Robert Benchley: What, No Budapest?


Someone trying to be funny is, generally, hoping to get feedback that they have successfully made someone laugh. People saying that they loved the piece are always welcome. More satisfying, I believe, is hearing that your attempt to be funny helped someone through a lousy time in life, or gave someone despairing reason to feel cheer. But I do know what is the most wonderful bit of feedback a humorist can get. I’ve gotten it a few blissful times. The most wonderful feedback a humorist can get is an angry scolding from someone who didn’t get the joke. Robert Benchley must have gotten that all the time, since he was so good at writing things that began more or less normal or plausible and continued until they were past bizarre. And at least once he turned that angry scolding into a new magnificent piece. Please let me share that, from My Ten Years In A Quandary And How They Grew with you.

What —— No Budapest?

A few weeks ago, in this space, I wrote a little treatise on “Movie Boners,” in which I tried to follow the popular custom of picking technical flaws in motion pictures, detecting, for example, that when a character enters a room he has on a bow tie and when he leaves it a four-in-hand.

In the course of this fascinating article I wrote: “In the picture called Dr. Tanner Can’t Eat, there is a scene laid in Budapest. There is no such place as Budapest.”


In answer to this I have received the following communication from M. Schwartzer, of New York City:

“Ask for your money back from your geography teacher. There is such a place as Budapest, and it is not a small village, either. Budapest is the capital of Hungary. In case you never heard of Hungary, it is in Europe. Do you know where Europe is? Respectfully yours,” etc.

I am standing by my guns, Mr. Schwartzer. There is no such place as Budapest. Perhaps you are thinking of Bucharest, and there is no such place as Bucharest, either.


I gather that your geography teacher didn’t tell you about the Treaty of Ulm in 1802, in which Budapest was eliminated. By the terms of this treaty (I quote from memory):

“Be it hereby enacted that there shall be no more Budapest. This city has been getting altogether too large lately, and the coffee hasn’t been any too good, either. So, no more Budapest is the decree of this conference, and if the residents don’t like it they can move to some other place.”

This treaty was made at the close of the war of 1805, which was unique in that it began in 1805 and ended in 1802, thereby confusing the contestants so that both sides gave in at once. Budapest was the focal point of the war, as the Slovenes were trying to get rid of it to the Bulgks, and the Bulgks were trying to make the Slovenes keep it. This will explain, Mr. Schwartzer, why there is no such place as Budapest.


If any word other than mine were needed to convince you that you have made a rather ludicrous mistake in this matter, I will quote from a noted authority on non-existent cities, Dr. Almer Doctor, Pinsk Professor of Obduracy in the university of that name. In his Vanished Cities of Central Europe he writes:

“Since 1802 there has been no such place as Budapest. It is too bad, but let’s face it!”

Or, again, from Nerdlinger’s Atlas (revised for the Carnation Show in London in 1921):

“A great many uninformed people look in their atlases for the city of Budapest and complain to us when they cannot find it. Let us take this opportunity to make it clear that there is no such place as Budapest and has not been since 1802. The spot which was once known as Budapest is now known as the Danube River, by Strauss.”


I would not rebuke you so publicly, Mr. Schwartzer, had it not been for that crack of yours about my geography teacher. My geography teacher was a very fine woman and later became the mother of four bouncing boys, two of whom are still bouncing. She knew about what happened to Budapest, and she made no bones about it.

In future communications with me I will thank you to keep her name out of this brawl.

Robert Benchley: Movie Boners


I tend to think of picking out continuity errors in movies as a modern practice. It feels like the habit of nerdly-minded individuals who love knowing how movies are made, and love catching movie-makers in the process of getting something wrong. But in this classic piece, from My Ten Years In A Quandary And How They Grew, Robert Benchley teaches the uniformly unsettling rule of history: the ancients were not so different from us. Besides being a magnificent piece, this essay would lead to another wonderful follow-up.

Movie Boners

One of the most popular pastimes among movie fans is picking out mistakes in the details of a picture. It is a good game, because it takes your mind off the picture.

For example (Fr. par example) in the picture called One Night Alone — for a Change, the Prince enters the door of the poolroom in the full regalia of an officer in the Hussars. As we pick him up coming in the door, in the next shot, he has on chaps and a sombrero. Somewhere on the threshold he must have changed. This is just sheer carelessness on the part of the director.


In We Need a New Title for This, we have seen Jim, when he came to the farm, fall in love with Elsie, although what Elsie does not know is that Jim is really a character from another picture. The old Squire, however, knows all about it and is holding it over Jim, threatening to expose him and have him sent back to the other picture, which is an independent, costing only a hundred thousand dollars.

Now, when Jim tells Elsie that he loves her (and, before this, we have already been told that Elsie has been in New York, working as secretary to a chorus girl who was just about to get the star’s part on the opening night) he says that he is a full-blooded Indian, because he knows that Elsie likes Indians. So far, so good.

But in a later sequence, when they strike oil in Elsie’s father (in a previous shot we have seen Elsie’s father and have learned that he has given an option on himself to a big oil company which is competing with the old Squire, but what the old Squire does not know is that his house is afire) and when Elsie comes to Jim to tell him that she can’t marry him, the clock in the sitting room says ten-thirty. When she leaves it says ten-twenty. That would make her interview minus ten minutes long.


In Throw Me Away! the street car conductor is seen haggling with the Morelli gang over the disposition of the body of Artie (“Muskrat”) Weeler. In the next shot we see Artie haggling with the street-car conductor over the disposition of the bodies of the Morelli gang. This is sloppy cutting.

In Dr. Tanner Can’t Eat there is a scene laid in Budapest. There is no such place as Budapest.

What the general public does not know is that these mistakes in detail come from the practice of “block-booking” in the moving picture industry. In “block-booking” a girl, known as the “script-girl,” holds the book of the picture and is supposed to check up, at the beginning of each “take”` (or “baby-broad”), to see that the actors are the same ones as those in the previous “take.”

The confusion comes when the “script-girl” goes out to lunch and goes back to the wrong “set.” Thus, we might have one scene in The Little Minister where everybody was dressed in the costumes of The Scarlet Empress, only The Little Minister and The Scarlet Empress were made on different “lots” and at different times.

It might happen, even at that.