Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Tom Collins and Monte Kennedy…no, wait…that’s not right…


While opening boxes upon boxes of the movie books that made up close to 85% of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear library two weekends ago, I stumbled across my dog-eared copy of Movie Comedy Teams, originally published in 1970 and revised four years later (and again in 1985). Venerable film historian Leonard Maltin penned this invaluable film comedy reference, and while Mr. M and I don’t often see eye-to-eye on a lot of movies I cannot ignore the fact that Teams was the cornerstone of my comedy education, along with his companion book The Great Movie Comedians. Sure, I was already familiar with and loved the films of Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, etc. but it was Leonard who educated me on the delights of lesser-known teams like Wheeler & Woolsey, Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts (and Patsy Kelly), the Ritz Brothers and Olsen & Johnson.

One team Leonard left out of his book—and for pretty good reason, no doubt—was Tom Kennedy & Monte (also spelled “Monty”) Collins. If you’re not familiar with them, you need not be ashamed—Collins & Kennedy was the first attempt by the Columbia Studios shorts department to create a comedy team wholly out of scratch. Granted, Columbia already had the Stooges (who would become the studio’s bread-and-butter) and the team of Smith and Dale would join the shorts department’s roster later (the studio had also cranked out a half-dozen shorts in 1934 with George Sidney and Charlie Murray, best known for their teaming in Universal’s The Cohens and the Kellys series) but they were really keen on creating their own comedy duo…oftentimes with little regard as to whether these potential team-ups had any comedic chemistry or not. (At one time, both Kennedy and Collins were paired with practically every solo comedian on the lot, yielding such head-scratching results as Buster Keaton & Monte in 1941’s She’s Oil Mine and Tom & El Brendel in several “scare” comedies like Ready, Willing But Unable, released that same year.)

The first of the Kennedy/Collins shorts to be released was Gum Shoes (1935), an amusing romp that features the two men as inept hotel detectives investigating a series of robberies committed by a trained gorilla. (By the way, I’ve never been able to understand why gorillas were so frightening to movie audiences back then.) This short is singled out as a particular favorite of Ted Okuda and Ed Watz in their book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, and while it is entertaining I personally thought its follow-up, Stage Frights (1935) was far superior—I got the opportunity to see this for the first time via my Columbia shorts connection, Rodney Bowcock. (Frights features our two heroes coming to the aid of a stage actress who’s been receiving threatening letters and the two-reeler’s atmospheric evocation of the behind-the-scenes backstage is simply wonderful.) Ted, Ed and I are, however, all in agreement that Midnight Blunders (1936) is the best of the Collins/Kennedy vehicles: a marvelous short that features the two as bumbling bank guards who assist a damsel-in-distress (Phyllis Crane) by attempting to locate her scientist father (who’s been kidnapped by a powerful Chinatown warlord) and tangling with his half-human, half-robot creation (played by Jack “Tiny” Lipson). As Okuda and Watz note: “Mixing chills with laughs is usually a surefire combination, and Midnight Blunders is no exception. The extraordinary grim depiction of Chinatown after dark is worthy of a legitimate horror film, and provides the film with a properly eerie mood.” (Blunders was recently released on DVD as an extra on the Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman box set.)

In his book The Great Movie Shorts Leonard Maltin has high praise for Free Rent (1936), another comical Collins & Kennedy outing that features some eye-popping stunt work (supervised by Columbia shorts director Del Lord) with a runaway house trailer; Okuda and Watz, however, believe that the despite the stunts the two-reeler is ultimately a disappointment due to its stilted dialogue sequences. In the shorts that Rodney sent me, I also found another neglected gem entitled New News (1937), in which Monte and Tom are mistaken by a newspaper editor for reporters and are sent to try and get a picture of the fiancé of a wealthy dowager by posing as her new cook and butler. (And yes, this short was remade by the Three Stooges as Crash Goes the Hash [1944], canapés and all.) Fiddling Around (1938) closed out the short-lived series, which never caught the fancy of either the public or theater exhibitors; Collins believed that the failure of the Kennedy/Collins shorts was due to anti-Semitism—many people thought he was Jewish due to his rather pronounced “hook-nose” so Collins (who was actually Irish) had his nose bobbed. (This did not sit well with shorts department head Jules White, who felt that the nose job robbed Monte of his comic appeal.) Both men continued to work at Columbia in supporting roles (in addition to his work with El Brendel, Tom also made two shorts with Shemp Howard); Collins was even versatile enough to contribute quite a few scripts to the shorts department, notably the Three Stooges’ Cactus Makes Perfect (1942) and Three Little Twirps (1943).

As of this post, I haven’t seen five of the Collins/Kennedy two-reelers: Gobs of Trouble (1935), Oh, My Nerves! (1935—which was remade by the Three Stooges as Idiots Deluxe), Just Speeding (1936), Bury the Hatchet (1937) and Calling All Curtains (1937). I may be in the minority, but I honestly think that the teaming of Tom and Monte wasn’t all that bad—Kennedy excelled at playing stupefyingly dumb palookas, and Collins provided a nice complement as the scrawny, hatchet-faced, easily-exasperated member of the duo. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at a thrown-together pair that actually worked for Columbia…and for all intents and purposes may be the studio’s best-kept secret.

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