Sunday, March 11, 2012


This comic fantasy became a famous running gag for its star Jack Benny, who later claimed it was a huge flop of a stinker which ruined his movie career. It was in fact his last starring vehicle in movies, though he went on to a huge career in radio and TV. And while it's not a great movie (for one very obvious reason I'll get to later), it's more than watchable. Benny is an out-of-tune trumpet player for a radio show orchestra. During a late night music show, sponsored by Paradise Coffee (advertised as a sleep aid!!), Benny falls asleep and dreams that he's an angel sent down to Earth by the Chief (Guy Kibbee) to blow the Last Trumpet, the call that will signal the destruction of the planet (in this movie's theological scheme, Earth is just one insignificant peopled planet among millions). He arrives via a cosmic elevator which deposits him in New York's Hotel Universe, but his plan to blow his horn at midnight from the roof of the high-rise hotel is foiled when he saves a cigarette girl (Dolores Moran) from killing herself. When he fails to sound the note, Kibbee threatens to declare Benny a fallen angel, stranding him on Earth, so heavenly secretary Alexis Smith goes down the elevator to try and find out what's happened and help Benny get a second chance to redeem himself. Also in the mix: two fallen angels (Allyn Joslyn and John Alexander) and a slick jewel thief (Reginald Gardiner), whom the angels hire to steal Benny's trumpet to save the Earth.

One of several fantasies of the WWII era to imagine a bureaucratic Heaven and angels who interact with humans (HERE COMES MR. JORDAN and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE being the two best-known), this one is pretty much straightforward slapstick comedy, and several setpieces, such as Moran's attempted suicide and the wild climax on the hotel roof (which involves a gigantic Paradise Coffee sign with an oversized, mechanical coffee pot, cup, and sugar spoon) are quite fun indeed. The Heaven effects are good, particularly the infinite-looking angelic orchestra (pictured). All the actors seem to be having a good time, especially Benny, Gardiner, and Franklin Pangborn as a harried hotel clerk--though the lovely Alexis Smith hasn't much to do. The film effectively uses the OZ gimmick of having everyone in "real life" (mostly members of the orchestra) be characters in the dream. What the film is missing, which keeps it from being anything more than a fun diversion, is a total lack of any narrative or emotional resonance. The whole thing is just the dream of a second-rate trumpet player: no reason is given for the destruction of the Earth, and equally, no reason given for the human race to be saved. The dream narrative comes to no logical conclusion; Benny just wakes up at midnight and delivers a final punch line about the likelihood of his dream being made into a movie. With no narrative heft and no truly rounded characters, it ends up feeling like an extended comedy sketch. Still, it has a fast pace and some very clever musical cues here and there, and it's fun for fans of Benny and of afterlife fantasies. [TCM]

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