The Meanest Man in the World (1943)

Film Review

THE MEANEST MAN IN THE WORLD

Release Date: 12 February 1943

Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Director: Sidney Lanfield

Stars: Jack Benny, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Priscilla Lane, Margaret Seddon, Matt Briggs

Writers: George Seaton, Allan House, screenplay; Augustin MacHugh, play (1920), Morrie Ryskind (uncredited)

Cinematographer: J.Peverell Marley

Synopsis

Richard Clarke (Benny), a small town lawyer, is not making enough money to marry Janie Brown (Lane), his fiancee. To improve himself, Richard moves to New York. Although he does not have any clients, Richard tells Janie that he is doing well. She expects to move to New York and marry him.

His assistant, Shufro (Anderson), suggests that he could make some money if he became hard and ruthless. The ultimate test of his meanness is stealing candy from a child. He is photographed as he pulls a sucker away from a small boy. The picture is printed in the paper under the caption, "Meanest Man in the World". He is hired to evict an old woman, Mrs. Frances H. Leggitt (Seddon), from her apartment and more pictures appear in the paper.

Actually, he has taken Mrs Leggitt into his own apartment. Janie visits and, realizing how "mean" Richard’s become, she leaves angrily. A misunderstanding about the lady living in his apartment leads to a headline about Richard’s "love nest". Janie’s father (Briggs), thinking that Janie is living with Richard, arrives to protect his daughter. A shotgun marriage follows. Mr. Brown declares that his new son-in-law will return to their small town and become the respectable attorney for the local bank.

Discussion

This pleasant vehicle for Benny is conformable to his established persona. The plot and the comedy develop slowly. The film becomes laugh-out-loud funny about half way through, when "hard-hearted" Benny struggles with a boy over a lollipop and during his eviction of the old lady. The comedy declines after these hilarious scenes, and the film ends abruptly with the forced marriage.

The droll exchanges between Rochester (Anderson) and Benny would have been very familiar to the audience, most of whom had listened to them on Benny’s radio program for the previous six years. Priscilla Lane, pretty and appealing, pairs easily with Benny, although the twenty year difference in their ages is obvious.

For a high budget production, intended for a well-advertised and important release, the film is quite short (57 min). The paucity of story content is probably the result of several major script revisions and scene deletions that occurred during filming.

Benny had a three film deal with 20th Century/Fox, appearing in one film per year. In January 1942, a film based on a 1920 play, The Meanest Man in the World, which had starred George M. Cohan, was suggested for Benny, who approved of the concept. Morrie Ryskind, comedy writer for theater and film, was hired to write the screenplay.

Filming was scheduled to start in July, 1942, but Benny had objections to the script that he thought was not funny enough and did not fit his brand of comedy. Production was suspended for 15 hours because Benny refused to go ahead. William Perlberg, the film’s producer, and Darryl Zanuck, 20th-Fox executive, discussed the situation with Benny and agreed to changes. George Seaton was brought in to revise the script. Several sequences were cut out. Filming resumed under the direction of Lanfield and was completed by early September. In November, retakes and more script revisions, including added scenes, were directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Morrie Ryskind wrote some of the new material. On screen, only George Seaton and Allan House are credited with the screenplay; Ryskind does not receive a credit.

The reviews were tepid. The Variety reviewer (January 8, 1943), dismisses the film as "short, careless, and hashed-up with a sudden ending on a shotgun wedding." T.M.P. in The New York Times (February 25, 1943) describes the film “as a featherweight comedy” and notes that "Jack Benny and the trusty Rochester…put the piece across by sheer dint of personality."

Jack Benny was successful in vaudeville and in film, but his enduring fame comes from radio. From 1932 until 1955, Benny had one of the most popular comedy shows on the air, known to radio audiences everywhere. As his radio program was coming to an end, Benny moved to television. His first television appearance was in 1950, and he had a popular series until 1965.

Benny had a fifteen year film career. His earliest films, from 1930, were comedies and musical reviews. By the mid thirties, his radio popularity brought the public to his movies. Although most of his films are pleasant and undistinguished, Benny made three first rate films. Charley’s Aunt (1941) and George Washington Slept Here (1942) are superior comedies. To Be or Not to Be (1942), directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, is a comedy masterpiece.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Benny’s final film, is amusing, but surprisingly unsettling. Benny, an angel, sets out from heaven to end the world. The world will end when he blows his trumpet at midnight on a certain day. The threat of this catastrophic event, playing in local theaters at the end of the Second World War when death and destruction had been common to much of Europe and Asia and to be carried out by friendly and familiar comedian Jack Benny, must have been disconcerting to contemporary audiences. Benny got a lot of comic yardage from panning this film, which is actually not bad. However, the concept arrived in theaters at the wrong moment, especially for its star, Jack Benny. Six months after the release of this film, the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought catastrophic, world-ending events from fiction into fact.

Eddie Anderson was the most famous African-American actor of the 1930s and 1940s. His fame originated with his continuing role as "Rochester van Jones", valet, chauffeur, butler, and general household assistant to Jack Benny on Benny’s radio (and television) series. Anderson’s role began as a rather conventional black Pullman porter who interacts with Benny on a trip from NY to LA. Anderson’s portrayal was so popular that his character was made a regular on the radio program. His tart responses to Benny’s miserly and pompous statements added greatly to the comic effect of the Benny program.

His unforgettable voice enhanced Anderson’s radio characterization. The distinctive quality was a rasping, wheezing, gravelly sound, the result of straining his vocal cords as a 12 year old paperboy. "Rochester" was recognized instantly by the listening audience, the best known and most popular supporting character on Benny’s program.

At 14, Anderson began his stage career in an all-black revue. For 6 years he sang and danced in vaudeville with his brother, Cornelius. He played numerous uncredited film roles. His first featured role was as Noah in the film version of Green Pastures (1936), a highly acclaimed stage play and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1930). He repeated the role in the 1957 television version of the play. Anderson played the Rochester character in several films, including Buck Benny Rides Again (1940) and Love Thy Neighbor (1940). He has a starring role in the all-black film, Cabin in the Sky (1943), co-starring Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, and Rex Ingram. In later years, semi-retired, Anderson appeared occasionally on television in the "Rochester" character.

Morrie Ryskind (1895-1985), screenwriter, had an unusual career. From the 1920s to the 1940s, he wrote or collaborated on comedies and satires for stage and film. In his middle age, he left the entertainment field and became a newspaper columnist specializing in political issues.

Ryskind wrote for the stage from an early age, he collaborated with George S. Kaufman on The Cocoanuts (1925) and Animal Crackers (1928), musical comedies written for the Marx Brothers. In the 1930s, Ryskind and Kaufman wrote the books for the George and Ira Gershwin’s musicals Strike up the Band (1930) and Of Thee I Sing (1933). Ryskind specialized in outrageous plots and dialogue that poked fun at the rich and powerful.

In Hollywood, Ryskind adapted The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) for film and wrote A Night At the Opera (1935) and Room Service (1938) for the Marx Brothers. Ryskind’s screenplays for My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937) were nominated for Best Writing Academy Awards. Besides The Meanest Man in the World, he also wrote Man about Town (1939) for Jack Benny.

In 1947, Ryskind testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about Communist infiltration and influence in the screenwriter’s guild. He afterward asserted that as a result of this testimony he was professionally ostracized in Hollywood. He became a political columnist with an emphasis on conservative politics for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate (1960-1971) and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner (1971-1978).

Further Reading

References

Reds Have H’Wood Inside. by Herman A. Lowe. Variety. October 23, 1947

Jack Benny, 80, Dies of Cancer in Beverly Hills. by Richard F. Shepard. The New York Times. December 28, 1974

A National Institution, To Millions in the 30’s and 40’s, Sunday Night at 7 Meant Jack Benny and Gang. by John J. O’Connor. The New York Times. December 28, 1974.

Eddie Anderson, 71, Benny’s Rochester; Gravel Voiced Comedian Noted for “What’s That, Boss” Line Played Valet for More Than 30 Years. by Robert McG.Thomas Jr. The New York Times. March 1, 1977.

Morrie Ryskind Dies at 89; Wrote Plays and Screen Comedies. by Jeffrey Schmalz. The New York Times. August 25, 1985