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Kino on Video presents
Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin (1928-42)

"How are you going to reason with a window shade?"
- Robert Benchley

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: February 21, 2006

Stars: Robert Benchley
Other Stars: Alexander Woollcott, Donald Ogden Stewart, Norman Lloyd
Director: Leslie Roush, Thomas Chambers

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:16m:19s
Release Date: February 21, 2006
UPC: 738329044626
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B-DC- D-

DVD Review

Robert Benchley's droll humor isn't an acquired taste, exactly, but it's not the sort of stuff that will have them rolling in the aisles—there's also a bit of a sense that Benchley is slumming here, something alluded to in the title of this disc. For the Algonquin in question is of course the Algonquin Round Table, a mid-century group of New York intellectuals, writers and swells, many of them associated with The New Yorker; occasionally, and principally for the number of zeroes on the ends of the paychecks, Round Table regulars would dabble in Hollywood, requiring a trip to the left coast. (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is certainly the finest on-screen capturing of that particular time and place.) Benchley's dry wit seems especially well suited to the big screen, and he seems to have had a merry time indeed making these shorts, even if you wonder if he sometimes felt as if he were too smart for the room.

This DVD features nine Paramount shorts from the early 1940s that are classic Benchley—each one opens with him addressing the audience directly in mock professorial tones, and then cuts to him as his alter ego, Joe Doakes, getting in a variety of domestic troubles. He's variously the henpecked husband, the clueless father of the bride, the incompetent new grandfather, the hopeless handyman, the husband cutting out for a few days fishing with the boys; in one especially funny short, Crime Control, he's a police constable, warning us about the dangers of various inanimate objects, killers like shoelaces and bedroom slippers. This sort of domestic comedy has long since become the staple of sitcoms, so watching them at home on the small screen feels very comfortable, even if some of the tasks and circumstances are from another time—waiting to use the party line phone, for instance, or a shopping expedition to pick out just the right new fedora. There is something a bit odd about watching the collection straight through, though—each is about ten minutes long, and were intended to run before a feature film, so watching two hours' worth of them is akin to watching two hours of trailers. Entertaining, perhaps, but not entirely satisfying.

There are also two earlier Benchley pieces as well—The Treasurer's Report preserves one of Benchley's most highly regarded stage bits, and, made just four months after The Jazz Singer, it's a representative look at the very earliest days of talkies. Similarly, in 1929's The Sex Life of a Polyp, you can see Benchley's doofy academic persona emerging. Benchley isn't the only Knight of the Algonquin represented, either—Alexander Woollcott, who shares Benchley's sensibility but seems a tad more rakish, is the star of Mr. W's Little Game, from 1934, and Donald Ogden Stewart, better known today for his work as a screenwriter (his credits include The Philadelphia Story), is the man of the hour on two 1929 shorts, Humorous Flights and Traffic Regulations. Also, look for screen veteran Norman Lloyd in The Forgotten Man, in which he plays a young fellow courting Benchley's older daughter.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: These had to have been made quickly to begin with, and over the years they've been tattered and scratched—all that wear shows up with this transfer, which is slapdash at very best.

Image Transfer Grade: D


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Lots and lots of static, all the way through, as you might expect; the shorts from the late '20s are especially rough to listen to.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Only chapter stops.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Bone dry comedy from a master of the form—Benchley may have had the last laugh on his Algonquin chums, for his screen shorts endure far longer than whatever you may have read and forgotten from years and years ago in The New Yorker.


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