Benchley, Robert (1889-1945)

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Benchley, Robert (1889-1945)

In his relatively short life Benchley managed to enjoy careers as a humorist, theater critic, newspaper columnist, screenwriter, radio performer and movie actor. His writing appeared in such magazines as the old Life and The New Yorker and his pieces were collected in several books with outlandish titles. Among the film directors he worked with were Alfred Hitchcock, Rene Clair, and Billy Wilder. Benchley won an Academy Award for one of the comedy shorts he wrote and starred in. Benchley was also a member in good standing of the Algonquin Circle in Manhattan and a longtime resident of the Garden of Allah in Hollywood. Talent runs in the Benchley family—his grandson wrote Jaws, and both his son, Nathaniel, and his grandson, Peter, became writers.

A genuinely funny man, it was his wit and humor that allowed Benchley to make his way through the world and assured him his assorted jobs. He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and attended Harvard. His first humor was written for The Lampoon. Settling in New York, he got a staff job on Vanity Fair where his co-workers included Robert E. Sherwood and Dorothy Parker. Later in the 1920s he was hired by Life, which was a humor magazine in those days. He wrote a great many pieces and also did the theater column. He later said that one of the things he liked best in the world was "that 10 minutes at the theater before the curtain goes up, I always feel the way I did when I was a kid around Christmas time."

The 1920s was a busy decade on Broadway and Benchley was in attendance on the opening nights of such shows as Funny Face, Show Boat, Dracula, Strange Interlude, and What Price Glory? In May of 1922, Abie's Irish Rose opened and Benchley dismissed Anne Nichols' play as the worst in town, saying that its obvious Irish and Jewish jokes must have dated back to the 1890s. Much to his surprise, the play was a massive hit and ran for five years. Each week for Life he had to make up a Confidential Guide with a capsule review of every play then on Broadway. That meant he had to write something about Abie's Irish Rose each and every week during its run of 2,327 performances. At first he would simply note "Something awful" or "Among the season's worst," but then he grew more inventive and said such things as "People laugh at this every night, which explains why democracy can never be a success," "Come on, now! A joke's a joke," and "No worse than a bad cold."

At the same time that he was reviewing plays, Benchley was also collecting his humor pieces in books. The gifted Gluyas Williams, an old school chum from Harvard, provided the illustrations. In addition to parodies, spoofs, and out and out nonsense pieces, some in the vein of his idol Stephen Leacock, he also wrote a great many small essays about himself, taking a left-handed and slightly baffled approach to life. Only on a shelf of books by Robert Benchley is it possible to find such titles as My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew, No Poems, or, Around the World Backwards and Sideways, and From Bed To Worse, or, Comforting Thoughts About the Bison.

Benchley gradually drifted into the movies. He appeared in over two dozen feature length films, including Foreign Correspondent (for which he also wrote some of the dialogue), I Married A Witch, The Major and the Minor (where he delivered the line about "getting out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini"), Take A Letter, Darling, and The Road to Utopia. He also made nearly 50 short films. His first one, The Treasurer's Report, was done in 1928 for Fox. The shorts most often took the form of deadpan lectures, giving advice on such topics as how to read, how to take a vacation, and how to train a dog. How To Sleep, done for Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer in the mid-1930s, won him an Academy Award. Once in an ad in Variety he listed himself as specializing in "Society Drunk" roles.

When he was working in Hollywood, Benchley most often resided in a bungalow at the Garden of Allah, which was the favorite lodging place of visiting actors, writers, and "hangers-on." The Garden was torn down decades ago to make way for a bank. At one time the bank had a display of relics of the old hotel and among them was one of Benchley's liquor bills.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Benchley, Nathaniel. Robert Benchley, A Biography. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1955.

Trachtenberg, Stanley, editor. American Humorists, 1800-1950. Detroit, Gale Research Company, 1982.