Thursday, June 29, 2017

Kennedy for me

From 1931 to 1948, beloved character veteran Edgar Kennedy starred in over 100 two-reel comedies for RKO, as part of a franchise originally titled “Mr. Average Man.”  Kennedy was hands down one of the finest second bananas in the history of the movies, brightening even the dullest film by merely being in it.  He worked for Mack Sennett’s fun factory at the start of his movie career (he often played a Keystone Kop, and worked on a few occasions with Charlie Chaplin), and later freelanced in the 1920s before joining Hal Roach’s “Lot of Fun” toward the end of the decade as a supporting player in the classic comedies headlined by Our Gang, Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, and so many more.  Edgar even got an opportunity to demonstrate his talents behind the camera, directing such Stan and Ollie romps as From Soup to Nuts (1928) and You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928).

Harry Harvey, Florence Lake & Edgar in Contest Crazy (1948)
Edgar passed away in November of 1948, about a month after his last RKO two-reeler, Contest Crazy, was released to theaters.  But the studio continued to release shorts from that backlog for years after that, and while it’s not possible to hit one out of the park every time at bat the “Average Man” comedies have an admirably consistent batting average in the laughs department.  Much of their appeal to audiences today lies in the fact that the shorts were a template for what eventually became the television situation comedy.  The plots of the comedies were simple and straightforward—dealing with everyday subjects as going on vacation or celebrating an anniversary—and they eschewed the kind of frantic zaniness that was the modus operandi of Columbia’s two-reel comedies, like those featuring The Three Stooges.  The Kennedy comedies didn’t skimp on the physical slapstick, but it was always grounded in a world of believability, only slightly exaggerated for comedic effect.

The reason why even the weaker “Average Man” comedies generate a chuckle or two is due to Edgar Kennedy, who was the undisputed master of short-fuse stack blowing.  His signature was called the “slow burn,” a gesture where he would wipe his face in frustration in a futile attempt to hold his temper before exploding in rage.  Edgar worked alongside many of the great mirthmakers: Joe E. Brown (When’s Your Birthday?), Eddie Cantor (Kid Millions), W.C. Fields (Tillie and Gus), Raymond Griffith (Paths to Paradise), Harold Lloyd (The Sin of Harold Diddlebock), The Marx Brothers (so memorable as the lemonade vendor who tangles with Chico and Harpo in Duck Soup), Olsen & Johnson (Crazy House), and Wheeler & Woolsey (Diplomaniacs), to name just a few.  He makes feature films such as Twentieth Century (1934), San Francisco (1936), A Star is Born (1937), It’s a Wonderful World (1939), It Happened Tomorrow (1944), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948) a joy to sit down with a bowl of popcorn.

Alpha Video has been releasing several volumes of Kennedy’s RKO shorts to DVD as part of their “Rediscovered Comedies of Edgar Kennedy” series.  (I know that for many they’re not technically “rediscoveries” in that film fanatics like the TDOY faithful are well-acquainted with how delightful they are—but since they don’t make the rounds on any of the classic movie channels on a regular basis some movie mavens may not be familiar with them.)  Volumes One and Two came out in 2010, with Volume Three following three years later and Volume Quatro released this past April.  Brian Krey was kind enough to shoot me a screener for Volume 4, which contains ten of Edgar’s two-reel efforts from 1934 to 1946.  Some of these are the very textbook definition of “doozy.”

The DVD kicks off with In-Laws are Out (1934), a sidesplitting outing that has Edgar returning home from a business trip to learn from his neighbors that wife Florence (Florence Lake) is kicking him out of the house.  The reason?  It’s Ed’s hair-trigger temper, which is always activated by his interactions with his sponging mother-in-law (Dot Farley) and brother-in-law (Billy Eugene).  Florence makes her husband promise that he’ll keep his anger managed…otherwise he’s out the door.  His in-laws scheme to make him blow his top, so between those two and a mantle clock he’s purchased that refuses to chime properly, Kennedy’s disposition is continually challenged.  One of the best gags in this comedy (directed by Jules White’s brother Sam and co-written by Arthur Ripley) has Edgar trudging up the stairs in his house with a priceless vase and some blankets blocking his view of what’s ahead of him…and Eugene placing a stepladder at the top of the staircase, resulting in Edgar’s continued climb.  The first time Kennedy makes the trip he’s stopped by Florence before he falls off the ladder…but on the second go-round, he falls right through the floor and emerges (somehow with the vase intact) from a room below the staircase landing.

Florence & Jack Rice scheme behind Edgar's back
Before his RKO series got underway, Edgar Kennedy appeared in an Educational two-reeler entitled All Gummed Up (1930), in which Florence Lake (Arthur’s sis) was cast as his wife.  Lake would continue in that capacity with the “Average Man” series, playing the delightfully dizzy Mrs. K.  Florence left the studio in the mid-30s, and while she returned for the occasional assignment in the Kennedy comedies she didn’t permanently return until the mid-40s, whereupon she finished out the franchise until it ended in 1948.  Rice was an integral part of the Kennedy comedies, and when she’s not around to chatter a mile-a-minute in her incredible fashion I find I don’t enjoy the shorts as much as I should.  They brought in a few actresses to play Mrs. Kennedy in the 1940s comedies—notably Irene Ryan and Pauline Drake—with Sally Payne even going as far to completely mimic Lake (the DVD features Payne’s turn in Inferior Decorator [1942], which is not one of Edgar’s stronger efforts) in her turns as Mrs. K.

Florence, Paul Maxey, Dot Farley, Jack, Harry Strang & Edgar
 in Brother Knows Best (1948)
I think In-Laws are Out is a delightful short, but in it you can detect one of the handicaps of the Kennedy comedies as noted by Leonard Maltin in his reference book The Great Movie Shorts: “Where the series often failed, however, was in straying too far from credibility, usually in the antics of Edgar’s meddlesome mother-in-law, played by Dot Farley, and his no-account brother-in-law, first played by William Eugene and then by Jack Rice.  In most cases, one could accept their obnoxious nature, and the fact that Edgar was forced to live with it since his wife was devoted to them; but when they blithely wreck a car in Quiet Please, “borrow” Edgar’s life savings in Brother Knows Best, or engage in one of the sundry get-rich-quick schemes in which Edgar always loses, it’s a bit hard to take.”  The pair (Farley and Eugene) deliberately connive to piss off Edgar so he’ll lose his temper in In-Laws, and while this was no doubt done to generate sympathy for his character I think more than a few of us would be practicing our curb kicks.

Edgar & Florence in Poisoned Ivory (1934)
In Poisoned Ivory (1934—a Christmas-themed short!), Florence thinks she’s accidentally poisoned Edgar and Brother (Rice this time) phones the doctor (William Augustin) for help.  Brother knows that Florence didn’t really poison her husband, but he suggests to the doc that he get a little payback for an argument that he and Edgar had the night previous.  The doctor approaches pranking Ed with relish (so much for that Hippocratic Oath) by telling his patient there’s nothing he can do for him…and that he’ll probably shuffle off this mortal coil with a yawn and a yearn to go beddy-bye (he gives Edgar a sedative before telling him this).  Ivory is another gem of a Kennedy comedy; even though I had serious reservations about anyone participating in that kind of foolishness there are some very funny moments in the short including Edgar’s waking up from his sleeping pill and, as his eyes focus, seeing his family and physician.  “And I thought I was going to Heaven,” he mutters.

Edgar Hamlet (1935)
Edgar Hamlet (1935) is another entertaining outing, with Edgar and Mother having an argument over a line of Shakespeare (she’s convinced it’s in Hamlet—he insists it’s Macbeth) that leads to his decision to take the family to see a performance of Hamlet to prove he’s right…but he gets distracted by such simple tasks as getting ice out of the icebox and unwrapping a new dress shirt.  This one is a lot of fun because you get to hear Kennedy recite Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”) in the way that only he could.  “I overact,” he once observed of his performance style.  “I know I overact.  But at least I do try to act, and it’s easy enough for a director to say ‘Easy now,’ and I know what he means and calm it down.”

Edgar & Vivien Oakland
Comic actress Vivien Oakland replaced the departing Florence Lake as Mrs. Kennedy in many of the shorts, and in Maltin’s opinion “was rather subdued as Edgar’s wife.”  Three of her efforts appear on the Volume 4 disc; Bad Housekeeping (1937) is a so-so entry (it’s the old “wife-takes-husband’s-place-at-work-while-he-wrecks-the-house” plot) that benefits largely from an appearance by Franklin Pangborn as a piano tuner who proves to be no help when Edgar gets his tie caught in the washing machine or is buried under a bed that falls apart as he attempts to change the sheets.  (The windup gag has Pangborn pleased as punch at the job he did on the Kennedy’s baby grand—all the keys sound the same!)  A Clean Sweep (1938) is a definite improvement; Edgar can’t bring himself to tell Vivien he’s lost his job at the bank and that he’s become a vacuum cleaner salesman…until one of the houses where he tries to peddle his wares is hosting a housewarming party with Vivien in attendance!

An interesting trade ad for A Clean Sweep (1938): Edgar doesn't have a mustache in this short, and the other male character (Eddie Dunn) never interacts with Vivien's Mrs. K.
Underrated silent comedian Billy Franey appears in Sweep as Edgar’s buddy; he asks Ed why he lost his bank job and Kennedy explains it was because he was rooting for the Giants.  (“Oh…he’s a Yankees fan, eh?” Billy asks.  “Nah…it just happened that he was at the ballpark the day I was supposed to be at my mother-in-law’s funeral” is Edgar’s reply.)  Franey also graced several of Edgar’s shorts as his father-in-law, of which Mutiny in the County (1940), included on this set, is an excellent example.  Edgar must appear in court after losing his temper with a neighborhood kids’ ballgame results in his throwing a baseball into the window of a cop car (the gendarmes are James C. Morton and Fred Kelsey).  His trial coincides with the town’s annual “Boys’ Day”—which means the little jamokes who were playing ball are now the judge and prosecutor!  It’s a most diverting short, and what continually make me titter was a running gag in which Franey keeps getting hit with doors as Edgar stomps off in frustration.

Vivien looks over the mess the Kennedy clan made in her kitchen in Home Canning (1948), the penultimate short in the Edgar Kennedy "Average Man" series.
The interesting thing about Vivien Oakland is that once Florence Rice returned to play the Kennedy wife Oakland continued to appear in the shorts, usually as a dowager or upper-crust matron.  That’s the case with the last short on the Alpha set, Social Terrors (1946)—her daughter (Phyllis Kennedy) becomes Brother’s fiancée when Edgar tries to stave off being evicted by the landlord (Chester Clute).  The landlord can’t sleep in his apartment because of some awful woman who sings off-key in the adjacent apartment, and since Brother neglected to tell Ed they’re being chucked out (he received the notice 30 days ago) Kennedy schemes to marry off his in-law, which will free up a room in their house for the landlord to stay in.  The Kennedy clan dines with Brother’s future in-laws (character great Paul Maxey plays the father) with hilarious results, and after dinner his intended decides to serenade everyone with a song.  (I don’t have to tell you who the irate neighbor is at this point, do I?)

All the shorts on this must-own collection are worth watching except for The Hillbilly Goat (1937), one of those “mountain folks” comedies that always grates on this proud son of The Mountain State.  Hopefully I’ll get around to watching some of the earlier Edgar Kennedy volumes (I’ve been collecting them from Alpha since they’ve been putting them out) soon and writing them up for the blog—thanks again to Brian for making my Wednesday afternoon an entertaining one!


Hal Horn said...

Love these. Mr. Average Man was truly the Al Bundy of his day.

I have about a dozen of these from the earlier releases, got them around the same time I got my batch of Leon Errol RKO shorts. As with that series, even the subpar Kennedy shorts are funny.

Hal Horn said...

Oh, and another Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle of mention with a prime role for Edgar is HOLD 'EM JAIL (1932), in which he essentially has the Eddie Albert role in a pre-Code LONGEST YARD concerning a prison football team. With a young Betty Grable as his daughter.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Hal jogged my memory:

Oh, and another Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle of mention with a prime role for Edgar is HOLD 'EM JAIL (1932), in which he essentially has the Eddie Albert role in a pre-Code LONGEST YARD concerning a prison football team. With a young Betty Grable as his daughter.

I should have mentioned it. I like him in DIPLOMANIACS because when he fails in a futile effort to impose some semblance of order among the delegates -- boom! Here comes the slow burn.

Don said...

A local TV station where I grew up used to play the Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol RKO shorts back in the 1980s. They used them mainly as filler, such as when a movie ran short and they had 20 minutes or so left over. I always enjoyed catching one of them. The prints were very nice. Much better than what's on the Alpha DVDs.

rnigma said...

Guild Films syndicated the Kennedy and Errol shorts to TV in a package called "Big Rascals."

Sometime after Edgar's death, RKO tried a series of shorts starring one Gil Lamb (who?)