“Broadway By Candlelight: Simple Games For Young and Old to While Away the Long Dark Nights” (E63)

  • Originally printed:  Vanity Fair, March 1918
  • First reprinted in:  Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley 


Benchley makes light of the somber state of affairs on the Faint White Way during the darkest days of World War One energy rationing. With the United States Fuel Administration, headed by the name-checked Doctor (Harry Augustus) Garfield, on an austerity rampage in early 1918, our author proposes a passel of pre-electric pastimes to the flaming youth of the soon-to-be-lost generation. Who knows? They may very well have lost themselves playing Blindman’s Buff in a blacked out alley back of Brown’s Chop House.

As with many of RB’s early Vanity Fair pieces, the title is way too long and the essay itself feels a trifle distended in its quest to elaborate upon a one-joke premise, which is essentially that it’s tough for a modern human-about-town to get around in the Great War gloom; but it certainly has its pleasurable aspects. It also provides an early glimpse of Benchley’s lifelong distaste for bureaucratic officiousness and the cant of expertise (would that be “Expertese” – a particularly obnoxious relative of Esperanto?). These objections are exacerbated in this case by his well-known opposition to the war itself.

We also get a palpable feel for his deep-seated resistance to anything that keeps people from leaving their homes. One shudders to imagine how RB would have reacted to some of the measures adopted during the COVID era. Fortunately, the march of time has spared your humble annotator from having to deal with the unwelcome image of our dinner-jacketed Diogenes hitching a ride on any kind of “freedom” vehicle.      

Favorite Moment:

But, gloomy as the situation may appear, our indomitable American sense of humor (which leads us through a six-day bicycle race every year without mob-violence being done to the promoters) should guide us in this crisis and help us to improve each shining kilowatt-hour.

“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.”