The Meanest Man in the World (1942), a picture that for years I'd only vaguely heard of, is a real discovery, a very funny comedy adapted, loosely one assumes, from a 1921 play by Augustine MacHugh (from a skit by Everett Ruskay) that starred and was produced by that Yankee doodle dandy, George M. Cohan. Adapted here by George Seaton, Allan House, and an uncredited Morrie Ryskind (who also worked on It's in the Bag), the film proves an ideal vehicle for Benny as well as his radio sidekick, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Reportedly, Lubitsch himself substantially contributed to the film and without credit directed ten full days of retakes. His touch is in evidence.
Apparently before and after Lubitsch's involvement the film was beset with problems, none of which, thankfully, spilled over into the finished product, although it is wildly uneven. Intended as a top-of-the-bill A-feature, its 57-minute running time, perfectly adequate only for a bottom-of-the-bill second feature, created problems for theater owners who balked at running such a short film as its main attraction.
The movie arrives courtesy of 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives' manufactured-on-demand DVD line. Their video transfers have been wildly inconsistent, from awful to pristine, but happily The Meanest Man in the World falls in the latter category. It looks great.
The herky-jerky narrative casts Benny as Richard Clarke, a small-town lawyer too kind-hearted for his good. He wants to marry Janie (Priscilla Lane), but her successful father, Arthur Brown (Matt Briggs), refuses to let his daughter marry the perpetually broke attorney. When an unlicensed driver strikes Brown's parked car, Clarke tries to impress prospective potential father-in-law by winning this seemingly open-and-shut case, but midway through his oratory Clarke has a change of heart and abruptly drops the suit. (Benny is very, very funny here.)
Clarke, accompanied by his black assistant, Shufro (Rochester), next tries his luck in Manhattan. There he rents a small office, but four months later has no clients and faces eviction. Shufro suggests Clarke suppress his inherent gentleness and, instead, outwardly appear mean and ruthless as a means to attract clients. Egged on by Shufro, Clarke brazenly steals a little boy's lollipop as shocked passersby, including a newspaper photographer, look on in horror. A newspaper headline the next day, "Meanest Man in the World Takes Candy from Baby!" cements Clarke's new public image, and in no time millionaire Frederick P. Leggitt (Edmund Gwenn, later Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) hires him on a $5,000/month retainer to dispossess his elderly sister-in-law (Margaret Seddon).
It's perhaps unknowable trying to determine exactly where Ernst Lubitsch's contributions to The Meanest Man in the World begin and end, but all the best scenes mirror situations from To Be Or Not to Be or very slightly contrast Benny's radio persona with the famously sweet and generous real-life entertainer. Clarke's disastrous prosecution is a scream, with Benny at first outrageously condemning the accused then, in a series of funny facial expressions showing growing regret, coming to the man's defense instead.
That scene is so good it's very disappointing that Clarke never again is seen in court for what one would have assumed a topper of a climax. (Instead, the movie ends abruptly with Brown suddenly tackled by cult movie icon Tor Johnson, here with a full head of curly black hair.)
By the time Shufro and Clarke implement their mean-old-lawyer scheme the movie is almost over, with barely two reels-worth of comedy remaining. Clarke feigning delight at being reprehensible, like hammy actor Josef Tura's over-emphatically evil impersonation of Nazi Professor Siletsky in To Be or Not to Be, is a joy to watch, here equaled by Benny's subtle hesitations, uncertainty, and feelings of remorse. His scene with Gwenn, with Clarke pretending to be utterly ruthless, likewise recalls Tura's scenes with Benny as "Concentration Camp" Ehrhardt.
Another fine sequence, also probably directed by Lubitsch, has Clarke breaking into a married couple's Park Avenue apartment, pretending it to be his in order to impress Jenny's father. Again, the nervous, suspense-filled comedy that scene generates is quite similar in tone and laughs of Lubitsch's earlier film. (Tom Dugan, who played the Hitler impersonator in To Be or Not to Be, turns up briefly as a cop.)
The movie also uses "Rochester" (as Eddie Anderson is billed here) quite well. Though technically Clarke's undefined assistant, the script treats his as Clarke's wise-cracking equal in every respect. As with Rochester's role on Benny's radio series, Shufro is never a ��40s Hollywood black stereotype; indeed, much of the humor comes at the white man's expense. "You couldn't get into my lodge," Shufro informs Clarke, "You'd be white-balled."
Video & Audio
Fox's The Meanest Man in the World is presented in its correct 1.37:1 full frame, and the transfer looks great: bright, sharp and clear with very little sign of any damage or wear. The audio, English only with no alternate audio or subtitle options, is likewise good and the disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
A must for Jack Benny fans and, though the laughs are scattershot, frequently hit the bull's-eye. Highly Recommended.