D-4, FIGHTING FATHERS (who were Davidson and Jimmie Finlayson in the title roles) and D-5, TELL IT TO THE JUDGE, are missing, gone, lost. A physical inventory conducted by Bonded Film Storage in New York as of September 21, 1960 for the account of “Hal Roach” reflected that film elements held on these two subjects had “decomposed.” Disintegrated, dissolved, decomposed. Lost.
TELL IT TO THE JUDGE shot from September 9 into October, 1927, which was way over budget. Roach or McCarey ordered re-takes on November 7 and 10 to try and fix things. The picture was held out of release, as number nine of ten for the season, until April 28, 1928. And yet it returned large profits, both domestic and foreign. Again, the commercial success of these pictures was not an issue.
On September 14, 1927, Hal Roach was in New York and received a wire from studio exec Warren Doane boosting Laurel & Hardy as a potential replacement for the Davidson series, which despite boxoffice approval was nevertheless, as mentioned, displeasing certain M-G-M bosses: “McCarey Walker myself wish your opinion of a little later on suggesting to Metro furnishing to them pictures with this comedy team in place of Davidsons….We all feel time is here to start intensive development of Laurel and Hardy at same time using Roach Star series to develop new talent.”
The finest surviving Davidson comedy is PASS THE GRAVY, a meticulous exploitation of a single situation as only the Roach filmmakers could achieve. It went before the cameras as D-6 the last two weeks of October, 1927. In this yarn, Max and his proud neighbor do not get along. One tends to flowers, the other to poultry. But hungry chickens eat the flower seeds, and so the two men are forever bickering. When Max’s daughter and the boy next door get engaged, however, the feuding parents temporarily set aside their differences. As a peace-making gesture, Max invites everyone for chicken dinner – only to discover in escalating horror and too late that his foolish son has pocketed the money he was sent to the market with, and has snatched instead the unaware neighbor’s prize-winning rooster for their ceremonial meal!
Then, now, forever, audiences everywhere go wild for PASS THE GRAVY. Even without H.M. Walker’s usual superlative text titles (Reed Heustis wrote the only serviceable narrative notes instead), this kind of visual humor transcends all time, sound and cultural barriers.
He never told me so, but either Roach remembered, or someone at the studio mentioned to him, or perhaps to McCarey, the Mack Sennett comedy A BIRD’S A BIRD (1915). It happens to be the exact blueprint -- or maybe recipe – that the writers followed to prepare an 11 page shooting script used for PASS THE GRAVY. As Brent Walker points out in his book MACK SENNETT’S FUN FACTORY, there is even a subtitle “Pass the gravy” in the Keystone Comedy.
With a working title of PAPA GET YOUR GUN, then CRAZY PAPA, D-7 commenced principal photography on November 17, 1927, finished shooting the first day of December, and was issued to movie theatres as DUMD DADDIES on February 4, 1928. Worried Max is suspected of being a sack murderer when he carries a concealed store window mannequin to the other side of town. Why? Because he has just eavesdropped on his imbecilic son – naturally Spec O’Donnell -- rehearsing an amateur theatrical, and believes the boy has murdered a young woman and needs to dispose of the body.
In its review, MOTION PICTURE NEWS exuded, “We don’t think the M-G-M salesmen will have to do a lot of arguing in selling product like this…comedy so stocked with laugh incidents it is funny all the way. It’s a two-reeler that will brighten any program. They’ve gagged it unrelentingly.” The picture scored another big commercial success, too. Only the second reel survives.
Originally issued with tinted sequences, material for only the first reel survives of D-8, CAME THE DAWN. It was derived from the original nitrate foreign camera negative. We preserved the second reel of DUMB DADDIES from the 35mm fine grain, so at least what remains on each of these subjects looks sensational.
CAME THE DAWN could have been inspired by CALL OF THE CUCKOO. With production dates of December 18, 1927 through January 3, 1928, it tells the tale of Max purchasing another new home for his beloved family. Their suspicions are aroused, however, because it cost only $1,500. Turns out a saxophone player (inside joke directed at Charley Chase) was assassinated there, so the place is jinxed. Perhaps haunted. Stills posed during reel two reveal a couple of young lovers (Gene Morgan and the exceedingly vivacious Viola Richard) are costumed respectively as a skeleton and a chicken – not a “chick,” but an actual and pretty-kinky-looking chicken. Suggesting that studio scenarists were yet preoccupied conceiving more chicken gags for the genial but perennially henpecked Mr. Davidson.
D-9, BLOW BY BLOW (A STORY OF MARRIED LIFE) and D-10, SHOULD WOMEN DRIVE? were both lensed during January of 1928. They, too, are lost films. According to inter-office studio correspondence dated October 16, 1950, the Roach vaults in Culver City contained no preprint material or exhibition prints for any Max Davidson subject. All 35mm elements were then stored at either Bonded in New York, or one of several named New York film labs. Where they silently decomposed.
MOTION PICTURE NEWS hailed BLOW BY BLOW as “A masterpiece of this kind of comedy making.” Of SHOULD WOMEN DRIVE?, the final series entry, which hit movie screens on May 26, 1928, MOTION PICTURE NEWS concluded in its review, “A very good two-reeler.” Davidson seems to have been proud of these two, since he regularly included them in resumes and ads for casting directories through the years.
Continuing right along in anticipation of the second season’s block of ten subjects for M-G-M, the Davidson unit shot D-11 as THAT NIGHT (now lost) the week of February 10, 1928, and D-12 as DO GENTLEMEN SNORE? (also lost) the week of May 10. Each contained tinted sequences. The production unit could still boast named contributions from Roach, McCarey, Walker, and Stevens – pretty good credentials.
On May 26, 1928 the NEW YORK TIMES ran a story headlined “Hal Roach to Make Talking Films,” explaining how progressive the Roach plant was to anticipate the conversion to sound, and in which Roach would happily tell reporters how many of his contract players had stage experience, including Davidson. Meanwhile solid financial returns on PASS THE GRAVY and other delightful hits were still pouring in from outlining neighborhood houses. But it was too late to save the series. Roach’s hand was about to be forced; he needed to succeed in his inaugural year with mighty M-G-M and could not afford to displease the most powerful man in the movie industry.
In 1972 Hal Roach told me, “I made regular trips to New York, and I would see Nick Schenck. Now this was just one of several things we talked about that day. He was increasingly uncomfortable with the Jewish family angle in the Davidson comedies. He always called me ‘Kid,’ and asked, for next year, he said, ‘Kid, isn’t there something better we might do instead?’ He was objecting to Davidson, that was it.
“Louie B. Mayer had already independently expressed his own opinion that the Jews objected to what we were doing, but I paid no attention. I mean we were friendly, Metro was right down the street in Culver City, he came to my parties, I helped him when he became active with horse racing at Santa Anita…but he always resented that I made my deal with Nick Schenck and not with Louie B. Mayer. Because that made me completely independent of M-G-M next door, so I had no obligation to anyone there, only to Schenck in New York. So Louie B. Mayer could express whatever opinion he wanted, I didn’t care because we were independent from him. But when Nick Schenck took a position – and it could have been caused by Mayer complaining to Schenck because he was clever about how he handled it – anyway, I had to take that seriously.”
Mayer’s father was a junk dealer. Mayer joined his father’s business. Later Mayer disliked being reminded he had been a junkman. Max Davidson frequently played a junkman in movies. Mayer did not care for the implication people might draw. Nor did Mayer wish to be associated with offering the kind of entertainment that would perpetuate the Jewish stereotypes his family had left behind in Europe. Furthermore Mayer was used to exercising absolute power, he was ruthless, and with his usual divine authority he stated his position on Max Davidson to Hal Roach, and most probably to Nick Schenck as well.
Presumably what bothered both M-G-M executives was their connection with presenting an unassimilated Jew as though it were typical of whom the Jews were in America as of 1927. It was important, they believed, to steer clear of anything that might provoke anti-Semitism. They reasoned that called for suppression of all Jewishness in their movies.
The two moguls had different political points of view, and kept one another at arms’ length, but Schenck and Mayer were both Jews born in Russia. Each man left his origins behind, reinvented himself, and now was not only pursuing the American dream but actually creating and exporting that vision around the world with the larger-than-life escapist films Metro made. In so doing, Schenck and Mayer were re-imagining the new American dream. In fact M-G-M would soon offer up the ultimate fantasy of wholesome, idealized American family values with the lily-white Andy Hardy series, in which even Caucasian America was stereotyped. Mayer, especially, loved it. His credo had long been, “I will only make pictures that I won’t be ashamed to have my children see.” Jews, like every group, wanted to represent their heritage as best as possible.
Mayer and Schenck must have believed Davidson – not fully Americanized – was hardly the best representative for Jews, and for their new vision of America. One of Metro’s initial productions had been perhaps Davidson’s biggest picture, RAG MAN (1924), as mentioned. The title role was Davidson’s, as a junkman, second-billed to Jackie Coogan who had soared to stardom opposite Chaplin in THE KID (1921). In a huge 13 page campaign book, size 14 x 21 inches, all the stories were about Coogan. Page after page. How he had just met the Pope. How he just met Mussolini, described as “the Fascist Leader.” Davidson’s name can be found in but one story, and then only to tie him to D.W. Griffith. Being in scenes with Coogan, Davidson is shown – because he is the RAG MAN -- but never identified. Nor is he named in the theatre poster art. All an incredible slight.
On August 28, 1928, Hal Roach Studios sent out a notice of termination to Mr. Davidson, effective as of one month later, September 8. The two Davidson series entries already in inventory as D-11 and D-12 were reclassified as All Star series units and assigned new production numbers. “Laurel & Hardy,” already successfully launched, were officially named as a new brand in place of “Max Davidson” for the final season of silent releases, 1928-29.
Curiously, Davidson was downgraded, and resumed freelancing, but was still welcome to appear in support of others at Hal Roach Studios. And evidently Davidson was told his series had been cancelled as much as two months before the official notification, because during that period he appeared in three pictures produced as “Roach Star Comedies.” Two were in support of Roach’s pilot teaming of Anita Garvin and Marion Byron as a distaff spin on Laurel & Hardy, but one, THE BOY FRIEND, shot during the week of June 18, 1928, was a typical Roach-McCarey story, holds up well, and compares favorably with regular Davidson starring vehicles. There was, however, one telling concession: instead of casting Spec O’Donnell in the usual son or “young man” role, it was awarded instead to the future B-western star (“I’m a peaceable man”) of the 1940s, Gordon “Wild Bill” Elliott.
During shooting for THE BOY FRIEND, on June 29, 1928, EXHIBITORS HERALD-WORLD carried the story announcing M-G-M’s second production slate of short comedies with Hal Roach. The power of Laurel & Hardy’s personalities was what propelled them into their own series for the new season, the report explained. “It is expected that the new group of All Star comedies will attain the high standard of humor inaugurated by Laurel & Hardy,” the article continued. “In addition to Max Davidson, there will be other stellar comedy names…bringing to the Hal Roach Studios a galaxy of pulchritude seldom approached by any single production unit.”
In other words, goodbye and good luck to you, Max Davidson. Thereafter came roles in other production units around the lot on a picture by picture basis, or as a day player, while Davidson resumed freelancing elsewhere again as a journeyman actor in minor parts, eventually even extra work, whatever he could pick up.
With Chase he was a doctor in ALL PARTS (1928), and then the “Jewish character” (so reads the script) in GREAT GOBS! (1929). There followed increasingly smaller bits in ONE OF THE SMITHS (1931), SOUTHERN EXPOSURE (1935), and KELLY THE SECOND (1936).
With Harry Langdon for Roach in one of Langdon’s weak but fascinating films THE SHRIMP (1930), Davidson played a mad scientist.