Friday, July 5, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Sex Life of the Polyp' (1928)

The Sex Life of the Polyp

Dir: Thomas Chalmers

Scr: Robert Benchley

Pho: N/A

Ed: N/A

Premiere: July 25, 1928

11 min.

“Great literature must spring from an upheaval in the writer’s soul. If that upheaval is not present then it must come from the works of any other author which happens to be handy and easily adapted.”

It would be difficult to find someone funnier than Robert Benchley (1889–1945). He is one of America’s great comic voices, which he let loose in numerous essays and critical pieces (one of his books is titled David Copperfield; or, Twenty-thousand Leagues under the Sea). In the course of doing so, he established a comic persona for himself – a bumbling, self-conscious, timid, and nervous middle-class Everyman, who just wanted things to run smoothly, but who had to deal with reality with patience and many subtle wisecracks.

Benchley’s talents began to be exercised at Harvard, where he performed early versions of his routines and wrote for the Lampoon. Released into the wilds of New York, he worked steadily until he was contributing to publications such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. He knocked around as a totally overqualified theater critic, whose reviews are still hilarious. Despite his repute as a wit, he couldn’t get regular employment, and lived the precarious life of a freelancer.

Finally, in 1922 he performed a monologue called The Treasurer’s Report, which became a smash hit in a Broadway review. In it, he plays a befuddled financial officer, who has nothing but bad news to share with his constituents. His career as a performer was born.

When sound film came in, naturally movie people looked for acts that could easily translate to the talking screen, and Benchley fill the bill. This film is his second, after a highly successful rendition of The Treasurer’s Report for the cameras.

In it, Benchley plays a doctor who seeks to explain the sexual habits of the aforementioned paramecium to a group of ladies. His delivery, at once nervous and self-satisfied, perfectly sells the ridiculous content of his lecture. In this, Benchley can be seen as a prototype of the stand-up comic.

Benchley made 46 shorts in all, one of which, How to Sleep, won an Oscar in 1935. Additionally, he played supporting roles in many Hollywood films, and produced a large body of work that’s still a treat to read and watch.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Show People.


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