Camelot on Kaiser: Bill Kennedy at the Movies (a Stylistic Appreciation)


Bill Kennedy at the movies (a stylistic appreciation)
by Mike Mosher

Reprinted from CINEGRAM magazine, vol. I no. 2, June-August 1976, pp. 2-3.
Used by permission of the author. Copyright © Mike Mosher 1976, 1997.

Bill Kennedy beams midwestern television's best cinema and has dominated afternoon viewing since he left the back lots of Warners in 1955. Author Mosher recently caught the show and sent the late show folks this report...

Nothin' carries its weight in the cinema world, like STYLE, and nobody reels off the old movies on television with wit, aplomb and dignity like Kaiser Broadcasting's Mr. Bill Kennedy. They used to speak in Washington, D.C. of the "Kennedy Style," but this is better.

As if Detroiter Kennedy couldn't be a shoo-in on competence alone, consider the competition: Rita Bell, of sculpted toothpaste and pastel video lifestyle may be fine otherwise, but tends to curdle my orange juice that early in the morning. Kennedy's (sort of) co-worker at Kaiser, the Ghoul, seems almost proud to turn his marijuana-ey humor and teenage sloppiness into a visual ordeal. Sir Graves Ghastly, another Saturday Horror, despite a fine collection of primitive and children's grotesque artwork and an enviable Penguin laugh, is given away by the Dracula drag; he's, well... for kids. Only Bill, stern paterfamilias, is for adults. Bill cares and Bill takes time.

The Kaiser network has always been the most human of the television gangs, virtuous in its modest foibles like a slightly eccentric and shopworn uncle who is nevertheless, the most accessible and warm member of the family. Witness the Three Stooges, Gilligan's Island, old Star Treks, Popeye -- is this the line-up of a cold, moneygrubbing New York conglomerate? Such homespun subdivision-neighborliness helps lift Bill Kennedy to relative superstardom, Kaiser's ace in the hole, its Kojak.

Many of the films Kennedy chooses to showcase have a touch of eccentricity that make them both worth watching and further serve as backdrops for the Kennedy style. Witness today's show. I found a hellified Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, with psychedelic transition scenes from Spencer Tracy's glimmering glare into chariots drawn by dual, pearly-skinned Ingrid Bergmanns, whipped by a Hyde the physiognomic cross between Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin.

In the intermissions, the camera peers into Kennedy's classy little studio office where, besides ringleading the cinema circus, the cream n' curds of America's film industry, Bill fields questions with a no-nonsense grace. He must've seen a million movies, read a million books of facts on film and every screen magazine -- all to supplement his own 15 year stint, '40 to '55, under the lights. Or are the audience mail-in questions judiciously picked as they filter thru his adoring creme de cacao-voiced personal secretary? Perhaps... and yet he seems to know what's going on everywhere, squelching Walter Matthau death rumors (only a few years ago it was Beatle Paul...), delivering the lowdown on 84-year old Stepin Fetchit with a gallant homily. A sad musing on the aging of the stars "...but time goes on, y'know..." is broken by commentary on Howard Hughes' moustache, in respect to his own, of course.

With the climax of each answer a little downshake of the head adds weight to each emphatic "Hollyword," a flamboyant wave that makes you understand what "offhand" means, the essence of Willie-and-the-hand-jive cool. Little shrugs of the shoulders as he talks person-to-person into the camera, smooth and bon vivant, over his perfectly modulated radio voice. A kick of the eyebrows, a wipe of the chin, the glasses which are such a part of his style that he knows just when to pull them off to enhance his conviction. Kennedy's gestures are those of a sage at a cocktail party, answering queries as much for the fun of it as information.

Bill Kennedy knows, as premier movies-on-TV disk jockey, that he's got the best job in town and he plays it to the hilt. Secure and comfortable in the chair, he's got the self-enjoyment of an Arthur Godfrey, but artfully substituting the ukulele-banger's slobbery demeanor with the satisfied languor of the devil-may-care, leading man; imagine a porkpie hat at a jaunty angle and Brooks Brother's jacket slung over the shoulder, concurring "how sweet it is." Waving a graffito felt-tip, retreating with the commercials into a stack of strange papers (his own letters to stars?), Bill Kennedy is crazy about movies and the Motor City is better for it. As the airwaves' finest moderator-stylist, we owe him his due.

Quotations of Chairman Bill

"It's terribly difficult to break into the business these days. There are more productions because of television, but out of 29,000 actors and actresses, probably only 200 are working -- and only 30 of those steadily. Television gives more opportunity, but the numbers competing are greater."

"Brando, Nicholson and Redford are hot. Excepting Brando, no one really can have the impact of the early stars. They were a product of the studio's massive clout. There was no competition either -- except for radio -- movies were IT. The stars were Gods, because of the terrific level of publicity -- Hedda Hopper, fan magazines... It was even true of the directors -- DeMille was a God, as was Cukor. I don't know if any current directors can last the years like Huston. Sidney Lumet is good, but is Francis Ford Coppola a drop in the bucket? The Godfather, The Conversation, is this his final say?"

"It was tough in the forties because you could really only go to five men. It was a paternal situation. Harry Cohn, Cukor, Zanuck, Warner, and Mayer were the dictators. If you weren't able to impress them, all that was left were the few independent B lots like Republic."

"My favorite movie of all time? Oh, Gone With The Wind, no question about it. Gone With The Wind."

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Jim Rees