Tuesday, January 3, 2017

IN MEMORIAM: Her Star Will Shine Forever

Here at Bijou our hearts are broken. We're proud of our long collaboration with one of America's most gifted and spirited stars and regret that our dream of bringing back Matinee at the Bijou with Debbie Reynolds as host will no longer come true.

In tribute and in memoriam, we share here a gallery of little known, rarely seen posters from Debbie’s landmark screen debut in MGM's 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain.  (CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE)


Here is Debbie’s appearance at the September 2012  CINECON 48 in Hollywood where she  introduces long-time friend and 1950 MGM co-star Carlton Carpenter from “Three Little Words” and “Two Weeks with Love” and presents him with CINECON’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Debbie’s remarks to her adoring fans are uninhibited, heartfelt and hilarious .......

TCM Big Screen Classics celebrates the 65th anniversary of Singin' in the Rain with two special theatrical screenings in 800 theaters around the country on Sunday, Jan 15 and again on Wednesday, Jan 18. More info here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Gospel According to Bijou

At long last, Team Bijou may have found the formula for reviving Matinee at the Bijou.

Imagine a content provider (cable or online) where America's 20th century film heritage is respectfully programmed and freely exhibited 24 hours a day.

The key is a retooling of the Bijou collaboration of classic film industry enthusiasts and content owners into a non-profit organization dedicated to vintage film acquisition, preservation and exhibition.

We at Bijou are in the process of doing just that with a growing archive of religious-themed films associated with a project called Gospel Films Archive. GFA is a parallel project to Matinee at the Bijou that Bob Campbell (Bijou Productions) Ron Hall (Festival Films), Derek Myers (Myers Memories) and Team Bijou have been working on the past two years that is suddenly taking off on a grand scale.

The concept for GFA is to find, restore and reissue in historical context the films and TV shows that spread the Gospel to 20th century audiences, essentially giving the same treatment to religious films as we gave to secular films for the Matinee at the Bijou PBS series. What is surprising about these Bible-based films and TV shows is that many were crafted by some of Hollywood's top creative talent.

For example, Africa and Schweitzer is an unknown 1961 documentary narrated by Lowell Thomas (the voice of Movietone News) and photographed by Sven Nyqvist just prior to his award-winning collaborations with Ingmar Bergman.

In This My Son (1954), former child star Dickie Jones, TV's Buffalo Bill, Jr. and the voice of Pinocchio, has an adult role in a modern day interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son.

The same year James Mason made A Star is Born (1954) he wrote, produced, directed and appeared in a personal vision of the Nativity called The Star of Bethlehem. After reading from the Bible about the birth of Jesus, the manger scene is reenacted by a cast of children with Mason's daughter Portland Mason featured as Mary and a pre-Beaver Jerry Mathers as Joseph.

In 1957 Father James Keller, founder of The Christophers, persuaded James Cagney to appear in a TV film called A Link in the Chain. Cagney portrays a retiring professor who learns (in flashbacks) just how relevant he was to his students. In this Capra-esque tale Cagney portrays his character at three different ages in life, including a poignant death scene finale.

Immense progress has been made since we formally organized Gospel Films Archive early this year. Here is a report on our progress:

Vision Video, a major distributor of Christian film and video products for over 40 years, has contracted to exclusively represent GFA productions to home consumers, television and On Demand Media worldwide.

Our first 5 Gospel Films Archive DVD film collections were released in April and are available from Christian product retailers, including Vision Video Christian Cinema.com and at CFDb; the Christian Film Database. We are currently wrapping production of the Gospel Films Archive Christmas Collection available soon for pre-orders.

You can read about our first 5 DVD collections at our Gospel films Archive website where we feature an Adopt-A-Film program that invites the public to help financially support the restoration of a particular film of their choice or purchase one of our DVD collections.

ChristianCinema.com just published a feature article about Gospel Films Archive by Melinda Ledman that includes an interview with Bob Campbell and Ron Hall.

The GFA Team is currently developing a Pilot episode for a television showcase for our films called Gospel Films Archive Presents.

Soon we'll post more details on just how the formula that is proving successful here for Gospel Films Archive has the potential to also fund and deliver the Matinee at the Bijou sequel series.

Here is the Gospel Films Archive Trailer:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Forgotten Hollywood Treasures II

Those who have been following Team Bijou's exploits to nationally revive Matinee at the Bijou and most recently the treasured theatrical shorts of funnyman Edgar Kennedy know that we remain diligent in our effort to find a broadcast home for filmdom's forgotten Hollywood treasures.

Singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen best sums up our continuing determination:

"Ring the Bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

We at Team Bijou see a crack of light in the ongoing fusion of traditional TV and computer screen content.  Innovative distribution models like Netflix and the emerging Web-based networks provide fresh frontiers for the vintage film content we treasure and remain determined to widely share.  In the coming New Year these new platforms provide unique opportunities for pitching both Matinee at the Bijou and The Edgar Kennedy Show.

Here is a previously published Bijou Blog post that reflects on the vintage "Hollywood Newsreel Shorts" genre, best exemplified today by TV's Entertainment Tonight:

Where on television today can you find Betty Boop, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang or Flash Gordon? Sadly, these and countless other pre-1960 pop culture icons continue to be ignored by cable and network television gatekeepers.

A multitude of classic cartoons, short subjects and serials were last seen on our original Matinee at the Bijou series on PBS during the 1980s. Though not a prime-time show, Matinee was often rated among the top 10 shows on public television, besting such popular public television fare as Masterpiece Theater, Mystery, Frontline and Sneak Previews. Audiences loved the show and came back week after week for more.

While we remain steadfast in our search to secure a broadcast partner for the sequel series, hosted by the magnificent Debbie Reynolds, we continue to discover and secure a growing line-up of fascinating short subjects from the golden age of Hollywood, many not seen by audiences since their original theatrical releases.

The studios stopped producing short subjects altogether in the late 1950s as television became a household fixture, but in their heyday the shorts were the equivalent to what would become the sit-coms, variety shows, sports shows, cartoon series and news programs audiences could enjoy at home on the small screen.

Among our favorite theatrical shorts were the Hollywood behind-the-scenes newsreels produced during the 1930s, like The Star Reporter, Hollywood on Parade, Voice of Hollywood and Broadway Highlights. These little jewels foreshadowed today's Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, American Idol and America's Got Talent TV shows.

The Star Reporter
 newsreels were hosted by veteran sports commentator Ted Husing and served to introduce new and evolving talent, some going on to stardom. In one episode, 9-year old Bennie Bartlett sings his own original composition, and in another Ina Ray Hutton and Her All-Girl Orchestra let loose with some hot notes and hot moves, raising the roof until balloons descend to cover the orchestra in a grand finale.

One that was showcased on the original Matinee at the Bijou featured Dorothy Lamour's screen test, long considered lost until it surfaced in this entertaining Hollywood newsreel. The screen test proved a springboard for Lamour's career and landed her the starring role in Paramount's Jungle Princess (1936), opposite co-star Ray Milland. The marketing tagline was Her Exotic Beauty held all the allure of the tropic jungle! In spite of such corny dialogue as "You savage, untamed she-devil! I adore you!" the film made a lot of money for Paramount.

In her screen test Ms. Lamour sings a torch song that today would be considered politically incorrect in the extreme. As she lights up and smokes a cigarette she sings:

Love is like a cigarette.
You know you hold my heart
a glow between your fingertips.

And, just like a cigarette,
Love seemed to fade away
and leave behind ashes of regret.

Then with a flick of your fingertips,
it was easy for you to forget.
Oh love is like a cigarette.

On the blog screen below you can watch Ms. Lamour launch her career in this rarely-seen short from the Bijou cinematic time machine.

The Voice of Hollywood celebrity newsreels were independently produced on a shoestring budget by Louis Lewyn for Tiffany Pictures. Each of the 26 shorts produced between 1930 and 1931 is a bizarre visual amalgamation of radio and film technologies. Each has a different celebrity host filmed talking to celebrities on the telephone or in the studio from fictitious Hollywood radio station S.T.A.R. The celebrities were often filmed paparazzi-style at a social event, sports event or movie premiere with footage then integrated into the newsreel.

These vintage treasures feature Hollywood and Broadway stars from the silent and early sound era, like Gary Cooper, Marie Dressler, Buster Keaton, Mack Sennett, Tom Mix, Thelma Todd, Johnny Mack Brown, Lupe Velez and novelty acts like Webber & Fields and Ukele Ike.

In one Voice of Hollywood, two original members of Hal Roach's Our Gang (Little Rascals) series, Mary Kornman and Mickey Daniels, do a slapstick comedy routine wherein Mary proves she's a young feminist ahead of her time. Tom Mix drops by and actress Lupe Velez sings a song that just happens to promote her latest MGM studio release Cuban Love Song (1931).

In another, a very young John Wayne makes a cameo appearance fresh from starring in The Big Trail (1930), which was the first 70 mm widescreen movie ever made.

Twenty-six Hollywood on Parade shorts were produced between 1932 and 1934 and have much in common with the more primitive Voice of Hollywood series. Louis Lewyn graduated from producing the"Voice" shorts for independent Tiffany Pictures to producing and directing the "Parade" series for major studio Paramount Pictures. Television did not yet exist, so there was no Tonight Show orEntertainment Tonight where studios could otherwise cinematically promote their new big-budget releases.

Lewyn could now access Hollywood's grandest stars and biggest productions in creating his celebrity newsreels, including such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Cooper, Paulette Goddard, Mae West, Cary Grant, Rudy Vallee, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Durante, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Fay Wray, Fredric March, George Burns & Gracie Allen and countless others.

In one delightful Parade entry, Bonnie Poe, as everyone's favorite vamp Betty Boop, visits a wax museum where she encounters Bela Lugosi as Dracula, who comes to life.

One of our favoriteHollywood on Parades was inspired by Congress ratifying the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933. For one thing, it featured Bijou benefactor Rudy Vallee, who warbled our original Matinee at the Bijou theme song. A nightclub setting on a Paramount soundstage is the locale for a mingling of celebrities and song. Cross-eyed bartender Ben Turpin is on hand to serve Jimmy Durante, Rudy Vallee and various other celebrities appearing in brief vignettes while sipping beer.

Durante needs to see a man about a dog, and his typical shtick is followed by the antics of Ted Healy and the original Three Stooges: Larry, Moe and Curly Joe. Next, Rudy Vallee arrives to mix it up and sing with songwriters Harry Revel and Mack Gordon. Revel & Mack wrote the song "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?" and Revel gives us a taste. The songwriters perform a medley of their famous music.

Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin regards the Hollywood on Parade series to be the best of the inside-Hollywood celebrity newsreels. In his book "Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to The Three Stooges" he writes: "Every studio at one time or another produced behind-the-scenes shorts. The most successful were Columbia's 'Screen Snapshots,' but the best were Paramount's 'Hollywood on Parade.' Paramount's shorts stand out from the others because they are the only ones that actually seemed to shoot good, fresh material, especially for the shorts, with their top stars."

Paramount shifted focus from Hollywood to Broadway to deliver to audiences "Intimate News of the Gay White Way." Adolph Zukor assumed the helm from Louis Lewyn for the Broadway Highlights pseudo-newsreel series that began as the Hollywood on Parade series ended. Famed sportscaster-turned-showbiz impresario Ted Husing once again hosts and narrates the continuing behind-the-scenes glimpses of pop culture icons with visits to cabarets and famous entertainment landmarks.

Eight editions of Highlights were produced during 1935 and 1936. The series kicked off in May 1935 with a stellar assembly of superstars, including Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, Earl Carroll, Gary Cooper, Jack Dempsey, Al Jolson, Beatrice Lillie, Otis Skinner, Sophie Tucker, Rudy Vallee, Paul Whiteman and Walter Winchell.

One of the Broadway Highlights featured on the original Matinee at the Bijou included a visit to CBS Radio Playhouse to witness a rehearsal of "Laugh with Ken Murray," featuring a comedy routine with Eve Arden along with some swinging music from the Russ Morgan Band. Then a jaunt around the corner to the New York Winter Garden Theater to witness a tribute to the Schuberts on the 25th anniversary of the famous theater from a young Milton Berle, Bert Lahr, Phil Baker and other luminaries of the 1930s theater world. Then Ted Husing talks us across the George Washington Bridge to one of Broadway's most popular summer night spots, Ben Martin's Riviera. Highlights of the floor show included chorus girls, an incredible acrobatic dancer and some sensational moves from Spanish dancers Estelle & LeRoy.

Today we've looked at Hollywood celebrity newsreels produced during the 1930s at the outset of the sound era but there were many other notable examples released during the 1940s and 50s that we'll save for another day. In watching these remarkable films we witness the development of American popular culture and visit a world that no longer exists.

Should you or someone you know have access to film prints of celebrity newsreels, classic short subjects or serials in the public domain or for which you own the licensing rights for possible inclusion in the Matinee at the Bijou sequel series, we'd love to hear from you. Please contact Executive Producer Ron Hall: fesfilms@aol.com.

In the process of bringing back Matinee at the Bijou we're developing a network of film collectors, industry professionals and enthusiasts who know this history well and can share their expertise as we recreate together, in context, America's cinematic heritage.

Now, as promised, here is a fanciful example from The Star Reporter series, featuring Ted Husing and that cigarette girl ~~~

Monday, October 21, 2013

Edgar Kennedy Kickstarter News!

Kickstarter listed The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project at #13 on their roster of Kickstarter Film & Video Staff Picks! Edgar would be thrilled as will be his devoted advocates and supporters that want to see this project succeed! Team Edgar sincerely thanks those who have provided their early support! 

The KS campaign to produce a pilot episode for The Edgar Kennedy Show has two weeks remaining. We launched on the same day as the U.S. government shutdown and misjudged its duration. Many Americans held onto any spare cash and delayed donations to worthy causes. This must be a key factor that has inhibited many of Edgar's 500 Facebook Friends and longtime Edgar advocates from supporting him at Kickstarter thus far. Our challenge is to reverse this paradigm over the next two weeks.

You can help by telling any friends you know who love classic movies about the project. A call to action can spread quickly on the Internet. Forwarding our KS link http://kck.st/19g2l0y far and wide, much like a benevolent chain letter, to encourage affinity groups, bloggers, film-oriented websites and film restoration and preservationists with sufficient resources to join the cause.

Team Edgar salutes Mark Kennedy for his generous KS pledge on behalf of his grandfather. You can read more about The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project, watch clips of Edgar in action, and enjoy one of his funniest shorts Hold Your Temper at the Edgar website

In the meantime, an intriguing new door has recently opened that could develop into an exclusive marquee home for the Matinee at the Bijou sequel series. We're on it and will keep you posted.

The Kickstarter project is explained in this short video ...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Edgar Kennedy: Lights, Camera, Kickstarter

Preparations continue for the Kickstarter campaign to revive the film legacy of iconic funnyman Edgar Kennedy. The launch date for The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project is set for October 1st for a robust 30-day KS campaign that will, upon success, set the stage for the revival of  Matinee at the Bijou.

Others have worked to bring back such worthy and once beloved Hollywood superstars as Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Betty Boop, Roy Rogers and other favorites, and have found success with DVD releases. However, getting the notion of financing a television series with predominantly black & white content past today's industry gate-keepers remains a distinct challenge.

Kickstarter is ideally suited for crowd-funding The Edgar Kennedy Show, but we are taking nothing for granted. Those familiar with Kickstarter know that it is an all or nothing fundraising platform. So to assure success we are seeking the smallest amount necessary to get the ball rolling. In association with a  growing number of passionate like-minded classic film industry trailblazers we hope to turn the Edgar Kennedy revivial into a virtual road map for bringing back many more classic film favorites.

Here is an update on our revised plans:

1. The Edgar Kennedy Show will be a very original new series. Each half-hour episode will showcase one of Edgar's 103 vastly entertaining 16-20 minute RKO "Average Man" short subjects shown in its entirety, accompanied by a short mini-doc biography segment with content drawn from Edgar's pioneer contributions to motion picture history. 

2. Rather than seek a level of funding necessary to produce the first 6 EKS episodes, as previously announced, we are instead seeking just enough KS backing to produce a single PILOT episode. Once the pilot is produced it will be pitched first to TCM and PBS, while investigating secondary original-series delivery platforms and home video marketing prospects.

3. The EKS pilot show will feature Edgar's 1931 RKO short Thanks Again. This hilarious short was not sold to TV in the 1950's, as were many of Edgar's other RKO shorts, and has been unseen since its original release beyond a single screening a few years back at Cinefest in Syracuse, NY. 

4. Mark Livingston Kennedy, Edgar's grandson, will be featured on camera to introduce his grandfather's film legacy. Mark bears a striking resemblance to Edgar, does a mean slow burn, and has a passion for helping restore Edgar's proper place in film history. The mini-doc segment for the pilot show will be an overview of RKO's Average Man series that entertained movie audiences worldwide with 6 Edgar Kennedy shorts annually from 1931 to 1948.

5. Kickstarter contributions are needed to cover these expenses:
  • Shipment and other costs for use of the Library of Congress 35mm print of "Thanks Again."
  • Transfer of the 35mm print to high definition.
  • Additional film restoration as needed.
  • Production set and crew to film host and mini-bio segments.
  • Costs to bring Mark Kennedy to Oregon to film host segments.
  • Creation of opening and closing segments. Original theme song has been contributed at no cost.
  • Editing and related video lab procedures to produce a professional HD broadcast master.
  • Kickstarter and credit card fees; Kickstarter premium costs.
All involved in The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project are waiving customary fees and salaries to complete the pilot show on an extremely modest  $9,700 budget, which is our Kickstarter goal. Our secondary goal is to exceed the primary KS goal enough to actually produce the first 6 episodes of  The Edgar Kennedy Show.

5. A "Slow Burn Challenge" is in the works that will invite old and young alike to film and send in their own interpretation of Edgar's famous slow burn. Videos will be limited to 10-seconds or less and the top 5 slow burns will be featured in The Edgar Kennedy Show pilot. A "Show us your SlowBurn" challenge is planned as a regular feature of the series. Imagine Edgar's signature gesture going viral and sparking a national Slow Burn craze.     

After getting to know him, the Edgar Team has concluded that Edgar's grandson Mark was born with an abundance of his grandfather's DNA embedded in his heart and soul. To get a sense of how Mark would come across on camera, we asked him to improvise a 3-minute video he could send us via YouTube. We asked him to also include his own interpretation of a slow burn. See for yourself why we think Mark is perfect to host The Edgar Kennedy Show and personally interpret his grandfather's film legacy.

Please visit The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project on Facebook and "Like" Edgar. Rally your FB Friends to do the same. Then visit us on Kickstarter beginning September 18th and help us bring back Edgar.

Top photo courtesy of RKOComedyClassics.com

Monday, July 8, 2013

Slow Burn Music Video Premiere

Edgar Kennedy, Master of the Slow Burn, is destined for a comeback, and perhaps even sparking a viral revival of his trademark "Slow Burn" in the process. Such prospects may sound like something out of a Hollywood movie, but set aside the skepticism and check out the internet premiere here of Edgar's new music video "Slow Burn."    

Charlie Barnett, who wrote the music and lyrics to Slow Burn is a distinguished film composer with impressive credentials. His scores have appeared in more than 400 television and theatrical films, including original scores for Saturday Night Live, The Cosby Show, Third Rock from the Sun and Weeds.

Charlie's work in documentary film include productions and series for PBS, A&E, Discovery Channel, Walt Disney and more. His score for a doc about the Holocaust, Paper Clips won the 2004 Rome International Film Festival’s Jerry Goldsmith Award. Paper Clips also won the Christopher Award for 2006 and was nominated for an Emmy. Charlie has also arranged and produced pop and jazz records for countless artists including Thrice for Island/Def Jam and Jason Falkner for Elektra. He continues to proudly travel and play with the eclectic jazz sextette, Chaise Lounge and can also be heard as an occasional commentator on NPR.

The soundtrack for Slow Burn was recorded by a group Charlie co-founded. Chaise Lounge is six of Washington D.C. area’s top jazz musicians who play enchanting arrangements of standards and original tunes featuring the soft, luminous vocals of Marilyn Older. 

How this eclectic group of contemporary artists came to join the Edgar Team in our quest to revive Edgar Kennedy is an inspiring tale. There has been a version of the Slow Burn song with video clips of Edgar on Youtube for a couple of years now and it has been our highest hope that once we achieve Kickstarter funding we could cut a deal to use the first minute as the theme song for The Edgar Kennedy Show.

Usually negotiating a music clearance takes time and can quickly become complicated and costly. Not this time. Producer Bob Campbell easily found Charlie Barnett's contact number from his website charliebarnett.com and placed the call. Charlie was instantly delighted to hear what we are doing to bring back Edgar and generously granted us full license at no cost to use the Chaise Lounge master recording in any way to advance the project, including as the theme song for production of the first six episodes! This kind of support is the key to a successful Edgar Kennedy revival funded by Kickstarter.  

We asked Charlie to talk about Slow Burn and Chaise Lounge:

What inspired you to write a song about an obscure comedian from the silent and early sound era?

I wrote the song sometime in 2009. I have always loved the film comedians from the 20s, 30s and 40s. I was a huge Laurel & Hardy fan. I still think these are some of the funniest films I have ever watched. Not much else in that category was available to me.

I remember the first time I saw Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. The scene that has him skittering around his little house while the wind blows him back from the door still makes me laugh every time I think of it. Somehow I became aware of Edgar Kennedy. My father used to do the slow burn. I believe he was the one who first mentioned Edgar's name to me.

How did fellow Chaise Lounge musicians react when you first passed out the new song and they read the lyrics?

Ha. You don't know musicians. Mostly they don't listen to the lyrics. I taught the song to Marilyn, who loved it. Although she had never heard of Edgar.I think she really brings a beautiful, soft sentimentality to the story in the song. But I think we had rehearsed the song three times before someone in the band said "Hey, what on earth is this song ABOUT?" Of the guys in my band, only Pete Ostle was aware of Edgar Kennedy. Somehow this must have spoken to Tommy, because later, after the song was recorded, he made the video that you found on YouTube.

Vocalist Marilyn Older does an amazing job of conveying the generational gaps between Edgar's era and today. What can you tell us about Marilyn and her seemingly natural talent for interpreting classic (and original) jazz.

She is a natural story-teller. She has an uncanny ability to gracefully and liltingly present a melody and a lyric without weighting it too much in one direction or the other. Leaving it up to the listener to find their own interpretation. I think she internalizes the story first and is then able to simply sing the melody.

Any interesting anecdotes associated with public performances of Slow Burn?

My favorite is something you cannot hear in this performance. But while I am introducing the song Slow Burn, the bass player, Pete Ostle is ( off mic) telling the crowd that The Kennedy Center is named for Edgar!

You can enjoy a performance of Slow Burn performed by Chaise Lounge at The Kennedy Center here. During his introduction to the song Charlie demonstrates for the audience an admirable interpretation of Edgar's slow burn. Great thanks for contributing the song, Charlie, and if the song goes viral we will be the first to nominate you as "Maestro of the Slow Burn." 

Anyone can help assure the Edgar Kennedy revival is successful by sharing the Slow Burn music video with your Facebook friends, in blogs, newsletters and other social media, and whenever you share it, please include a link to The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project. Liking Edgar on Facebook will help gather the fan support needed  prior to launching the Kickstarter campaign.

Now as a special treat, especially for all who love truly inspired jazz interpretations of works by iconic musical maestros, we wrap things up with an energetic performance by Chaise Lounge that is sure to leave you with a "slow glow." Here is Chaise Lounge at The Hamilton, Washington, DC, December 7, 2012. Song: "Gone at Last" by Paul Simon. Video courtesy of The Hamilton, For more of the Chaise Lounge experience visit chaisenation.com  

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:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Edgar Kennedy & Bill Cassara

Progress continues in developing a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first season of the Matinee at the Bijou sequel series.

Meanwhile, the Bijou and Festival Films teams are finding strong interest among classic film fans and affinity groups in support of The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project currently planned for an August Kickstarter campaign that will set the stage for the more complex Matinee at the Bijou Kickstarter campaign that will follow.
The Edgar Kennedy Show is planned as a fresh concept for introducing contemporary audiences to the wonderful world of classic star-driven comedy short subjects produced during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

The idea is to create a continuing series of half-hour shows programmed for non-commercial broadcast and streaming video that consist of selected short subjects presented in their entirety along with mini-bios to inform audiences  of the specific star or comedy team's place in film history.
Among primary candidates for this "edu-tainment" treatment are comedy legends like Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Harry Langdon, Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, ZaSu Pitts, Leon Errol, Andy Clyde, Clark & McCullough, Joe McDoakes and many more.  

The Edgar Kennedy Show will be the first in the series and will serve as a template for encouraging this value-added approach to perpetuating classic film history in a novel way.

The idea was inspired by the rich history compiled by Edgar Kennedy biographer Bill Cassara for his book “Edgar Kennedy, Master of the Slow Burn" (available from Bear Manor Media).

Bill has joined The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project as an executive producer and will host/narrate the 7-8 minute segments in each episode that reflect Edgar's prominent role in film history. We asked Bill to talk about how he came to admire Edgar and write the book.

Do you recall when you first noticed Edgar Kennedy?

I was born three years after Edgar’s death, so I never got to see him at the cinemas in his prime. Being a typical Baby-Boomer, I watched all the old comedies on television. Edgar came into my consciousness from those Hal Roach comedy shorts, especially as “Kennedy the Cop” in various Little Rascals, Laurel & Hardy and the “Boyfriend” series.

When did you get hooked on Edgar?

I was working as a Deputy Sheriff for Monterey County, CA. when I learned that Edgar was born somewhere in the county. From then on I studied every Edgar appearance I came across and wondered about his family history. Where was he born? No one knew. There were no birth records to clarify.

In 1984 two other cops and a couple of Dixieland Jazz musicians and I started a new “tent” as part of the “Sons of the Desert” Laurel and Hardy appreciation club. 24 years later we are still going strong. We named the tent “Midnight Patrol,” in honor of L&H portrayal of uniform cops. Edgar was our special project. Middle-aged, bald and an inept public servant, we identified with him in “Night Owls,” and “Leave ‘Em Laughing.” As a former Keystone Kop, he fit right in.

How did you contact his family?

Started as a gag...we had “updates” about the history of Edgar Kennedy at our annual banquets. Tony Hawes (Stan Laurel’s step-son) was enthralled, and solicited the help of Bill Cappello, who was able to confirm Edgar had a daughter named Colleen Deach. Tony arranged a meeting with Colleen and me. Turns out she was a wealth of information; she just had to be asked the right questions.

And then you held an Edgar convention….

Our Tent hosted the one and only Edgar Kennedy Celebration in Monterey during July of 1997. It was actually Tony Hawes that pitched the idea of an Edgar Kennedy/Deach family reunion. Unfortunately, Tony died just 5 months before the event. I didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off without him. Stan Laurel’s daughter, Lois, and Colleen stepped up to make sure it was a success. We hosted 200 people from 5 different countries over 3 days.

It started with a special outdoor viewing of “In Old California” and “The Perfect Day.” Stan Laurel’s and Edgar’s daughters followed with a question and answer period on stage. Wow! We marched along with the City’s 4th of July parade, 200 strong, followed by fireworks launched over the Pacific Ocean. That night, the attendees were treated with a special “Midnighty Patrol” film festival back at the host hotel. To enter, you had to be in night clothes. What a scene; hair curlers, nightgowns, Finlayson night caps.

We had a “Perfect Day” picnic, followed by a softball game “Laurels vs. Hardys” (Skinniest vs. Portliest). There was a vaudeville night at the California First Theatre (built 1850). Another event was “A Pair of Tights” ice cream drop. Our members had to catch a falling scoop of ice cream from a 2nd story overhang. Boy was it messy! The last evening was a “Cops and Robbers night,” a tribute to the Keystone Kops. Everyone got the biggest kick out of Edgar’s two grandson’s Mark and Glenn Kennedy, who got right into the spirit throughout the festivities.

How did you come to write your book?

In 2000 Colleen invited me over and convinced me to write a book about her dad. I took it on as a responsibility. She showed me a cardboard box full of old stills that really jump-started my investigation. I read anything that was written, which was not much. I became very skeptical of anything written by studios because of the nature of the created public image. My real success came from old newspaper accounts. I went through microfilm of the sports pages of the San Francisco Chronicle to trace Edgar’s amateur and professional boxing career. I found some references in old Oakland newspapers as well, went through old RKO scripts that were stored off campus at UCLA, and poured through material at the Margaret Herrick Library. I read every review of old film releases in movie journals of the day. I also got lucky in finding a photo of Edgar and an essay from a 1905 high school yearbook in San Rafael, CA.

It took me 5 years to research and write the book. The last year was especially hectic after learning Colleen had terminal cancer. When the book finally rolled off the presses, my wife and I immediately drove to Colleen’s house to give her the first copy. She was so gracious and gratified. Colleen died only 3 days later.

What are your favorite Edgar films?

If I was putting together a film festival they would be:

1. The Knockout (1914) -- Edgar in his boxing prime with Fatty Arbuckle and Chaplin.

2. Mabel’s Willful Way (1915) -– Edgar, Fatty and Mabel romping in Oakland’s Idora Park.

3. A Pair of Tights (1929) -- One of the all time funniest silent films ever shot.

4. Rough on Rents (1942) -– A good one from his RKO series, w/ Charlie Hall.

5. The Perfect Day (1929) -– Laurel & Hardy step all over grouchy Uncle Edgar’s foot.

6. In Old California (1942) -– Edgar as John Wayne’s side-kick and he steals every scene.

7. Hitler’s Madman (1943) -– very unusual feature. Is Edgar the good guy or bad guy?

8. Unfaithfully Yours (1948) -- as a classic music aficionado. “Nobody handles Handel the way you guys handle Handel.”

9. Lemon Meringue (1931) –- The first official release of the Average Man series.

10. Across the Pacific (1926) –- A lost feature film. Edgar had great reviews for his death scene.

Great thanks Bill for your continuing commitment to the legacy of Edgar Kennedy and your passion in helping assure his proper place in film history.

The Bijou Blog will be posting updates here every Monday as preparations continue for the August Kickstarter campaign. Be sure to visit Ron Hall's Cafe Roxy Blog, where Ron is writing a weekly feature about Edgar's prominence in film history including his many contributions as actor and director during the silent film era and beyond.   

You can help bring back Edgar Kennedy by visiting The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project on Facebook, "Like" Edgar, leave comments and invite your Facebook Friends to join us!