The Horn Blows at Midnight has four things working against it. First, it is an explicit dream movie. By “explicit,” I mean we know from the onset that it is a dream. Athanael (Jack Benny) plays third trumpet in a band. Just before the beginning of a live broadcast, he falls asleep and starts dreaming, and he does not wake up until the last few minutes of the movie. In general, audiences do not like dream movies, presumably because it means that what they are watching is not really happening. This is something of a paradox, because that is true of most movies, even those without dreams in them. After all, Hollywood has sometimes been referred to as the “dream factory.” Nevertheless, the audience can get into a movie they know to be fiction and experience it as something real, but when they know the movie is about someone’s dream, their ability to suspend disbelief is greatly strained.
Brief dreams are not a problem, of course, and they may even enhance our enjoyment of the movie, as in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). It is the longer dreams that test the audience’s patience. That is why most dream movies do not let the audience know until the end that what they are watching is a dream, as in The Woman in the Window (1944). Even so, we feel somewhat cheated at the end. Laura (1944) was originally intended to be a dream movie, and director Otto Preminger even filmed an ending making the dream explicit, but he wisely left it out of the movie. In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), we are never really certain whether the ghost is real or dreamt, and this allows us to tentatively accept what we are watching.
When a dream movie is explicit, the characters in real life usually show up in the dream, as in The Wizard of Oz (1939), where it is fun to see the parallels between the real characters and the ones in the dream. And this leads us to the second thing that The Horn Blows at Midnight has going against it. While a lot of characters that Athanael knows do show up in his dream, they do not do so in any interesting way. The first and second trumpeter, who made sarcastic remarks about Athanael’s trumpet playing, are made to be bad guys in the dream, but that is about the extent of it. Everyone else is just playing two parts.
A link between reality and the dream comes in some remarks Athanael makes in the beginning. He tells the other two trumpet players that they will be punished someday for snitching on him. When Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) tries to console him for having to be just the third trumpeter, saying that at least he is making money and eating, he replies, “I wish I’d never heard of food or money.” He continues: “It’s an ungrateful world, Elizabeth. If I had my way, things would be different. There’d be a lot of changes made.”
And that leads to the third weakness of this film: it is a Heaven movie. Apart from the movies, Heaven is a problem all in itself. No conception of Heaven ever really sounds all that appealing. Because it is hard to take Heaven seriously, movies about Heaven tend to be comedies, such as Stairway to Heaven (1947), though I have yet to find any of them very funny. Even when they are dramas, they have a light touch, as in The Green Pastures (1936). In Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake, Heaven Can Wait (1978), as little time as possible is spent in Heaven, because Heaven is boring. In fact, in the movie Heaven Can Wait (1943), not to be confused with the previously mentioned movie by that name, we never even get to Heaven. The protagonist spends most of his time in Hell recounting his sins. Because this is a comedy, we are not supposed to take Hell any more seriously than Heaven, and thus the man who runs the place is not referred to as Satan, but only as “His Excellency.” In general, Heaven movies suffer the same problem as dream movies, which is that audiences know that what they are watching isn’t real. So, when the movie is a dream about Heaven, our credulity is really strained.
Anyway, Athanael dreams that he is an angel who plays the trumpet in the heavenly orchestra. The dream is a wish-fulfilling fantasy, in which the “ungrateful world” he referred to earlier is selected for destruction, owing to its unworthy inhabitants, and he is to destroy it by blowing his horn exactly at midnight. So, he is sent to Earth, in accordance with the general principle that it is better to move the story out of Heaven as quickly as possible. As an angel, he knows nothing about food or money, as per his wish while he was still awake. Actually, he knows nothing about sex either, which does provide for a few of the handful of laughs that this movie has to offer.
The bulk of the movie consists of the two trumpet players, now fallen angels, trying to keep Athanael from blowing his horn. I suppose it is the height of absurdity to take this dream-Heaven movie seriously in any aspect, but this leads to the fourth thing working against this movie. We are expected to pull for Athanael, even though he wants to destroy the world, while pulling against the two fallen angels, who are trying to save it, though for selfish reasons, of course. If a man commits a murder, he is evil. If he goes on a rampage and kills a dozen or so, he is a horrible mass-murderer. And if he is like Hitler or Stalin, who were responsible for the killing of millions, he is a monster. Athanael is trying to kill every last person on this planet, but since his orders come from Heaven, that is supposed to make it all right. (It is to be noted, however, that the orders do not come from God, as if to hold him innocent, notwithstanding the fact that the Bible tells us that this is precisely the sort of thing God did in the past with the Flood and will do again on Judgment Day.)
I suppose Athanael is redeemed by the fact that in his wish-fulfilling dream, he falls to his death before he can blow his trumpet and end the world, after which he wakes up and starts playing his trumpet in real life. But for the reasons given above, this movie cannot be redeemed by the few laughs that it affords us.