Yesteryear’s brilliant wags are apparently this year’s terminal bores
Film historians and social anthropologists will applaud Kino Video’s recent release of Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin. Viewers in search of actual entertainment are likely to come up short. The video, which features literary raconteurs Robert Benchley, Donald Ogden Stewart, and Alexander Woollcott, takes us back to the twenties, when Manhattan’s grip on popular culture was even more powerful than it is now, and the common people were quite willing to be entertained and even dictated to by their betters.
The video offers nine one-reelers, short subjects only ten minutes long, that theaters used to fill out the bill back in the days before television, when moviegoers were willing to watch just about anything. Several date from 1928, and rank among the first talking shorts ever made.
Benchley, Stewart, and Woollcott were well-known writers for newspapers and magazines in New York during the twenties, and had college degrees when the average American scarcely made it out of junior high. The center of the literary and theatrical world at that time, or at least one of them, was the “round table” at the Algonquin Hotel, where writers, actors, and socialites met for lunch and endless rounds of drinks. The Algonquin was later to be heavily associated with the New Yorker, although the New Yorker didn’t really get rolling until rather late in the decade. The migration of talent to Hollywood had already started, of course, but it didn’t become a flood until after the invention of talking pictures. Benchley and Stewart both went west; Woollcott, older, and really a reviewer and literary gent rather than a creative type, stayed put, although he did a lot of radio. As an entertainer, Woollcott died with his boots on, suffering a fatal heart attack during the broadcast of a program called People’s Platform.
Robert Benchley,1 who stars in six of the nine clips and who died back in 1945, has always enjoyed a reputation as a “humorist’s humorist” – he’s received praise from people such as Steve Allen, John Updike, and Dave Barry – and is still a bit of a cult figure even now. But it’s doubtful that many people under 50 have ever heard of him. He was the father of writer Nathaniel Benchley (now also forgotten) and grandfather of Peter Benchley (author of Jaws and still identifiable). He was drama critic for the New Yorker during the twenties, Broadway’s true Golden Age, attending at least two shows a night and sometimes three during the season. In 1922 he came up with something called “The Treasurer’s Report,” a parody of an amateur public speaker addressing a small-time charitable organization, which he performed on stage, and which became quite famous. Seen today, “The Treasurer’s Report” offers almost no laughs, although another Benchley item from 1928, “The Sex Life of the Polyp,” is sometimes funny, in a very dated way. The remaining Benchley pieces, from the late thirties and early forties, rely heavily on lame husband/wife gags, and are pretty damn grim.
Donald Ogden Stewart is known to students of film for writing the screenplay for The Philadelphia Story (1940).2 His 1928 clip, “Traffic Congestion,” an allegedly humorous lecture that he delivers in a sort of tailcoat, is brutally unfunny. Stewart made his money writing snobbish scripts for Katherine Hepburn, but he was actually a communist, and was forced out of Hollywood during the McCarthy period.
Alexander Woollcott was not a communist. He was one of the biggest self-promoters and name-droppers who ever lived, a fastidious, self-appointed arbiter of elegance who made Truman Capote look like Attila the Hun, although which of the three had the fewest scruples is open to question. Woollcott, known as “Old Violets and Vitriol,” inflicted himself on the American public for three decades, making a great deal of money in the process. He appears in “Mr. W’s Little Game” (1934), playing a word game in which you have one minute to write down all the words you can think of that begin with a given letter. We actually spend about half the clip watching “smart” people play the game, which is not what most critics mean by “cinematic.”
If you’re interested in the Round Table folks, a recent film, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), is devoted to them, with the focus on Dorothy Parker.3 The film begins with Campbell Scott, as Benchley, filming a short subject. Later, we see Scott doing Benchley doing “The Treasurer’s Report.” The film is amazingly inside, and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone who hasn’t read up on the period could follow it. All of the luminaries of the period, unknown today, are thrown at us without introduction. We get two decades of Manhattan’s most famous quips crammed into two hours,4) but the film’s sardonic tone underplays them so heavily that if you don’t know they’re coming they’re past you. Jennifer Jason Leigh, in the title role, plays Dorothy Parker convincingly as a self-pitying drunk, but unless that’s your idea of good company, you probably won’t enjoy this film.5
A more palatable introduction is an actual product of the Algonquin crowd, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), written as a Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart as a parody of Woollcott.6) Woollcott liked the play so much that he took over the lead role of Sheridan Whitside. Being paid a large sum of money to portray himself in public was surely heaven for Woollcott.7 Whitside is an egomaniacal Broadway type trapped in the home of a “normal” family in a small town, courtesy of a broken leg. Monty Woolley plays Whitside in the film, with Bette Davis as his secretary, who naturally falls in love with a small-town boy. Naturally, Whitside tries to break it up, and naturally he fails. The Man Who Came to Dinner is a second-rate screwball comedy, one in which the cast spends most of its time running around shouting bad expository dialogue at one another, but it does feature Bette Davis on ice skates and a pretty funny fake octopus.
Internet links for the Round Table crowd are few. However, the National Portrait Gallery (based in Washington, DC) has a page devoted to them, part of its “Celebrity Caricatures” site. The Oxford English Dictionary site features a short piece. There is a nice site for Dorothy Parker, but not all of its links seem to be working. The same is true for the Robert Benchley site. There’s quite a bit of Benchliana floating around on the Web (listings of his movies, readings of his works by other people, collections of theater reviews, etc.), but you’ll have to do your own search because the Benchley site doesn’t tie them all together. A “Broadway 101” site offers a nice history of Broadway from about 1850 to 1930, with text, prints, photos, and playbills.
If you really want to know about the Algonquin, you’ll have to read some books. Laughter’s Gentle Soul, by Billy Altman, is a recent biography of Benchley, which I haven’t read. There is also a biography of Woollcott in print, which I also haven’t read.8 In 1970, John Keats wrote You Might As Well Live, an admiring but reasonably objective biography of Dorothy Parker. Donald Ogden Stewart, who knew Parker well in both New York and Hollywood, was still alive at the time, and Keats interviewed him heavily. I can also vouch for both Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker a biography of the New Yorker founder by Thomas Kunkel, and Here at the New Yorker, by Brendan Gill. Kunkel is more objective, Gill more gossipy. Perhaps best of all, though least reliable, is James Thurber’s The Years with Ross. The Algonquin is still open for business, so if you want you can go there and have a drink.
- Robert Benchley wrote numerous books, starting with Of All Things in 1914, all of them collections of short, humorous pieces and reviews. Like many writers, he felt that he had sold out by going Hollywood. He appeared in a rather surprising 83 films, most of them shorts. He worked with Fred Astaire in two films, You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and The Sky’s the Limit (1943), essentially taking over the role that Edward Everett Horton used to play in the more famous films that Astaire made with Ginger Rogers in the thirties. Benchley also appeared with Ginger, in The Major and the Minor (1942). [↩]
- Stewart received the Academy Award for writing The Philadelphia Story. Reportedly, he astounded the crowd by refusing to thank anyone, saying he had done it all himself. Stewart, who lived until 1980, managed to pick up some uncredited work after being blacklisted in the fifties. Woody Allen used him on Love and Death in 1975. [↩]
- Parker and Benchley were close friends, though not lovers, throughout the twenties. The two worked together on the old Vanity Fair (Gen Xers may be surprised to know that the current Vanity Fair is barely a decade old). It was they who founded what became the Round Table, along with Robert Sherwood, also a writer at Vanity Fair. Sherwood later wrote plays, and then speeches for Franklin Roosevelt, and finally wrote Roosevelt and Hopkins, an important book about the Roosevelt era. Parker wrote poems and short stories and reviewed books for the New Yorker under the nom de plume of “Constant Reader,” trashing Winnie the Pooh – “tonstant weader fwowed up,” she remarked. Parker was once taken very seriously as a writer. While she was still alive (she died in 1967), Viking Paperbacks issued The Portable Dorothy Parker, a compendium of her work, to go along with The Portable Dante and The Portable Tolstoy. (Viking didn’t set the bar for American writers too high: they also issued The Portable Alexander Woollcott.) Parker, who still has her devotees, may have coined the line “I was either too fucking busy or too busy fucking.” [↩]
- Alexander Woollcott to Edna Ferber: “Gosh, Edna, you almost look like a man today.” Ferber to Woollcott: “Gee, Alec, so do you.” Ferber, almost forgotten today, was one of the most successful popular writers in history, cranking out a stream of hit plays and bestsellers that were made into important movies, including The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), Dinner at Eight (1933), Stage Door (1937), Saratoga Trunk (1945), and Giant (1956). Most important of all was a novel called Showboat. (Yeah. That Showboat. [↩]
- Parker also traveled west, and wrote more than a dozen screenplays with her husband, Alan Campbell. All are forgotten except for A Star Is Born (1937), with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, remembered far more for the 1954 musical remake starring Judy Garland and James Mason. In 1976 A Star Is Born was rewritten as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand by another husband-and-wife team, the Dorothy Parkerish Joan Didion and the presumably not so Alan Campbellish John Gregory Dunne. (Campbell was a southern pretty boy; Dunne, by his own account at least, is a two-fisted Irishman.) In 1996, Didion and Dunne rewrote the script once more, as Up Close and Personal, for Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both Didion and Dunne versions were flat-out bellyflops, proving that God doesn’t always let the bad guys win, even in Hollywood. [↩]
- Kaufman and Hart, like virtually everyone else in this piece, are forgotten today, but did as much as anyone to invent the “Money’s not important, just be yourself” theme that still comprises half of American popular entertainment today (the other half being “Wear black leather and shoot anything that moves.”). To catch the Kaufman and Hart express at full throttle, check out You Can’t Take It with You (1938), starring a young Jimmy Stewart. You Can’t Take It with You was remade as a TV movie in 1979, starring Jean Stapleton, Barry Bostwick, and Blythe Danner, and remade for TV again in 1984, with Jason Robards, and was made into a TV series in 1987, with Harry Morgan, lasting one season. (I missed all three; I must have been stoned. [↩]
- Woollcott also got paid to play himself in the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical Babes on Broadway. [↩]
- I’m probably being too hard on Woollcott. In 1934 he talked Parker and Benchley into joining him in a demonstration in support of a waiters’ union at the Waldorf Astoria, then New York’s most famous and luxurious hotel. Back in the twenties, he helped midwife the greatest musical in Broadway history when he introduced Edna Ferber to composer Jerome Kern, who wrote the score for Showboat. [↩]