Today is the birthday of the great American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945). A native of Worcester, Massachusetts (you can hear it in his accent), he later went to Harvard, where he wrote for the Lampoon, and then (you know all this) moved to New York, where he wrote for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker and was one of the wits of the Algonquin Roundtable. I never used to be much impressed with his humor pieces; compared with the dazzling likes of S.J. Perelman and Dorothy Parker his pieces always seemed like weak tea. It wasn’t until I first saw his comedy film shorts that I became a legitimate Benchley fan. Now all I have to do is picture his droll persona reading the piece aloud to me and it sells it.
It seems to me something unique and unprecedented happened with Benchley’s memory…in a way, sort of heartening. I would imagine that if you took a poll of people today, of those that even know who Benchley is, I would imagine almost all of them know him — only — as a legendary literary figure. But I imagine in his own day, from 1928 until his death in 1945, most Americans knew him primarily (perhaps even only) as a funny guy they saw in MOVIES. He starred in his own series of comedy shorts, and would occasionally appear in features such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. His most famous film was How to Sleep (1935), for which he won an Academy Award.