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The Punch and Benny Show: Love Thy Neighbor (1940)

Four years after the celebrated radio “feud” between comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen got underway, Paramount Pictures decided to cash in on the fun with a film starring Jack and Fred entitled Love Thy Neighbor, which also co-starred Broadway sensation Mary Martin.  The studio had every reason to believe that the movie would do well at the box office—20th Century Fox had scored big with a 1937 musical, Wake Up and Live, that showcased the well-known animosity between bandleader Ben Bernie and newspaper columnist Walter Winchell.  In fact, audiences would get a preview of the antics in Love Thy Neighbor in a film Benny made for Paramount that same year, Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), which uses the bad blood between him and Allen as a minor plot point (Jack is shamed into taking a trip out West)…and even features Fred in a voice cameo.

But in Neighbor, you get both comedians in the flesh.  It’s New Year’s Eve, and Jack intercepts a telegram that’s actually for his valet, Rochester Van Jones (Eddie Anderson).  Rochester has been asked by his girlfriend Josephine (Theresa Harris, playing the same character from Buck Benny) to pick her up at the docks, and when Jack helps him out by giving him a lift he runs into Fred on the way.  Insults are exchanged, cars are smashed—Jack’s beloved Maxwell ends up knocked through the wall of a shipping office, and a beat cop (Wade Boteler, aka Michael Axford from The Green Hornet serial) hauls Fred into the pokey.

It doesn’t take Jack long to join Fred—he makes the acquaintance of a young woman named Mary Allen (Mary Martin), and when a mishap causes her to lose her dress, his attempts to find her new clothes gets him pinched by another cop (Jack Carson!).  And before you ask if Mary is any relation to…yes, she is—she’s Fred’s niece, the daughter of his sister Barbara (Verree Teasdale), who explains to Mary that the feud with Benny has made “Uncle Fred” a nervous wreck.  So Mary vows to fix things by getting a part in a stage show starring Jack (and also featuring the Merry Macs and the Merriel Abbott Dancers) by impersonating singer Virginia Astor (played by Virginia Dale).  From that moment on, Neighbor features a running game of hilarious one-upmanship between Jack and Fred until the final fadeout.

Love Thy Neighbor remains a curio for Benny and Allen fans (their famous encounter in Allen’s It’s in the Bag! is much more successful); a mildly entertaining musical comedy whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It lacks the style and panache of the Crosby-Hope Road films (though in its defense, that series took three films before it found its stride), and takes a major stumble by casting Fred as the “Daffy Duck” of the twosome (Fred is gobbling down sleeping pills in one scene, unable to sleep because of the feud) when he works much better as the “Bugs Bunny” (Jack was a master at comic insecurity, which he has to sacrifice here so he can be the romantic interest).  The exchanges between Jack and Rochester are amusing, and there are one or two scenes that will provide some true belly-laughs; my favorite is a sequence in which Jack is convinced into thinking he saved Fred from drowning after a wild speedboat chase, making the two of them temporary buddies.  (The two comedians also generate a few guffaws in a nightclub scene where they are asked by the maitre’d to hold it down…so they start quietly insulting one another.  Fred’s got a great line after an autograph hound wants Benny’s “John Hancock” for her collection: “It doesn’t take that long to make an ‘X’!”)

Neighbor was directed by Mark Sandrich, who was at the helm of the previous Buck Benny Rides Again…and while Sandrich was a deft hand at comedy-musicals (like Top Hat and Follow the Fleet), the songs in Neighbor aren’t quite as well-integrated as they are in Buck Benny.  The movie does feature Martin doing her signature smash, the Cole Porter-penned My Heart Belongs to Daddy, and Rochester and Harris have a nice duet in Dearest, Dearest (one of three songs contributed by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen).  Benny’s rotund announcer Don Wilson donates a voice cameo, and there are also choice supporting performances from Russell Hicks, Chester Clute and Mary Kelley—the latter playing a chambermaid who repeatedly calls Jack “kid.”  Neighbor doesn’t turn up on TV too often, so locating it might be a bit of a chore…but if you do manage to track it down, it’s a pleasant little diversion.  Of course, you can always enjoy listening to Jack and Fred at the peak of their comedic powers through the magic of radio…the Radio Spirits collection Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud is a perfect place to start.


  1. […] he appeared in only six feature films—Thanks a Million (1935), Sally, Irene and Mary (1938), Love Thy Neighbor (1940), It’s in the Bag! (1945), We’re Not Married! (1952), and O’Henry’s […]

  2. […] attempted to capitalize on the feud by casting the two comedians in a feature film entitled Love Thy Neighbor (1940), which is interesting only as a novelty today, particularly since the popularity of the feud […]

  3. […] (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s lovely girlfriend in Buck Benny Rides Again [1940] and Love Thy Neighbor [1940]). When Miracle ended, I was so filled with Christmas cheer that I whipped out It’s a […]