Classic Movies · Where's That Been?

Where’s That Been? – The Meanest Man in the World (1943)

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The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?”  Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here.  Enjoy! 
 
On radio’s The Jack Benny Program, there was a recurring gag where anytime Rochester van Jones (Eddie Anderson), Jack’s chief-cook-and-bottle-washer, answered his employer’s home telephone he’d give out with “Jack Benny’s residence—star of stage, screen, and radio…” (The punchline would be delivered with endless variations on “…and cars washed while you wait.” It never got old.) The routine’s purpose was not only to get a big laugh but to identify the caller on the other end in Rochester’s subsequent dialogue. 

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Priscilla Lane and Jack Benny in The Meanest Man in the World (1943)

But the joke also served to remind listeners that not only did Jack Benny enjoy huge success on radio; he had conquered other fields of show business, like vaudeville and movies. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that the comedian was better served on radio than on the silver screen. Benny appeared in many feature films, but Jack himself was never satisfied with his efforts in that arena. He liked a few of his films, notably Charley’s Aunt (1941) and George Washington Slept Here (1942), and was most pleased with what many Benny fans consider his true cinematic triumph: To Be or Not to Be (1942). 
 
Jack’s complaint with his movie resume had a lot to do with the fact that many of his films simply traded on his well-established radio character of the vainglorious cheapskate. In vehicles like Man About Town (1939) and Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), he plays himself, or more accurately, the “Jack Benny” welcomed into radio households every week. I personally think Buck Benny is one of the comedian’s most engaging outings. Jack is supported by several members of his radio cast—Rochester, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Andy Devine—and the musical comedy also features cameos from Don Wilson, Mary Livingstone, and his nemesis Fred Allen (Mary and Fred’s participation are voice-only), but I can certainly sympathize with Benny’s reluctance to be typecast. 
 
In The Meanest Man in the World (1943), Benny’s character is named “Richard Clarke”—however, he’s not too far removed from the Jack of radio (to make sure we don’t miss this point, Benny’s theme Love in Bloom is not only played during the opening credits, strains of the tune can be heard throughout the film). Clarke is a newly-minted attorney-at-law from the picaresque town of Pottsville, but he’s not having a great deal of luck lining up clients. His precarious financial situation is putting a serious crimp on his plans to wed Janie Brown (Priscilla Lane), particularly since her father, Arthur Brown (Matt Briggs), isn’t too enthusiastic about Richard being his future son-in-law.  

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Eddie “Rochester” Anderson

With all-too-transparent motives (he wants Clarke out of the way so Janie may turn her romantic intentions to a prominent Pottsville suitor), Brown persuades Richard that New York City needs a man of his legal acumen. So Clarke relocates to The Big Apple with his Man Friday, Shufro (Anderson, billed simply as “Rochester”), in tow. Sadly, this change of venue does little to make Richard triumph in the legal profession any more than his practice in Pottsville, and he’s soon facing the same money troubles and hounding creditors. Shufro explains to his boss that to succeed as a lawyer, he must be a first-rate wanker, and starting with literally taking candy from a baby (highly publicized in a newspaper photograph), Clarke soon finds himself wading through a sea of clients, anxious to retain the services of “The Meanest Man in the World.” 
 
Augustin MacHugh’s stage play The Meanest Man in the World (which premiered on Broadway in 1920, produced by and starring the legendary George M. Cohan) had already been adapted for the big screen in 1923 (starring Bert Lytell and Blanche Sweet) before 20th Century-Fox decided to fashion the vehicle for Jack Benny after the comedian’s success in Charley’s Aunt. Unfortunately, Meanest Man had a rather troubled production history: Benny was often dissatisfied with George Seaton and Alan House’s screenplay, requiring both Morris Ryskind and Wilkie Mahoney to be brought in for rewrites. Several directors had a hand in Meanest Man: Walter Lang was originally slated to ride herd on the film, but he bowed out due to illness; Sidney Lanfield eventually picked up the megaphone and Ernst Lubitsch (who worked with Benny on To Be or Not to Be) handled some necessary retakes. 
 
The result is one of the shortest A-features in movie history: The Meanest Man in the World runs a scant 57 minutes, which presented a problem for theatre bookers in its initial run. I feel the last ten minutes of the movie are a bit rushed and the ending itself isn’t really satisfying, but if you’re willing to overlook these flaws, Meanest Man is a pleasant little divertissement. The badinage between Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson is sharp and funny, and the premise of an honest lawyer (remember, these are movies we’re talking about) is fitfully amusing in an age where every law school graduate with a degree in their mitts is loudly hawking their services on television. 

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Margaret Seddon and Jack

If you’re familiar with the disparaging nickname for lawyers as “ambulance chasers,” you’ll get a kick out of a running gag in Meanest Man: every time an ambulance siren sounds, The William Tell Overture is heard on the soundtrack, and Clarke hands Shufro one of his business cards. The valet then tears out of the office in search of that prospective client. 
 
Actress Priscilla Lane seems a little young for her role as Benny’s love interest (contrary to the radio gags, Jack was not 39 when he appeared in The Meanest Man in the World—more like a decade older) but she admirably makes it work, and the movie also features a pair of future Academy Award winners in supporting parts: Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street) is a client who hires Clarke to dispossess a sweet little old lady (Margaret Seddon)—his sister-in-law yet!—and Anne Revere (National Velvet) is Richard’s wisecracking secretary. (I always get a kick out of seeing Revere in “glammed-up” roles, particularly because I associate her with “earth mother” turns like in Gentleman’s Agreement [1947] and A Place in the Sun [1951].) 
 
The movie’s best-known Dick Tracy, Ralph Byrd, plays a newspaper reporter, and you’ll also spot familiar faces in Chester Clute, Tom “Heil Myself!” Dugan (he’s the cop in the park), Edward Gargan, Harry Hayden, Nick Stewart, Andrew Tombes, and Will Wright. For you Edward D. Wood, Jr. fans—that’s Tor Johnson (with hair!) as the bodyguard who figures in Meanest Man’s closing gag.  

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Future Oscar winner Edmund Gwenn and Benny

After making The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)—the picture that provided endless joke fodder for his radio and TV programs—Jack Benny called it quits as far as leading roles went, sticking with cameos in films like Gypsy (1962) and A Guide for the Married Man (1967). (He also contributes a cameo to the all-star comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World [1963] and it’s ironic that in a picture that mines laughs from all-too-human greed, the man who made penny pinching so endearing wasn’t afforded a larger part.)

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