Kickstarting Edgar Kennedy

KENNEDY, EDGAR 1To many ardent classic cinema fans, a “lost” film is any film ever made that they have never heard of or can’t find. By that definition, over 100 two-reel RKO comedy shorts, made from 1931 to 1948 and starring put-upon funnyman Edgar Kennedy, have been “lost films” for decades. I and other classic film enthusiasts who share a passion for Edgar’s work have a plan to revive these timeless gems, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign currently underway. Here’s the back story: I have enjoyed Kennedy since I first saw him in the 1944 Universal serial The Great Alaskan Mystery, one chapter a week, in a summer park series in the tiny Wisconsin town of Deerfield. I also laughed at him alongside Laurel and Hardy in several of the duo’s own shorts and in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup at an early age and have been hooked ever since. Over the years, I have collected or seen countless films featuring Edgar–westerns, mysteries, dramas, and of course comedies–and many still await discovery. I knew those curious RKO shorts existed but had no way to view more than a couple and had no idea they were so hilarious and relevant today.

Leonard Maltin’s 1972 book The Great Movie Shorts had a brief synopsis of all 103 Edgar “Mr. Average Man” shorts, as they were known. They had been shown on TV in the 1960s on a show called Reel Camp in the New York area and elsewhere, but not in Wisconsin. The first one that made an impression one me was Feather Your Nest (1944), which I saw on Matinee at the Bijou on PBS in the early ’80s. Edgar suffered for all of us in these wacky two-reelers. Each RKO short revolves around a typical family emergency with Edgar front and center: finding “brother” a job, sending “mother” on a vacation, installing a water heater, losing his job only to sell vacuum cleaners, or the entire family decorating a house…and you can imagine how that went!

As the tension mounts, Edgar’s pent-up impatience boils over until he finally ignites in anger and resigns himself to fate by slowly wiping his head and face with his left hand. This symbolic “slow burn,” a white flag-like gesture  of defeat, epitomizes the frustrations shared by all in an increasingly dysfunctional world. The “Burn” made Edgar one of the movies’ most beloved and famous faces. Unrecognized at the time, Edgar was also becoming America’s first sitcom star!KENNEDY, EDGAR2

“The Kennedy series was one of the most durable in the field of short subjects … it had the secret ingredient to all good comedy: it was basically real, no matter how far out the gags became.” – Leonard Maltin

“Edgar Kennedy has created a character as universally comprehensible as Chaplin’s little clown, and twice as real.” – B.R. Crisler, New York Times.

“The Slow Burn? Basically, when I direct any film, it’s always the Slow Burn, every day, all day, all night.” – Martin Scorsese

Bob Campbell, producer of Matinee at the Bijou, and I have tried for several years to find a network or sponsor to revive the MATB series. After the feature version of a popular TV series was funded on Kickstarter recently, we considered taking our Bijou sequel there, but instead decided to first try a smaller classic film project on the site. Since Bob is a huge Edgar fan, too, and we had been working with Kennedy biographer Bill Cassara, the plan to restore and release Edgar’s RKO shorts quickly fell into place.

“The Edgar Kennedy Restoration Project” on Kickstarter aims to digitally restore to high-definition as many of his RKO comedies as possible, feature them uncut in an original 30-minute series called The Edgar Kennedy Show, and add mini-bio segments about the actor’s extensive career. We will find a broadcast home on TCM, PBS or elsewhere and eventually issue them in DVD and Blu-ray sets and streaming video. Several distinguished film authors and historians have joined Team Edgar as consultants to help accurately and respectfully honor the film legacy of this endearing comedy king.

KENNEDY, EDGAR3Our Kickstarter goal is to fund a pilot episode for the TV series. Everyone on Team Edgar is working pro bono toward this goal; film and TV composer Charlie Barnett has even contributed an original theme song. The short in the pilot will be the rarely seen Thanks Again (1931), transferred and restored to HD from a 35mm composite master print from the Library of Congress on loan to the project by the donor/owner. This is the earliest surviving short with Edgar and his family, and one of the most elaborate, in which the family restores a small airplane that flies wildly, with Edgar at the throttle, in the climax. The mini-bio segment will be about the creation of the “Average Man” series. Edgar’s grandson, Mark Kennedy, who resembles Edgar, will introduce his famous grandfather’s short in the pilot. Mark will shave his head upon KS success to increase the resemblance.

The Edgar Kennedy Show has the potential to serve a larger purpose as a fresh concept for introducing contemporary audiences to the wonderful world of classic comedy shorts produced during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The core idea is to create a continuing series of half-hour shows pairing restored shorts with mini-bios about legends Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Harry Langdon, Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, ZaSu Pitts, Leon Errol, Andy Clyde, Clark and McCullough and “Joe McDoakes.” We are well aware that the rights to many of these are tied up, but who wouldn’t want to find a modern audience for films in their libraries?

The Edgar Kennedy Show would represent the first in such an anthology film series and serve as a template for encouraging this value-added approach to perpetuating classic film history. Of course, we’re hoping the good folks at TCM, PBS and the copyright owners of many of the shorts in the various series noted above will find this idea richly appealing. Needless to say, we will sincerely appreciate any cinephiles who can help us take the first step to produce a pilot episode for the series and turn this vision into a reality. Please visit Kickstarter and pay your respects to Edgar Kennedy. Please visit Edgar on Kickstarter and enjoy the brief video at the top of the page reflecting on his remarkable film legacy. 

Ron Hall is the front-row, film maven founder of Festival Films, serving America’s need for public domain films since before the birth of home video (started 1976).