This November 21 marked the 70th anniversary of the day the world lost one of its greatest entertainment personalities. Robert Benchley, who died in his mid-50s in 1945, was a member of the celebrated group of academics known as the Algonquin Round Table, a veteran of the Harvard Lampoon and, thanks to 1935’s How to Sleep, an Academy Award winner.
The short film, which took home the Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1935, is part of Benchley’s series of “How To” short films that pre-empted the “mockumentary” craze by decades and were utilized to keeping theater audiences entertained during the long run of short works that would run before the main feature.
How To Sleep is a nine-minute time capsule that shows when it comes to nodding off, our grandparents had the same problems we did. The biggest change is what we wear to bed (though we must admit Benchley’s silk button-up PJs trump our old t-shirts).
From the very beginning of the MGM “miniature” film, Benchley’s glass-cutting Harvard accent is juxtaposed against a musical score straight out of Tom and Jerry as he tries — and fails — to teach his audience the ins and outs of getting a good night’s shut-eye. Sometimes, he’s sidetracked by simple one-liners. “Sleep,” he explains, “is the result of blood leaving the brain. Or, as in the case of alcoholics, the brain leaving the blood.”
Sometimes, the diversions are more elaborate. For example, while attempting to warm up some milk to get him to sleep, Benchley, who acts as both narrator and hero, takes a detour when he learns his ice box is crammed with leftovers, leaving the milk unattended on the burner.
Eighty years after the film’s release, Benchley’s diversions still capture the state of those who can’t achieve shuteye, from his mindless picking at cold chicken to his assurances that “No matter what it is, you’ll find it easy enough to worry about in the middle of the night.” For Benchley, this even extends to worrying that one of the sheep he’s trying to count won’t make it over the imaginary fence.
Even in 1935, Bentley wasn't breaking new ground — he’s simply able to articulate these feelings and common sleep inhibitors more amusingly than perhaps any other person had before. In any case, it's a time capsule that shows just how rest has always been a concern of the masses.