Prolific screen comedian Edgar Kennedy's trademark was the "slow burn," an expression of complete and utter frustration expressed through his furrowed brows and a meaty hand passed across his face, which he perfected over the course of a four-decade career that began in silent pictures and later came to include such classics as "Duck Soup" (1933), "Twentieth Century" (1934), "A Star is Born" (1937) and "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948). Burly and balding, Kennedy played middle-class authority figures whose tenuous grip on maintaining the status quo, whether in their homes or the public, was undone by some of the best comedians in show business - from Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy to the Marx Brothers and Wheeler and Woolsey. Most of these turns were supporting and even bit appearances, but Kennedy was also the star of a lengthy series of shorts for RKO in which his Everyman failed to keep the peace in his own house. By the 1940s, Kennedy's ubiquitous presence made him a favorite of film fans and critics alike, who delighted in seeing his slow burn exercised to perfection, even if only for a few moments of screen time. At the time of his death in 1948, Kennedy had filmed some 100 features and over 200 shorts, each of which showcased a top comic talent who gave his all to losing his cool.
Born April 26, 1890 in Monterey County, CA, Edgar Livingston Kennedy spent much of his early teens criss-crossing the United States to indulge a case of wanderlust. He had been a skilled boxer while a student at San Rafael High School, and supported himself as a professional light heavyweight for much of 1911 and 1912. When not in the ring, where he allegedly went 14 rounds with champion Jack Dempsey, Kennedy was a singer in various musical shows throughout the Midwest while supporting himself with various odd jobs. The performing bug clearly left the greatest impression on Kennedy, who returned to California in 1912 to try his hand at the nascent movie industry. He became a member of producer Mack Sennett's repertory company in 1914, appearing frequently as a background or supporting player in dozens of short comedies between 1912 and 1921. Among his credits with Sennett was "Tillie's Punctured Romance" (1914) opposite Charlie Chaplin, as well as numerous vehicles for Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand.
After Kennedy's contract with Sennett expired in 1921, he decided to work as a freelancer for other studios, though he continued to turn up in Sennett pictures as a guest player for several years. In 1928, he signed with Sennett's main competitor, Hal Roach, where he worked steadily as a supporting player before gaining his first starring role in 1929's "A Pair of Tights." But Kennedy was best employed as easily frustrated, occasionally slow-witted civil servants, bosses and fathers, who were driven to the boiling point by such comic foils as Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chase. Kennedy also directed several two-reelers for Roach, most notably the Laurel and Hardy classics "From Soup to Nuts" (1928) and "You're Darn Tootin'" (1928).
Kennedy was dropped by Roach in 1930 due to an economy drive, but soon landed at RKO, where he starred in a series of short subjects unofficially titled "The Average Man." As suburban father and husband "Edgar Kennedy," his dizzy wife and extended family of freeloaders consistently drove him to the heights of distraction. The popular series, which eventually included 103 shorts filmed over a 17-year period, was a forerunner of the domestic situation comedy that would become staples of both radio and television in subsequent years. The success of the "Average Man" series helped to make Kennedy a favorite character actor in studio pictures, where he etched a number of memorably apoplectic supporting turns. He was an irate chairman of a peace conference in the Wheeler and Woolsey starrer "Diplomaniacs" (1933), and then reached the heights of irritation as a lemonade salesman targeted by Chico and Harpo Marx in the classic "Duck Soup" (1933). Kennedy could also be counted on to lend some levity to straight dramas like D.W. Griffith and Woody Van Dyke's "San Francisco" (1936) or "A Star is Born" (1937). On occasion, he even played against type, most notably in "The Falcon Strikes Back" (1943), where his genial puppeteer is revealed to be a murderer.
Kennedy continued to provide his slow burn in features well into the late '40s, including the Gene Kelly musical "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) and Harold Lloyd's final picture, "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" (1948), as the bartender who concocted a drink that sent Lloyd into a daylong binge. The latter film was directed by screwball comedy legend Preston Sturges, who also helmed one of Kennedy's final screen turns, as a music-loving police detective in "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948). Kennedy succumbed to throat cancer on Nov. 9, 1948. At the time of his passing, he was reportedly scheduled to appear at a testimonial dinner given in his honor three days later. His last feature, released posthumously, was the Michael Curtiz musical "My Dream is Yours" (1949), which starred Doris Day and Jack Carson.
By Paul Gaita