“Wit for the Woebegone…..”

Book Review: The Athletic Benchley: 105 Exercises from the Detroit Athletic Club News Robert C. Benchley, Edited by Thomas J Saunders

By GORDON HAUPTFLEISCH, BLOGCRITICS.ORG
Updated 01:04 p.m., Tuesday, April 26, 2011

(Page 1 of 2)

“Every boy should have a dog, for a dog teaches a boy three valuable traits: fidelity, perseverance and to turn around three times before lying down.”

Is The Athletic Benchley a contradiction in titular terms? No matter how out of shape Robert Benchley may have been, the well-regarded humorist and writer — who once said, “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” — wasn’t about to quit not giving up when it came to his stint as a favored contributor, from 1920 to 1932, to The Detroit Athletic Club News, the monthly house organ for members of that legendary auto and advertising club.

That Benchley’s wit, his often absurdist and wordplay-strewn work found itself in a publication for leaders of American industry and commerce was not so unusual. Publisher Charles A. Hughes, with high standards and literary appreciation for the DAC News beyond pumping out a simple club “newsletter,” was successful in not only featuring regional talent with sport writers, essays, and humor, but also writers ripped and ripe, so to speak, from the national scene in plays, novels, humor, news journals and articles.

Along with the “star writers” culled for this wider appeal, including Ring Lardner, James Thurber, Groucho Marx, Charles Goren, P.G. Wodehouse, Donald Ogden Stewart, and Dorothy Parker, Hughes invited Benchley, a writer of sophisticated humor about the common man, full of wit for the woebegone. Benchley was delighted to come on board and add to an impressive resume that included, in addition to being a founding member of the New York’s Algonquin Round Table, writing for Vanity Fair (where he served briefly as managing editor), Life, and many other publications. He was the Drama Critic for Life for years and reviewed many plays in New York, while having written many books, starting with Of All Things in 1914, all of them collections of short, humorous pieces and reviews.

Going Hollywood for a spell, Benchley found success with appearances in such films as Alfred Hitchcock‘s Foreign Correspondent, (1940) while working with Fred Astaire in two films, You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and The Sky’s the Limit (1943) — and just to balance things out a bit — with Ginger Rogers, in The Major and the Minor (1942). But perhaps most memorable are his film shorts, which make up the bulk of Benchley’s 83 films. You can catch them now and then on TCM, such as his Academy Award winning How to Sleep from 1935. .

But the best way Robert Benchley – who went on to inspire and influence such comic folk like S.J. Perleman, Bob Newhart, Dave Barry, and many more — can be appreciated is in print, whether you flip through for one-liners, or immerse yourself headfirst. There’s a lot to savor, especially now when The Athletic Benchley offers a considerable share of material that has never been reproduced in other Benchley collections, appearing here for the first time since its original publication. Not only are the articles in their original presentation and with the original artwork, you’ll feel like you picked up a Vanity Fair or New Yorker from the 1920s or ‘30s.

All the while, Benchley’s humor holds a timeless appeal, with no flagpole sitters on the horizon and little trace of flappers flapping, arms akimbo.
They shoot anachronisms, don’t they? Benchley does. In “’Bicycling,’ The New Craze,” a  wry take on Gay Nineties gone bust, an upper-crust go-getter bicycle enthusiast (“And what a lark it is too”!) seems to be getting increasingly sadistic during the riding instruction: “Once you have fallen over to the right, try the left. This will even things up and make you less lame the next day, or, at any rate, lame in nicely-balanced areas.” And the end result of the first lesson in “taking up with the first crazy fad that comes along”?: “…I am sure that the results in improved circulation and general health will more than repay you for the embarrassment for being a pioneer and a cripple.”

 Mostly though, Benchley writes contemporarily and conversationally, if often refreshingly eccentrically, as when he states his case that we should be “Bringing back the Morris Dance.” I have friends involved now in this 15th century English folk dance, so I have no doubt that in June 1929 when Benchley wrote this piece, even more strongly and in a visceral, heartfelt sense “it seems a shame to be devoting ourselves to golf and tennis and drinking when we might be out of doors prancing around a pole and falling down every few feet.”

Beyond that kind of shovel-ready depth, whether literal and figurative, the humorist goes on to chronicle the history and cultural aspects of the Morris dance itself — and Morris chairs and William Morris, sure, why not? Perhaps more significantly, though, is the breadth Benchley takes on the subject of folk dance in general, by citing other civilizations and philosophical summations.

“The Egyptians also danced sideways a lot which made it difficult for them to get anywhere much,” he notes. “The English rustics did know enough to dance forward and back, but that isn’t much of a development over six thousand years, it is?

Maybe they were on to something though, maybe they had it figured that the whole hullabaloo was more trouble than it’s worth. A little note-comparing resulted in a conclusion that an activity “based on the same routine – round, and round, and round, and then stop” – was exhausting!: “That seems to be the story of all group dancing down through the ages, people getting awfully tired. It is a wonder that no one ever thought of just not dancing at all.”

Generally, though, Benchley is upbeat in manner and words, an Astaire of goodwill, though tripping the light bombastic. What better example of inspiration and instillation is to be found than in “A Message to D.A.C. Members,” in which whatever joy and whoopee he wanted to impart comes to naught, whatever food for thought he had becomes one of a piling on the food without much thought: “I think that the club luncheon is one of the greatest factors in the in the development of cultural America…” Um…

He’s winging it, or he’s lost his notes…

“If you men will just stick to those luncheons, especially during warm weather,” – but he digresses, and digresses — “and will get other business men throughout the country to follow your example, you will have America on an equal footing with Persia as a land of aesthetes and will kill forever the rumor that America has no soul.” As the “message” ends, our speechifyer is denying that he’s finding fault with the DAC, and, having somehow gone tangential about poolside food service, is saying that “some of the worst cases of drowning on record have been where the victims were dozing after a bread pudding.”

But, as Benchley might say in response to himself, garnered from another piece, “The Lost Continent”: “How can I be proved wrong?” “I can be proved irritating, or tiresome, but not wrong.”

All very arguable points, we’d protest. And amend: let’s throw in highly entertaining, droll, jocular, and endlessly fun: inarguable points, all.

View the original article on blogcritics.org

Read more: http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Athletic-Benchley-105-Exercises-888186.php#ixzz1L7TIC39Q


Warning: Illegal string offset 'echo' in /home/wales/public_html/blog/wp-content/themes/hybrid/library/extensions/custom-field-series.php on line 79

Leave a Reply

The Athletic Benchley

Contact Us

For more information about anything on this site email Tom Saunders at: Tsaunders_48@hotmail.com. You're also welcome to leave a comment under any of the articles.