Monday, July 1, 2013

Seriously Edgar

Edgar Kennedy's acting chops were wide-ranging but only occasionally on display in dramatic roles. He had such a profound gift for comedy, skillfully honed from his first appearances on film beginning in 1911, that later in his career Edgar was seldom considered for serious roles.

Many distinguished actors have commented that comedy is more difficult than drama. How much harder it must have been then for Edgar to bridge the gap from comedy to drama. A testimony to this curious conundrum was reported by The Chicago Tribune in a 1975 edition about another iconic Thespian:  

"At age 93 actor Donald Crisp, who played a patriarch in so many movies he became a second father for a few generations of filmgoers, lay near death at the Motion Picture and Television Home in Woodland Hills, Calif. An old friend was visiting him. “Donald,” the old friend said, “it’s terribly difficult, isn’t it?” Crisp opened his eyes, struggled to raise his head from the pillow, and croaked this reply, “Not as difficult as playing comedy.”

Bill Cassara in his masterful biography: Master of the Slow Burn: Edgar Kennedy notes that while Edgar was known mostly for being a film comedian, he had the repertoire as an actor to portray character roles.

One such example was when Edgar was cast as the sheriff in Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936). Bill cites this quote from the Washington Post in June of 1936, writtten to coincide with Edgar's personal appearance there:

"Hollywood wanted to try something, so, as usual, the victim was Edgar Kennedy, famous movie comedian, who is coming in person to the stage of the Earle Theater tomorrow. Hollywood wanted to prove if a comedian was placed in a dramatic role, his disguise changed a little, his lines built along serious situations, would the public recognize him and burst out laughing?

The test case was Kennedy's part in the novellette "Robin Hood of El Dorado." He was cast as a sheriff and for the part he had to grow a mustache. The same baldhead was projected on the screen, but a different Kennedy was introduced. A poll was taken after the preview and the audience asked what they thought of the new "heavy," and 92 per cent raved about the new strong-arm character and did not recognize the favorite comedy character in the new role. The others saw behind the makeup and every time Kennedy spoke his serious lines they shrieked with laughter.

This proved to ambitious Hollywood that no matter what you do there will always be a few who can see behind the movie tricks. Kennedy is very unusual, but, being wise, he is perfectly satisfied to stay as he is as long as the movie cashier gives him his weekly stipend. He is probably the only actor in Hollywood who does not want to play Hamlet, which is enough to put Kennedy in the movie hall of fame."

The reality was, Edgar had been playing various character roles for years, even bad guys.

Hitler's Madman in 1943 is a good example. It was made mostly for the low budget studio PRC, but bought by and released by MGM, who shot a few extra scenes. It remains a rather obscure little film. Made during the height of World War II, this saga was based on a true story of a small Czech village wiped out by the Nazis. John Carridine played Commander Heydrich with relish in his most sadistic way.

Edgar plays the cave dweller hermit named "Nepomuk."

In retaliation for Carradine's character being gunned down, the Nazis seek revenge by lining up and executing every adult male in the village. Edgar stands defiant and leads his fellow countrymen into a nationalistic song (dubbed in baritone!), as the men are mowed down. Edgar is the last one standing holding up an elderly man, arm over shoulder. The women are seen carted away to the Russian front to "entertain" the Nazi soldiers, while the children are seen being separated from their mothers and rounded up for Hitler's schools.

The grim ending to the film was even more intense when ghostly images of the main Czech characters reappear reciting the poem the film was based on. It was capped off with a plea to the audience not to be complacent, but to fight for liberty.

Powerful stuff in 1943. Edgar's daughter, Colleen, could not watch this movie without being driven to tears at seing her father's character being shot and killed. Colleen said, "More than any film role, that was my father."

Also in 1943 Edgar really strayed away from his screen persona by playing a puppeteer bent on revenge in The Falcon Strikes Back. In this entry in the detective mystery series, Edgar's character, of course, is the least expected by the audience as the murderer, but Edgar fooled his fans by portraying a sinister no-nonsense killer. As with any true villain in the movies back then, Edgar's character meets his fate (off camera) by falling off a roof to his death.

One anonymous reviewer hypothesized, "So this is how Edgar Kennedy really is. After all those years of being picked on and cheated, he resorts to murdering his victims." It was almost like the coyote finally capturing the roadrunner.

Slightly contrary to The Chicago Tribune's post-mortem in 1975, Bill provides us this intriguing postscript to his Edgar bio:

"It might be worth noting that Edgar grew up heavily influenced by Shakespeare's writings. In fact it was during a high school play that Edgar played the lion in San Rafael High School's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Reading the reviews of the play in the local newspaper, the writer described how Edgar's portrayal made the audience laugh. A comedian was born."

Edgar tackled Hamlet in a whimsical spoof of Shakespeare's speeches in Edgar Hamlet (1935). Is it possible that Edgar's over-the-top  rendition of Hamlet's solilquy at the conclusion of this 1935 RKO comedy short inspired Edgar's audience test for his role in Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936)? You can sample Edgar Hamlet here at the Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project Facebook page dedicated to reintroducing Edgar to the world. Spread the word! 

Bill Cassara has much more to say about Edgar's dramatic chops in his inciteful biography available from Bear Manor Media. Over at Cafe Roxy, Ron Hall writes about Edgar's pioneer work in silent films beginning in 1911 and relates how Edgar's association with Mack Sennett as one of the original Keystone Kops kickstarted Edgar's career as a comedic everyman just trying to cope with whatever comes next.

Here is the original trailer for Hitler's Madman (1943) courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, one of the few places on the planet you can see this fascinating wartime melodrama: