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JACK BENNY AT THE MOVIES

 

 

Recommended Jack Benny Films

Horn Blows at Midnight, The

George Washington Slept Here

To Be or Not to BE  

Meanest Man in the World, The  

Broadway Melody of 1936

 


It's hard to believe that with all the phenomenal success Jack Benny achieved on the stage,  radio and television that his remarkable talent was unable to translate onto the big screen.  Conventional  wisdom tends to point out that Benny, who performed many years in vaudeville, worked best when feeding off the laughter of a live audience. Ergo, take  away the live audience (a movie) and you also take away the timing. 

To some extent I agree with this, but I think there are certainly other mitigating factors. One of my favorite elements of the Jack Benny show is the abundant and pioneering use of surrealistic humor.  During the golden age of television and  radio, comedies either employed straight variety or standard situation comedy. Few shows deviated from tradition. However, on the Jack Benny program, a "gas man" eating polar bear and camels were kept as pets, a house containing a vault complete with an alligator filled  moat and 24 hour a day guard and for a few seasons Jack literally turned his home into an asylum with Mr. Binglinsly, a boarder with advanced insanity. 

Yet, he managed to temper this bizarre content with a standard radio format.  And this brings us back to Jack and the audience. Not only did he use the live audience as a sounding board for timing, but he used the intimacy of that crowd to introduce surreal humor. Even one of Jack trademark lines "Now cut that out!" was an aside to the audience which let them know that he also found the show's content strange and  ridicules.  This live interaction took the edge off the surreal subject matter and made it more palatable for a mainstream audience.  At the theatres, movie goers found Benny's films odd, cold and distant. Without that performer/crowd symbiosis,  the unusual content proved too dense for the 30s and 40s.  Playwright George S. Kaufman once said, "Satire, is what closes Saturday night." If this is true, surrealism would not have made it through the dress rehearsal.

That being said, I have made a remarkable discovery. After viewing many of Jack Benny's films available on videotape, it seems the times have finally caught up with the king of timing. Many of the movies I only knew by reputation (The Horn Blows at Midnight) have become among my favorite movies of all time. These films are definitely worth another look.

 


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