Falling in Love
In 1967, when I was a sophomore in high school, I fell in love with an older man. I would have married him in a heart beat too, if he had ever asked me. But alas, he never did –partly because we never met and partly because he had been dead since 1945.
The personage to whom I refer is a rather obscure gentleman that, unless you were lucky enough to have discovered his many books of humorous essays, he could be easily overlooked. His name is Robert Benchley.
I stole Robert Benchley from my Mother. She had him on her beside table. The book was called, Love Conquers All.
One day, I took Love Conquers All to school with me and started reading it in Spanish class. The first essay I read was “Do Insects Think” in which Robert writes:
During the summer of 1899, while I was at work on my treatise “Do Larvae Laugh,” we kept a female wasp at our cottage in the Adirondacks. It really was more like a child of our own than a wasp, except that it looked more like a wasp than a child of our own. That was one of the ways we told the difference.
I had never read anything like it! I was shocked to find there were actually people out there, grown men, in fact, who made it their life’s work to be funny like this! And not Mark Twain funny or Will Rogers funny, because they were funny too. But they were an acquired taste of funny, a more mature type of humor. You had to be sophisticated and know a little bit about the world to appreciate them.
And thinking back now on when I was 15, the only thing I can remember knowing about the world is that eating an entire bag of Sweet Tarts for lunch made your mouth really sore for the rest of the day.
So you can imagine how happy I was when I realized that I could appreciate Robert Benchley’s humor without having to know a darn thing about the world!
Robert Benchley was my kind of humorist!
Robert Benchley and The Algonquin Roundtable
In the 1920’s, the coolest people in New York City were a group of witty writers, actors and celebrated personalities who met for lunch every day at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City.
Naturally, my beloved Robert Benchley was among the sparkling members of the group — which also included Dorothy Parker who said a lot of really funny things like “Way deep down he’s very superficial.” (I wanted to like Dorothy Parker, but from all that I’ve read, she really wasn’t very nice at all.)
Anyway, there’s a really good movie based on the group called, Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker. Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent as Dorothy Parker, and Campbell Scott really nails my beloved Benchley.
Robert Benchley in Hollywood
Benchley also wrote much of the dialogue and frequently acted in many full length movies of the time as well — usually playing the part of the on-the-wagon drunk.
My two favorites are Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent where Benchley plays the part of Stebbins. Here’s a taste of the Benchley-esque dialogue:
Johnny Jones: This is Scott ffolliott, newspaperman same as you. Foreign correspondent. Mr. Haverstock, Mr. ffolliott.
Scott ffolliott: With a double ‘F’.
Johnny Jones: How do you do?
Scott ffolliott: How do you do?
Johnny Jones: I don’t get the double ‘F’.
Scott ffolliott: They’re at the beginning. Both small ‘F’s
Johnny Jones: They can’t be at the beginning.
Scott ffolliott: One of my ancestors was beheaded by Henry VIII. His wife dropped the capital letter to commemorate it. There it is.
Johnny Jones: How do you say it, like a stutter?
Scott ffolliott: Just a straight ‘fuh’.
The other Benchley movie I dearly love is The Sky’s the Limit. It stars Fred Astaire and Robert Benchley. The plot’s really stupid but Fred Astaire performs One for My Baby where, in a drunken display of despair, he dances on the bar shattering all the glass (here). And Robert Benchley plays the sidekick character who has to deliver a speech he is totally unprepared for — check it out here.
Well, I could go on and on, Dear Readers, about my love affair with this older man. And perhaps I’ll expound upon this topic when I write my memoirs someday. I already have the title. It’s called “Do Larvae Kiss and Tell?”
Until next time . . . I love you (but not as much as Robert Benchley)