Richard Clarke (Benny), a small town lawyer, is not making enough money to marry Janie Brown (Lane), his fiancée. To improve himself, Richard moves to New York City. 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 baby’. 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 (Margaret Seddon), from her apartment and more pictures appear in the paper.
Actually, he has taken Leggitt into his own apartment. Janie visits and, believing what she has read about how “mean” Richard has become, leaves angrily. A misunderstanding about the lady living in his apartment leads to a headline about Richard’s “love nest.” Janie’s father Arthur (Briggs), thinking that his daughter is living with Richard, arrives to protect his daughter. A shotgun marriage follows. Arthur declares that his new son-in-law will return to their small town and become the respectable attorney for the local bank.
The Meanest Man in the World is, for the most part, a pleasant vehicle for Jack Benny which conforms to his established persona. The plot and the comedy develop slowly. The film becomes laugh-out-loud funny about halfway through when “hard-hearted” Benny struggles with a boy over a lollipop and evicts the old lady. The comedy declines after these hilarious scenes, particularly during an unfortunate scene with Benny in blackface, and the film ends abruptly with the forced marriage. (For a high-budget production, intended for a well-advertised and important release, the film is quite short at 57 minutes. The paucity of story content is probably the result of several major script revisions and scene deletions that occurred during filming.) The droll exchanges between Benny and Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson would have been familiar to audiences due to the popular The Jack Benny Program radio show, which aired from 1932-55. Priscilla Lane, pretty and appealing, pairs easily with Benny, although the twenty-year age difference is obvious.
Benny had a three film deal with 20th Century Fox, appearing in one film per year. A film based on a 1920 play The Meanest Man in the World was suggested for Benny in early 1942, 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, which he thought was not funny enough and did not fit his brand of comedy. Production was suspended for fifteen hours because Benny refused to go ahead. Producer William Perlberg and Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, discussed the situation with Benny and agreed to make 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 1942. 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.
Reviews for The Meanest Man in the World were tepid. Variety dismissed the film as “short, careless, and hashed-up with a sudden ending on a shotgun wedding.” The New York Times described the film “as a featherweight comedy” and notes that “Jack Benny and the trusty Rochester…put the piece across by sheer dint of personality.”
1.00GB | 57m 09s | 720×540 | mkv