Saturday, August 19, 2017

Stubs - How To Sleep (1935)

How to Sleep (1935) Starring Robert Benchley. Directed by Nick Grinde. Screenplay by Robert Benchley. Produced by Jack Chertok. Run Time: 11 minutes. USA. Comedy

Robert Benchley came to Hollywood not to be an actor, but as a screenwriter for film producer Jesse L. Lasky. A humorist by trade, beginning with his work at the Harvard Lampoon, Benchley had been writing professionally since selling his first piece to Vanity Fair in 1914 and worked there with Robert Emmet Sherwood and Dorothy Parker. Together, the three of them would form the basis of the Algonquin Round Table.

When his position at Vanity Fair ended, he was fired, Benchley began freelance work. He began writing a book review column for New York World as well as a syndicated column for publisher David Lawrence. In 1920, he would move on to Life magazine writing theater reviews.

He would get into acting, when the Algonquin Round Table accepted a challenge to put together their own theatrical production, No Sirree!, when actor J.M. Kerrigan tired of the groups’ complaints about the on-going Broadway Theater season. Benchley’s contribution to the show, “The Treasurer’s Report,” in which he played a disorganized man explaining a company’s yearly expenses, was so popular he was asked to perform it, leading to a $500 a week gig at Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue from 1921 until 1922.

After coming to Hollywood, he received credit for the film You'd Be Surprised (1926), before returning to New York to write the book for a Broadway Musical, Smarty, featuring a dancer/singer named Fred Astaire. But Benchley’s contributions were eventually excised from the final production, Funny Face, with music and words by George and Ira Gershwin.

Following that, Benchley became involved with a talkie version of The Treasurer’s Report (1928). While Benchley was convinced he wasn’t any good in the short, it ended up being well-received. This led to other shorts, The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928) and The Spellbinder (1928), for Fox Movietone. Their success led Benchley to resign from Life, which released a statement, "Mr. Benchley has left Dramatic Criticism for the Talking Movies." While filming these shorts, he began to write for the New Yorker magazine. But that took him away from Hollywood for a number of years.

Benchley would return in 1931 to do writing and voice-over work on Sky Devils (1932), a pre-code aviation comedy starring Spencer Tracy and Ann Dvorak. That same year, he would act in his first feature, The Sport Parade, with his future Foreign Correspondent (1940) co-star Joel McCrea. Following the success of the film, Benchley was offered a writing and acting contract by RKO Pictures.

As part of that contract, Benchley would have a prominent role as a salesman in Rafter Romance (1933), which starred Ginger Rogers. His work at RKO garnered the interest of MGM, who offered him a lot of money to produce a series of short films, or Miniatures as they were called, the first of which was How to Sleep (1935).

Inspired by a Mellon Institute of Industrial Research (now part of Carnegie Mellon University) study on sleep commissioned by the Simmons Mattress Company, production lasted all of two days. In the film, Benchley, who wrote the script, serves as both narrator and subject of the mockumentary or parody of instructional films.

Robert Benchley narrates How To Sleep, pretending to be an expert on the subject.

The film is presented by Benchley the narrator as a sort of Part 2 to a recent and fictional film about staying awake. He tells the audience that this film will cover the four aspects of sleep: causes of sleep, methods of sleep, avoiding sleep, and waking up.

Animated sequence demonstrating the brain leaving the blood in the head of an alcoholic.

According to the film, the main cause of sleep is blood leaving the brain. The next joke, “Or, as in the case of alcoholics, the brain leaving the blood,” is one of the several references made about heavy drinking and sleep. It is somewhat interesting to note, that while Benchley had been a teetotaler in his youth, he had become a heavy-drinker by then and would ultimately die from cirrhosis of the liver on November 21, 1945, at the age of 56. So, the jokes about alcohol no doubt came from experience.
When instructing on methods to get to sleep, Benchley starts with taking a pine seed bath, but the water is too hot, so he walks away.

Robert Benchley prepares warm milk to help himself sleep.

Next, he suggests drinking warm milk, but when he goes to put the milk back in the ice-box, he finds cold lobster, coleslaw, and then cold chicken. He picks at everything before deciding to get comfortable and takes all the leftovers to the kitchen table and has a mini-feast, leaving the milk unattended on the burner, with the suggestion that it's best to have someone bring you the warm milk in bed.

Benchley distracts himself with leftovers in his ice box.

After that, he discusses the practice of counting sheep, but warns that the sleeper may start to worry about the sheep themselves being able to clear the fence, to the point of distraction. Sure enough, one of the sheep in his dream crashes into the fence.

When Benchley counts sheep, they crash into each other.

As far as distractions that prevent sleep, he points out the flapping of a mini blind, but once that’s cured with a chair, there is the dripping faucet in the bathroom. And of course, there is the problem with a mosquito that he can’t seem to kill, instead retreating under his sheet and blanket for protection.

Dripping water from his cold water faucet keeps Benchley from getting to sleep.

Then there is the issue of the effects of alcoholism on sleeping, a problem Benchley may have been all too aware of from personal experiences. He shows himself suddenly bolting out of bed, or what he calls the leaping jitters. As narrator, Benchley talks about himself in the third person until Benchley tells himself to mind his own business.

Benchley demonstrates the "leaping jitters" that alcoholics suffer with.

Finally, there is the issue of faulty bed-making, leaving the bedclothes askew, causing sleeplessness due to discomfort.

A supposed study into sleeping positions that the film delves into.

Next, the film reviews various sleeping positions, at least making reference to a sleep study, which timed how long a sleeper was in certain positions. Going so far as giving them sports/scientific sounding names like Sleeping/sitting/standing/crouch. Then in what is supposed to be sped up photography, is really just a “sleeper” flopping on a bed with a sped-up clock next to them.

Demonstrating the sleeping/sitting/standing/crouch position.

Getting back to distractions, there is the sudden realization of thirst. While there are options to ignore the desire and perhaps die of thirst, Benchley opts for trying to get out of bed and get the water without becoming too awake. Not only does he get water everywhere, even on himself, but when he tries to get back in bed, he slips and falls on his own shoes on the floor.

Benchley tries to get water without completely waking himself up. It doesn't work.

With all the problems and distractions, Benchley finally gets to sleep, but only minutes before the alarm is set to go off. The yawning Benchley in bed becomes our yawning narrator, who apparently needs to learn for himself How to Sleep.

In the end, Benchley, the narrator, demonstrates that he doesn't know how to sleep.

The film was released on September 14, 1935, to great praise, in fact receiving the best reception of all of Benchley’s Miniatures. It would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Short at the 8th annual awards show. Only one other of the Miniatures would even be nominated, A Night at the Movies (1937), which Benchley would also write, something he didn’t always do with this shorts program. Regardless, he would end up making 25 Miniatures at MGM through 1939.

Benchley would also continue to act in feature films, including such films as Foreign Correspondent and The Major and the Minor (1942). He is usually a featured player and used for comedic relief.

How To Sleep deals with an eternal issue, as old as mankind. There are all sort of aids and mattresses being advertised that are supposed to provide safe, restful sleep. Still, insomnia and sleep disorders are still national issues, as many Americans, yours truly included, never get enough sleep at night. In fact, the same night I watched this short for the second time I found out I had to serve Jury Duty the next morning. With that hanging over my head, I couldn’t get to sleep. As Benchley states so succinctly, “No matter what it is, you’ll find it easy enough to worry about in the middle of the night.” Rooted somewhat in facts and old wives’ tales, How To Sleep does touch on several methods, short of sleeping pills, that can affect getting a good night’s sleep.

And as eternal as the issue is, the film itself is a snapshot of the time it was made. The ice-box and separate hot and cold-water faucets seem so out of date. At the same time, though you have to wonder how Benchley’s lifestyle represents America during the Depression. How many Americans had cold lobster in their ice boxes, or got up as late as 7:30 in the morning before going to work, if they even had a job at all.

The film was directed by Nick Grinde, a director considered one of American cinema’s early B film specialists. He is perhaps best known for The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), starring Boris Karloff, and for Ronald Reagan’s first film, Love is on the Air (1937). While those may not sound like comedic-chops, he did co-write the Laurel and Hardy classic Babes In Toyland (1934) that was released the year before How To Sleep. However, it is hard to say how much of the film's humor is really due to Grinde’s direction and how much is due to Benchley, though the latter’s presence is what makes the film worth watching.

Easily the wittiest guy in any room, Benchley has a way of seeming authoritative while cutting himself down in the process. Narrator Benchley talks about himself in the third person and that third person Benchley isn’t above giving the narrator Benchley a piece of his mind. A man of words, Benchley also had a physical comedy gift as well that is on display throughout most of the film. While How To Sleep may not be laugh out loud funny today, it is still an example of parody that we don’t see very much anymore; the button-down collar variety.

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