The start-date for SHOULD SECOND HUSBANDS COME FIRST? was April 11, 1927. The plot told of how a dowager’s sons would attempt to derail plans for their mother to re-marry. During her courtship, the boys pretend to be insane, hoping to dissuade the potential hubby, Max. Their performance was so inspired that several of the picture’s hilarious gags were successfully reworked in Our Gang’s LOVE BUSINESS (1931) and the Boy Friends’ MAMA LOVES PAPA (1931). The elder brother was played by future film director David Butler, and the other by Spec O’Donnell, who one wag would notice for “his beady little eyes peering out over a disastrous profile.”
O’Donnell went on to enjoy a long career performing small parts. He passed away at age 75 in 1986 at the Motion Picture Country Home in Los Angeles. As a kid actor he was selected by Mary Pickford for key vehicles, and when Walt Disney copied Our Gang for his early “Alice” comedies, he cast O’Donnell as counterpart to freckle-faced Mickey Daniels. Later it would be fun to spot O’Donnell playing tiny roles in big features, such as the time he and one-time Roach star Snub Pollard delivered a singing telegram in LOVE CRAZY (1941). Director Butler used his friend O’Donnell as someone playing dice in THE STORY OF SEABISCUIT (1949), and as a messenger in THE DAUGHTER OF ROSIE O’GRADY (1950). Leo McCarey’s brother Ray obviously liked O’Donnell too, assigning him bit parts in many B-features and shorts.
FLAMING FATHERS was the final Davidson comedy delivered for release by Pathe. Principal photography commenced on May 5, 1927 at Venice Beach. A four page shooting script survives, and starts as follows: “Open on interior of Max’s house, the boy and girl preparing to leave for the beach in a Chrysler roadster. The wife gets over to Max she has a hunch the children are going to elope and suggests that he go to the beach with them to keep an eye on them. They start for the beach, Max sitting in the rumble seat. Show shot of the car going over a very bumpy road….”
Fasten your seatbelts….With its many running gags and swift pacing, the script is wonderful, and the film is too.
There was a beautiful girl at the beach when Max got there. She played no part in the story and was simply serving as an extra. Later she would be a star herself. Her sister was one already: Constance Bennett, soon to be the highest paid actress in movies. Their father was a prominent matinee idol of the stage, Richard Bennett. The extra who mostly just watched the Max Davidson company shoot FLAMING FATHERS was stunning 17 year-old Joan Bennett. “They patiently rushed around; I never met the star,” was her recollection of the experience. At a Cinecon in 1989 she remembered that day, said she did not identify herself to anyone, was pleased to see the photograph I showed her, and asked for a copy. Later both sisters would star in feature films made at Hal Roach Studios, such as the TOPPER series.
It is clear that Laurel & Hardy’s PUTTING PANTS ON PHILLIP (1927), shot four months later, one of their best albeit less typical comedies, was inspired by the design and construction of FLAMING FATHERS. Laurel essays the Davidson role, as a public spectacle wearing something funny, and drawing the attention of swarming onlookers who dash about in curious delight to catch a of glimpse of whatever mischief he will cause next. In one instance out in the shallow surf, a Great Dane chases Max and succeeds in tearing off his too-large bathing suit.
MOVING PICTURE WORLD offered a review of FLAMING FATHERS, and it was typical of so many rave notices for this series: “’Nuff said – Max Davidson is in this one, and that’s tantamount to a de luxe endorsement of any short subject. In this instance, Max finds it an exciting and unhappy experience trying to chaperone his daughter and her ‘steady.’ He gets involved with a gang of kids who are entertained at the sight of his funny face, and what the gagmen don’t do with this idea isn’t in the fun book. It is made to drip laughs and diversion at every episode.” Indeed, the crowd at the beach seems as fascinated with Max as we are. At the end, the kids in the film, like those in the audience, ask of Max, with whom they’ve had so much fun at his expense, “Please mister, will you come back next Sunday?”
Also in the cast was a surprisingly young and thin picnicker, seemingly out of his element, Charles King, yet a few years away from superb and ubiquitous B-western villainy.
I was fortunate to obtain a 1-sheet poster on FLAMING FATHERS. When I drove over and showed it to Hal Roach, we happened to discuss Davidson’s characterization, and afterwards I wrote in pencil on the linen-backing what he said. His comments indicated he may not have appreciated the concept of so-called Jewish guilt: “Others have asked me,” he said, “why aren’t there more revivals of Max Davidson comedies, and is it because of the ethnic gags? What the hell, that’s humor, and aren’t the Jewish people allowed to laugh too? I mean, the studio always had Jewish writers and directors and we intended no malice whatsoever in those comedies, meant as affectionate parody. And I assure you, Davidson himself never took any offense.”
In its May 27, 1927 issue, employing the headline “Max Davidson Dialect Comedies” (despite being silent films), MOTION PICTURE NEWS carried this Roach press release: “The proven box-office draw of Irish-Jewish feature comedy has found its most important development in the short feature field with the Max Davidson comedies. Exhibitors know that in these dialect comedies are rich opportunities for side-splitting comic situations together with touches of pathos. Great audience entertainment! And no one is better suited to interpret these comedies than Max Davidson, who has been a riot in these roles ever since he earned fame with the original ABIE’S IRISH ROSE company. Hal Roach developed Harold Lloyd to success. Charley Chase is another of his character promotions. Now Roach gives showmen a new character slant in Max Davidson, who will appear in quality productions with great supporting casts.”
With all obligations to Pathe fulfilled, the Roach organization could begin its new alliance with M-G-M. That also meant the way had been cleared for the official Max Davidson series, to be issued through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Distributing Corporation. Hal Roach contracted with Metro to deliver ten units of product from each of four quite individual brands for the initial 1927-28 season. So there would be ten Our Gang comedies (the “G” series); ten Charley Chase attractions (the “C” series); ten two-reelers from the All-Star classification (the “S” series), which in a year would be re-branded as the Laurel & Hardy series; and ten shorts starring Max Davidson (the “D” series). An internal sales schedule kept by M-G-M labeled this one the “‘D’ Series – Davidson – Jewish Series.”
Nothing changed in the Davidson unit, except that budgets would be increased, and ace director Leo McCarey was upgraded to supervisor. As it turned out, there would be a direct correlation between his involvement and the entertainment quotient.
First up, D-1, was WHAT EVERY ICEMAN KNOWS, for which cameras rolled on June 3, 1927. The idea: Max’s wife pays the iceman to murder the family dog. This did not please Max’s character, nor a focus group of M-G-M executives either. Evidently tinted sequences failed to make the gags any funnier. Nor did it help that Spec O’Donnell was unavailable to play Max’s good-for-nothing son. Finally, in a strategical error, the assigned director in place of McCarey was Hal Yates, new to the Davidson company.
There was one, and only one opportunity to make a positive first impression with the M-G-M sales force; it seems WHAT EVERY ICEMAN KNOWS failed to deliver on that score. M-G-M’s screening committee back at its New York City headquarters generated some negative ratings for the picture. The quality was deemed to be below expectations.
Management voiced no specific objections based on ethnicity, at least not in writing. One wonders, however, if supreme authority Nicholas Schenck attended that screening. Did he set the tone for what others thought that day? Schenck ran Loews, which controlled the M-G-M subsidiaries. For three decades he was the single most powerful man in the movie industry. As Roach would later learn, Schenck was uncomfortable watching an unassimilated Jew in a picture to be distributed by M-G-M. If Schenck was present that day, he would have clearly influenced the opinion of others.
In any case, however, despite Metro’s internal misgivings, the picture did perform well for exhibitors at the boxoffice. With a final negative cost of $28,233.13, M-G-M reported in its accounting of November 30, 1929 that the producer’s share of income totaled $40,177.65 to yield a prodigious net profit to Roach of $11,944.52. That meant a remarkable return on investment of 42.3%. In fact all ten of the first season M-G-M Davidson comedies made immense money relative to their cost. These ten shorts, both individually, and as a group, were commercially successful. Although, of the four series, Laurel & Hardy performed marginally better, Charley Chase much better, and Our Gang way best of the four. But all were huge hits.
Unfortunately WHAT EVERY ICEMAN KNOWS is not available for reappraisal. With only two exceptions following original theatrical release (use of but a few shorts for the Robert Youngson anthology features, and then by Blackhawk Films for non-theatrical distribution), the Metro Davidsons have never been either excerpted, or licensed for reissue, in any film gauge, any territory, any media, ever – until now. With no economic incentive to fund preservation, all 35mm preprint elements and original exhibition prints for most of these subjects eventually either wore out, were destroyed on purpose as depreciated surplus in the 1930s, or succumbed to eventual nitrate deterioration. They are mostly all gone, lost. Because some of the earlier Pathe Davidsons were licensed for the non-theatrical market during the 1930s and 1940s, at least 16mm prints have survived, and while they have always been hard to see, at least they exist.
Studio correspondence as between Roach and M-G-M during July and August of 1927 covered the option of postponing the release of D-1 in favor of D-2. Except, inexplicably, the consensus was no better for the prospects of D-2. Which is extant, quite funny, and has long been the lone Davidson comedy in wide circulation.
In the well known CALL OF THE CUCKOO, D-2, Max is peeved with his lunatic neighbors, so he exchanges his residence (with Charles Meakin), only to find the new jerrybuilt house is full of gimmicks and not the bargain he thought it was. The kitchen floor tile design dissolves as Mrs. Davidson mops it, and when the bathtub falls apart Max finds himself performing another nude scene!
The prefabricated house may not have been constructed very well, but the film was. As Davidson’s less-than-refined neighbors, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charley Chase performed crazy cameos, reason enough for Hal Roach Studios’ licensee Blackhawk Films to have released hundreds of 16mm and 8mm collector prints into the non-theatrical market over the past half-century.
D-3 was LOVE ‘EM AND FEED ‘EM, a lost film, except for a fragment found recently at the Library of Congress. Any time trouble was perceived in a series, Hal Roach himself would step in to direct part or all of an entry. He did so here. Either the transition away from McCarey, or the lingering effects of M-G-M’s negative first impression, was cause for concern. Clyde Bruckman was called upon to finish directing and took screen credit.
Laurel & Hardy had then just completed SUGAR DADDIES and THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS for release by M-G-M, so they were already functioning as film partners. Film historian Rob Stone has surmised that the story Roach wrote for LOVE ‘EM AND FEED ‘EM was actually meant for the studio’s new comedy team. Except that Laurel failed to return from a vacation trip to England on time (daughter Lois says her parents’ plane got lost over the English Channel between London and Paris causing the delay). So Max Davidson was assigned Laurel’s part, and on August 9, 1927, George Stevens commenced camera work on LOVE ‘EM AND FEED ‘EM with Davidson playing opposite Hardy as gold prospectors (Roach had been one himself). An ad line from the theatre poster art tells all: “See what gold-diggers did to gold-miners!” The tale ends with pie throwing. This was no doubt what prompted Laurel to film the pie fight to end all pie fights a month later when THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY was being prepared. KINEMATOGRAPH WEEKLY declared, “The acting of Max Davidson and his partner (is) miles above the average of the comedy short.”