December 16, 2017

Sina-cism: Remembering the Benchley brand of humor

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Columbia Pictures / public domain

Robert Benchley with Joyce Compton, his costar in the 1941 film "Bedtime Story."

At book club last week, a friend gave me a copy of Nathaniel Benchley’s 1955 biography of his father, comedian Robert Benchley, who remains — more than 70 years after his death — one of Worcester’s most famous funnymen.

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

The biography is a delight, recounting Benchley’s life with an unerring eye for a good story, deep affection, and as much objectivity as can be expected from a son writing about his father.

For those unfamiliar with the basic outline, Benchley was born Sept. 15, 1889, and attended Worcester schools, including South High, before heading to Phillips Exeter Academy to complete high school. At Harvard University, he acted and wrote for the Harvard Advocate and Harvard Lampoon. There followed a long and successful career as a newspaper reporter, magazine writer and Hollywood actor, ending with his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1945.

Three generations of the Benchley clan have made their mark in American letters and film.

In addition to his father’s biography, son Nathaniel authored the 1961 novel “The Off-Islanders,” which was turned into the well-regarded 1966 movie “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” And Nathaniel’s son Peter was the author of “Jaws,” the 1975 film version of which became the highest-grossing film of all time — until “Star Wars” came along two years later.

But the part of the Benchley legacy that concerns us here is Robert’s Worcester roots and early life.

Here’s Nathaniel on the Worcester of his father’s childhood:

“Inside the older Worcester houses, dimly lit by the red, blue, amber, and green stained-glass windows at the stair landings, were statuettes known as Rogers groups, or massive steel engravings of stags, or still-life compositions that looked like ducks pressed under glass. There were cuckoo clocks, and heavy draperies, and dark paneled walls, and in the winter the light from the snow outside glared through the parlor lace curtains with the brilliance of a battery of cold, white floodlights. On a winter night, the trolleys used to give off crackling blue flashes that made the snow look briefly purple, and almost every other sound was muffled by the falling snow.”

The Benchley family was comfortable enough in Victorian-era Worcester. But their lives — and Robert’s in particular — were changed on July 1, 1898, when his brother, Edmund N. Benchley, was killed in action in Cuba. Edmund is memorialized with a square at the corner of Foster and Commercial streets.

From the collections of Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts

The Benchley House, 941 Main St.

Edmund’s death, and his mother’s shocked response to it — “Oh, why couldn’t it have been Robert?” — profoundly shaped Robert’s life. His mother became a pacifist and was soon doting on her remaining child. She helped him understand that many Worcester residents were less fortunate, sparking a lifelong interest in helping others.

Edmund’s fiancée, Lillian Duryea, an heiress of Long Island’s Duryea Starch Company, remained in contact with the Benchley family, and financed Robert’s education at Phillips Exeter.

I think it is clear that Robert Benchley’s style of humor — gentle, understated, and ready to find smiles in life’s small victories and defeats — was shaped by his Worcester upbringing and the loss of his brother.
Less clear is whether modern audiences still appreciate that sort of comedy.

Among the most notable of his works is the 11-minute film “How to Sleep.” Produced by MGM, the movie features Benchley trying various techniques to combat insomnia, and failing. It was named Best Short Subject at the 1935 Academy Awards.

I suspect “How to Sleep” and many of Benchley’s other movie shorts would register little more than a smile with audiences today. For that matter, his writing is far from the first choice among those seeking a laugh in 2017.

Some of Benchley’s best-known quotations — “It took me 15 years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous,” or “Anyone can do any amount of work provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at the moment.” — are hardly side-splitting.

But his movies, articles and quotations do have a quality that is missing in much of the work of today’s comedians, who regularly trade in the crass, the crudely sexual and the overstated.

That quality is humanity. Benchley understood that we all have our shortcomings. Coming from a city as practical and down-to-earth as Worcester, he found humor in the gaps between our ambitions and our realities.

Let’s hope his brand of funny endures long after the foul-mouthed, loud-mouthed and increasingly discredited gagsters of today have left the stage.

Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear online every week. Chris will also be regularly featured in Worcester Sun’s weekly print edition, on newsstands Saturday morning.

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