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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Paramount Comedy Shorts 1928-1941: Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin
The Paramount Comedy Shorts 1928-1941: Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin
Kino // PG // February 21, 2006
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matt Langdon | posted January 30, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Movie:
Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin is a collection of fourteen short comedy films made by Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox in the 1940's and featuring Robert Benchley and a couple other American satirists of the 1920's 30's and 40's.

Benchley was an American satirist, author and actor who got a chance to show off his talents in a number of short films that would play before the main feature. Before making these shorts Benchley was a regular at the Algonquin Hotel where he - along with Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood - founded the famous literary Round Table that met in the 1920's.

Comedy has changed over the years and that is evident with this DVD. In part it is the particular humor of Benchley that is dated but too it is the period of time that is on display. I find many 1930's comedies very funny and am a big fan of screwball comedy. But Benchley's comedy is aimed more at droll satire and is also very stagey. Where today's comedy routines are usually more polished - if not outrageous - Benchley's humor is more restrained.

The comedy is decidedly of the upper Middle class variety and the subject matter has a New Yorker sophistication. But it doesn't have the New Yorker polish nor the upper class cinematic wit displayed by such masters as Ernst Lubitch or Frank Capra.

The subject matter on all but two of the shorts is by and large pretty conservative. Most of the shorts deal with a man and wife and the various domestic humor and squabbles that arises from that scenario; mainly that husbands and wives get on each others nerves.

Almost all of the shorts, which average a length of ten minutes, start with Benchley sitting at a desk in an office and addressing the viewer about the subject he is to present to us. Then the setting changes to a house, or some other interior set where the action is played out.

Not all of the shorts feature Benchley. Two are with Donald Ogden Stewart and one is with Alexander Woolcott. They are a bit different in tone. Woolcott's is a lot more edgy and Ogden's are much more outrageous and silly Both Stewart and Woolcott also don't have as smooth a delivery as Benchley.

Here are a quick rundown of the shorts. There are laughs to be had in all. Some more than others.

The Trouble with Husbands - [1940] Domestic disputes and the way they affect relationships.

The Forgotten Man - [1941] I.e. the husband who gives away the bride but is forgotten until then.

Crime Control - [1941] Inanimate objects in the home or on the street - such as blinds or a newspaper - that commit 'crimes' against men.

How to Take a Vacation - [1941] Husbands goes off to hunt and fish with buddies leaving their wives behind.

Nothing But Nerves - [1941] Husbands get on wives' nerves.

The Witness - [1941] Probably the most lauded short this one has Benchley imagining that he is being questioned by the House of Un-American Actities Committee where he turns the tables on his inquisitors and makes them look like fools.

Keeping in Shape - [1942] Man with beer belly tries to keep in shape.

The Man's Angle - [1941] Wives get on Husband's nerves.

Waiting for Baby - [1942] What the husband does while he waits for the arrival of the new born.

The Treasurers Report - [1928] An early talkie with Benchley getting up at a business meeting and reading a nonsensical and humorous treasurer report.

The Sex Life of the Polyp - [1928] - Very droll piece about a scientist describing the sex life of the polyp to a woman's club. This is the best short if not because it is funny but because it has a risque quality to it.

Mr W's Little Game - [1934] Alexander Woolcott plays a word game with a blonde woman and a waiter in a restaurant. The humor is stiff and the treatment of the woman is misogynistic but it is engaging.

Humorous Flights - [1929] Donald Ogden Stewart talks to a womens group about birds.

Traffic Regulations - [1929] Donald Ogden Stewart draws a detailed map about how to get through bad traffic to the theatre in New York.

Video:
All the shorts are presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The transfer quality varies for each short. None of them look stellar and all have splotches, and scratches in them. None seem to have been restored or cleaned up and in one short a piece of lint comes into the frame for a good ten seconds. One would guess that there is not a lot of archives anywhere in the US who have the time, money or backing to restore these shorts. But if this is all we have for these rare films then that is okay because they are at least available for all to see.

Audio:
Audio is in mono and sounds fine. The few shorts from the 1928 and 29 have the archaic 1:1 sound that sounds muffled and not too clear. The 1940's shorts sound good.

Extras:
There are no extras. It would have been good to at least have an explanation of who Robert Benchley was and perhaps a little historical information about the making of these shorts. The only thing about Benchley is written on the back of the DVD box.

Overall:
Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin is a good DVD made up of fourteen satirical short comedies. The humor is dated and the films show their age. The DVD has nothing extra at all. The video and audio presentation is okay. The DVD is a must for collectors of Robert Benchley - although they may already have the previously released VHS.

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