This is the infamous film about which Jack Benny constantly expressed shame on his radio show (it was a flop on release).
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And while it’s by no means a classic (in fact, it’s probably only known because he made so much fun of it), it’s not that bad. Yes, some of the jokes are obvious. Yes, Benny is pretty much playing himself. But not only are there several ‘I know that guy!’ level character actors worth seeing, the storyline is innovative (Doomsday is presented in a light, cheery manner), the performances are top-rate, the fallen-angel duo are a terrific comic team, and Dolores Moran steals every scene she’s in.
Benny stars as a bad trumpet player who falls asleep during a radio commercial and dreams that he is Athanael, an angel chosen to go to Earth and blow the doomsday trumpet, heralding its end. All he has to do is blow the horn precisely at the stroke of midnight and the world will end, getting him promoted to Angel Senior Grade. But of course things keep getting in his way, including two fallen angels who are living it up on Earth.
Benny’s escapades on Earth comprise the bulk of the film, making room for several fish-out-of-water scenes (eating at a restaurant and not knowing to pay) and references to famous dead people (upon seeing a dollar bill, Benny recognises George Washington and makes a note to tell George about it on his return).
Director Raoul Walsh has assembled a stellar cast of character actors – many that I’m sure you’ve seen before – that give Benny fabulous support. Alexis Smith (Of Human Bondage) is Elizabeth, Athanael’s girlfriend. Guy Kibbee (Mr Smith Goes To Washington) plays ‘the Chief,’ who assigns Benny his task. Reginald Gardiner (The Man Who Came To Dinner) is suavity at its utmost as Archie Dexter, thief and aspiring conductor. Preston Sturges’ stock player Franklin Pangborn (Sullivan’s Travels) is in fine pomposity as Sloan. Mike Mazurki (Murder, My Sweet) has perfected the role of lovable goon by this point, but this is by far the largest role I’ve seen him in. Allyn Joslyn (The Great McGinty) and John Alexander (Arsenic And Old Lace) are Osidro and Doremus, the fallen angels who don’t want to go back. They are the American ‘Caldicott and Charters’. Former Marx brothers’ foil Margaret Dumont also has a small role and Bobby Blake, fresh from his ‘Our Gang’ days, plays bratty-punk personified.
Lots of gags and quick pacing keep one’s attention riveted. The climax is funny and suspenseful, involving all the main characters hanging off the side of a building. Good actors doing their best to entertain us is always fun to watch, as are all of the set pieces, especially one involving an oversized cup of coffee. On the downside, I wish they had stretched the ending out, giving viewers time to realise the story is ending, instead of compressing it into an unfunny punchline.