—well—broadcast star Jack Benny. Love Thy Neighbor (1940) leveraged his faux—and long-prior peaked—feud with fellow radio quipster Fred Allen, as a fender-bender with the ’28 Maxwell escalates into a full-out war of comic one-upsmanship. Buck Benny Rides Again (1940) found him forced to make good on his on-air boasts about being able to rough it in a rancher’s life out west, with a full complement of his NBC regulars—Anderson, Day, Harris—in tow.

After parting ways with Paramount, Jack spent the World War II years delivering the very best efforts in his filmic output. The first came when he signed on at Fox for a do-over of the often-filmed Brandon Thomas drawing-room farce Charley’s Aunt (1941). Granted, you’ve got to be willing to suspend a boatload of disbelief to buy Benny as a) British, b) college-aged, and c) attractive in drag, but you’ll be rewarded if you go there. Jack is cast as troublemaking Oxford underclassman Fancourt “Babbs” Babberley, who’s blackmailed by his roommates Jack (Lee Ellison) and Charley (Richard Haydn) into helping them out. It looks like an anticipated visit from their girlfriends Amy (Anne Baxter) and Kitty (Arleen Whelan) might fall through because their expected chaperone—Charley’s heretofore-unseen maiden aunt (Kay Francis)—can’t be found. One reluctant cross-dress later, Babbs surfaces as the missing “aunt,” and somehow proceeds to romantically charm both Amy’s uncle (Edmund Gwenn) and Jack’s dad (Laird Cregar). Meantime, the real aunt slips onto campus incognito; Babbs, in one of his few moments back in menswear, winds up falling for her. It’s well-paced fun, with an amazing cast—toss in Reginald Owen as the exasperated dean—and it might well be the best of the many cinematic takes on the story.

jack-benny-artists-modelsJack’s next feature, for Alexander Korda and released through United Artists, was a dicey proposition given the tenor of its times—but it stands as a comic classic, and arguably the best entry on his film resume. Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) opens in 1939 Poland, in the days before the Nazi invasion, where Hitler-bashing farces are a staple at the Warsaw theater company anchored by the insufferably vain ham Joseph Tura (Benny). Chief amongst those having had their fill of his ego is his gorgeous spouse/leading lady Maria (Carole Lombard), who’s getting too receptive to the determined attentions of a fan, the handsome young airman Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack). The occupation soon comes upon them; the now-London-based Sobinski entrusts the revered Polish intellectual Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) with the delivery of a love note to Maria on his return to Warsaw. Upon discovering Siletsky to be an Axis mole—and bearing information for German intelligence that could crush the resistance—Sobinski races home to intercept the traitor. Confronting the Turas, Sobinski makes an impassioned appeal to Joseph’s patriotism—and narcissism—by asking him to impersonate Siletsky in a brash bid to defuse the delivery.

The convolutions only continue to mount from there, and they’re consistently carried by Benny’s pitch-perfect efforts. The subject matter raised its share of eyebrows when it was released to an America by then drawn into World War II, but Lubitsch’s sly handling of the content and the capable efforts of the cast made it a hit. When historians note the film, the focus is invariably drawn to Lombard, as it sadly proved the capper to a storied career; less than two months before To Be or Not to Be opened, she lost her life in a plane crash while returning from a bond drive.

Jack would thereafter head to Warner Brothers for a screen adaptation of the hit George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart Broadway farce George Washington Slept Here (1942). The scenario casts Benny as a businessman and Ann Sheridan as his antiquities-nutty wife. They’ve both had their fill of apartment life in NYC, but she’s the one who takes some initiative about it, purchasing a farmhouse in rural Connecticut that had been legendarily visited by the Father of our Country. The rub is that the constantly collapsing property proves to show all 200 years of its age, and the local handyman—a hilarious, pre-Pa Kettle Percy Kilbride—is all too ready to rack up the invoices for the new occupants. Toss in a miserable next-door neighbor (Charles Dingle) who guards his water rights with an iron fist, a visiting rich uncle (Charles Coburn) who they pray they can put the touch on, and the other assorted eccentric relations and locals traipsing in and out the door (including Hattie McDaniel, Lee Patrick, and William Tracy), and you’ve got the makings of a raft of nightmares that won’t be covered under homeowners’.

In the Kaufman-Hart play, it’s the husband who’s the driving force behind the return to rusticity; the studio took its chief liberty in flipping the lead characters’ motivations, leaving all the reactive comedy in Jack’s hands—and he rises to the occasion as expected.

jack-benny-meanest-man-worldBenny went back to Fox for his last project for the studio, and the amusing results belie the not-quite-hour-long effort’s troubled production history. In dusting off a 1920 George M. Cohan play, The Meanest Man in the World (1943) cast Jack as Richard Clarke, a kind and good-natured small-town soul who perhaps should have sought career counseling before he decided to become an attorney. When the unimpressed father of his girlfriend (Priscilla Lane) refuses to OK the marriage until he makes a success of himself, he relocates his practice to New York City, and starts a public campaign to demonstrate his ruthlessness. Commencing with stealing kids’ candy and telling them Santa doesn’t exist, he goes upward (or downward) from there, and pretty soon the corporate clients are lining up at his door. It all proves problematic when his fiancée finds she liked the nice guy better.

Eddie Anderson was on hand for Rochester-type duty as Clarke’s butler, and Edmund Gwenn and Anne Revere also offered effective support. Jack, however, wasn’t crazy about the script, bringing Morrie Ryskind in for uncredited punch-ups.  Moreover, he also asked Lubitsch to anonymously oversee retakes. The finished product, at 57 minutes, proved problematic for theaters of its time to book, but it remains a short, sweet and to-the-point view for Benny buffs.

After joining the sea of bit appearances that comprised Warner’s 1944 homefront morale booster Hollywood Canteen, Jack appeared the following year  in his last starring feature, the film that would be Public Enemy No. 1 on the frequent future occasions whenever he trashed his movie legacy.  Crowds and critics of the day might have been indifferent to The Horn Blows at Midnight…and Benny might have reminded us of that fact at every opportunity for the rest of his life—but it’s an engaging and worthwhile fantasy farce that’s made its share of adherents over the years.

In a framing sequence that’s long suspected to have been a last-minute afterthought, Benny is introduced as Athanel, the talentless third trumpet in a radio orchestra. Nodding off on the job (in the course of a coffee commercial, no less), he’s dreams that he’s a heavenly archangel—but still no more competent with his lip. He’s called in the office by The Chief (Guy Kibbee), who’s decided that mankind has frittered away all the good set before it, and that it’s time to pull the plug. On the recommendation of shapely seraph Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) it’s Athanel’s job to head to the mortal plane, and sound the notes that’ll bring on Armageddon.  Once here, though, the only thing he starts blowing is the assignment. While opting to rescue a potential suicide (Dolores Moran), he loses his horn. Worse still, a couple of fallen angels (Allen Joslyn, John Alexander) who like gallivanting around on Earth just fine, thank you, are determined to keep the instrument of destruction out of his hands. The prolonged shell-game culminates in an elaborate and energetic Harold Lloyd-esque slapstick rooftop finale. Maybe a war-weary public just wasn’t in the mood, but whatever the reason, the film proved an unfortunate misfire.

Thereafter, Jack was done as a film lead. Comfortably back behind the mike, he stayed there through a famous 1949 jump to CBS—and the following year, he began a successful conversion of his radio formula to the emerging TV medium, where he’d have a regular berth through the early ‘60s. The balance of his movie career consisted of small bits, starting with the Allen-headlined Twelve Chairs rework It’s in the Bag (1945), and continuing in projects like Without Reservations (1946), The Great Lover (1949), Somebody Loves Me (1952), Beau James (1957), Who Was That Lady? (1960), Gypsy (1962), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World (1963), and A Guide for the Married Man (1967).

Looney Tunes aficionados will recall how he was joined by Livingstone, Anderson, Wilson, and—big shock—Blanc in lending their voices to mouse versions of themselves in the Warner animated short The Mouse that Jack Built (1958).  Benny was actually on the cusp of lensing his most substantive movie role in decades—opposite Walter Matthau, as ex-vaudeville comedy teammates asked to table their mutual loathing for a TV reunion. In the Neil Simon farce The Sunshine Boys (1975)—when his health failed him. (Buddy George Burns would step in, ultimately garnering the 80-year-old a Best Supporting Actor Oscar—to say nothing of a career resurgence that would sustain him a startling 20 years.)

Jack ultimately succumbed to pancreatic cancer in February 1975. He might not have given a nickel for the whole of his cinema career—come to think of it, there wasn’t much that he’d give a nickel for—but by and large, the films made money then, hold up well, and offer more than a little proof of a deservedly enduring comic genius.