Saturday, September 15, 2018

Eat, Sleep, Joke, Repeat

How's this for formal dining?


The photograph above was taken in May of 1939 in Los Angeles. A bit ironic that should be the location as the man in the middle with his eyes seemingly closed (probably the camera just caught him at an odd moment--we've all experienced that) was more well known as a New Yorker. In fact, he wrote for The New Yorker. That's Robert Benchley, the magazine's theater critic and a renowned wit (back in the 1920s and '30s, "theater critic" and "renowned wit" were practically synonyms.) So what's he doing in LA? In the last two decades of his life, Benchley was a movie star of sorts, best known for a series of comic shorts where he explained various facets of modern life--modern life as experienced in the 1930s and '40s. And, as a movie star, Benchley naturally got to hang around with other movie stars. The star closest to him on the left in the above picture is Herbert Marshall, who today is mostly forgotten. The closest star to Benchley on the right is debonair David Niven, perhaps not quite as forgotten as Marshall. On the far left is a man who was more a star of stage than screen, though one of the few movies he did appear in went on to become a classic. Don't recognize him yet? Imagine him with a mane and whiskers. That's right, it's Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, the debut of which was still about three months away. The man on the far right tried to be a star in vaudeville but had far more success as a Hollywood restaurateur. That's David Chasen, at whose eponymous eatery this top-hatted wingding is taking place.




Today happens to be Robert Benchley's birthday, one which he unfortunately won't be able to celebrate (he died in 1945 at the age of 56.) We the living have other options, but first the question must be asked, where exactly is he on the forgotten-remembered spectrum? Lately, when I've come across his name in print, it's usually as one of the wits (and critics) at the legendary Algonquin Round Table.  His many essays--he had a wonderfully droll style--can be found in various collections of pre-World War II humor writings, but back when he was still among the living, it was the film shorts as well as supporting roles in full-length motion pictures that eventually drowned everything else out (The New Yorker ultimately fired him because he spent so much time making movies he was missing all the Broadway openings.) Today the best of those film shorts can be found on the internet, proving that he still has a following. As you'll see in this example snagged from YouTube, that following even extends to those who do not speak Benchley's native tongue:


   
I bet all those subtitles would keep Donald Trump awake at night.


8 comments:

  1. Interesting! I'm familiar with his name but not with the details of his life. Thanks!

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  2. Hi, Kirk!

    You must really be backlogged, good buddy. Robert Benchley died in 1945 and you're just now getting around to running a eulogy post! :) I calculated that Benchley would be 129 years old today - the world's oldest human being!

    I enjoyed Benchey's film short about the poor soul trying to get a good night's sleep. Several aspects of the film reminded me of my boyhood. Back then warm milk was still recommended as a sleep aid "before retiring." More recent studies concluded it has no effect on sleep patterns. Husbands waking up at night, going to the kitchen and "raiding the icebox" in search of a "midnight snack" was a common theme in movies and television series. Then there is the method of falling asleep that really really really works (not) - counting sheep. One thing that hasn't changed over the years. Sleep always starts creeping up on you just moments before your alarm clock goes off!

    Fact: I won a silver Olympic medal for Team USA in the Supine Coil.

    Thanks for profiling Robert Benchley, the very witty theater critic who entertained America during the first half of the twentieth century. Enjoy the rest of your weekend, good buddy Kirk!

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    1. I am backlogged, Shady. I still have Mary Magdalene on the backburner.

      Your comment about raiding the icebox being a common theme in movies and television reminded me of an Andy Griffith episode. Barney Fife is tasked with finding a location for a USA-USSR summit that through a mishap ends up being he held in Andy's living room. Nobody can agree on anything, so all the participants decide to go to bed and start anew the next morning. Well, sometimes during the night, the American diplomat, the Russian diplomat, and an interpreter decide raid the icebox at the exact same time. Aunt Bee hears the racket they're making, checks it out, and very generously decides to make a nighttime meal for the three of them. As they're eating, they start once again negotiating, and by morning they've hammered out an arms agreement right there at the kitchen table. In my opinion, that episode is the Citizen Kane of raiding-the-icebox themes.

      As for that Olympic medal you won, Shady, I expect to soon see you on a box of Wheaties.

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    2. Even as we speak I'm watching Fox News coverage of the Senate confirmation hearings to make Aunt Bee our new Secretary of State.

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    3. Make her President instead.

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  3. I remember these shorts. Loved them. What fun to see this one (and in Spanish, too). I, too, suffer from chronic pillow inflation. And I even remember that bit of the animated sheep.

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    1. Mitchell, I'll sometimes use three pillows at a time, only to have them all go flat on me.

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