“Around the World Backward” (E20)

  • Originally printed: Liberty Magazine, March 12, 1932
  • First reprinted in: The Best of Robert Benchley
  • Unable to compare reprint with original text – Liberty Historical Archives not available at Toronto Public Library
  • Original Byline: unknown


A touch of proto-gonzo journalism from Benchley, who describes life on the sensation-seeking trail with swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and director Lewis Milestone. With a well-earned reputation for sedentary living, RB makes a fine foil for the determinedly vigorous silent icon. By all biographical accounts, this fit of truncated globe trotting was no Joe Doakes daydream. The trio really did set forth for Paris, Russia, Manchuria, Japan, and points beyond, as part of the research phase of a travelogue picture project Fairbanks aimed to finance. They don’t appear to have gotten very far, and our calorie conserving author gives us a pretty good understanding of the dysfunctional group dynamics involved. Benchley probably never took refuge in the dresser drawer of a fellow ship passenger, but the rest of the events here recounted verge on the veridical.

Milestone’s role in all of this emerges as the most mysterious aspect of the abortive adventure. He does not appear to have been any more hell bent on ship deck hurdling than Benchley was, and one is tempted to conclude that he suckered the writer into joining the party as a means of deflecting the ring leader’s roughhouse demands.

Unusual in drawing material from RB’s actual celebrity associations, rather than from his reading or his sitcom-style suburban side, the piece also references the author’s famed knee injury (sustained during Donald Ogden Stewart’s wedding festivities) and his genuine admiration for Milestone’s masterful film treatments of All Quiet on the Western Front and The Front Page.

Favourite Moment:
“I used to stand in front of an open window and breathe deeply – oh, well, pretty deeply – and cheat a little on some bicep flexing, and, when I was young and offensive, I used to bang a tennis ball against the side of the house…”