Monday, December 26, 2016
Film Review: The Robert Benchley Collection
The name Robert Benchley means far too little to far too many people, including those that would described themselves as "movie lovers". Luckily Warner Brothers, as part of its Archive Collection has released "The Robert Benchley Miniatures Collection" (1935 - 1944), a three disc set featuring 30 comedy shorts made at MGM.
Mr. Benchley first gained fame as a writer, writing satirical pieces in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. He was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table (named so because they would meet at the Algonquin Hotel in New York) along with poet Dorothy Parker, movie critic and playwright Robert Emmet Sherwood and playwright George S. Kaufman.
He would later make the transition to film, initially appearing as the star of his own comedy shorts and would have co-starring, comic relief roles in various movies such as "I Married A Witch" (1942), Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940) and the Bob Hope / Bing Crosby road picture, "Road To Utopia" (1945).
It is within these shorts Mr. Benchley would fully develop his screen persona as an at times hapless everyman while also presenting himself as a foremost authority on any particular subject. These comedy shorts are often parodies on "how to" videos and or books. The humor arises when the lecturer (Mr. Benchley) slowly reveals his ignorance on a subject. He stumbles over his words, repeats himself, loses his train of thought and forget the message of his speech. Through this however the genius of Mr. Benchley's comedy comes through as he accurately depicts man's foibles and struggles of everyday existence. Mr. Benchley lampoons social customs and authority.
As with any artist, every attempt at comedy doesn't always work. Some subject matters lend themselves better to comedy than others. This is the case of this collection of 30 shorts. I do not intend to review all 30 instead focusing on a few which best highlight the collection and those which expose the weaknesses of the collection.
"How to Sleep" (1935; Dir. Nick Grande) - The first short of this collection is also the best and a contender for Mr. Benchley's most famous comedy. This Academy Award winner (Best Short Subject, nominated against the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Tit for Tat" (1935), one of two comedies the boys appeared in to be nominated) presents Mr. Benchley as an authority on sleeping methods. What makes the piece so funny and a prime example of Mr. Benchley at his best, is his ability to present universal truths and puncture holes in them. In one scene Mr. Benchley explains when we awake from a night's sleep for a drink of water or to use the bathroom, we want to do so in such a way as to not fully awake ourselves. Or how we inevitably eat a late snack when we had no intention of doing so. We describes various sleeping positions, in which we have all found ourselves in at one time or another. Mr. Benchley takes the simple act of sleeping and turns it on its head revealing even such a simple task as going to bed can challenge man. *** (out of ****)
"How to Behave" (1936; Dir. Arthur Ripley) - This time around Mr. Benchley is a newspaper columnist who writes an etiquette column. He is called upon by two city sewer workers who ask if a man has to stand up when a woman is present while he is eating. After this Mr. Benchley gives us a few more helpful tips. As with "How to Sleep", what makes this comedy funny is how we begin with a simple idea and stretch it to its logical breaking point. If a man must stand when a woman approaches his table while eating, what happens if the floor is slippery? Or what if the woman talks alot and never sits down first? Huh? Did you ever think about such things? Etiqutte tells us when introducing two people are the first time, you introduce the oldest to the youngest. But, what if it is a group of women? How is a man suppose to know how old the women are? What if you are polite and offend someone at the same time? Not as commercially successful as "How to Sleep", this comedy, directed by Arthur Ripley (who worked often with silent screen comedy legend Harry Langdon), has aged nicely and demonstrates the appeal of Mr. Benchley to a younger generation. *** (out of ****)
"How to Vote" (1936; Dir. Felix E. Feist) - A political committee in the 8th district has gathered together to hear a political candidate's speech. Unfortunately the candidate is not available and has sent his assistant (Mr. Benchley) instead to speak on his behalf. "How to Vote" is a misleading title. Mr. Benchley does not explain how citizens should prepare to vote, which may have lent itself to some funny comments about politics. Instead the piece feels like a retread of Mr. Benchley's own "The Treasurer's Report" (1928), with some of the same dialogue. A better name for this would be how to speak in public, or something related. The humor stems from Mr. Benchley being nervous and fumbling his words. It can be funny and made me smile, at one point Mr. Benchley pulls out a map explaining a new damn project and money has been allocated under the heading of "for what" but not to worry, they will think of a way to spend it. The problem is, the short lacks focus and even at its running time of less than 10 minutes, feels long. "The Treasurer's Report" was short and had better context. "How to Vote" may have been a nice idea but lacks proper context. ** 1\2 (out of ****)
"A Night at the Movies" (1937; Dir. Roy Rowland) - If "How to Sleep" is my favorite of the Robert Benchley comedies than "A Night at the Movies" is my second favorite. Once again Mr. Benchley takes a relatively simple idea, going to the movies, and shows us the daily struggles we all must endure. Nothing in life is easy which makes it both miserable and funny (as long as it is happening to the other fella). First things start off with a married couple (Mr. Benchley and Betty Ross Clarke) deciding what to see, which is always a challenge. Once in the theater there is the horror of finding a good seat and the possibility someone will sit in front of you (and the law decrees it must be a large overweight person that will completely obstruct your view). Mr. Benchley again puts a comedic spin on universal events we can all relate to. *** (out of ****)
"An Evening Alone" (1938; Dir. Roy Rowland) - Mr. Benchley plays a husband who will have the house to himself for the evening when his wife goes out. She is concerned he will have nothing to do but as Mr. Benchley explains, as the narrator, men have a lot to do around the house when left alone. The piece really engages in gender stereotypes, taking the position men are dumb and should not be left alone. A sentiment sadly still exhibited today in various TV sitcoms. What makes the piece funny is its ability to accurately display what we all do when we have too much time on our hands and avoid doing necessary errands. How many times have you said to yourself, if I only had a free day to do everything I need to and when presented with the opportunity, sit down and watch TV instead? Although there was no television in 1938 that is the general commentary of the piece. You have to love the way Mr. Benchley knows us so well. *** (out of ****)
"An Hour for Lunch" (1939; Dir. Roy Rowland) - Somewhat an continuation of the theme of "time" as seen on "An Evening Alone", here Mr. Benchley proper explains time management to us and demonstrate how to make the most of your lunch hour. The first step is of course to make a list of what needs to be done and then it is off to the races. Here we learn no matter how prepared we are life always has other plans for us and will make every effort to ruin our day. Secondly, we could get a lot accomplished in a day if it weren't for other people, who have no reason to exist in the first place. Again, another fine example of finding the humor in the mundane. *** (out of ****)
"See Your Doctor" (1939; Dir. Basil Wrangell) - Mr. Benchley shows us how not to worry about a problem. Another comedy short with a misleading title. Good idea but poor execution. Mr. Benchley believes he has been stung by a bee but his brother-in-law (Hobart Cavanaugh) puts the idea in Benchley's head that it may have been a black widow spider and it requires immediate attention. The situation would have been funny if Benchley was a hypochondriac and thought the bee sting would be fatal and eliminate the brother-in-law character. It would have also been funnier if Mr. Benchley could provide more examples of people worrying over silly things. ** 1\2 (out of ****)
Overall a good collection of comedy shorts starring the great Robert Benchley. When you add all the shorts together, the viewer will have a great appreciation for Mr. Benchley's comedy and his witty observations on human behavior. The downfall is the short run roughly 9 - 10 minutes and seem to end abruptly. If you enjoy classic American comedy, you may enjoy this. If the names Bob Hope, W.C. Fields and Jack Benny mean nothing to you, watch them first and work your way to this. Also, you may want to read Mr. Benchley's writings as well.