He was so funny. But ask almost anyone, “Who is Max Davidson?” Perhaps one in a thousand will know.
Sadly and unjustly, Max Davidson is a forgotten name today. There are many celebratory dissertations on Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy…why not some mention of Max Davidson? Is it too late to rescue that name from obscurity? For so long, if mentioned at all, Davidson has been underrated, and unsung. Yet he was the skilled exponent of so-called Jewish humor during the 1920s, so common at the time.
Unfortunately as long as the societal trend towards political correctness continues, there can be little hope for any kind of widespread Davidson revival. And, there are other obstacles. Besides excelling in silent films, which were also only black and white, many of Davidson’s efforts from a key period are now lost, and can no longer be shown anyway. There is also the issue, if his comedies were so good, why did he stop making them?
The combination of these factors leaves only a discrete audience today, which will nonetheless happily relish the few unique surviving comedies Davidson starred in during his brief window of opportunity at Hal Roach Studios. These two seasons’ work, from the late silent era, is what all the fuss is about.
Max Davidson was born in Berlin on May 23, 1875. Even now, Germans hearing his voice in the extant sound films he made, know instantly from the accent that Davidson emanated from Berlin, and not from Munich, nor anywhere else in Bavaria. He came to America as a young adult during the peepshow era. He performed initially on the stage in 1893, then in vaudeville, and made his first film appearance as early as 1912, at a time when cinema was still a cheap novelty.
Only 5’4”, even with his thick and shaggy mop of hair, the diminutive performer played shorter, since he was often stooped over as part of the European, Old World-Jewish comic stereotype in which he specialized. Throughout his long career, this was Davidson’s motif – highly exaggerated Jewishness. He portrayed a Jewish immigrant, set in his ways, a dignified gentleman who had yet to fully assimilate in American life. Since the country’s founding, many disparate groups – Germans, Irish, Chinese, whatever -- have flocked to America and been welcomed in the spirit of E Pluribus Unum. That was the nation’s guiding principle. Assimilation. But it took time to adapt and learn the new culture. So Davidson’s characterization did reflect his own experience, and history. Was it nevertheless perceived as unacceptable and offensive to some? Evidently so. Was it meant to demean or be hurtful? No. Did filmmakers at Hal Roach Studios intend for audiences everywhere to identify with and pull for Davidson in life’s many struggles? Yes.
Meanwhile, in adjusting, Max continued to dress in a black suit and wear his derby hat. As a master of pantomime, he innocently exaggerated the expressions and gestures he was born into and grew up with in Europe. Watching out for the interests of his family, he sometimes winced. Or he sneered. With his ever-active hands, he grabbed his cheeks to express fear or distress. He shrugged his shoulders to apologize. He shook his finger to scold. He sometimes spoke (via title card) in dialect. He stroked his full beard to think, punctuating his ruminations by squinting. He turned his palms up high in earnest request to negotiate never-ending financial matters, concerning which he was characteristically stingy.
This kind of comic stereotype had antecedents in literature and plays extending back to Shakespeare’s work. So Max Davidson hardly invented this characterization; he just excelled at it and made us see ourselves in what he did. What Davidson added were elements of warmth, dignity, even understatement. Befuddled, bedeviled, the little man’s artistry allowed for anyone of any heritage to relate with and root for him. If one is laughing at Max, rather than with him (where we are really laughing at ourselves), it only serves as a kind of Rorschach Test on who the viewer is.
As film curator Paolo Cherchi Usai has observed, “That his films parody ethnic particularities without even a tinge of racism is what bestows Davidson with greatness. As is the case with all truly intelligent film comedies, the parody also mocks cultural and ethnic prejudices.”
Within a year of entering movies in his late thirties, Davidson was the nominal lead in the single-reel “Izzy” series for Reliance-Majestic. Also appearing in these (as well as the subsequent Komic Company productions similarly released by Mutual) was the future director of several notable horror movies, Tod Browning. None of the “Izzy” comedies survive.
Then Davidson won small character parts in productions of cinema’s first major director, D.W. Griffith. He had supervised the Komic Comedies. He and Davidson were friends even before entering motion pictures. By some accounts it was Davidson who originally prompted then fellow-actor Griffith to seek work in the film industry.
Later, Davidson – already “typed” as a Jewish comedian -- freelanced easily around Hollywood, working in both bit parts and featured ethnic roles as tailors or junkmen and the like at Universal, Triangle, Goldwyn, Warner Bros., Fox, Metro, Columbia, Christie, and Sennett. In between film roles the actor returned to the stage. Finally in 1926 Davidson landed at the Roach Studios. He had just turned fifty years old, and was reaching the apex of his career. One of those behind-the-scenes Hollywood shorts made at the time showed him walking to his dressing room, identifying Davidson as the industry’s “oldest screen comedian.”
The smash hit on Broadway in 1922 had been ABIE’S IRISH ROSE. Paramount bid highest to acquire the screen rights. This golden property ushered in a film formula that would contrast unlikely love interests from the Jewish and Irish cultures transplanted to America. The stage show was so popular that touring companies were sent out across America for years, one of them showcasing Max Davidson.
To cash in on the genre, Warner Bros. answered ABIE’S IRISH ROSE with the derivative PRIVATE IZZY MURPHY, starring George Jessel (and featuring young Walter “Spec” O’Donnell – later cast as Davidson’s wonderfully charmless son). In 1926 Universal made THE COHENS AND THE KELLYS, launching its own successful Jewish-Irish series of pictures (Davidson would appear in one). Jewish and Irish actors were in demand for these films. It figured that the renowned Irish-Catholic producer-director team of Hal Roach and Leo McCarey would see comic possibilities they might exploit as well, and there, lo and behold, available for such work, was Max Davidson.
“I saw him in some picture with Jackie Coogan,” Roach remembered in 1978. The film in question had to be either THE RAG MAN, or its sentimental sequel in 1925, OLD CLOTHES. “Max Davidson was first a fine actor; that’s what I liked,” Roach told me. “He had a full range of expressions, reactions and gestures that made an interesting contrast with Coogan. I thought we could do something with him on that basis.”
Immersing Max Davidson in the Hal Roach Studios house style, with solid story development, great gags, and captivating co-stars, would quickly elevate the Davidson persona to a level that meant something more than a mere Jewish stereotypical characterization. Davidson had found his home, and his métier.
In his film societies, classes at NYU, and lectures around the world, English film historian William K. Everson introduced many film fans and scholars to Max Davidson comedies, hailing them as “often tremendously funny, rich in both visual and situational gags.”
It was Prof. Everson who first recounted what he learned from speaking with Hal Roach about gentle ethnic caricatures: that when everyone is kidded, no one is discriminated against. Everson agreed, and ever after embraced Roach’s position as valid theory.
Any evaluation of behavior or ethics during the 1920s needs to be conducted in the context of contemporary morality at that time, and not vis-à-vis evolving standards and social change nearly a century later. Unquestionably such standards will work themselves out quite differently and unpredictably another century from now. Films, too, which reflect those times, need to be examined and assessed in accordance with prevailing moral criteria when they were originally produced. And during the 1920s all minority groups were fair game for parody, whether so classified because of their skills, heritage, politics, prejudices, attributes, accomplishments or sexual proclivities.
Unless a stereotype was malicious or immoral, this attitude of celebrating diversity was much healthier than what we have now. Today, one or a few are endlessly taking offense at something, at everything, and then insisting that the rest of the world should change to accommodate their narcissism. We need to recognize that everyone, everywhere, each of us, is a member of some kind of minority; we should be able to laugh at ourselves, and not be so sensitive. Movies are history, a living record; they are authentic, insofar as they reflect their time. We ought to accept vintage films for what they were, and what they can tell us as social documents with respect to informing us how people behaved, what they did, and what they looked like. This gives cinema enormous value never even intended when the films were made. In any case, they are only entertainment. With few exceptions, Davidson’s portrayal is lighthearted and totally sympathetic, and anyone who is offended, because he chooses to be offended, perhaps deserves to be offended.
Late in his life, because the films were obscure, people seldom asked Hal Roach about Max Davidson. But the media would always zero in on race relations because of the progressive Our Gang comedies. These films often did not appear to be enlightened to young reporters who failed to appreciate that school rooms in America were segregated at a time when they were integrated on film at Hal Roach Studios. “What the hell,” Roach would say, “every kid in the Gang was a ‘type.’ My heritage was Irish. I saw Irish ‘types’ in movies my whole life. I never condemned one of them. I had a sense of humor.”
A politically correct society achieves behavior that is polite at the cost of being real. It leads directly to censorship and the diminution of what America has traditionally cherished as the First Amendment right of freedom of expression. If we cannot see, study, and most importantly enjoy experimental films like the ones Hal Roach courageously tried making with Max Davidson and others, we will wind up censoring not only films, but books, all through history. You lose a sense of who you are, if you do not know who you were.
We cannot change history. We should not try to. Nor should we censor history, either. But we can learn from history.