Sunday, August 19, 2018

Vintage comedy star Edgar Kennedy subject of biography

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, on 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 (here) 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 kin 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.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Remembering Bela Lugosi on his deathday

It's been 62 years since Bela Lugosi passed into another sphere of existence on August 16, 1956. His biographical is well know to many, including most readers of this blog. Suffice to say that he was a working actor until he died. Just prior to his death, he was promoting "The Black Sleep," a film he had a role in and shooting random footage with Ed Wood, some of which turned up in "Plan 9 From Outer Space. (To read the many obituaries published at his death, go to the Vampire Over London blog.) (I also published my review of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain in the Standard-Examiner newspaper today.)

At Plan9Crunch, we offer three links today to posts regarding Bela Lugosi, who has become the most famous, and iconic, figure from the Universal glory days of horror that began with "Dracula" in 1931. Lugosi did not require loads of makeup to play the vampire, his acting skills and personality defined the role.

So, let's celebrate Lugosi's Deathday. Read the posts below, and even better, spend time today watching one of our favorite actor's films. It's been a while since I have seen Bela as the Count in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." My son and I will enjoy it again.

Here are four links, with a short snippet from each blog:

1) --

'Bela Lugosi In Person' captures the stage, personal appearance career of screen 'Dracula'

"He was a star, and a gracious star, attentive to fans and charmingly tongue-in-cheek sinister with the media, particularly local media, which pursued him often during his long stage assignments. Lost in dusty old-media files and updated media websites are reviews of the many plays Lugosi entered, as star, or supporting role."

2) -- 

A Tribute to Bela "Dracula" Lugosi

"I have seen "Dracula" scores of times, and Lugosi is the key to the film. He is a tall, courtly, menacing figure who promises a fate worse than death. And that is the appeal of these early horror films compared to the sadistic gore-fests of today — a fate worse than death awaits the vampire's victims. That fate is conveyed to perfection in the scene where Lugosi's vampire murders actor Dwight Frye's cringing, pathetic, mad disciple Renfield. Dracula's exterior is charming. But his filthy interior attracts darkness, fog, storm, chill winds, rodents, flies, spiders, blood and undeath."

Voodoo Man, Monogram's last Bela Lugosi production

"... it may be the best-paced, least convoluted Monogram film Lugosi made. It's ably directed by William Beaudine and looks like a lean, mean film-in-a-week film. (It was helmed in October of 1943). The plot involves Dr. Richard Marlowe, who kidnaps young lovelies in an attempt to transform their conscious life into his "dead" comatose wife, Evelyn (Ellen Hall)."


Bela Lugosi, vampire, mad scientist or god, he enhanced a film

From Christopher R. Gauthier, one of our essayists in this blog post homage to Bela: "Disregard the scoffs that often follow the very mention of the film, "Bride Of The Monster" is a beautifully flawed poetic masterpiece, which because of Bela is so incredibly wonderful to watch. ... Lugosi being the true professional he was, uplifts the film into the echelons of cinematic greatness. Bela was the grandest mad scientist of them all during that era, and even in this lopsided production his indelible and incandescent ingenuity upon the nobility of his theatrical craft shines through the chinked flaws that overall make-up the entire sets and scripted inconsistencies of this slapdash and often incomprehensible film." 

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Vampire Bat, Frye, Atwill and Wray

By Steve D. Stones

The lovely Fay Wray stars in this poverty row, slowly paced horror film from 1932, produced by Majestic Pictures. This was her third film alongside British actor Lionel Atwill. The film is a strange mixture of vampirism and science-fiction. It tries hard to look like many Universal Studios horror films produced in the same era, such as Dracula and Frankenstein, both from 1931. In fact, the film was made on the Universal lot, borrowing sets from that studio’s films. One set is borrowed from director James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” from 1932.

Wray is perfect as the damsel in distress, although her appearance in the film seems short and meant as window dressing to attract the male viewer. Atwill is also perfectly cast as the mad scientist Dr. Otto von Neimann, who conducts strange experiments in his laboratory. Dwight Frye is cast as a babbling village henchman, acting similar to his Reinfield character in Dracula.

The village of Kleinschloss in Central Europe is struck by a series of violent murders. Villagers are found dead in their beds and drained of blood. While the town is being overrun by giant bats, the local police inspector believes the cause of the murders to be human.  Even von Neimann insists that vampires exist and could be the source of the murders.

Meanwhile, von Neimann sends his lab assistant out for victims to nourish his bizarre experiment of human tissue that looks like a giant brain.  Victims are found with puncture wounds to the neck. Von Neimann insists that the murders are a result of vampire bats.  The villagers accuse Herman, a village wanderer, played by Dwight Frye, and chase him to his death as he falls off a cliff.

To steer a police detective off his scent, von Neimann administers poison sleeping pills to the detective. The detective is smart enough not to take the pills, and hides in the mad scientist’s lab to arrest him for the village murders, but also to rescue Fay Wray, who is tied up in the lab.

The Vampire Bat is now considered a public domain film that can be found in many DVD box sets with other public domain films. The best print for a long time was by issued by Navarre Corporation on a triple bill with King of The Zombies (1941) and Dr. Syn (1937). But now it's on Blu-Ray here. The Vampire Bat is a fun treat to watch back to back with King of The Zombies and Revolt of The Zombies (1936). Happy viewing!!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Bela Lugosi, RKO and Genius at Work

By Doug Gibson

(GENIUS AT WORK airs today, July 25, 2018, at 12:45 pm EST on Turner Classic Movies) I finally got a chance -- courtesy of Turner Classic Movies -- to see the Lugosi film that for decades was just about impossible to catch; RKO's 1946 "Genius at Work," a 61-minute programmer for the B comedy team of Abbott and Costello imitators Wally Brown ("Bud") and Alan Carney ("Lou"). It's the second RKO B feature Bela Lugosi made with the low-rent team, who were at least better competitors to A and C than Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo were to Martin and Louis. The first film was the better-known "Zombies on Broadway," with Lugosi a standard mad scientist.

Bela's a henchman named Stone in "Genius at Work," second banana to the film's chief baddie, criminologist Latimer Marsh turned serial killer "The Cobra," played by Lionel Atwill. Wally and Alan are radio detectives who are playing up the Cobra's kills. Ironically, Marsh is their mentor, advising the unsuspecting pair. Eventually, the boys radio show produce, the very attractive Anne Jeffreys, starts to suspect Marsh as a suspect and he and Bela's plan the demise of the radio boys and their lovely producer.

It's important to recall that this is a vehicle for the comedy pair of Brown and Carney. Atwill and Bela play second fiddle as time is spent to provide the stars A and C-type comedy interludes. Perhaps the most effective comedy is when the boys find themselves in Atwill's Marsh's torture dungeon museum in his home, and later when they sneak back into Marsh's home. During these scenes the sinister Lugosi plays off the boys well, scaring them in comic manner.

Here's some notes I provided to a fan/historian of the genre, a co-author of a book on Lugosi, who has yet to see the film: It's nothing special, but it's a fast-paced, enjoyable comedy mystery. Brown and Carney (the Abbott and Costello wannabes) are radio detectives trying to solve kidnappings/murders by "The Cobra." A criminologist, played by Lionel Atwill, is sort of a mentor to them. However, Atwill is The Cobra and with his henchman, Stone (Lugosi) is planning to off the boys because their radio producer, played by Anne Jefferys, is starting to get suspicious. There are a couple of cops for the comedy team to play off and a scene in a torture dungeon museum in Atwill's home that is played for laughs with Lugosi tormenting the duo. It's only an hour, and the second third drags a bit due to some poor plotting but it picks up well at the end. I kept thinking that Lugosi (deserved) the Atwill role until the final reel, where Atwill's character disguises himself as an old woman in a dress, and now I'm glad Lugosi had the lesser role. Final note: No great shakes, but better than Leonard Maltin or Richard Bojorksi claim it is. I'll watch it every so often.

This was the great Lionel Atwill's final feature role; he was dying of cancer and the film was released after his death. He seems a little frail but does a good job. It's a relatively quick film and has enough lowbrow laughs and a good-enough performance from Bela to merit repeat viewings. I mentioned that it was hard to find until recently. "Genius at Work" was recently as an On-Demand DVD offering of several Brown and Carney films but at a pricey cost. Fortunately, TCM aired it and a long-time goal of this reviewer was fulfilled.

Notes: The film was the final of a three-picture deal Lugosi had with RKO. The others were "The Body Snatcher" and the aforementioned "Zombies on Broadway," which Jeffreys was also in. It was his second-to-last movie assignment with a major studio. His last would be "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." Leslie Goodwins directed "Genius At Work," the last of the comedy duo's eight pictures with RKO..