While the two-reel comedies of Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, and The Three Stooges are as enduringly popular as ever, others series have slipped into obscurity. There's certainly no great cult following for The Taxi Boys shorts, Clark & McCullough are all but forgotten, and even the sound comedies of such silent clowns as Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon are rarely seen today. VCI has compiled 10 shorts apiece for two of the more popular stars of the 2-reel comedy format, Leon Errol and Edgar Kennedy.
Kennedy is the more familiar of the two, as his bald, gruff persona and slow-burn "takeum" had been a sure-fire laugh-getter in dozens of feature films. Viewers will remember Kennedy, for instance, as the beleaguered lemonade vendor in Duck Soup (1933), or as the gout-ridden Uncle Edgar in Laurel and Hardy's Perfect Day (1929). (In the latter short, Kennedy uttered what may have been filmdom's first profanity.) Even after he became the star of his own film series at RKO, Kennedy continued to appear in supporting parts in feature films. His penultimate role offered Kennedy what was perhaps his most memorable part, as the lowly private eye with a passion for classical music in Preston Sturges's Unfaithfully Yours (1948), a film released a month after Kennedy's death.
The ten shorts, each 17-20 minutes long and totaling about three hours of screen time, are as follows: Baby Daze (1939), Good Housewrecking (1933), Rough on Rents (1942), Will Power (1936), Help Wanted Female (1930), Wrong Direction (1934), Beaux and Errors (1938), Hold Your Temper (1943), Feather Your Nest (1944), and I'll Build it Myself (1946).
The earliest short, Help Wanted Female, was one of a series Kennedy made at Educational where he was teamed with Arthur Houseman, the comic best-known for playing blissful drunks. Notably short on laughs, the short features Daphne Pollard, the tiny (4' 9") Australian actress memorable as Oliver Hardy's wife in several films.
At RKO, Kennedy settled into a series of domestic two-reelers, with stories and situations quite similar to those still found on television sitcoms today. Supervised by Harry Sweet, the series generally featured Florence Lake as his wife, Dot Farley as his domineering mother-in-law, and William Eugene as his lazy sponge of a brother-in-law. (Jack Rice took over the brother-in-law role in 1934.) Most of the shorts revolved around Edgar unwillingly sucked into some scheme by his in-laws and living to regret it. In Feather Your Nest, Edgar loans his brother-in-law $200 to buy an engagement ring (thus getting him married off and out of the house), only to have the ring drop into a grand piano, and later gobbled up by a chicken. In Good Housewrecking, Edgar is pressed into service when the family decides to open an interior decorating business, with the expectedly disastrous results. The stock slapstick finds Edgar nailing his own tie to the wall, taking spectacular pratfalls, and so forth.
None of this is particularly innovative and only mildly funny. Kennedy was a great character comic but apparently not actively involved in the writing or gag construction of these shorts, even though he had directed a number of two-reelers in the 1920s and early-'30s. The series leans heavily on the sympathy one feels for such a hapless, unlucky husband, but Kennedy's character does little more than take abuse for a reel-and-a-half before finally losing his temper. Florence Lake, sister of Arthur Lake of Blondie fame, is fun as Kennedy's scatterbrained wife, though the brother-in-law character and Dot Farley's mother-in-law are pretty hard to take in short after short. In one of the two-reelers, Hold Your Tempter, Irene Ryan, later famous as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies, appears as Mrs. Kennedy. Vivien Oakland, another Laurel and Hardy regular (memorable in Way Out West and Scram!), essays the role in two of the other shorts.
Video & Audio
16mm prints seems to have been the main source for VCI's Edgar Kennedy Two-Reeler Comedy Collection. The quality of this material varies. Some shorts look okay, though none are outstanding; a couple, notably I'll Build it Myself, look pretty awful. That short also has extremely hissy, distorted sound, though most of the comedies are basically watchable. It's a shame VCI isn't more consistent with its product. Some of their DVDs look fantastic (such as the highly recommended Jungle Girl), while others (such as Buck Rogers) look like dog meat. This falls somewhere in between. Considering the length of the program, the bit rate on the dual-layered disc is acceptable.
The only extra is an Edgar Kennedy Biography, annoyingly presented as a rolling "scroll": the text rolls upward at a snail's pace, adding little to the brief liner notes by Bea Suarez. Suarez seems to have consulted, as this reviewer has done, Leonard Maltin's excellent book Selected Short Subjects, which features a chapter on Edgar Kennedy's career. What's billed as Trailers are really nothing more than clips from other VCI titles.
This reviewer was very excited to finally have the opportunity to see these once-popular shorts -- until he finally saw them. The best ones in this collection are affable enough, the weaker ones tedious and unfunny. These RKO comedies have presumably fallen into public domain, prompting VCI to get them out, but the quality is lacking. Conversely, big studios like Warner Bros. (as owners of the RKO library) seem completely disinterested at the thought of releasing old shorts beyond cartoons and the Three Stooges. Artisan famously and thoroughly botched their Laurel and Hardy release, even though there is a large demand for those titles. Until the big labels come around to the realization that there is an audience for such films, sub-par collections like this will have to do.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.