American Studies ETDs

Publication Date

Spring 1-19-1968


Although he preferred to always be known as writer, Robert Benchley gained some renown, during the latter half of this career, as a performer in motion pictures. His activities in Hollywood included some script writing, but he was especially noted as a character actor in feature films, and as author and star of forty-eight comedy short subjects produced between 1928 and 1945. In spite of his dissatisfaction with this phase of his career, and his lack of real interest in motion pictures, his short subjects represent an important segment of hi achievement as a humorist.

Benchley's emergence as a performer pf comedy was foreshadowed in several ways. In his humorous sketches, he employed essentially self-dramatizing devices, including a colloquial style and narrative patterns which suggested the effect of an extemporaneous spoken account; and basic to his approach was the use of a persona, the genial and fumbling everyday citizen he pretended to be for the purposes of his humor, whose character was a distorted version of Benchley's own personality. He also Evidenced a life-long interest in theatrical enterprises of many kinds, reflected in his service as a drama critic and in his involvement in amateur theatricals, especially his appearances as a comic lecturer. When he first delivered his "Treasurer's Report: before a Broadway audience in 1922, he was following these predilections to their natural expression.

He was recruited as a movie comedian during the first years of talking pictures. In general, his short subjects evolved from simples comic lectures into slightly more elaborate situation comedy skits, in which he portrayed the genial bumbler and acted out some of the commonplace humiliations of which he has written. For this task, he was fortunately endowed with a humorous face and slightly plodding, clumsy mannerisms; his recourses as an actor consisted largely of the gestures and expressions which came naturally to him, but which were ideally suited for communicating the awkwardness and confusion of the inept characters he impersonated. His range was limited, and he repeatedly denied that was an actor, but he recorded many memorable performances within the modest scale of the short subject.

A number of circumstances combined to insure that what appeared in a Robert Benchley short would be his own conception of comedy. The brevity of these films, which were usually less than ten minutes long, was congenial to his working habits, as already manifested in his customarily brief essays. Because short subject production was a minor activity within the big studio system, Benchley and his collaborators found themselves with exceptional freedom in planning and executing his films. He was the principal scenarist for the pictures, and they were intended exclusively as vehicles for what his employers recognized as ahis unique brand of humor. Further, short subject making retained a measure of openness and spontaneity no longer possible in the case of more elaborate feature production and such conditions were vital for Benchley, who could never approach his work in the studied manner of a professional actor.

Not all of the characteristic forms and devices of his written humor were translated into screen comedy: although he made successful films of some of his burlesque lectures, and of many of his sketches about the bumbler, he did not undertake to develop cinematic equivalents for his pure nonsense humor or for his many burlesques of literary and sub-literary forms. And there are occasional glimpses in his films of effective comic devices which might have been more fully and profitably explored, had Benchley been more interest in the potentialities of motion picture humor.

Document Type


Degree Name

American Studies

Level of Degree


Department Name

American Studies

First Committee Member (Chair)

Hamlin Lewis Hill Jr.

Second Committee Member

Ernest Warnock Tedlock Jr.

Third Committee Member