Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Max-imum overdrive

The above is a screen capture from the 1940 Three Stooges comedy No Census, No Feeling—a two-reeler that begins with a thrift shop owner pulling down the overhead awning that adorns his business and depositing Moe, Larry and Curly to the street below (the three men were taking a siesta in the closed awning).  The actor playing this small but memorable part is Max Davidson—a comedian whom I’ve talked about on the blog before, and who is well represented on a 2011 Edition Filmmuseum DVD release that I purchased about two weeks ago after hemming and hawing about doing so for a couple of years.  I am not disappointed that I did.

Davidson’s career in movies can be traced all the way back to the teens; he appeared in a series of “Izzy” one-reelers (produced at Reliance-Majestic) and throughout the silent era can be spotted in such films as Intolerance (1916—he was a close friend of D.W. Griffith, and some speculate he might have been responsible for David Wark’s career), The Hoodlum (1919) and The Extra Girl (1923).  (In watching a handful of Bobby Vernon comedies on an Alpha Video DVD, I was amused to see Max in a 1923 short called Plumb Crazy.)  Hal Roach remembered in a 1978 interview that he saw Davidson in a feature film with Jackie Coogan (either The Rag Man or its follow-up, Old Clothes) and wanted him to work at his studio; it was a particularly fortuitous time for Max, movie-wise, because his stock-in-trade—playing Old World Jewish characters—was boosted by the popularity of stage plays like Abie’s Irish Rose and films like the “Cohens and Kellys” series at Universal (with Charlie Murray and George Sidney).

Davidson’s character—that of the Jewish immigrant struggling to assimilate in his adopted country—is also one of the reasons why his work isn’t more prominently placed in retrospect; though there was no malice in Max’s characterizations (identified by his shaggy mop of hair and beard, clad in a derby hat and long coat) some of the stereotypical humor might not pass muster with the audiences of today.  If you’re able to put that aside, Max Davidson made some fitfully funny two-reel comedies—the most accessible of which is a 1927 outing entitled Call of the Cuckoo.  It’s been issued on a number of Laurel & Hardy DVD releases (you’ll find it on Image Entertainment’s The Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy, Volume 1) because Stan and Ollie have small roles in it as well as fellow Roach funsters Charley Chase and James Finlayson.  Stan, Ollie, Charley and Fin play a quartet of “inmates” whose asylum is next door to a house that Max is trying to sell; the Davidson family finally moves into another home but experiences just as many problems in their new domicile as the old.  Cuckoo is an entertaining comedy that also features this disturbing image…

…that I am truly sorry for burning onto your retinas, by the way.  The Max Davidson Comedies collection (a 2-disc set) features Cuckoo, as well as a pair of shorts that were once shown during American Movie Classics’ Film Preservation Festival (do you remember when they sponsored these?  Good times…) in 1995, Don’t Tell Everything (1927) and Pass the Gravy (1928).

Don’t Tell Everything is a bizarre but funny short; the plot has Max (as Papa Ginsberg) courting a widow (Lillian Elliott) at a party where his bratty son Asher (Spec O’Donnell) is terrorizing the guests, among them a man trying to perform a magic trick (and played by none other than James Finlayson himself).  Annoyed by Asher’s antics, the widow asks Ginsburg if he knows who that “brat” is…so to avoid scotching his romance, he pretends not to know him.  The couple ties the knot, and Asher arrives on the scene to move in—but he’s donned drag and pretends to be the new maid so the new Mrs. G doesn’t get wise.  Everything is a comedy that has to be seen to be believed…and if you thought the bathtub bit in Cuckoo was disturbing, you need to check out Spec as a girl—the most unconvincing onscreen female until Ben Blue in the Taxi Boys comedy Bring ‘Em Back a Wife (1933).

There is nothing like a dame.

Pass the Gravy remains one of the funniest silent comedies I’ve ever watched; Max is a planter who’s been scrapping with his next-door neighbor Schultz (Bert Sprotte), who raises prized chickens.  Since Max’s daughter (Martha Sleeper) and Schultz’s son (Gene Morgan) are engaged to be married, the two men decide to let bygones be bygones, with Max inviting Schultz over for a chicken dinner with all the trimmings.  The problem: he’s given his idiot son (Spec again) a couple of dollars to get the pullet at the market, and Spec decides to pocket the cash and avail himself of a chicken he’s come across in the yard.  Yes, this is headed precisely where you think it is—but it is hilarious reaction comedy; if the scenes where Sleeper and Morgan are pantomiming to Max that he’s tucking into Sprotte’s beloved Bingham rooster do not make you wet your pants in laughter, then you need to cultivate a sense of humor, comrade.  Pass the Gravy was chosen for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1998…but the injustice is you almost have to purchase this German DVD set to see it.

Gene Morgan and Martha Sleeper play one of the falling-down funniest games of "Charades" in film history in the silent comedy classic Pass the Gravy.

So much for the Davidson comedies which I had already seen (but were a pleasure to revisit).  The Filmmuseum collection features four additional shorts from the comedian’s Pathé period—the funniest is undoubtedly Jewish Prudence (1927), where as “Papa Gimplewart,” Max’s daughter (Martha Sleeper again!) is engaged to a man (Gaston Glass) who’s just out of law school.  Martha’s beau won’t be allowed to marry him until he’s won his first case…of course, that won’t be too difficult because Max and son Johnny Fox are trying to scam a trolley company with an injury lawsuit (Max has had Fox pretend to be injured in a crash) and his would-be son-in-law is representing the trolley people.  The highlight of the comedy is a scene where Johnny has his “paralyzed” leg looked at by two men Max believes to be insurance investigators…

…but they’re actually just there to collect the rent (and you might recognize them as Eugene Pallette and Fred Kelsey).  Johnny’s been hiding his good leg in a hole on the sofa on which he’s reclined and a false leg represents the paralyzed one—but when he’s not able to make the switch quickly enough a second time Pallette and Kelsey play “mumbly peg” with a knife on his good leg, and Johnny strains from wincing and yelling out loud.  Prudence has two great payoff gags that I’ve left out of the summation for the benefit of those who haven’t seen it…suffice it to say, it’s Max at his best.

Flaming Fathers (1927) features Martha Sleeper as Max’s daughter again (I positively adore Martha—and have recently acquired a copy of her solo Roach comedy, Sure Mike [1926], on a budget DVD); she’s going to the beach with boyfriend Eddie Clayton and Max’s wife (Lillian Leighton) orders him to tag along so the young couple won’t sneak off and elope.  Crammed with hilarious gags (Max loses his bathing suit in one sequence, and his attempts to find suitable cover are a highlight), Fathers is a real pip as is Should Second Husbands Come First? (1927)—in which the widow (the return of Lillian Elliott) Max is sparking has a pair of sons who do not under any circumstances want the two manacled together in holy matrimony.  The two boys—one of them O’Donnell, the other future film director David Butler—pretend to be insane in order to tamp down Max’s amorous intentions; the day of the wedding, they don disguises (Spec gets to do drag again) as a father and daughter claiming that Max is the father of the daughter’s infant (this sequence alone is worth the price of admission). 

The final Pathé comedy is Why Girls Say No (1927)—Max’s first two-reeler for Roach; it’s a pleasant if slightly average outing that features Davidson as a stern papa who’s dead-set against his daughter (Marjorie Daw) dating a man (Creighton Hale) whom Max dismisses as “an Irisher.”  So Hale, twenty years before Gregory Peck and Gentleman’s Agreement, pretends to be Jewish—and hilarious havoc is wreaked at the family table when he’s invited to sup.  Once again, the ubiquitous Spec O’Donnell is on hand as Max’s disagreeable son but the bonus is that Oliver Hardy has a small contribution early in the short as a beat cop who manages to fall into a puddle twice; this short also features a deflated cake gag that would later resurface in a number of comedies, notably An Ache in Every Stake (1941) with the Three Stooges.

Many of Davidson’s Roach-MGM comedies did not survive the ravages of time and neglect.  There’s an abbreviated version of Love ‘Em and Feed ‘Em (1928) on this set that runs about ten minutes and uses a fragment recently found in the Library of Congress along with production stills and the script continuity.  This will give you an idea of the shape it’s in:

Nitrate never waits.
Davidson and Oliver Hardy are a pair of prospectors who strike it rich and decide to whoop it up in New York City…where they acquire the company of two women (Martha Sleeper as a stenographer, Viola Richard as a telephone operator) and treat them to a night on the town.  In the accompanying booklet for the DVD set, film historian Richard W. Bann notes that Love ‘Em was originally going to be a Laurel & Hardy comedy; Stan was late getting back from a European vacation and so Max was pressed into service.

The first reel of Came the Dawn is all that remains of this 1928 Max Davidson comedy while reel two of Dumb Daddies (1928) is the lone survivor; both shorts are present and accounted for on this set, restored as best can be with stills and the continuity scripts.  The 1928 comedy The Boy Friend has survived intact, however; Marion Byron plays Max’s daughter in this one, and she falls for a boy (played by future B-western star “Wild” Bill Elliott) who’s actually the son of Max’s employer, a bank president.  So, in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best course of action for Max and Mrs. Max (Fay Holderness) to pretend (a lift from Should Second Husbands) that the cheese has slid off their respective crackers.  I liked this one a lot despite its familiar territory (it even recycles a great rumble seat gag from Flaming Fathers), mostly because of Edgar Kennedy’s secondary role as a chowhound cop (there’s a bit where he’s shown tempted to take a bite of a kid’s hot dog…and he gives the camera a look as if to say “Should I?”).

There are also two bonus shorts on the set: a sound comedy (according to Smileage Guaranteed, the first sound “All-Stars” romp from Roach) called Hurdy Gurdy (1929) that features Max, Edgar and TDOY goddess Thelma Todd in the cast of a dismal outing involving the denizens of an apartment building who want to know why Thelma’s character needs so much ice on a hot day (much of the action takes place on the fire escapes of each apartment).  It’s not particularly funny, and the windup gag is strictly from hunger, but it’s a classic when you compare it to the other extra on this set, 1931’s The Itching Hour.  Louise Fazenda joins Max, Spec and Irving Bacon for painful “scare” shenanigans in a haunted hotel.  (You’ll watch this once for curiosity sake.)

Another memorable Max performance: as the "bogeyman" terrorizing Allan "Farina" Hoskins in the Our Gang comedy Moan & Groan, Inc. (1929).

Like the previously discussed Anita Garvin and Marion Byron, Max Davidson got his walking papers in the 1928 Roach “purge,” and though he would occasionally work in some of the studio’s two-reel comedies (he’s in Charley Chase’s Great Gobs and Harry Langdon’s The Shrimp) he spent the rest of his career in small extra parts, rarely getting a chance to utter a word.  He worked because he wanted to, and he had fortuitously socked away enough money to live decently until his passing in 1950.  Again, though I don’t get a commission for chatting up these DVDs if you are a devotee of the Hal Roach Studios they are well worth the investment.  In our next post: another overseas purchase in the form of a two-disc set starring the studio’s big breadwinners…Our Gang.

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