Max Davidson was clear about who he was, who he had been, and always presented that persona on film as who he still was. When at last Davidson crossed the threshold at Culver City’s “laugh factory to the world,” he was first thrown into the mix of Roach’s Star or All-Star series, playing the character he had long perfected. The brand name “All Star” actually meant a stock company of star hopefuls working alongside fading stars. Real stars had their own series.
The title of Davidson’s Roach debut, DON KEY, SON OF BURRO would seem to promise a burlesque of the similar sounding Doug Fairbanks feature DON Q, SON OF ZORRO (1925). It was not. This long troubled two-reeler had been a nearly-abandoned property labored over by five different directors and every script doctor on the lot. Finally it was Stan Laurel who hit upon the notion of using Davidson as a film producer entertaining various story concepts offered by writers in hopes of adapting a movie scenario to save his studio. The disconnected failed footage Roach was trying to salvage was then shown to illustrate the screenplay. Laurel’s intended ending: Davidson, as the producer, took out a revolver from his desk and shot the writer of these proposed scenes. Principal photography dated from March 2, 1925. Retakes to obtain Davidson’s framing footage were not made until December 28. To everyone’s surprise, the final cut of this hodgepodge ensemble piece turned out to be entertaining and not unlike the story construction used by W.C. Fields for the more familiar NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941). Davidson was off to a good start.
He was invited back to do a picture set in New York and Europe, LONG FLIV THE KING for the Charley Chase unit. Davidson stepped before the cameras on February 22, 1926 to enact a role described in the shooting script as “The Hebrew.” Oliver Hardy was cast in support. Critics were pleased and the review in MOVING PICTURE WORLD mentioned Davidson favorably as Chase’s faithful assistant. Leo McCarey directed.
Nearly two decades later, having helmed classics such as THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937), GOING MY WAY (1944), and pictures with the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, McCarey was the highest paid man in America. It was then that the sentimental director who excelled at comedic invention credited the already deceased Charley Chase for teaching him everything he knew. According to Lewis R. Foster, then on his way to becoming a director himself at the studio, “Charley befriended Max as he had McCarey.” The Oscar-winning Foster, who later directed some few early sound shorts Davidson and Spec O’Donnell made in support of Louise Fazenda for Larry Darmour Productions, recalled of Davidson, “He loved cigars and I seldom saw the cantankerous little fellow without one.”
Walking across the Hal Roach Studios plant during the silent era, the place was anything but silent. There were the sounds of construction coming from the mill. Laughter emanated from all corners on the fabled lot. A train ran by Roach’s own office. For recreation, he organized his own studio orchestra. Roach both played the violin and also conducted. Max Davidson’s involvement is not known, but in a time before Marvin Hatley or Leroy Shield could be glimpsed carrying lead sheets to recording sessions, the principal exponents of musical expression included Leo McCarey and Charley Chase, who played the saxophone. They particularly liked having pianos handy on every stage for tuneful diversion and to help inspire their comedy creations. Davidson’s nemesis “son,” Spec O’Donnell, told film historian Leonard Maltin, “He (Chase) and McCarey wrote a lot of songs, some just for fun, others were used sometimes in his comedies. Some of these were published as popular tunes.” That creative people on both sides of the camera enjoyed themselves was reflected in the comedies they crafted. The Davidson company was no exception.
On March 15, 1926 Davidson reported for service as Mabel Normand’s boss in her labored vehicle RAGGEDY ROSE, an unfunny Cinderella tale running – but slowly --five reels. Just as a movie fan, Hal Roach had a crush on Normand from the time she entered films in 1911. As her career and life were spinning out of control, the producer was receptive to the idea of signing the actress, based upon the recommendation of his director-general at the time, F. Richard Jones, a long-time sponsor of Normand’s career. But it took courage to mount a series with her, just as it did with Max Davidson.
Anita Garvin made her debut on “the lot of fun” with RAGGEDY ROSE, and remembered, “It was supposed to be a comeback for poor Mabel after so much scandal. But her focus, her mind, was pretty well shot, and she kept to herself. We’d heard about the narcotics and drinking, so sad. All the makeup they gave her didn’t help because her face was so puffy. She died soon after in her mid-thirties….I thought Max Davidson was a dear; a man of definite opinions! But you couldn’t help liking him, even playing such an unsympathetic part .” A title card told us that as Moe Ginsburg, he “squeezes every nickel so hard the buffaloes look like giraffes.” Davidson once more played a junk dealer. Normand dressed and unfortunately looked like the part given her, a rag picker, hence the movie’s title. Richard Wallace directed, “in collaboration with Stan Laurel,” declared the production credits. In fact, Laurel guided most of the scenes shot.
The All-Star comedy called GET ’EM YOUNG commenced principal photography on June 19, 1926. It was notable for Laurel resuming his career as a performer after Oliver Hardy sustained a cooking accident. “Hot grease burned his arm,” Laurel explained to his biographer Jack McCabe. It forced Roach to name a replacement for the actor. As an attorney named Isaac Goldberg, Davidson’s role is reminiscent of Snitz Edwards in Buster Keaton’s classic the previous year, SEVEN CHANCES, insofar as advising the protagonist he must be married within hours or lose an inheritance.
His entire hundred years, Roach was a visionary, always experimenting, taking chances. On September 9, 1926, Davidson was engaged to begin playing family man Papa Whisselberg in a domestic laughfest written by Roach and Laurel, to be directed by McCarey, with Oliver Hardy given the lesser role of a policeman. In WHY GIRLS SAY NO, Max hopes his daughter will marry “a nice Jewish boy,” but instead, evidently, she falls for “an Irisher.” Max also has a troublesome son, Maxie (“love’s greatest mistake”), wonderfully played by then fifteen year-old Spec O’Donnell. All riotously funny, in the way things were usually developed by the Roach braintrust, emphasizing visual gags and predicament humor.
Freckle-faced O’Donnell and Davidson had worked together before, in a Universal film, THE DARLING OF NEW YORK (1923), a showcase for Baby Peggy Montgomery (who today remembers nothing of either actor). The chemistry between Davidson as the exasperated father and O’Donnell as the indolent young foil was always remarkable, really something to marvel at. Just their subtle expressions and reactions alone, constituted some of the best comic byplay anyone is likely to see.
The storied Hal Roach Studios of 1926 offered a spontaneous and lively atmosphere. Guided by future multiple Academy Award winner McCarey, perhaps the top improvisational director there has ever been, Davidson in tandem with O’Donnell created some of the finest short comedies to come out of Hollywood, or, in fact Culver City. The filmmakers concentrated on characterization and situation in presenting stories of a higher standard. With this focus, ingenious gags arose naturally and meant something, as opposed to the kind of gratuitous slapstick so prevalent elsewhere in comedy shorts. WHY GIRLS SAY NO served as a pilot film that set the tone for what was soon to come. Incidentally Davidson’s daughter was played by Marjorie Daw, first-billed here thanks to her many credits as leading lady to Douglas Fairbanks. In real life she did marry a Jewish suitor, Myron Selznick, the agent-brother of David O. Selznick.
Shooting completed on WHY GIRLS SAY NO, with no time off, Davidson returned to the Mabel Normand company on September 21, 1926 to appear as a financial advisor in the rather pedestrian subject, ANYTHING ONCE!
For more than a dozen years all Roach product to this point had been distributed through the French company, Pathe Exchange, Inc. But then its top executive in America, Paul Brunet, returned to France. Pathe quickly slid downhill. Roach explained, “The management was just disgraceful. I never saw a company do so many things wrong so fast.” He began secret negotiations with the other two top distribution outlets, Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but favored the latter, which, Roach remembered, “needed shorts badly for their theatres and was lost trying to make comedies of any length.”
Coincident with shooting WHY GIRLS SAY NO and ANYTHING ONCE came repeated speculation finally disclosed in the Hollywood trade papers that (1) Hal Roach was negotiating with William Randolph Hearst to transfer an equity stake in the studio for the purpose of furnishing expansion working capital; and that (2) Roach was in discussions with Nicholas Schenck, who ran Loew’s Theatres, as well as its subsidiary, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to assume distribution of all Roach film product to take effect a year later on September 1, 1927. Roach planned to increase operations with M-G-M, and that was why the studio required additional financing. These were big stories. No one at Roach could have foreseen it, but this news would foreshadow the demise of the Davidson series even as its pilot entry was concluding production.
In fact, actually, there was and would be no official Max Davidson series until Hal Roach Studios shifted distribution to M-G-M. Meanwhile Roach was required to fulfill his contractual obligation to Pathe and deliver the remaining short subjects and feature films as agreed upon. In retrospect we can regard the remaining Davidson vehicles produced for Pathe release as constituting a series, but they had been planned and packaged for issuance to exhibitors as part of either (1) the S-series or All-Star brand, or (2) the H-series, which was the extension of the failed Glenn Tryon series. Following WHY GIRLS SAY NO, there was only one further Davidson subject marketed under the S-series brand, FLAMING FATHERS. The others would fill out units required for the H-series in the wake of Tryon’s termination.
During this period throughout the mid-to-late 1920s, Davidson was living in Boyle Heights, then predominantly a Jewish community north and east of downtown Los Angeles. It was a rough area, even in 1926. The street address was 2510 Malabar, far away from Hal Roach Studios, which was located south and west in Culver City, midway between downtown and the Pacific Ocean. Davidson’s residence was torn down in 1939, with a huge, ugly apartment building erected in its place, still there today. To get to work, Davidson needed to board the “B” line of the Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars, then transfer downtown to the Pacific Electric Railway Red Cars. Each one way trip covered 14 miles of street car line, all gone today.
In his long commute via trolley car, on December 9, 1926 Davidson arrived at the studio gate on Washington Boulevard to appear in an outstanding comedy, JEWISH PRUDENCE, coincidentally involving Max’s attempt to commit insurance fraud following a traffic accident. At the same time, a young attorney asks Max (as Papa Gimplewart) for the hand of his beautiful daughter in marriage. Max will consent, as soon as the lawyer wins his first big case. Which he does, against Max, and his good-for-nothing son. This delightful effort would result in another masterful constellation of sight gags and characters (one of them Eugene Pallette). It was a story of jurisprudence which built to a beautiful payoff. Critics applauded. Later the picture was re-titled PRUDENCE for less controversial reissue in the non-theatrical market.
As a reward, and in anticipation of the studio’s future plans with M-G-M, on January 11, 1927, Max Davidson was signed to his only exclusive term contract with Hal Roach. It was for five years, to start on January 31, and called for beginning compensation of $400 per week, rising to $1,250 in the final year.
Up to this point, Davidson had been working for Roach on a non-exclusive basis, freelancing at other studios. This allowed the actor to score a Mack Sennett assignment in KITTY FROM KILLARNEY (1926). The fact that Pathe was distributing both his own and Sennett’s comedies presented a problem for Hal Roach. Besides the confusion, “Theatres didn’t want to buy too many pictures from one distributor,” Roach explained. “So the result was Pathe would sell my pictures to one theatre and sell Sennett’s to another: Mack and I were cutting each other’s business in half. I realized I would have to leave Pathe and find another distributor.”
Still for Pathe, DON’T TELL EVERYTHING, rolling out before the cameras on February 22, 1927, was another Davidson comedy jewel -- spiced with several racy scenes, one too “revolting” to describe! A story thread concerning Max’s auto repair is developed in parallel with his courtship of a wealthy widow. The potential partners have grown sons, and each of the suitors is shrewd enough to conceal this source of sorrow while dating. (Like the character he plays here, Davidson was in fact a widower.) Spec O’Donnell was cast as Max’s mischief-making off-spring, while the widow’s mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging son provides a series of running gags and is ingeniously revealed to be Max’s incompetent auto mechanic, Jess Devorska.
Mr. Devorska had been quietly appearing right along in most of Davidson’s comedies. Physically he resembled a laconic, stringbean version of a character sometimes essayed by current veteran TV and film comedian Eugene Levy. On March 9, 1927, VARIETY carried a story declaring, “Hal Roach is to make a series of Jewish comedies starring Jeff (sic) Devorska, Russian actor. Leo McCarey will direct.” On June 4, MOVING PICTURE WORLD reported Devorska was actually a Russian opera singer. Previously, on January 26, he had signed (as “Jesse Devorska”) a five year contract with Hal Roach Studios starting with compensation of $75 per week. This agreement was terminated later in the year as of October 29. Thus the series never materialized. Thereafter Devorska made few films, but at least stylish director Roy Del Ruth was a fan, using this fine actor in three of his pre-Code classics for Warner Bros. – BLESSED EVENT, EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE, and TAXI! Devorska served America’s navy in World War I and II. Rivaling Hal Roach himself for longevity, Devorska lived to be 101, four days short of the year 2000.