Alpha Video released another volume in their “Rediscovered Comedies of Edgar Kennedy” series about two weeks ago (July 24)—though again, for those of us dues-paying members in The Order of the Slow Burn (check out the Facebook page here) we’ve been aware of their existence for quite some time—and for a mere bag of shells, you can enjoy ten of the revered second banana’s RKO two-reel shorts (also known as the “Mr. Average Man” comedies) produced between 1931 and 1948. (Okay, technically that should read nine of the RKO two-reelers…more on this in a sec.)
The Alpha presentation kicks off with not only one of the better-looking efforts (in terms of print quality—because many of these prints would have difficulty passing a pristine exam) but one of the funniest in the franchise. In Sock Me to Sleep (1935), Edgar’s wife (Florence Lake) and in-laws (Dot Farley, Jack Rice) have welcomed pugilist “Battling” Babe McGee (Tom Kennedy) into their happy home since Brother (Rice) has made himself Babe’s manager. Brother drops the boxer off fifteen miles from town—ostensibly to do some road work—but McGee hitches a ride back from Edgar, who’s been on a business trip and is in the dark about the new boarder. Babe brags to the man behind the wheel that he’s got a soft set-up—comfortable bed, three squares a day—and that he’s really taken with the lady of the house even though she’s married to “some poor sap.”
As you’ve probably guessed by now, this misunderstanding is cleared up quickly once our hero is formally introduced to McGee, but when Edgar vows to throw the bum out on his ear, a couple of punches in the nose from Babe convinces him that perhaps he’s being a tad hasty. Edgar will get the last laugh (he learns of McGee’s one weakness), but not before there’s much hilarity as Mother and Brother never hesitate to use their boarder at every turn to keep Edgar in line. (Tom Kennedy only has to stare at Edgar and shake his head slightly…and Ed’s as meek as a kitten.) Sock Me to Sleep is a very entertaining short, but what made me continually smile is that Edgar sings several bars of I Went Hunting throughout the two-reeler—Hunting being the musical number performed by Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, and Noah Beery, Sr. in Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934—keeping it in the RKO family!).
Tom Kennedy makes a return appearance in a 1944 Kennedy effort, Radio Rampage—the only short on the Alpha collection that I had seen previously (it was featured in an Edgar tribute once televised on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™). Tom is a stranger who continuously encounters Edgar as the other Kennedy attempts to fix his mother-in-law’s radio, having dismissed the radio repairman (Charlie Hall) in order to save a few bucks. Kennedy’s character does a couple of falling-down funny physical bits—literally—in this one and it’s an excellent example of the winning Edgar Kennedy comedies formula. I’m partial to the shorts that feature the quartet of Edgar, Florence, Dot, and Jack, which is also well-represented on this set by Parlor, Bedroom, and Wrath (1932), Art in the Raw (1933), Brick-a-Brac (1935), and Do or Diet (1947). Parlor’s highlight is a rib-tickling performance from Lucy Beaumont as a landlady who Edgar and Florence help out by evicting her loutish tenant (famed silver screen inebriate Arthur Housman)…and then take pity on by moving into Housman’s apartment even though it’s a bit cramped for the Kennedy quartet. (Beaumont later turns out to be a real pest—she wakes the family up looking for her cat until Edgar ties her to her bed in a memorable scene.)
Raw features character great Franklin Pangborn as an artist who tries to inspire fellow painter Edgar when the Kennedy clan decides to move to a Greenwich Village loft so that Edgar can be inspired, and Brick-a-Brac has three-time Academy Award winner Walter Brennan as a building inspector (Edgar and the family are trying to construct their own mountain cabin, with predictably disastrous results). Do or Diet is a great later-era Kennedy, with TDOY fave Dick Wessel in his element as the musclebound ex-boyfriend of Florence’s who’s enlisted by Brother to make Ed jealous (oafs were a specialty of Wessel’s, as Columbia shorts fans well know). Edgar’s family is convinced that he’s going to lose his job because he’s getting older and flabbier (Ed’s actually been promoted—but he’s keeping that on the QT); the encounter with Wessel prompts Edgar to undergo rigorous exercise…until the next morning, when every move he makes getting out of bed causes his bones to sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies.
Three of the remaining comedies are from Edgar’s years with Vivien Oakland (as Mrs. K) and Billy Franey (as his loutish father-in-law); both Act Your Age (1939) and Mad About Moonshine (1941) are entertaining if unremarkable comedies (Moonshine is probably the better of the two, particularly when Edgar responds to Vivien’s pleas of “Remember your bargain—you promised to take care of Father for the rest of your life” with “Well, that won’t be long now!”) but Kennedy the Great (1939) is a real hoot. Edgar’s inability to be “the life of the party” prompts him to purchase a pair of magician’s stage trunks to learn how to perform an astounding trick…but he winds up locked inside his own trunk! Great also features Barbara Jo Allen—a.k.a. “Vera Vague,” though she uses her normal speaking voice for her role as the wife of Edgar’s prospective business partner (Robert Graves)—and has a funny ending involving Edgar and Graves.
The odd man out in Rediscovered Comedies of Edgar Kennedy, Volume 6 is The Spot on the Rug (1932)—a Mack Sennett Educational comedy that doesn’t star Edgar, but rather silent comedy veteran Billy Bevan (in a sound comedy). Bevan’s a screenwriter who’s trying to pound out another chapter of a movie serial (that shares the title of the short); he imagines himself as the hero, who must don drag at one point to evade the villain (Edgar). The print of this one appears to be a home movie version (there are no opening titles other than the identifying “The Spot on the Rug”…and no reminder that Educational is “the spice of the program,” either) and while it was helmed by the man that Sennett considered “the greatest comedy director in the business”—Del Lord—it’s clearly the weakest short in the collection. (It’s also the muddiest, print-wise.) Marjorie “Babe” Kane and Bud Jamison appear in this one, for comedy completists.
Many thanks as always to my Alpha Video compadre Brian Krey for providing Rancho Yesteryear with a screener for this marvelous collection. I’ll let film historian Leonard Maltin have the last word on the Slow Burn Master: “As the Average Man whose attempts to rise above it all were usually frustrated, Edgar delighted movie audiences of five decades. Today, his comedies continue to entertain many people who find themselves as fond of him as moviegoers were when the films were new. Edgar Kennedy and the comedies he starred in had heart, and it’s that very special quality that set them apart from their competitors.”