In MOAN & GROAN, INC., with Our Gang, Davidson was cast as a misanthropic lunatic. He was likeable nonetheless as always, although his characterization was not handled with the same kind of restraint as when portraying the benevolent father in Davidson’s own series. Interestingly in this early sound short, when the script calls for him to count from one to ten, Davidson does so in German, “Eins, zwei, drei….”
Roach wrote and directed the first all-talking, sound Star Comedy, HURDY GURDY (1929). Most of the action takes place above an alleyway on the fire escape landings of a tenement house on Manhattan’s Lower East Side during a hot summer’s day. The cultural mix of residents includes immigrant citizens of German, Italian, Irish and Jewish heritage. This initial talker offered the opportunity to present their corresponding rich and varied accents, as music cues like ACH DU LIEBER AUGUSTIN, WEARING OF THE GREEN, and JEWISH DANCE were meant to underscore. Naturally in order to best exploit the novelty of soundtracks for motion pictures, Roach wanted Davidson (billed first above ten others) to participate in the chatter of dueling dialects. He spoke with a clear voice in a light German accent.
Charley Chase had a troubled marriage and spent a lot of time away from home at an actors’ fraternity called The Masquers Club. He brought many friends there, including Max Davidson. The place was located a few doors north of Hollywood Boulevard, near where Davidson would soon move. In 1932 he appeared in some of the Masquers Club shorts.
The same year he played a scene in a wonderful film, LAWYER MAN, directed by German émigré William Dieterle. The title role was essayed by William Powell, who even speaks some Yiddish. In the opening scene Powell passes by Davidson, pausing to say hello, to “Max,” he said. A nice moment. Most movie patrons in 1932 must have nodded in recognition and thought so as well.
As the years went by Davidson labored through some Poverty Row westerns. In Tom Tyler’s enjoyable ROAMIN’ WILD (1936) for Reliable, Davidson was acting furiously in a big role, giving the humble project his all. But he looked frail, undernourished, and in need of dental work.
In 1992, going through some random still photos with director Gordon Douglas, a shot of Max Davidson triggered this recollection: “Hal and I were walking off a stage one day,” Douglas recalled, “and there was little Max Davidson. Passing by, he said, ‘Hello, Mr. Roach.’ Hal smiled, nodded, but said nothing, and walked on briskly as always. Then he said to me, ‘Whatever he’s doing here – he’s Max Davidson -- find out what we’re paying him, and triple it. I’d like you to handle that. Then see if you can use him in something.’”
I asked what year this was. Douglas answered, “Mid-1930s, when I was starting to direct pictures.” He told me this within months of Roach’s passing, so I could not ask him about the incident. Based on what follows, however, the occasion must have been re-takes for crowd scenes at the end of KELLY THE SECOND (1936), a film Douglas worked on starring Chase and Patsy Kelly. Davidson was just a face in the crowd.
Later, after Douglas died, I happened across a two page letter stored in the cinema archives at USC. It was dated March 7, 1936, addressed to Hal Roach, and written on Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc. letterhead, listing Louis B. Mayer, President, and J.L. Warner, 1st Vice-President. Attached was a schedule of “Employable Actors And Actresses On Rolls Of Motion Picture Relief Fund.” Listed were some names (with their ages) of talent who serious fans of two-reel comedies would know. They included Neal Burns (44), Mae Wallace (59), Thomas Ricketts (83), Frank Austin (59), Mary Carr (67), and Max Davidson (61). The AMPP letter characterized them with unintentional condescension as “old-time picture people” who might well be put in stock at the studios around town, “thus enabling them to work for a livelihood instead of receiving charity. Too, there will always be the possible hope on their part and on your part that they might again ‘come back.’”
This letter may well have been the inspiration for Robert Florey’s film at Paramount, started less than three months later, called HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1936), which employed scores of “old-time picture people,” for whom the parade, on the Boulevard and elsewhere around town, had long since passed them by. No doubt the AMPP letter also explains how in July of 1936 Cecil B. DeMille came to hire so many walking relics, including Max Davidson, for THE PLAINSMAN. DeMille would use him again in UNION PACIFIC (1939) and REAP THE WILD WIND (1942).
According to the letter, Messrs. Mayer and Warner had evidently already done their part and selected some three-dozen names to re-employ at M-G-M and Warner Bros. It was no surprise, however, that Mayer had not selected Davidson.
When I shared with Gordon Douglas what Roach told me concerning sentiments expressed by Mayer and Schenck as to being uncomfortable carrying a series of so-called “Jewish comedies” on their M-G-M release schedule, Douglas commented, “The biggest anti-Semites were the Jews who ran Hollywood.” Douglas was Jewish, but had abandoned his non-neutral last name of Brickner upon joining Hal Roach Studios with the advent of sound. His brother, Roy Brickner, held a different view, and worked in the industry as an editor – for M-G-M.
The impeccable Ernst Lubitsch regularly emphasized ethnic Jewish humor. In his masterpiece TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942), he used Davidson to contribute a poignant moment. Wearing a smart fedora dress hat, he stood in a three-shot and watched in silent pain as the invading Nazis marched into Poland. Davidson was also given small roles in such anti-Nazi films as THE MORTAL STORM (1940) and Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN ALSO DIE! (1943).
Ironically, Davidson logged his final film payday appearing in a post-World War II film at M-G-M. ADVENTURE (1945) was a picture more famous for its publicity campaign ad line than anything else: “(Clark) Gable’s Back, and (Greer) Garson’s Got Him.” Davidson, reduced at last to anonymity, was one of about 20 men in a library scene that included old friend Charles Meakin. Did the pair of faceless extras remember and discuss the scene they had filmed 18 years earlier in CALL OF THE CUCKOO when the two men exchanged homes – “No questions asked”? One also wonders, when Messrs. Mayer and Schenck saw the film, did they even notice, much less recognize, the rejected and forgotten Max Davidson?
In 1950 VARIETY published this obituary (in part): “Services will be held Sunday at 2 P.M. at Pierce Brothers in Hollywood for Max Davidson, 75, retired stage and screen comedian, who died September 4 at the Motion Picture Country Hospital….No known relatives survive.”
No known admirers seemed to remember, either. Save one. For the 25th Anniversary issue of DAILY VARIETY on November 4, 1958, there appeared a thoughtful, personal tribute titled MAX. It was written by a leftist screenwriter, producer and director named Carl Foreman. At the time, he had been blacklisted following testimony before Congress in which Foreman refused to answer questions concerning his alleged Communist party membership. His reminiscence of Max Davidson, however, reflected no politics whatsoever. Nor was there any mention of Foreman’s own prestigious work on immortal films (some uncredited) including HIGH NOON (1952) and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957).
Foreman was 19 when he met Davidson in 1934. Both were tenants of a boarding house on Las Palmas, just north of Hollywood Boulevard. Foreman believed he was the closest thing to a son Davidson ever had. Max Davidson Productions actually hired “the youngster” as a press agent. Of his mentor, Foreman described Davidson as “a tiny, delicately boned figurine of a man….He had a small, but very effective range: he could be terribly appealing and helpless, but he was also adept at scenes that called for fits of volcanic and almost apoplectic rage that were, for those days, very funny. He reached his zenith with a series of two-reelers produced by Hal Roach, and did very well for himself in those days of low income taxes….He’d saved his money, and he lived carefully and quite comfortably….I loved to hear Max talk, either about his past or our future, and his stories about the old days were, of course fascinating….He was a crusty little guy, short-tempered, prejudiced, narrow-minded, suspicious and, let’s face it, stingy. But he was indomitable, right down to the end titles. He had a lot of guts. And he was a real pro. He never gave up on the picture business, even long after it had given him up.”
Later Robert Youngson offered passing benediction with his compilation films, excerpting DUMB DADDIES, PASS THE GRAVY, and CALL OF THE CUCKOO in the wildly successful LAUREL & HARDY’S LAUGHING 20’S (1965), which, thanks to ill-considered litigation will probably never be seen again.
And, film collectors in the 1960s and 1970s could purchase prints of CALL OF THE CUCKOO from Blackhawk Films. I was working there when I saw it for the first time, and still recall the occasion.
But it was Bill Everson, in classes and at film societies, who would screen the more rare Davidsons. Thereby creating disciples and true believers who slowly took up the cause themselves to rescue the warm and gentle comedian from obscurity. These disciples, too, began screening for others whatever 16mm Davidson films they could get their hands on. When they did so, unsuspecting audiences would be rocking in their seats. Who was this “Max Davidson” no one has ever heard of? What became of him? Did he make other films? Where are they? Why can’t we see them? He deserves a resurgence.
This was what happened – writ large -- at the Pordenone Film Festival in 1994, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. Although with little preliminary fanfare, a 16mm presentation of the ingenious PASS THE GRAVY was voted the hit of a week long exhibition. Audiences felt they had “discovered” Max Davidson. The program notes exulted, “Davidson’s body language is all nuances and self-destructiveness – not far from Woody Allen, his legitimate heir.”
I participated in a symposium in Pordenone that year where David Robinson, the well respected English author of what is probably the definitive Chaplin biography, stated that he had never before seen even a single Max Davidson film!
Subsequently Davidson’s films drew acclaim at the London Jewish Film Festival in 1997. American Movie Classics telecast a pair of Davidson comedies. Lincoln Center in New York presented a survey of Jewish films, packing the house for five Davidson shorts. And film historian Robert Farr wrote a worthy tribute in GRIFFITHIANA, concluding, “We can appreciate a skilled comic actor who effortlessly projected vulnerability, resignation over life’s little tragedies, and genuine warmth. The little man who can never quite assimilate into 20th century urban culture speaks to us all. Max is one of us.”
In 1999 the United States Library of Congress selected PASS THE GRAVY for inclusion in its prestigious National Film Registry. This meant PASS THE GRAVY had been chosen for preservation because it had been judged to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. The purpose was to ensure that such films as selected would be preserved for all time. The trouble was, there is no funding behind the United States’ National Film Preservation Act. PASS THE GRAVY, like the rest of the Hal Roach library, has only been restored and preserved by a company called CCA through German funding. We did so in 1991 using Youngson’s complete 16mm optical reduction print with flash titles, together with the second half of reel one and the first half of reel two from the then-fast decomposing 35mm nitrate camera negative.
What would Berlin-born Max Davidson think, if he could have foreseen, that in a supreme irony, the only restoration and preservation of his classic films would eventually be conducted by a German owned company, CCA, and then proudly issued on DVD by a second, unrelated German entity, the Munich Filmmuseum?
There is a question to ponder.
So many Roach series have that unmistakable charm and style. The Davidson comedies do. They are short features not only of slapstick and spectacular gags, but often of tender feeling and whimsy, too. The love showed, the care showed. And at last, someone, today, has cared enough to underwrite the cost of sharing these films … with you. Please let others know of this opportunity as well. They will thank you, and you will have done your part to repay Mr. Davidson and those who so long ago created these wonderful films, which still silently speak to us all. And happily, they make us laugh, too.
-- © 2010 Richard W. Bann --