March 10, 1898 — July 22, 1953
Cy Kendall’s gloating smirk, surly scowl, corpulent frame, and deliberate growl of a voice made him an exceptionally effective portrayer of seasoned underworld potentates, pragmatically unscrupulous businessmen, venal politicians, incompetent but complacent policemen, and other similarly smug and self-interested types. He could convey bottomless cynicism and corruption with one condescending leer or porcine snarl, and was regularly called upon to exercise his talents for seedy villainy and lazy arrogance in many features during the 1930s and 1940s–and in the serials of Universal Pictures, where he figured in six chapterplays in all.
Cyrus Willard Kendall was born in St. Louis, Missouri; by 1918, he was living in Pasadena, California, as evidenced by a 1918 draft registration form. This form also has Kendall working as a clerk for T. W. Mather Co., evidently a Pasadena department store. He married in 1919, and began a long theatrical association with the famed Pasadena Playhouse in 1920. However, the 1930 federal census lists him not as an actor but as a store manager; it would appear that, having a family to support (three children as of the 1930 census), he remained for some time in a more traditional job and treated acting as a sideline. Beginning in 1932, he became an ensemble cast member on the Tarzan radio show, playing a variety of character roles, and subsequently branched out to additional radio work. He began his movie career in 1935, playing uncredited character bits in features for Republic and Universal and in one of MGM’s “Crime Does Not Pay” shorts. He landed his first major screen roles the following year, in Republic’s John Wayne B-Westerns King of the Pecos and The Lonely Trail. In the first, he played a murderous land baron and in the second a scheming carpetbagger, roles which effectively set the tone for most of his subsequent screen roles. For the remaining years of the 1930s, he would continue to work in radio (where he played Charlie Chan, among many other characters), while freelancing as a heavy and character actor in A and B features for most major and minor studios, including Fox, MGM, Universal, and RKO. His most frequent Hollywood employers during this period were Republic and Warner Brothers; his talent for conveying slimy venality made him a favorite antagonist in Warners’ many muckraking melodramas.
Kendall’s first serial was Universal’s The Green Hornet, filmed in 1939 and released in late 1939 and early 1940. Based on a popular radio show that pitted a pulp-magazine-style masked avenger against realistic graft and racketeering, Hornet was a top-notich serial and unusually faithful adaptation of its source material, and Kendall was perfectly cast as Curtis Monroe, the kingpin behind all the graft and racketeering combated by the Green Hornet (Gordon Jones). Monroe was nominally the lieutenant of a mysterious “Chief,” who periodically issued commands over the radio, but the Chief’s grimly unpleasant voice had a decidedly familiar sound, and in the last chapter it was–not too surprisingly–revealed that Monroe himself was the Chief, using prerecorded messages to camouflage his leadership from his followers and forestall any potential double-crosses. The Hornet turned this subterfuge against Monroe in the final chapter, using it to trick the gangster and his chief henchmen into eliminating each other. Kendall actually did little in Green Hornet but sit in his office, sneer slyly and sardonically at his followers, and harshly rasp out orders in the persona of the “Chief”–but he did this very well indeed, coming off as the bloated spider at the center of the city’s web of rackets.
Cy continued to work steadily in films throughout the 1940s, while also keeping up his radio career, performing at the Pasadena Playhouse, and occasionally acting with the Eighteen Players, a repertory company founded by several of his fellow Playhouse alumni. He still worked at Republic, MGM and Warners during this decade, and played a few parts at Monogram as well, but the majority of his feature appearances were at RKO and Columbia (where he played a recurring role as a cheerfully shady fence in the Boston Blackie B-mystery series). He also appeared in five more Universal serials during the 1940s, the first of which was Junior G-Men (Universal, 1940). This uneven outing starred four of the young actors known as the “Dead End Kids,” whom Kendall had bedeviled in more than one 1930s Warner Brothers film. The Kids began Junior G-Men as the same obnoxious juvenile delinquents they usually portrayed at Warners, but shaped up to battle a gang of foreign agents known as the Order of the Flaming Torch, who were plotting to overthrow the United States government. Kendall played Brand, the leader of the “Torchies” (as the Kids called them); as in Green Hornet, he spent most of his screen time sitting at his hideout and sneeringly delivering orders to his underlings. He also received multiple opportunities to be smugly threatening as he attempted to intimidate a captive inventor (Russell Hicks) Although he performed these tasks with the same crafty, slithery gusto he had displayed in Green Hornet, Kendall could not overcome the fact that he was miscast in this type of lead-villain role; while he had been eminently credible as a down-to-earth mobster in Hornet, he came off as simply too cunningly businesslike to be believable as a revolutionary and would-be dictator. His casting would have made sense had the writers depicted his character as a sly spymaster working for other, more ambitious types, but he was instead continually obliged to refer to “the government I plan to set up in this country,” a grandiose goal which never really seemed in character for him.
Kendall’s next serial was the underrated Mystery of the Riverboat (Universal, 1944), which gave him a non-villainous role for a change as an honest, but not entirely helpful Louisiana police chief named Dumont, who assisted in the investigation of various crimes connected to a fight over some apparently worthless (but actually valuable) Louisiana swampland. Kendall gave this character a lazy complacency that made him a good foil for go-getting hero Robert Lowery, and also did an entertaining job of conveying exasperated irritation at the various puzzling plot developments which unfolded around the laid-back chief.
Kendall returned to villainy in Jungle Queen, a mixture of jungle adventure, World War 2 intrigue, and outright supernaturalism that was one of Universal’s weakest 1940s serials. As Tambosa Tim, a shifty barkeeper working for Axis agent, he enjoyed disappointingly brief screen time before being liquidated as a security risk, but delivered a vivid character turn during his brief time on screen. He positively oozed untrustworthiness as he lumbered around his waterfront bar, alternating between furtive glowers and feigned joviality as he interacted with the good guys. He also delivered some choice bits of humorously cynical dialogue with aplomb, particularly his breezy but ominous greeting to his customers: “What can I do you for?”
Above: “I like visitors, I do, and I always give ’em the best, the very best.” Cy Kendall assures villainess Tala Birell that he will provide an appropriate reception for a snooping hero in Jungle Queen (Universal, 1945).
Secret Agent X-9 (Universal, 1945), the best of Universal’s wartime espionage serials, gave Kendall his last serial-villain role as Lucky Kamber, the mercenary owner and ruler of a private isle and haven for criminals named Shadow Island, located off the Chinese coast. Kamber used his island’s neutral status to financially exploit the conflict between Allies and Axis, charging the spies of both sides protection money in exchange for allowing them to operate on Shadow Island. The island thus became the site of a struggle between American agent Phil Corrigan (Lloyd Bridges) and Japanese agent Nabura (Victoria Horne), over a valuable synthetic fuel formula called 7-22. Kamber dealt himself in on this struggle, cagily maintaining a façade of official neutrality while alternating assisting and betraying both sides in his efforts to profit from the secret of 7-22. Kamber eventually received his comeuppance when the Axis tired of his treachery and staged a full-scale military takeover of his island, but up until this climactic invasion, he gave both heroes and villains a run for their money, responding to their various attempts to manipulate him with manipulations of his own. Kendall was perfectly cast as this scheming opportunist, and his oily, mocking suavity made him a delight to watch as he hypocritically and sarcastically parleyed with the other characters.
Kendall made one more Universal serial in 1946, a lackluster Western called The Scarlet Horseman. Here, he played a supporting good guy, an affable and garrulous Mexican named “Amigo Manana” who secretly worked with a pair of undercover Texas lawmen (Paul Guilfoyle and Peter Cookson) in their fight against conspirators who were plotting to seize control of a valuable portion of East Texas. Kendall’s principal function here was to engage in expository dialogue with the heroes and impart touches of humor to these talky sequences; he did a good job of displaying deadpan perplexity and cheerful enthusiasm when necessary, but his naturally wily appearance made it a little hard to entirely accept him as the utterly honest and straightforward character he was supposed to be. The measured tempo of his voice was also simply not brisk enough to make his Mexican accent entirely convincing. However, he did deliver a memorably evocative and dramatic recitation of the Comanche legend of the Scarlet Horseman (which the heroes subsequently turned to their advantage) in the first chapter.
Cy’s screen appearances slacked off as the 1940s came to an end; unlike many other former serial actors, he did very little television work, and did almost no film work in the 1950s; his last movie work was an uncredited character role in the 1950 MGM musical Nancy Goes to Rio, and his last on-screen acting role of any kind was in a 1951 episode of the early TV show, Front Page Detective. He concluded his radio career around 1950 as well; this cessation of work may have been due to ill health, as he passed away from heart disease in Los Angeles only three years later.
Cy Kendall’s cautious, snaky, and greedily practical bad guys were far removed from the type of grandiloquent, power-mad villains popularly associated with the serial genre. However, he was able to make the slimy and selfish slithering of his serial heavies just as colorful and entertaining as the bravura behavior of more flamboyant villains. Although his generally sedentary serial characters rarely exerted themselves, Kendall himself never failed to exert all of his considerable acting talent for the benefit of serial audiences.