With the popularity of Jaws in the 1970’s, I became familiar with the name of the man who wrote the novel it was based on, Peter Benchley. Writing was something that ran in the Benchley family apparently, as his grandfather was Robert Benchley, columnist for The New Yorker and member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. In the 1930’s the elder Benchley also became quite a presence in Hollywood. He appeared in a number of feature films, including Walt Disney’s semi-animated film The Reluctant Dragon, but he was most known for a series of “how to” films with a humorous spin. The first was the Academy Award winning 1935 short How to Sleep.
Benchley appears as a lecturer and informs us that he is going to talk about the science of sleep. He talks a bit about what causes sleep (with the help some animation) and then proceeds to explain how to induce sleep. When demonstrating how drinking a glass of warm milk can help cause someone to get sleepy, Benchley ends up raiding the icebox for a large midnight snack instead. Counting sheep and the problem of annoying noises are also discussed.
A lengthy section of the film is devoted to examining the various sleeping positions that a person assumes throughout the night. Benchley gives many of the positions unusual names and explains the benefits of some. For example, “The advantage of this position is that it gets him so close to the bed.” Benchley then details how to quench a late night thirst without actually fully waking up. As we reach the end of the film, we see that our lecturer has begun to put himself to sleep.
Now, all this may not sound that exciting, but I assure you it’s all presented with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Supposedly the film was inspired by a study on sleep by the Mellon Institute and paid for by the Simmons Mattress Company. Much of the humor in this film lies in taking a subject that most people don’t think twice about and over-analyzing it. Benchley’s dry wit is perfectly suited to this material. His narration, even today, comes across as very funny. Benchley’s several asides about the role of alcohol in inducing sleep especially caught me off guard. Still, even with all the laughs, there are also moments where we wonder if we’re actually supposed to take this as a serious in-depth examination.
There are also some fun moments of visual humor. The sequence involving the different sleep positions is a standout. Benchley’s attempt at semi-sleepwalking while trying to get a drink of water also shows that the wordsmith had a knack for physical comedy as well.
Many more Benchley “miniatures” would follow in the years to come, and in many ways they would inspire the series of “how to” films that Disney’s animators cast Goofy in. It is easy to see what made these films so popular when watching How to Sleep. I mean, who hasn’t at times read about a scientific study that seemed a bit silly, or even pointless. How to Sleep is a friendly jab at the world of science and its humor has endured.