February 10, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

The forgotten films of Robert Benchley

When I was a lad, no writer made me laugh harder than Robert Benchley, the rotund New Yorker humorist who also rounded out the wits meeting for gossip and gin at the Algonquin Hotel. Yes, kids, there was comedy before Dave Chappelle, and two new Paramount comedy shorts collections from Kino, Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin and Cavalcade of Comedy, offer glimpses of 1920s and ’30s humor both quaint and dandy. As a performer, Benchley specialized in witty mock lectures, pretending to be a bumbling academic observer of such phenomena as ”The Sex Life of the Polyp.” Cavalcade offers 16 shorts with comics ranging from the now-obscure (Tom Howard, a fascinatingly wizened deadpan comic) to the pre-famous (Jack Benny before he developed his skinflint image; Milton Berle before he became ”Mr. Television”). Best of all are George Burns and Gracie Allen, the premier straight-man-and-ditz act. Gracie: ”I’m going to Florida for the winter sports.” George: ”There are no winter sports in Florida.” Gracie: ”No? Well, one of them gave me this bracelet.” Benchley: A- Cavalcade: B+

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