Judge Clark Douglas is the mousiest man in the world.
"Quick! After that ambulance!"
For several decades, Jack Benny was one of the most popular figures in America. His long-lasting appeal is certainly understandable: his deadpan, self-deprecating sense of humor remains fairly irresistible and unique. We can see shades of later comedians in the loopiness of Red Skelton, the rapid-fire stylings of Bob Hope or the wild antics of Milton Berle, but there's never been anyone else quite like Benny (save for his friendly rival Fred Allen). His program embraced long-running gags and established distinctive comic relationships between Benny and his talented co-stars. Benny developed such a well-known persona that it became rather difficult for him to disappear into another role on the big screen. It didn't take long for the comedian to accept that fact, playing minor variations on "himself" during many of his big-screen appearances.
The Meanest Man in the World is one of Benny's lesser-known films; it's a 57-minute trifle that feels like a prolonged version of one of his radio sketches. The actor plays attorney Richard Clarke, a good-natured fellow who can't seem to get any business due to the fact that he's doesn't seem vicious enough to win important cases. Richard is engaged to the lovely Janie Brown (Priscilla Lane, Arsenic and Old Lace), but his future father-in-law (Matt Briggs, The Ox-Bow Incident) won't approve of the marriage until Richard makes a name for himself as an attorney. So, Richard moves to New York City with his butler Shufro (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) in an attempt to do just that. When good old-fashioned ambulance-chasing fails, Richard concocts a new plan: he'll pretend to be ferociously mean. Just long enough to win over some new clients, of course.
That set-up (which takes up half of the film's running time, surprisingly enough) leads to the film's funniest sequence, in which Benny gleefully behaves like a complete scoundrel. In one scene, he mercilessly tells a child that Santa Claus doesn't exist before proceeding to steal the child's oversized lollipop. Luckily, a number of reporters are onhand to witness this event and dub Richard "The Meanest Man in the World" (hence the film's title). Soon, businessmen all over New York are begging for Richard to represent them. Alas, his new reputation leads to complications with Janie, and…well, it more or less plays out as you would expect it to from there.
One of the most complicated aspects of Benny's legacy—and indeed, one of the most complicated aspects of this film—is the comedian's relationship with Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. The African-American actor was a crucial part of Benny's show on both radio and television, and the two share a breezy comic rapport that is often irresistible. Even so, Rochester was often at the center of some racially-charged material that has aged very poorly. In the early days, he was very much a stereotypical character. As time passed, the character developed a more distinctive identity and the negative racial jokes stopped, but the fact that it was essentially a master/servant relationship still make it a bit uncomfortable. In The Meanest Man in the World, there's a dumb little gag in which Benny dons blackface and poses as Rochester's friend in order to avoid being spotted. At another point, Rochester sighs, "From now on, his reputation and my complexion can walk hand in hand." Anderson and Benny have a level of chemistry that permits them to compare favorably to any comic duo of the era, but the inequality of their relationship often prevents this from being acknowledged. Still, there's no question that the two men had great regard for each other as performers and as individuals, and that warmth is evident whenever they appear together. A large portion of the film is devoted to the simple pleasure of watching the two men riff with each other on the events of the plot.
In the end, The Meanest Man in the World is a pleasant but rather forgettable effort—it starts a bit too slow and ends a bit too fast, tossing out just enough laughs to fill an hour along the way. The best way to experience Benny's talent is through his television and radio show, but at least this particular film doesn't try to turn him into something he isn't.
The DVD transfer is fine, only featuring a few scratches and flecks here and there. Detail is decent and the audio is fairly clean for a film of this age. No supplements have been included. While I haven't been able to recommend most Cinema Archive releases due to the non-anamorphic transfers, the fact that this film was originally presented in a full-frame format means that Fox was unable to screw it up.
It's hardly essential, but you could find a worse way to spend an hour. Benny fans will enjoy the opportunity to check out this little-known effort.
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