FILM: ROBERT BENCHLEY

Born:   September 15 1889
Died:   November 21 1945

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2012)

Though he appeared in dozens of feature films, writer and humorist Robert Benchley will forever be remembered for a series of one-reel shorts giving mock lectures on various aspects of the human condition. His ten minute discourses were subtle, insightful, often surreal and invariably very funny.

While at college Massachusetts-born Benchley created a number of routines sending up after dinner speakers for the amusement of his friends. By the early 1920s he was drama critic for (the original) Life Magazine and was asked to take part in a one night performance with his peers called No Siree(1922). Bob’s offering was a report purportedly being given by a treasurer and it wasn’t long before he had the audience in hysterics when they realized the seriousness of the speaker was all a sham. So successful was the piece that he was soon performing it as a cast member in Irving Berlin’s The Music Box Revue of 1923.

Several years later, the coming of sound to the movies saw the Fox studio sign Benchley to repeat his party piece in a series of six one and two-reelers, all featuring Bob as an alleged expert on some subject under review. The standout was his examination of The Sex Life of the Polyp.

After this brief foray in the movies, Robert Benchley returned to his writing but was lured in front of the cameras (in supporting roles, but often providing his own dialogue) for several features in the early 1930s. Both Universal and R.K.O. starred Benchley in individual two-reelers but in 1935 M.G.M. asked him to replace an ailing Pete Smith in a short dealing with the problems people had in sleeping.

How to Sleep was so successful it won an Academy Award and the studio quickly organized a series of follow-up one-reelers. Over the next five years Benchley gave talks on such subjects as the training of dogs, voting, raising babies, going to the movies and how best to avoid indigestion. He even updated some of his Polyp material into a lecture called The Courtship of the Newt.

In 1938 CBS radio enticed him to appear in a series of weekly broadcasts sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes. Melody and Madness ran for almost a year (switching to NBC Blue after six months) with music by Artie Shaw’s Orchestra and, for the final couple of months, Jimmy Durante could also be heard.

In late 1940 Benchley switched to Paramount where his shorts expounded on such topics as going on holiday, losing weight, how husbands feel about wives and (a couple of years later) how wives feel about their husbands. But they weren’t as successful as his earlier offerings and he returned to M.G.M. in 1943 for a further four one reelers.

Meanwhile Bob could also be seen in a number of features including Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, the Fred Astaire musicals You’ll Never Get Rich and The Sky’s the Limit, Fred Allen’s It’s in the Bag and as narrator for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road to Utopia.

By then, Benchley’s health was in decline and he died in November 1945 at the relatively young age of only 56.

 

Films

The Treasurer’s Report (1928 Fox short)
The Sex Life Of The Polyp (1928 Fox short)
The Spellbinder (1928 Fox short)
Lesson No.1 (1929 Fox short)
Furnace Trouble (1929 Fox short)
Stewed, Fried And Boiled (1929 Fox short)
The Sport Parade (1932)
Your Technocracy And Mine (1933 Universal short)
Headline Shooter (1933)
Dancing Lady (1933)
Rafter Romance (1934)
Social Register (1934)
How To Break 90 At Croquet (1935 R.K.O. short)
China Seas (1935)
How To Sleep (1935 M.G.M. short)
How To Behave (1936 M.G.M. short)
Piccadilly Jim (1936)
How To Train A Dog (1936 M.G.M. short)
How To Vote (1936 M.G.M. short)
How To Be A Detective (1936 M.G.M.  short)
The Romance Of Digestion (1937 M.G.M. short)
How To Start The Day (1937 M.G.M. short)
Broadway Melody Of 1938 (1937)
Live, Love And Learn (1937)
A Night At The Movies (1937 M.G.M. short)
How To Figure Income Tax (1938 M.G.M. short)
Music Made Simple (1938 M.G.M. short)
An Evening Alone (1938 M.G.M. short)
How To Raise A Baby (1938 M.G.M. short)
The Courtship Of The Newt (1938 M.G.M. short)
How To Read (1938 M.G.M. short)
How To Watch Football (1938 M.G.M.  short)
Opening Day (1938 M.G.M. short)
Mental Poise (1938 M.G.M. short)
How To Sub-Let (1939 M.G.M. short)
An Hour For Lunch (1939 M.G.M. short)
Dark Magic (1939 M.G.M. short)
Home Early (1939 M.G.M.  short)
How To Eat (1939 M.G.M. short)
The Day Of Rest (1939 M.G.M. short)
See Your Doctor (1939 M.G.M. short)
That Interior Feeling (1940 M.G.M. short)
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Hired Wife (1940)
Home Movies (1940 M.G.M. short)
The Trouble With Husbands (1940 Paramount short)
Nice Girl? (1941)
Waiting For Baby (1941 Paramount short)
Crime Control (1941 Paramount short)
The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
The Forgotten Man (1941 Paramount short)
How To Take A Vacation (1941 Paramount short)
You’ll Never Get Rich (1941)
Three Girls About Town (1941)
Bedtime Story (1941)
Nothing But Nerves (1942 Paramount short)
The Witness (1942 Paramount short)
Take A Letter, Darling (1942)
The Major And The Minor (1942)
I Married A Witch (1942)
Keeping In Shape (1942 Paramount short)
The Man’s Angle (1942 Paramount short)
My Tomato (1943 M.G.M. short)
Young And Willing (1943)
The Sky’s The Limit (1943)
Flesh And Fantasy (1943)
No News Is Good News (1943 M.G.M. short)
The Song Of Russia (1943)
See Here, Private Hargrove (1944)
Her Primitive Man (1944)
Important Business (1944 M.G.M. short)
Why, Daddy? (1944 M.G.M. short)
Janie (1944)
National Barn Dance (1944)
Practically Yours (1944)
Pan-Americana (1945)
Boogie Woogie (1945 Paramount short)
I’m A Civilian Here Myself (1945 Navy short)
It’s In The Bag (1945)
Duffy’s Tavern (1945)
Kiss And Tell (1945)
Weekend At The Waldorf (1945)
Snafu (1945)
Hollywood Victory Canteen (1945 short)
The Road To Utopia (1945)
The Stork Club (1945)
The Bride Wore Boots (1946)
Janie Gets Married (1946)

 

Radio

Melody and Madness
CBS November 20 1938 to May 14 1939,
NBC Blue May 23 to November 14 1939
January 22, March 26, April 2 and August 22 1939 with collectors

 

Recordings

BENCHLEY’S BEST
Audio Rarities 10″ LP 110
Swing Music
Travelogue: South Seas
Travelogue: Tibet
How to Start a Vacation

ARTIE SHAW & HIS ORCHESTRA WITH ROBERT BENCHLEY
Jazz Hour CD

 

Laser Disc

Cavalcade Of M.G.M. Shorts
M.G.M./U.A. 4-disc set
features M.G.M. shorts:
How To Sleep
A Night At The Movies
Music Made Simple
An Evening Alone
That Inferior Feeling
Home Movies

 

Video

ROBERT BENCHLEY AND THE KNIGHTS OF THE ALGONQUIN
Kino Video (2000)
features the Fox shorts:
The Treasurer’s Report
The Sex Life of a Polyp
the Paramount shorts:
The Trouble With Husbands
Crime Control
The Witness
The Man’s Angle
plus shorts by Alexander Woollcott: Mr. W’s Little Game (1934)
and Donald Ogden Stewart: Humorous Flights (1929) and Traffic Regulations (1929).

 

DVDs

ROBERT BENCHLEY AND THE KNIGHTS OF THE ALGONQUIN
Kino DVD (2006)
features the Fox shorts:
The Treasurer’s Report
The Sex Life of a Polyp
the Paramount shorts:
The Trouble With Husbands
Waiting For Baby
Crime Control
The Forgotten Man
How To Take A Vacation
Nothing But Nerves
The Witness
Keeping In Shape
The Man’s Angle
plus shorts by Alexander Woollcott: Mr. W’s Little Game (1934)
and Donald Ogden Stewart: Humorous Flights (1929) and Traffic Regulations (1929).

THE ROBERT BENCHLEY MINIATURES COLLECTION
Warner Archives 3-DVD (2010)
features the M.G.M. shorts:
How to Sleep
How to Behave
How to Train a Dog
How to Vote
How to Be a Detective
The Romance of Digestion
How to Start the Day
A Night at the Movies
How to Figure Income Tax
Music Made Simple
An Evening Alone
How to Raise a Baby
The Courtship of the Newt
How to Read
How to Watch Football
Opening Day
Mental Poise
How to Sub-Let
An Hour for Lunch
Dark Magic
Home Early
How to Eat
The Day of Rest
See Your Doctor
That Inferior Feeling
Home Movies
My Tomato
No News is Good News
Important Business
Why Daddy?

In addition, Benchley shorts may be found as bonus extras on the following releases

How to be a Detective and Why Daddy? on THE THIN MAN SET 7-dvd set
How to Sleep and A Night at the Movies on THE MARX BROS. 5-dvd set
That Inferior Feeling on THE PHILADELPHIA STORY dvd
Home Movies on MY FAVORITE WIFE dvd

 

Books

THE “REEL” BENCHLEY
by A.A. Wynn, (1950)
contains dialogue and photos from six MGM shorts: How to Sleep, The Romance of Digestion, How to Train a Dog, No News is Good News, How to be a Detective and The Courtship of the Newt

ROBERT BENCHLEY – A BIOGRAPHY
by Nathaniel Benchley (McGraw Hill, 1955)

ROBERT BENCHLEY
by Norris W. Yates (Twayne Publishers, 1968)

ROBERT BENCHLEY – HIS LIFE AND GOOD TIMES
by Babette Rosmond (Doubleday, 1970)

STARRING ROBERT BENCHLEY
by Robert Redding (University of New Mexico Press, 1973)

“MR. B” OR COMFORTING THOUGHTS ABOUT THE BISON: A CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF ROBERT BENCHLEY
by Wes D. Gehrig (Greenwood Press, 1992)

ROBERT BENCHLEY: AN ANNOTATED BIOGRAPHY
by Gordon E. Ernst (Greenwood Press, 1995)

LAUGHTER’S GENTLE SOUL: THE LIFE OF ROBERT BENCHLEY
by Billy Altman (W. W. Norton, 1997)

Benchley’s short subjects are examined in
THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS
by Leonard Maltin (Bonanza Books, 1972)

 

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