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August 4th, 2006


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09:22 pm - A bit of Benchley
Robert Benchley (1889-1945) is probably one of the greatest American authors and humorists of the 20th Century. In fact if you pressed me hard enough to name my favorite American humorists of the early 20th, I would first say "get the damn press off me" and then I'd name S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Franklin P. Adams (his "Modern-Day Pepys" getup is great) and Robert Benchley. Maybe some others I've forgotten. But you get the idea.

Contributor to the Lampoon during his Harvard days, Benchley started out his real life writin' as a regular contributor to The New Yorker and Life Magazine and the like. Soon, however, he hit it reasonably big as a comedic actor. His big acting break came with a monologue entitled "The Treasurer's Report", a send-off of a yearly company report delivered by the Assistant Treasurer at the last minute after the regular treasurer has fallen ill. The text can be rather dry and incomprehensible, but then again, so was Benchley, and I am assured that his delivery contributed to 75% of the piece's success. He first performed it for a self-indulgent Broadway revue written by and starring many members of the Algonquin Round Table (of which he was a founding member) and was such a hit that he was called upon to perform it many times over.

The success of his public appearances then led to the piece being filmed; The Treasurer's Report could very well be considered the first all-talking movie (The Jazz Singer, in case you didn't know, is mostly silent, with only a few Jolson songs and lines of dialogue actually in sound.) Benchley's success there led to many series of "How-To" film shorts for Paramount. He even won an Academy Award in 1936 for his comic short "How To Sleep." And if you've ever seen Bing Crosby & Bob Hope's Road to Utopia, then you've seen Benchley do a bit of his monologuing; he plays the narrator in the film who occasionally stops the proceedings to complain about the plot holes, or just so that we can get a better look at Dorothy Lamour in some nice outfit. (Ironically, however hilarious he was as an actor, this nonetheless caused him considerable chagrin as he'd really wanted to be known chiefly for his writing.) He died way too soon at the age of 56 but left a great family legacy. His son, Nat, was himself a rather successful novelist; his grandson, Peter, wrote some book about a shark or something that was turned into a movie that I think I've rather liked on occasion.

I bring this up tonight because I wanted to share with you a wonderful essay of Robert's which I quite enjoy. While not as insanely humorous or as absurd as his Uncle Edith pieces, it makes a very interesting point which, while written in 1940, still rings true today. He'd have made a good online journaller (I refuse to denigrate him by presuming he'd be a b-l-o-double-g-e-r.) I also admit his writing voice in here is ... well, let's just say I find it quite natural and easy to use from time to time. Ask me sometime about how I successfully emulated Jean Kerr's sarcastic columnist voice at the tender age of 6--that is, if anybody out there actually remembers who the hell Jean Kerr was.

At any rate, take a read:

Isn't It Remarkable?

On a recent page of colored reproductions of tomb-paintings and assorted excavations from holes in ancient Egypt there appears a picture of a goose with the following rather condescending caption:
Remarkably Accurate and Artistic Painting of a Goose from Pharaoh Akhenaten's Palace, Drawn 3300 Years Ago.
What I want to know is--why the "remarkable"? Why is it any more remarkable that someone drew a goose accurately 3300 years ago than someone should do it today? Why should we be surprised that the people who built the Pyramids could also draw a goose so it looked like a goose?

As a matter of fact, the goose in this particular picture looks more like a goose than that of many a modern master. Just what we think we are, in this age of bad drawing, to call an Egyptian painting "remarkably accurate and artistic" I don't know, but we have got to get over this feeling that anything that was done correctly in 1000 B.C. was a phenomenon. I say that we have got to get over it, but I don't know how.

People managed to drag along in ancient Egypt, from all that we can gather. They may not have known about chocolate malted milk and opera hats, but, what with one thing and another, they got by. And, presumably, every once in a while somebody felt like drawing a goose. And why not? Is there something exclusively twentieth-century about the art of goose-drawing?

We are constantly being surprised that people did things well before we were born. We are constantly remarking on the fact that things are done well by people other than ourselves. "The Japanese are a remarkable little people," we say, as if we were doing them a favor. "He is an Arab, but you ought to hear him play the zither." Why "but"?

Another thing, possibly not in this connection, but in line with our amazement at obvious things. People are always saying: "My grandfather is eighty-two and interested in everything. Reads the paper every day and follows everything."

Why shouldn't he be interested in everything at eighty-two? Why shouldn't he be especially interested in everything at eighty-two? What is there so remarkable about his reading the paper every day and being conversant on all topics? If he isn't interested in everything at eighty-two when is he going to be? (I seem to be asking an awful lot of questions. Don't bother answering them, please.)

It is probably this naive surprise at things that keeps us going. If we took it for granted that the ancient Egyptians could draw a goose accurately, or that Eskimos could sing bass, or that Grandpa should be interested in everything at eighty-two, there wouldn't be anything for us to hang our own superiority on.

And if we couldn't find something to hand own own superiority on we should be sunk. We should be just like the ancient Egyptians, or the Eskimos, or Grandpa.

-- Robert Benchley

(6 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:antikythera
Date:August 5th, 2006 02:36 am (UTC)
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Nifty. He calls a spade a spade, doesn't he?

I'm a bit stuck on his first question about the goose -- there actually used to be a theory among art historians that the older art was, the more primitive and less skilled it would be. Apparently art was supposed to evolve over time from the beginning of humanity onward, similarly to the way children's artistic ability can be tracked as their mental abilities develop. That was one of the reasons that people were so surprised by cave art like that at Lascaux. They didn't believe that something done so skillfully could be that old.

Now that I read this, I wouldn't be surprised if that theory actually came directly from a mindset of racial superiority. "We" are very good at coming up with all kinds of reasons why other cultures' art is inferior to ours, and we use those as proof of the theory, which in turn proves that we are the most advanced. Circular logic makes the world go 'round.
[User Picture]
From:signsoflife
Date:August 5th, 2006 02:55 am (UTC)
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In the case of the Altamira caves in Spain, that disbelief in the artistic capacities of pre-moderns destroyed the discoverer -- he was denounced as a fraud because the paintings were too beautiful to be real. [Source: _Color: a Natural History of the Palette_, by Victoria Finlay.]
[User Picture]
From:antikythera
Date:August 5th, 2006 03:03 am (UTC)
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Right, Altamira was discovered first. I couldn't remember which.
[User Picture]
From:brak55
Date:August 5th, 2006 04:55 am (UTC)
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The Benchley shorts have been showing up here and there on DVD releases of movies from the 40's.
[User Picture]
From:jrw
Date:August 5th, 2006 06:35 am (UTC)
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Ah, Benchley. The first time I ever encountered him was in a nice little Fred Astaire movie, not very well known, called The Sky's the Limit, in which Benchley performs a version of his Treasurer's Report routine. I didn't know who he was, but I wanted to find out, since I thought the routine was so brilliant. I didn't realize I was watching something that had been honed to perfection over many years of performance.

I have a little book of Benchley's writings that I snapped up at a used book store at some point, selected bits from his magazine vignettes, all in that same wonderful tone.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 19th, 2006 12:50 am (UTC)

Kean Kerr

(Link)
Jean Kerr has a lot of tremendously witty material, and many of her quotes fly around, however largely unattributed. I actually only stumbled onto her material, after we discovered that the house we bought was the one that she grew up in here in Scranton, PA - and from there, rediscovered Please Don't Eat The Daisies, Mary, Mary, and quite a few of her other works. Great stuff!

(http://surveying-mapping-gis.blogspot.com/2006/04/please-dont-eat-daisies.html)

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