In June of this year, I reviewed an Alpha Video release of Edgar Kennedy two-reelers (Rediscovered Comedies of Edgar Kennedy Volume 4) that you’ll find over at the old Blogspot site (for now) …and in September, the company unveiled out a fifth volume that made the lengthy trek from the wilds of West Conshohocken, PA to Rancho Yesteryear courtesy of friend of the blog Brian Krey. I get an enormous kick out watching the Kennedy shorts, no doubt because “The Master of the Slow Burn” is a treasured TDOY favorite and I’ll admit a teensy bit o’bias that because I’m such an Edgar fan it was bound to color my perception of this latest DVD release.
Like Volume 4, Rediscovered Comedies of Edgar Kennedy Volume 5 spotlights ten comedies culled from the comedian’s employment at RKO (1931-48), beginning with Fish Feathers (1932)—a two-reeler that rates special mention in Leonard Maltin’s Selected Short Subjects (a.k.a. The Great Movie Shorts). Maltin notes:
One of the best early comedies, Fish Feathers (1932), was shot at a lakeside resort, with Edgar and the family going fishing on Tom Kennedy’s group-fishing boat. Their first problem is a temperamental outboard motor on the dinghy they hire to take them out to the yacht. When Edgar tries to fix it, he falls overboard, and, holding onto the motor, is propelled around the lake! Similar catastrophes abound, climaxing in a wild ride in the runaway boat, all shot without the aid of process screens or photographic trickery — adding, naturally, to the believability and enjoyment of the scene.
While I’m partial to the later Kennedy efforts from the 1940s—because they have a bit more polish—Fish Feathers is a most entertaining short (you know I’m also fond of the “other” Kennedy—Tom, that is) that really does benefit from the lack of camera trickery (watching Edgar being propelled around the lake is a real hoot). Leonard also has effusive praise for the second short on the DVD, Wrong Direction (1934), which finds our put-upon hero toiling as an assistant director at Magnet Pictures. The director on Magnet’s latest production has had a nervous breakdown—due to temperamental star Carol Benet (Jean Fontaine)—and the head of Magnet, Garner (Nat Carr), asks Edgar to finish the picture. All Kennedy needs to do is shoot two scenes and his future as a motion picture director is secure…but his family (Florence Lake, Dot Farley, Billy Eugene) decides to show up and watch him work, scotching any hopes of a directorial career.
Tramp Trouble (1937) is a good little effort; I have an affinity for this one because William “Billy” Benedict appears in it as a young bindlestiff taken in by Edgar in a gesture of goodwill…and the milk of human kindness curdles quickly because Billy’s adoption results in a parade of hoboes—including Benedict’s father, played by series regular Billy Franey—that cost Edgar his wife (Vivien Oakland), his peaceful home, and his job. (Edgar ends up dumping mashed potatoes on his boss by accident and sidesplittingly remarks: “It was nice to have worked for you, Mr. Markham.”) Maid to Order (1939) features Franey in his more familiar role as Edgar’s father-in-law (prominent when Oakland took over as “Mrs. Kennedy” from the departing Florence Lake) as Edgar attempts to marry off the old pest (Billy’s obsession with agriculture and plants is proving to be an irritant). It’s not screamingly funny, but character Minerva Urecal is on hand (billed as “Urical”) as the mail-order bride…complete with an Italian accent that’s good for a chuckle or two.
Billy Franey continues to give our hero grief in Drafted in the Depot (1940), which finds Edgar lying to wife Vivien that he’s been “drafted” into the National Guard so he can sneak away on a hunting trip. The best of the Kennedy-Franey comedies on this disc is ‘Taint Legal (1940); Billy, who’s been taking law classes, tells Edgar and Vivien that their marriage isn’t legitimate…much to Kennedy’s chagrin, because he’s just given an interview to a newspaper reporter after winning $5,000 in the paper’s contest. This one is a lot of fun because his future brother-in-law in the shorts, Jack Rice, plays the reporter (here with Bud Jamison as a cop):
…and in the role of an annoying book salesman, character veteran Arthur O’Connell (trying to get in through the door) in one of his early motion picture turns:
‘Taint Legal would later be reworked as a Leon Errol comedy, Bachelor Blues (1948). The seventh comedy on Volume 5 was, in turn, a remake of an earlier Errol effort (1939’s Crime Rave): Two for the Money (1942), which brings back the familiar “Mr. Average Man” quartet of Edgar, Florence, Dot, and Jack. Brother-in-law Jack is on the police force(!) in this funny outing, but he’s of little help when a trio of crooks are unwittingly invited into the Kennedy household because he’s too busy practicing with the precinct’s barbershop quartet. (Character veterans Bryant Washburn, Johnny Bierkes, and Laurel & Hardy nemesis Charlie Hall are among the supporting cast.)
Kennedy fans know that our man Edgar tangled with the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933) …but in 1942, he also made a two-reeler with the same name and it’s one of the highlights of this DVD as Kennedy becomes convinced that his mother- and brother-in-law are out to kill him to collect on a $30,000 insurance policy. Kennedy’s relative problem continues in the equally amusing What, No Cigarettes? (1945); Dot and Jack invite wealthy Uncle Wilbur (Jimmy Conlin!) to stay with the family, hoping to butter the old man up…but Wilbur has a nicotine jones that sends Edgar on the hunt for coffin nails during widespread cigarette rationing. (When wife Florence lights one up and Edgar remarks that she doesn’t smoke, she matter-of-factly explains she took up the habit because of the shortage.) Kennedy’s futile efforts to buy just one measly pack of cigarettes (among the character actor obstacles are Tommy Noonan and Emory Parnell) are falling-down funny (I also like Gwen Crawford as the drugstore cashier, who demonstrates to Ed how to “roll your own” one-handed), and the presence of Conlin, a TDOY fave, is a big plus.
Rediscovered Comedies of Edgar Kennedy Volume 5 closes things out with Wall Street Blues (1946), a two-reeler I liked despite its familiar sitcom premise: Edgar learns that some supposedly worthless oil stock he owns can make him a tidy fortune…except that Florence used it to paper the den in a house they formerly rented. So, our hero and Brother go to great lengths to retrieve said stock (they eventually wind up taking the entire wall of the den) only to learn that it’s the preferred stock that’s valuable…and the den wall is plastered with common. What makes this one enjoyable is the windup gag—informed by Edgar that she’s going to have to return the hat she bought (now that his dreams of fabulous wealth have evaporated), Florence does his trademark slow burn:
“So closely was [Edgar] linked with this trademark that, before long, in his own RKO series, the face-rub became the punch line on many of his shorts, a neat way of concluding one of many disastrous denouements,” notes Mr. M in Subjects. It’s nice to see this switch on the slow burn in Blues, a short directed by Hal Roach veteran Hal Yates who took over in 1944 and in the words of Maltin, “quickly developed a surefire formula that had already been applied by Columbia producer Jules White: make the comedies move so fast that if they aren’t funny, no one will have time to notice. For the most part, Yates’s entries in the series were funny, and they all were marked by tight, rapid pacing. His screenplays tended to repeat themselves, especially in the Errol comedies, but the brisk pace overcame even that.”
Frequent TDOY commenter rnigma noted in the Volume 4 post that “Guild Films syndicated the Kennedy and Errol shorts to TV in a package called ‘Big Rascals.’” This explains why The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ doesn’t have either series of two-reelers in their voluminous vaults (as I incorrectly assumed); as my Facebook compadre Christopher Snowden (proprietor of Television Diary) clarified: “RKO had sold that package around 1954 to a TV packager called Guild Films, and since then the Guild properties have changed hands a few times. Latest word I have is that a New York family named Saltzman controls this material, but that many (most? all?) of the original negatives are missing in action. (Guild had them in the ’50s, and original 16mm Guild prints look wonderful.)”
As to the reason why occasionally a Kennedy or Errol short will make the rounds on TCM, Mr. S further elucidates: “Quite a few of the RKO shorts never had their copyrights renewed, which is why a few of them have turned up on TCM and others are on home video in editions of varying image quality.” Until someone can track down some pristine negatives (or even those 16mm Guild prints) and work a little restoration magic for a most-welcome home video release, I say hie thee to your nearest online outlet and plunk down the cash for this Alpha Video DVD.