Monday, January 18, 2010
Robert Benchley is probably my favourite humorist of all time, and surely among the most good-spirited and life-affirming.
His name is linked indelibly with those of his fellow diners at the Algonquin Round Table, a loose conglomerate of wits and wags from the journalistic and theatrical high society of twenties New York who traded insults and speared each other's egos in long, more or less good natured lunch sessions. Their names read like a who's who of American humour: Parker, Woollcott, Kaufman, Sherwood...
But while the denizens of the Round Table are remembered primarily for their stinging put-downs and venomous bon mots, Benchley endures as exactly the opposite: a man who saw warm humour in most situations, and was recalled by his contemporaries as one of enormous generosity of spirit, an attentive listener, always ready to laugh uproariously at any fellow's joke, however old or unfunny.
In print, his alertness to the fashions and currents of his time resulted in a series of brilliant observational essays, warm satires and absurd lectures, that manage to impale just about every fad and pretension of his time, be they literary, social or intellectual, while still maintaining an atmosphere of common-feeling. This latter is a trick that Woollcott would have been no more able to pull off than he would have felt inclined to, but it remains part of why Benchley belongs so surely among the greatest comic writers of all time.
Two primary currents run through his magazine pieces (later collected into compilation books for which Benchley devised a series of brilliantly funny titles: “After 1903 - What?”, “My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew”, “No Poems, or Around the World Backwards and Sideways”, “From Bed To Worse, or Comforting Thoughts About the Bison”, and my personal favourite: “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or David Copperfield”). One is an acute eye for the often un-noticed irrationalities and frustrations of everyday life and social convention, the tiniest example of which he was able to spin into expanding theses, until some vast edifice of perfectly logical nonsense had been erected around the foundation of an observation as simple as the fact that building sites tend to attract loitering onlookers, that children become more troublesome on public transport, or that roast beef is not an interesting form of food. (“It stimulates the same nerve centres in me that a lantern-slide lecture on 'Palestine - the Old and the New' does.”)
The second is a brilliantly subversive talent for reducing the jargon and formal conventions of journalistic prose to the most inspired of gibberish, simply by extending them to the point of reductio ad absurdum.
Most commonly, the pieces will take the form either of a reflection on some event or observation from the writer's experience, or an absurd technical exegesis in which Benchley purports to enlighten us as to some discovery or finding in science or literature. In either case it will be characterised by his love for the language itself, his passion for beautifully-tooled nonsense, and his rare gift for finding just the right comic phrase to suit the occasion. Here are just a few snippets chosen at random from his pages:
At the meeting of the International Philologists' Association in Lucerne in April (1923-1925), something in the nature of a bombshell was thrown by Professor Eric Nunsen of the University of Ulholm. Professor Nunsen, in a paper entitled “Aryan Languages: The Funny Old Things”, declared that in between the Hamitic group of languages and the Ural-Altaic group there should by rights come another and hitherto uncharted group, to be known as the Semi-Huinty group. Professor Nunsen's paper followed a number on the programme called “Al Holtz and His Six Musical Skaters.”
According to this eminent philologist, too much attention has been paid to root words. By “root words” we mean those words which look like roots of some kind or other when you draw pictures of them. (...)
In his interesting work “The Mutations of the Syllable Bib Between 2000 and 500 BC”, Landoc Downes traces the use of the letter h down through Western Asia with the Caucasian migration into Central Europe, and there loses it. For perhaps two thousand years, we have no record of the letter h being used by Nordics. This is perhaps not strange, as the Nordics at that time didn't use much of anything. And then suddenly, in about 1200 BC, the letter h shows up again in Northern Ohio, this time under the alias of m and clean shaven.
( - “The Lost Language”)
Among other things that I am finding it increasingly difficult to get, is a haircut. I just can't bring myself to make the first move. In my more soigne days I had no difficulty in walking right into the barber shop every Tuesday (I chose Tuesday because it is the day that Variety comes out) and saying, in ringing tones, “Haircut, please.” Those were the days when I was known as “Beau Bob”.
But gradually, as my life became more sedentary, I began to find it difficult to leave the house until after the barber shops had closed. Those that were open in the evening somehow didn't have the knack of fixing my peculiar hairline in back so that I didn't look like a shepherd.
It got to to be once every two weeks instead of once every week, and then once every three weeks. Now, for the greater part of each month, I give the impression of having just come from Oberammergau to look for a job.
( - “Haircut, Please!”)
... there are some honeys among the phobias that don't get much publicity. There is, for example, phobophobia, which is the fear of having a phobia, even though you may not have one at the moment. (...) Then there is goctophobia, or the fear of raising the hand too far and striking oneself in the face, with the possibility of putting an eye out. These patients keep their hands in their pockets all the time and have to be fed by paid attendants. A nasty complication arises when they also have nictophobia, or fear of paid attendants.
( - “Phobias”)
Now, if Art is to be anything at all in the expression of visual images, if, as someone has said, it is to hold nature up to the mirror, then we must (I am still quoting Rourke, although I am thinking of stopping shortly) put down on our canvas not the things that we see but the things that see us. Or do I make myself clear?
( - “Art Revolution No. 4861”)
When the siren call of Hollywood broke up the Broadway party, Benchley eventually followed, in his own meandering fashion, where so many of his contemporaries had already trod. In the movies he worked both as script doctor, adding wit and originality to screenplays somewhat thirsty for such commodities, and as a character actor (or as both at the same time, as in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent.) On screen he was usually cast as a sweetly useless bumbler, often slightly the worse (or better) for a tipple or two (the formerly tee-total Benchley became a heroic bibber during Prohibition), and frequently called upon to maintain respectable composure in the face of escalating discomfiture. Among his many feature appearances in usually undistinguished films, the following stand out: Flesh and Fantasy (1943), as the clubman whose appearances were added to the film by Universal after completion of principal photography to reimpose order after severe re-editing, I Married a Witch (1942), the best use of his talent for farce, attempting to help his buddy Fredric March keep the machinations of sexy witch Veronica Lake as far away as possible from those of his volatile fiancee (Susan Hayward), and Road to Utopia (1945), in which his narrator constantly interrupts the film to provide gloriously unnecessary commentary on the action ("This is a device known as a flashback...")
All of these appearances rely for their effect on the audience's familiarity with aspects of Benchley's personality established not only in his prose but also in a wondrous series of one-reel shorts, made at various studios, which remain, for me, among the funniest and more importantly the subtlest, most sophisticated and elegant little comedies ever smuggled into the world at large from beneath the very noses of the Hollywood studio chiefs.
Even now, there are people who don't 'get' these films, who approach them looking for some different kind of comedy entirely and come away thinking them not very amusing at all. Others miss the point more subtly, and think themselves speaking in their defence by opining that they were never intended to be laugh out loud hilarious movies, but rather gentle, warm and smile-inducing...
It seems to me that the best of Benchley's shorts are most definitely laugh out loud funny, often cripplingly so, provided you come to them with the barnacles of seventy subsequent years' worth of de-sophistication scraped off the old comedic taste buds. Benchley is subtle not in the sense that his humour is slight but that it can seem elusive unless one re-adjusts to the standards of a better, cleverer kind of observational comedy than that which is the commonplace of contemporary television. Benchley's observations are never mean-spirited, and a common sense of civilised values, shared by author and audience, are vital to their effects. If you don't care about how others perceive you in public, or about the risk of giving offence, for instance, he simply won't make any sense to you. And it's your loss. Enter the world of the shorts, however, and you become as one with Benchley's neuroses - the magnification beyond all reason of tiny slights or embarrassments or questions as to the correct course of action - and the comedy regains all of its old magic.
That said, it is true that his film shorts rarely achieve - or attempt - the sustained flights of Marx Brothers-like lunatic comic invention so often to be found in his magazine pieces.
The ones that come closest are his first, the six he made for Fox in 1928 and 29. The first of these, The Treasurer's Report (1929) is among his most famous pieces, as well as being of considerable historical interest as one of the very first all-talking movies ever produced in Hollywood.
The Report first appeared in No Siree!, a one-performance show created by the Algnoquinites to amuse themselves, their friends and admirers. Benchley, the legend goes, was allotted a section but attended no rehearsals nor gave any indication as to what his contribution was to be, which, according to yet further legend, he actually wrote in the taxi on the way to the performance. Any self-respecting Benchley addict knows how it began:
“I shall take but a very few moments of your time this evening, for I realise that you would much rather be listening to this interesting entertainment than to a dry financial statement...”
Legend again pops up here to tell us that some people actually got up and began to walk out at this point, thinking Benchley as genuine as he seemed; only as he continued and the absurdities began piling on top of each other did the laughter begin. The result was the hit of the night, oft-repeated thereafter in stage revues and radio appearances, and an obvious candidate for immortalising via newfangled Fox-Movietone sound recording.
Accordingly, the movie version basically plonks a camera in front of Benchley and leaves him to it, as he stammers and stumbles his way through the speech, fumbles with his bow-tie and completely undoes it, shuffles his papers and drops them in his soup, attempts to break the monotony by beginning to tell a joke he cannot fully remember and is soon forced to abandon, and - classic Benchley, this - proves incapable of matching the vibrancy of his text ("Let's put this over with a bang!") with anything comparably dynamic in his body language.
The short proved popular as a novelty and Fox commissioned five more, which Benchley adapted from his written work. The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928) is a fascinating amalgam of his written work (in this case The Social Life of the Newt, written in his confident pseudo-scientist manner) with his newly-emerging screen personality. Here, he delivers the lecture with little of the self-assurance evinced by the original piece, but instead in his 'ineffectual public speaker' guise familiar from the Report, as 'Dr Benchley', lecturing on his experiments with polyps before a women's guild audience:
“The polyp, as you know, is that tiny organism which grows under the sea, and which looks, ah, something like a... well, you've seen a snail... it isn't exactly like a snail, it's smaller than a snail... a small dog isn't it either... ”
We are also reminded of the supreme importance of the Algonquin style to the development of the mature style of the Marx Brothers: whatever Groucho sounded like before I'll Say She Is! brought him into their orbit, it is hard not to hear the nascent Captain Spaulding in observations like this:
“In order to study the polyp at close range, which is about the only way you can study a polyp after all, we took one of the tiny creatures home with us. It was at the time a girl polyp so we called her Mary, after Ethel Barrymore. She was at first naturally shy, but soon grew accustomed to our mannish ways and became more like a child of our own than like a polyp. Although of course she looked more like a polyp than like a child of our own. It was in this way that we were able to tell the difference.”
The most striking thing for new audiences to these first shorts may be how slim, young and attractive Benchley is; by the time he returned full-time to shorts in 1935 (there was a one-off for Universal in '33) he had aged and expanded into his more familiar dimensions.
His most famous shorts were the ones he made for MGM between '35 and '40. These usually take the form of comic lectures to camera, beginning with Benchley seated behind a desk and introducing the theme of the week's discussion, before segueing into narrative illustrations of his points.
In many of these Benchley essayed the role of a befuddled, endearing but frequently exasperating suburban husband, often named Joe Doakes, who is seen undergoing various petty trials and traumas, with or without his usually understanding wife.
As the films progress, these elements become more and more prominent, and by the time the films switch to Paramount ('40 - '43) have become dominant. These later films still usually begin with Benchley in expert mode, but rather than short, often pantomimed illustrative sequences, the intros give way to extended, sitcom-like scenarios.
Critics tend to hang the Paramounts a peg or two below the MGM titles - Maltin claims the quality "plummeted". I'm not so sure. MGM's reputation as graveyard of comics and comedy is never entirely undeserved, and some of their Benchley films are directed at too high a pitch, and overscored with 'funny' music, including those fatal 'mwah mwah' cornets. The Paramounts have a gentler, more wistful quality, as well as a catchy, whimsical and much more suitable theme tune. Pound for pound, they seem just as good to me, and benefit enormously from the regular casting of the charming and funny Ruth Lee as Mrs Doakes, just one of a rotating pool of screen wives in the MGMs.
The first of the MGM Benchleys came his way quite accidentally. The kernel of How To Sleep was the stop-motion footage showing the various positions assumed by the average person during a night's sleep. This was intended to serve as the centrepiece of a Pete Smith Speciality, but Smith was ill and Benchley, it seemed, was given the raw material and told basically to do what he liked with it, provided he retained the stop motion and included plenty of shots of Simmons Orthapaedic Mattresses, who had paid for the plug. True to form, Benchley came up with another lecture, and apart from one hilarious moment when the onscreen Benchley tells his own narrating voice to mind his business, the piece is entirely wordless but for Benchley's commentary. This constantly alternates between a scholarly-seeming statement of facts and the stream of consciousness reflections of the character we see on screen, such as when we discover the disadvantages of a glass of hot milk before retiring as an aid to sleep - it means opening the fridge last thing at night:
What do you suppose this is? Cold lobster? It is cold lobster at that. Might give it a try. Not bad, not bad. Well, that's all for tonight. Up we go - but - what's that? Coleslaw? I'll be darned. Coleslaw. Well now, let's see what else we've got here. Let's see. Well, guess I'd better use a fork on this. Funny, these things never tasted like this at dinner.
In the next shot he has laid out an elaborate spread of scores of dishes on the kitchen table, from each of which he samples eagerly: "Might as well be comfortable about it..."
Other popular misconceptions go the same way: "There's a theory that if you count imaginary sheep jumping over a fence it will induce sleep. This has been proved to be a fallacy as the patient is likely to start worrying about one of the sheep not quite making it." This is then superbly illustrated by an animation of cute, identical sheep leaping a fence: the first five make it, but the sixth slightly misjudges the jump, and a sleep-destroying pile-up results.
That this was something altogether new and fresh may be judged from the fact that it went on to win the Academy Award for best short film, and served as the slowly-evolving template for all the Benchley shorts to follow.
. The Romance of Digestion (1937): Benchley the expert...... and the bumbler.
How To Sleep (1935): the 'hot pine bath' method
All of Benchley's shorts contain something to make them worth watching, but here are ten of my most highly recommended favourites.
1. How To Behave (MGM, 1936)
The first of his official MGM series takes up the subject of etiquette, and handles such vexed and thorny matters as how long to remain standing when a woman enters the room if she makes no effort to sit herself, and who to introduce to whom and in what order when the guests are a woman and a church dignitary. Plus the classic 'weekend guest' sequence, with Benchley in plus-fours waiting impatiently for his hosts to rise for breakfast, and accidentally breaking a model ship on their mantelpiece.
2. A Night at the Movies (MGM, 1937)
Another Academy Award nominee and a rarity from the MGM period: a sustained single sketch with no introduction or explanatory narration. Benchley and his wife plan a visit to the cinema (to see “Souls On A Tandem”) but are almost denied admission when he puts his tickets in the entry box for the automobile raffle. Once inside he experiences difficulties with a staring child, begins coughing uncontrollably and accidentally ends up on stage with a chorus of dancing girls.
3. How To Read (MGM, 1938)
The hidden dangers of reading, as caused by bedside reading lights, falling asleep while listening to one's wife reading aloud ("a form of reading that is particularly dangerous"), or attempting to read without interruption at one's club:
Clubman: You won't get very far with that, I tried it.
Benchley: Is that so...
Clubman: Yep, I got to the part where the girl shot herself and I says, “Uh-uh, not for Puppy.” I like to get a laugh out of the books I read.
Benchley: That so... there's some funny papers on the table over there (...)
Clubman (tapping Benchley on his shoulder and making him start): By the way, do you see anything of Pinky McDermott lately?
Benchley: No I don't.
Clubman: Say, you know what I think about Pinky?
Benchley: No, I don't.
Clubman: I think he's in love with that girl.
Benchley: That may very well be.
4. How To Eat (MGM, 1939)
Illustrates the perils of trying to eat out of doors, from a tray in bed ("this is strictly a woman's method of eating"), or in a railway dining car, with Benchley's narration again alternating between external commentary and internal monologue:
First thing he's got to fight is the stranger sitting opposite him. Right off the bat he doesn't like him because he sits down without asking... Stranger doesn't seem any too crazy about him either. Well what's wrong with my food? Just as good as anybody else's food. All right, take a good look at it. Go ahead, make me nervous.
5. That Inferior Feeling (MGM, 1940)
One of the most fondly-remembered of all, a study of "that inferiority from which most men suffer which makes them unable to cope with officials or with personal emergencies of any kind", manifested in the inability to ask for assistance at a railway station, or to cash a cheque in a bank without feeling like a criminal. This is the one where a cocky tailor talks Benchley into buying a white suit, which makes him unable to leave the house without his wife's insistence, whereupon his embarrassment compels him to immediately draw attention to it as he passes the postman:
Benchley (inanely): Well, all in white today!
Postman (confused): What did you say?
Benchley (attempting nonchalalance, and failing): I said I thought I'd throw on my white suit today.
Postman (completely uninterested): Oh. Yeah. Yeah, that's right.
6. Crime Control (Paramount, 1941)
A rare return at Paramount to the old 'illustrated lecture' format: Benchley, in police uniform, reports on malicious, so-called inanimate objects, such as the handkerchiefs that begin a night's sleep in the pyjama pocket but which have somehow migrated to the bottom of the bed by the time they are needed, and newspapers that deliberately resist all attempts to read them on an open-top bus:
“Now this man is obviously going about it in the wrong way. He's trying to turn to page seven. The newspaper knows he's trying to turn to page seven. He'll have a long grey beard before he gets to page seven this way. He should make the newspaper think that he wants to turn to page fourteen.”
7. How To Take a Vacation (Paramount, 1941)
Benchley and two work cronies take off to a cabin in the woods to reconnect with masculine authenticity, where it rains incessantly and the native Indian guide fleeces them all at poker. Benchley's narration never loses its enthusiasm, despite the reality of what we see, as when the men eat a meal of sloppy, warmed-up tinned beans: “A man owes it to his stomach every once in a while to feed it as nature intended it to be fed: from nature's own storehouse.”
We cut to Mrs Doakes enjoying a civilised breakfast of toast and eggs, but Benchley is unconvinced: “This is all very pretty, but is it nature? No, a thousand times, no! This is artificial food, food for women. A man needs nobler fare.”
8. Nothing But Nerves (Paramount, 1942)
“The study of nerves and their control,” as Joe Doakes becomes increasingly distressed during an ordinary morning at home by the presence of workmen (one of them abnormally thin and tall), by innocuous voices from an uncertain location, and by the fact that he saw his maid enter the living room closet but didn't see her come out again: “But common sense should tell him that she must have come out and that he just didn't see her, that's all. The maid doesn't live in the closet. There's not enough room in there even for her to sit down and read...”
9. The Witness (Paramount, 1942)
A charming, Walter Mitty-ish diversion: Joe Doakes is reading a newspaper about some “investigating committe and the way they treat those witnesses” before fantasising himself a cocky and recalcitrant witness whose every bombastic retort elicits laughter and applause from the pressmen. We see newspaper headlines reading “Doakes Grills Grillers”, “Crowd Cheers Doakes”, “Committee Baffled” and “Hero Doakes May Get Medal”, before reality intervenes and he capitulates completely under the intrusive questioning of a door-to-door survey-taker.
10. Keeping In Shape (Paramount, 1942)
Men's health tips, including the all-important how to get out of going to the dentist, and how to rationalise the inclusion of a large pint of beer in your calorie-controlled diet:
“It doesn't say anything about no beer. It says no oil on salad dressing, no sugar, no butter... Nothing about no beer. Matter of fact, I didn't get all I was entitled to for breakfast this morning. I was supposed to have half a grapefruit and black coffee and all I had was the black coffee... It's about the size of half a grapefruit...”
Benchley returned to MGM for a few final shorts in 1943; one longs for them to go on forever, and to see and hear him grapple with the fifties, the sixties, the seventies... even, somehow, with the decrepitude of our own stagnant times.
Or perhaps, no; on reflection, not. His was a spirit that would not have taken to any age but his own, least of all ours.
Robert Benchley died in 1945, at the age of just fifty-six: another one in the eye to the myth of cosmic justice. If he wasn't the funniest man that ever lived, then nobody was.