Sitcom's Fairy Godfather
Humorist Robert Benchley was an insider. Part of the famed Algonquin Hotel round table of wits in the 1920s, he traded barbs with New York’s sharpest tongues (Dorothy Parker was his best pal and drinking buddy) and wrote for Vanity Fair as well as the just-launched New Yorker. His crowd was a kind of precursor to The Onion, Gawker, and The Daily Show, yet he didn’t bring that hip edge to his stage and film work. Transplanted to Hollywood, Benchley opted to nudge and mock rather than skewer his targets.
Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin brings 11 of his short films to DVD (three other films star Alexander Woollcott and The Philadelphia Story screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart), and the jokes are as tame and familiar as a Blondie cartoon. In the nine Paramount shorts from the 1940s, Benchley portrays pompous, clueless everymen who like to think they’re grand and in charge, though the wife (Ruth Lee)—setting the mold for Alice Kramden and Debra Barone—always knows otherwise.
Most of the shorts are presented as sociological studies, with Benchley assuming the roles of researcher and subject. In The Trouble with Husbands (1940), we’re told that “among the 35,000 wives questioned in our survey, 84% agreed that the husband waiting to clean up until dinner is on the table is one of the greatest causes of domestic unrest.” Though he’d claimed to be ready to eat, Benchley trots upstairs to wash his hands and even gives himself a shave before joining his wife at the table. There he has the temerity to observe that the soup’s cold. Ba-dum-dum! In another bit, he scolds his wife for needing him to run to the overpriced delicatessen because it’s the only grocery open on a Sunday night. Predictably, he returns home with every item that caught his eye—save the butter she sent him to get.
Having promised to follow up with a lecture on what women do to annoy men in “the war of nerves,” Benchley offered The Man’s Angle in 1942. Pinpointing women’s faults proved difficult, he lectured, because no universal complaints emerged. Yet the characterizations are typical—the wife ties up the phone talking to a friend, laughs at him as he tries to buy a hat, then interrupts and ruins his storytelling at dinner with another couple. The punch line comes at the end, when the lecturer’s assistant dissolves in tears, convinced that every instance he’s detailed was a direct assessment of her (“Why don’t you fire me and be done with it if I’m so awful?”).
Other films return the focus to the bumbling male. How to Take a Vacation (1941) shows a getaway with the cronies ruined by rain and a steady diet of beans, and, in Keeping In Shape (1941), he limps around the gym, a nervous and lazy health nut who cheats on sit-ups and opts out of the rowing machine. Witness (1942) is the most relevant for today’s audiences, as everyman Joe Doakes (Benchley) is angered by a proliferation of investigating committees. “You don’t have to be up to anything these days to get investigated,” he tells his wife. “Somebody could get up an investigating committee and decide I should be investigated. All they’d have to do would be to hand me a subpoena and push me in one of those committee rooms with a lot of reporters and photographers and fire a lot of darn fool questions at me and make me look like a criminal.” True to form, Joe daydreams about getting the best of questioners through repartee, then crumbles when a survey taker appears at his door. Mrs. Doakes has to send the man on his way, leading to the conclusion that, “If the wife has [moral courage], the man doesn’t need it anyway.”
Viewed today, these films need historical context to come to life: about 10 minutes each, the shorts ran like trailers before features films back when a trip to the picture house was still a treat. Even the simplest reflection of daily life’s irritations was likely to get big laughs, and Benchley sure hams it up for his audience.
Armchair film historians will have better luck with two Fox Movietone shorts from the 1920s. Benchley’s famed The Treasurer’s Report (1928) is pretty much just what the title promises, but it’s worth a look as one of the earliest sound films (made four months after The Jazz Singer). In The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928), Benchley is still building the tongue-tied, hapless scientist persona. As Benchley was nothing if not influential, you might see a little of Frasier Crane and paleontologist Ross Gellar in him, too.