Slow burn comic: Vintage star Edgar Kennedy
Review by Doug Gibson
Soon after the legendary boxer Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight championship, Hollywood beckoned. The first of several films made was a serial, called The Adventures of Daredevil Jack (1920). In his autobiography, Dempsey good naturedly opines that he saved the girl and punched others out in his films.
Only a couple of reels of Daredevil Jack survives, stored at UCLA’s film archives. Far more interesting are stills showing fight scenes in the ring. Preserved are three stills of Dempsey encountering, fighting, and defeating a burly opponent in the ring. That opponent was Edgar Kennedy, a remarkable product of vintage Hollywood.
Kennedy, one of the first of Max Sennett’s Keystone Kops, is one of those actors with an iconic face that too many can’t place. We owe film historian Bill Cassera a debt for writing the biography “Edgar Kennedy: Master of the Slow Burn,” Bear Manor Media, 2005. Boosted by extensive recollections from Kennedy’s daughter, Colleen, other contributions from the family, and thorough research from the author, this is a definitive biography. It captures the feel of the Hollywood/entertainment world from the infancy of sound to the post-World War II era.
Kennedy was born in central California. His father died when he was 10, creating a challenge for his mother to keep Edgar and family maintained in a comfortable existence that included a homestead in Monterey County. This included a stint in San Francisco, where the family ran a boarding house. They eventually moved to San Rafael, where Edgar showed early talent on the school stage.
Moving forward a few years, a young Edgar tested his skills professionally in two diverse fields; singing and boxing. In the latter he was one of many California heavyweights seeking fame and money in the small clubs. He had early success as an amateur, winning a local title. As a professional he had mixed success, winning a few and losing a few, before giving up a professional career. He loved boxing his entire life, spending the rest of his life with the boxing gym and ring close, sparring and training.
As a singer, Edgar was good enough to be on the stage but not as a featured role. A career in films interested him. He received a big break when Sennett offered him roles with the Kops and other films. It led to a three-decade plus career that by any definition was very successful, providing his family a comfortable life.
Kennedy was in so many films, with so many comedy greats, it’s hard to keep track. Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Duck Soup, Hollywood Hotel, A Star is Born, Diplomaniacs, Mickey … and so on. He could do drama as well as comedy. In the World War 2-era film, “Hitler’s Madman,: he has, for example, a strong role as a reclusive hermit who opposes Nazi atrocities. He also directed many films and was active on the stage through his career, sometimes with his wife Patricia, a former dancer.
Harry Langdon, Charles Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Mabel Normand, Laurel & Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey, Fatty Arbuckle, Ted Healy, The Marx Brothers … add 50 more prominent names, and you wouldn’t have all the film immortals Kennedy worked with. As Cassera recounts, he was an active member of the Hollywood community, participating in celebrity/charity sporting events and other fundraisers. He was a local Air Raid Warden during the Second World War.
Kennedy’s most prominent starring role was as “The Average Man” in RKO’s series of comedy shorts, which began in the early 30s and lasted until Kennedy’s death in 1948. The premise had Kennedy as a harried man with a ditzy wife, a conniving mother in law, and a ne’er do well brother in law. Misfortunes, usually created by Edgar’s’ two in-law adversaries, would slowly antagonize Edgar toward a temper tantrum eruption that climaxed the two reelers.
Kennedy’s strong comic timing was key to the long-running success of the series, too forgotten now, as so many are due to the iconic status of the Three Stooges. Kennedy’s “hand moving across the face” as he struggled to keep his temper, was iconic in the ’30s and ’40s. Collections of Kennedy’s work where he is the star can be purchased via amazon and a few of The Average Man shorts are on YouTube (here’s one). Occasional cast changes to the Average Man series did not harm the quality since Kennedy was its foundation.
Cassera notes that famed Hollywood scribe Louella Parsons compared Kennedy’s Average Man to novelist Sinclair Lewis’ conformist creation, businessman George Babbitt. Physically, they were both pink, a little balding, a little to fat, a little ridiculous, blundering. However, Babbitt was a successful, often unethical civic leader, while The Average Man just wants those in laws out of the house, Cassera notes.
Kennedy, however, as the biography includes, was outspoken on issues. For example, he was a strong defender of the silent film mode of acting. He criticized a tendency of some sound actors to simply say the words at the expense of emotion and conveying meaning. In an interview in 1938 for World Film News, he said ” … In the old days, if you didn’t act it, nobody knew what it was supposed to be. Nowadays, talk, talk, talk, talk, it’s all on the soundtrack, and you can get by without acting at all. …”
Kennedy, a devoted family man who loved the peace of his home outside Los Angeles, was a lifelong heavy smoker. That unfortunately caught up with him as he contracted cancer in 1948 and did not survive the year. He was only 58.
Cassera’s book, reasonably priced, can also be obtained via amazon. Besides providing an appreciation of a comic talent, it places the reader into vintage Hollywood, always a fun place to escape to for awhile. Cassera has also written enjoyable biographies of Vernon Dent and Ted Healy.
This review is cross-posted at The Plan9Crunch blog.