Robert Benchley is one of my lifelong heroes. I first read his hilarious essays as an assignment for a humor project in junior high school English class. (I can’t imagine that happening today, although the thought of life without Benchley or his compatriot…
James Thurber is pretty sad.) Then I read about his work in Hollywood, and set out to find these elusive short subjects. I never dreamed I would ever get to see—let alone own copies of—all of his MGM shorts, but now, thanks to Warner Home Video’s DVD-on-demand service, I’ve fulfilled that long-time quest.
For many years, these films were almost impossible to find. The Museum of Modern Art has long circulated a copy of his classic Movietone short The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928), which I’ve played for my students at USC with salutary results. You can find it and The Treasurer’s Report on the Benchley DVD from Kino Video; they are the highpoints of that collection. The rest are from his sojourn at Paramount, where he made decidedly inferior shorts from 1940 to 1942. Naturally, these are the ones that have been most readily available over the decades. (Years ago, when Peter Benchley, Robert’s grandson and the author of Jaws, was a student at Harvard, some classmates thought they would surprise him by screening some of these celebrated shorts…but no one laughed, including Peter. He later recalled it as a supremely embarrassing experience. If only they’d been able to show How to Sleep or A Night at the Movies!)
When I was an avid 16mm collector I would occasionally stumble onto a stray MGM print, but in general the pickings were slim. With the advent of Turner Classic Movies the entire run was now available, but only if you were lucky enough to tune in at just the right time. Other individual shorts were hand-picked to accompany vintage feature films on Warner Home Video releases.
But now—at last—we can savor all of Benchley’s work for MGM, where his very first effort, How to Sleep, earned an Academy Award. As with any short-subject series it’s best to watch these in small doses as there is inevitably a degree of repetition…except, of course, if you’re a Benchley diehard like me and find yourself smiling, or laughing out loud, at his every move and utterance. Of course, not every short he made is a gem; some are only mildly amusing, and there is an occasional misfire. But his proud, fumbling, hapless everyman is a wonderfully endearing character, and his double-talk lectures are supremely funny. (He paraphrased two of his classics at MGM: The Treasurer’s Report was worked into the baseball short Opening Day, while The Sex Life of the Polyp became The Courtship of the Newt.)
It may seem incongruous that a writer for The New Yorker and a celebrated member of New York’s literati became popular with a mass moviegoing audience, but that just shows the universality of Benchley’s humor. He was anything but an elitist.
Incidentally, before he became ensconced as the host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart wrote a terrific book of humorous essays called Naked Pictures of Famous People. I was impressed by his wit, the variety of styles he adopted, and his wide-ranging subject matter, and during a chance meeting I asked who his heroes were in this field. He rattled off a long list of names—and one of them was Robert Benchley.
This 3-disc set is available exclusively from Warner Archive.(Warner Archive)