With the 1943 comedy The Meanest Man in the World, Jack Benny was offered a role that playfully took a cue from his conceited, oblivious radio persona. One of many attempts to make Benny a movie star, this cute, underrated 20th Century Fox production is getting reissued by Fox as part of their Cinema Archives made-to-order (m.o.d.) DVD service.
The Meanest Man in the World arrived at a time when Benny's radio fame was at its peak, so it makes sense that the film's cynical, contemporary sense of humor went right along with what he was performing every week on the airwaves. Furthermore, the casting pairs Benny with his longtime radio (and, later, TV) cohort Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Although it's painfully short at 57 minutes, the film gets a lot accomplished in its brief, breezy run time. Benny is his usual sardonic self as Richard Clarke, a "nice guy" lawyer who moves from a small hamlet to the big city in an effort to jump start his struggling practice. To become a success, however, he finds that he has to put on a charade as a ruthless scoundrel who steals candy from children and throws decrepit old women out on the street (of course, his mean streak makes him a media celebrity). This elaborate put-on also exerts a strain on the long-distance relationship he has with Janie Brown (Priscilla Lane), his sweet fiancee back home.
As enjoyably current (albeit in a lightweight way) as The Meanest Man in the World can be, it comes as something of a surprise that the property was based on a 1920 stage play which originally starred George M. Cohan. The film was nicely updated to fit with Jack Benny's talents, however, and for fans this release is a treat. It can be oddly structured at times, however, casually lurching from situation to situation up until the frantic final scenes kick in. There are many wrinkles for Benny's character to adjust to as his mean-guy image intensifies - from trying to impress his fiancee and her skeptical father (Matt Briggs) with a luxury apartment he doesn't own, to yielding to a new client (Edmund Gwenn) who needs help evicting his sister-in-law from her apartment - a sweet little old lady (Margaret Seddon). Despite what the title implies, in truth Richard Clarke is not a mean guy. How he manages to further compartmentalize his chaotic life is the key to the film's wacky appeal.
The Meanest Man in the World apparently underwent a tangled production, with Benny disapproving of the script at one point and an uncredited Ernst Lubitsch (Benny's director on To Be or Not to Be) taking over for journeyman contract director Sidney Lanfield on a few scenes. Besides the finished product's extreme brevity, however, there's isn't a lot to distract from the fun. The picture benefits from some excellent rapport between Benny and Eddie Anderson (as the oddly named Shufro, Richard Clarke's right hand man). Priscilla Lane might seem like an odd match to Benny, in temprement and age (she was not yet 30 years old at the time, to his 49), but her youthful zest is a great addition. There's also some excellent work from the supporting cast - Edmund Gwenn, Margaret Seddon, and Ann Revere as Benny's lovelorn secretary. The Internet Movie Database's cast roster also lists actor Lyle Talbot as Benny's rival for Priscilla Lane's affections, a character that (if memory serves correct) is never seen onscreen.
For this m.o.d. edition of The Meanest Man in the World, Fox acquired an absolutely pristine print of the film. Blemishes are kept to a minimum, so much so that one might think it was digitally restored. There's a distinct shimmer whenever a detailed texture is onscreen; otherwise the picture is sharp, cleanly defined and with excellent light/dark levels (a huge relief after the shoddy picture on my other recent Fox Cinema Archives exposure, Apartment for Peggy).
It's mono, of course, rather plain but somewhat more clean-sounding than other films of this vintage. Good balance between dialogue and music, with no obvious instances of distortion or degradation. The disc offers no subtitles or alternate audio.
None. As with other Fox Cinema Archive releases, the disc sports a simple menu and chapter stops at ten minute intervals in the film.
The Meanest Man in the World provided radio star Jack Benny with one of his better comedies, as a lawyer who decides that success means being as nasty as possible. This 1943 production may be lightweight, oddly structured and all-too-brief (at less than an hour!), but Benny fans will have a field day with this enjoyable flick. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.