Jack Benny was a veteran vaudevillian who built a notable career in radio, TV and film on a few bits of signature shtick – impeccable comic timing, pregnant pauses, squeaky violin playing and one exasperated utterance, “Well ….”
Although biographers have duly noted Benny’s rocky road to movie stardom (his biggest successes were in radio and TV, and he made a career-long gag of his starring role in the box-office dud “The Horn Blows at Midnight”), the comedian’s gifts receive an appealing big-screen showcase in 1943’s “The Meanest Man in the World.”
This pleasant, lightweight and brief (at 57 minutes) feature has emerged from 20th Century Fox’s vaults and is now available as part of the studio’s Cinema Archives manufactured-on-demand (m.o.d.) DVD series.
In it, Benny plays small-town lawyer Richard Clarke, a kind-hearted everyman who leaves his struggling practice and his wholesome gal behind in Pottsville and heads to New York City with his wisecracking assistant Shufro (longtime Benny cohort Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) to salvage his failing career.
Taking the advice of his pal, Clarke decides the way to success is to become hard and ruthless. So he puts on a charade, steals a lollipop from a baby and is depicted in the press as “the meanest man in the world.” The elaborate put-on results in lots of new clients, including a stingy businessman (Edmund Gwenn) who hires Clarke to evict a sweet old relative (Margaret Seddon) from her apartment.
But Clarke’s new pitiless persona is just a ruse that he maintains with a lot of comic mugging, false bravado and desperate changes of heart (gags that are right up Benny’s alley) and that cause unforeseen problems with the lawyer’s sweetheart back home (pretty, mild Pricilla Lane).
Much of the story’s ragtag messiness can be attributed to well-publicized behind-the-scenes problems, which included Benny’s unhappiness with the script and conflicts with the original director, journeyman Sidney Lanfield. In fact, the script, adapted from a 1920s stage play that starred George M. Cohan, was said to be extensively rewritten, and the estimable Ernest Lubitsch (who directed Benny in one of his best films, 1942’s “To Be or Not To Be”) was brought in as an uncredited sub to re-shoot several key scenes.
It’s entirely reasonable to speculate – given the wildly uneven, lurching nature of the narrative – that certain scenes (Clarke’s mealy-mouthed prosecution of the eviction, or his attempt to pass off a fabulous Park Avenue apartment as his own) owe their smooth hilarity to the famed “Lubitsch touch.” That, and Benny’s vainglorious bluster that masked the essentially humane and generous funnyman behind the façade.
While “The Meanest Man in the World” doesn’t come with any DVD extras or a spiffed-up digital polish, it’s a good measure of the pleasant if imperfect, mid-budget programmers that were long collecting dust but are now available through Fox’s growing Cinema Archives series.
- Dennis King