“At the Corner of 42nd St. and Hollywood B’v’d” (A Reporter At Large) (E27)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, May 4, 1929
  • First reprinted in: Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley


This one was personal for Benchley, who got in on the ground floor of the talkie revolution with 1928’s smash hit short The Treasurer’s Report and then spent the next 7 years or so doing his best to stave off the lucrative consequences of his screen success. By all biographical accounts, the acid assessment of Hollywood he presents here remained with him for the remaining 16 years of his life, despite the accelerating tilt of his time and energies toward the sunset after 1935.

The piece was intended as a rebuke to media prognosticators who claimed they saw fertile soil in Southern California for the emergence of a culture capital to rival (and eventually surpass) New York. Benchley expresses no opinion on the relative aesthetic merits of American cinema and theatrical drama, although of course his opinions on this subject were pretty generally known (and none too flattering toward the newer art form), but he does deliver an airtight indictment of LA’s ability to nurture the creative spirit after “working hours”.

For Benchley, Hollywood combines the worst features of two of the greatest blights upon the American social landscape – the company town and the health resort. With all movie industry personnel living in desperate fear of violating their clause-heavy contracts by virtue of some overly frank remark or of waking up on the wrong side of a close-up shot, the majority of them, even the most formerly free-spirited Broadway denizens, wind up spending their off-hours cowering under a blanket. The bedder part of valor, and all that.

Yes, lured by the new media gold rush, great hosts of New Yorkers will continue to make the trek across the continent (no one knew this better than Benchley), but they will always pass a countervailing caravan of sickened cinemaphobes en route. More than enough to populate Broadway’s playbills. And no matter what anyone tells you, Benchley says, don’t expect any Algonquin Round tables or movable feasts to spring up in a studio commissary.

Favourite Moment:
“For you can’t be a man-about-town without a town to be about in, and Hollywood is not a town but a wayside camp of temporary shacks inhabited for the most part by people who are waiting to see if their options are going to be taken up at the end of six months.”

“Art Revolution No. 4861” (E24)

  • Originally printed: Liberty Magazine, August 8, 1931
  • First reprinted in: Chips Off the Old Benchley
  • Unable to compare reprint with original text – Liberty Historical Archives not available at Toronto Public Library
  • Original Byline: unknown


As you might expect, given RB’s uniquely grounded brand of absurdity, the author never tired of burlesquing the barrage of bouleversements that swept through the art world during the first half of the 20th century. A close relative of E17, this piece is more successful, in that it strings together a stronger set of critical hits at the underground establishment, but it does boil down to the basic assumption that aesthetics should be a refuge from theory – not a lost continent submerged beneath successively waterier nouvelles vagues. It’s a fairly palatable take on philistinism, all things considered, but it’s not a view shared by your humble annotater.

Those reservations aside, this reader has no quarrel with Benchley’s invention of Straw Man Scrawler Jean Baptiste Morceau Lavalle Raoul Depluy Rourke – whose obsessive idées aren’t designed to fix anything. RB opens up a can of wild analysis in scrutinizing the feeble embodiment of Rourke’s theoretico-aesthetic ideals, a half-baked soufflé that wears its sub-mental symbols on its sleeve like so many cut-rate concept billboards. Bring on Art Revolution No. 4862!

Favourite Moment(s):
“Thus, the laughing snake in the lower left-hand corner of Mist on the Marshes is merely a representation of the spirit of laughing snakes, an has nothing to do with Reality. This snake is laughing because he is really not in the picture at all.”
“Whatever it is, you cannot deny that it is in the upper left-hand corner of the picture.”

“Another Sensational Discovery Shakes the Art World” (E17)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, August 16, 1930
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley


Here RB intervenes in the fashionable furor over forgery and false fronts in the fine arts, as seen in such keen sociological treatises as Animal Crackers. The piece parses out the purport of an allegorical stag hunt substratum reprieved from obscurity by an overzealous museum cleaner, whose critical scrubbing skills helped put a phony Rembrandt-Romney to rout (and to rinse). Who could have guessed that old George Romney (the portraitist, not his descendant the Mitt-maker) had concealed such medievalist mental states beneath his staid social miming stocks in trade?

Knowing that such flights of feudal fantasy didn’t pay the bills during the Age of Enlightenment, the ambitious Romney apparently thought so little of his creation that he scrupled not at scribbling the odd commercial calculation or dalliance digits across its bestiological bottom half. And leave it to Benchley to get in a cheep cheep cheep shot at his avian enemies along the way!

Favourite Moment:
“To carry the stag-hunt story down into the foreground, where the dolphin and the lion are, would seem to be folly. They seem to be part of another idea entirely.”