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.