Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A very brief Robert Benchley film festival

The terrestrial superstations have recently started rerunning talk shows from the pre-cable era. Tribune media started it with Johnny Carson on AntennaTV, GetTV followed with Merv Griffith, and the Weigel/CBS collaborative effort Decades has now started running the best of Dick Cavett. (I keep meaning to do a post on Decades which is exploring some cool and interesting programming ideas but that will need to wait for another day.) I have sampled all three and only Cavett is consistently watchable, due, no doubt, both to the quality of the original shows and the excellent job Weigel  does in culling the highlights.
During a wonderful interview with Bob and Ray ("the two and only"), the subject turned to comic influences and specifically the humorist Robert Benchley. They observed that while his short subjects had been hugely popular and influential when they were young, the one-reelers were at the time of the interview almost impossible to find.

As the saying goes, that was then and this is now. These days, only the most tightly guarded or vanishingly obscure is more than a click away. Benchley is neither, so it only takes a few minutes to get up to speed on one of the 20th Century's most influential comic voices.

Like most work associated with the Algonquin Roundtable, Robert Benchley's humorous pieces have not aged all that well. They do, however, retain a certain light charm of their own and can be quite interesting as historical documents.

Like many of his peers, Robert Benchley was drawn to Hollywood by the promise of easy money but unlike Dorothy Parker and Herman Mankiewicz, Benchley found his niche primarily as a performer, albeit one who wrote his own material. The first big success along these lines was a stage review written by Benchley and his peers. The big hit of the show was a monologue called "the Treasurer's Report."

Robert Benchley was a prolific writer and cranked out numerous short subjects for MGM, including the Oscar-winning "How to Sleep."

I tossed in the last two for historical interest. The first, though satiric, provides a glimpse into attitudes toward diet and nutrition circa 1935. Note in particular the concern about maintaining an appetite. "The causes of the depression" speaks for itself.

The Treasurer's Report

How to sleep

How To Eat

The Causes of the Depression

No comments:

Post a Comment