“A Breath from the Pines” (E56)

  • Originally printed:  Life Magazine, October 6, 1921
  • First reprinted in:  Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Robert C. Benchley (column header: “The Latest Books”)



Benchley’s first impulse as a critic was never to reach for the knife (unless his Guy Fawkes persona had command of the pen), but sometimes only a knife will do. Your humble chronicler has never read Gene Stratton-Porter, but this piece makes an excellent argument against the advisability of taking the time to experience Her Father’s Daughter, at any rate. Celebrated in her day as a feminist and an ecological activist, Stratton-Porter appears to have embraced (in this late-career novel, at least) one of early-20th century Progressivism’s least savoury side-issues: white supremacist eugenics.

Benchley identifies the book’s protagonist – a homespun huckster for birth rates and “efficacy” – as a proto-Fascist. The term itself wasn’t available to him just yet, as Mussolini’s party was still a year away from power in 1921, so Benchley brings its American analogue into the discussion, nominating this vile character for a fictional leadership position in the distressingly resurgent Ku Klux Klan. What else can you do with a dismal dynamo named “Linda Strong”? As amusing as this takedown is, Benchley’s liberal disgust with all forms of jingoism and chauvinism emerges palpably from the piece, lending a crusading edge to the hilarity rarely seen outside the precincts of the Wayward Press.

Favourite Moment:

Linda Strong is the kind of girl who is ‘just a bully good pal to a fellow’. She is constantly going out on ‘hikes.’ She wears low-heel shoes and common-sense clothes and delivers little three-minute talks on their efficacy during occasional lapses in her ardor for ‘bucking up’ her boy-friends to make them do better in school. And she believes that every woman ought to have at least six children, training them to grow up into fine, strong, virile women and men, fit to fight the Japanese some day.

“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.”