10 March 2007 | wmorrow59
And while you're at it, pass the first-aid kit
Max Davidson was a prolific comedian of the silent era whose work deserves to be more widely known and appreciated, but a number of factors weigh against his rediscovery. His usual characterization was a basically benign but undeniably stereotypical version of a middle-class Jewish Dad, and much of his films' humor derived from the sort of ethnic jokes that make audiences squirm today. In addition to this, Davidson's comedies often featured risqué gags, sometimes involving male nudity or female impersonation, gags which, in a sense, lend his films a strangely "modern" quality but which may nonetheless rub some viewers the wrong way. My own reaction to this material varies -- sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't -- but Max himself always strikes me as charming, though somewhat limited as a performer. Anyhow, Davidson came to prominence playing support to a number of top comedians of the 1920s, including Mabel Normand and Charley Chase, then starred in his own series of two-reel comedies for Hal Roach. The series lasted for a couple of years but for whatever reason it ended around the time talkies came in, and from then on Davidson acted in bit parts, usually without billing, while his starring work from the '20s was quickly forgotten by the public at large.
The most enjoyable of the Max Davidson comedies I've seen is Pass the Gravy, which also gives nice supporting roles to two Roach Studio stalwarts, Spec O'Donnell and Martha Sleeper, as Max's son and daughter. This two-reeler stands as a good example of how Roach's expert crew could take a simple comic situation (in this case, a rather macabre one), stretch it to last about twenty minutes or so, and squeeze every possible laugh out of it along the way.
Here's the situation: Max lives next door to a man named Schultz who raises chickens, and is especially proud of his prize-winning rooster, Brigham. Schultz' son is engaged to Max's daughter, so an engagement party is held at Max's house to celebrate their betrothal. Max sends his son Ignatz (Spec O'Donnell) to buy a chicken for the feast, but Ignatz decides to save money by simply swiping one of Schultz' birds and butchering it -- mercifully, off-camera. Ignatz unwittingly takes Brigham the prize-winner, however, and the unfortunate rooster is still wearing a metal "First Prize" tag around his leg when he is served up for dinner to the unsuspecting guests. The comedy, for those who aren't too squeamish to appreciate it, is based on the sequence of events which follows: 1) How long will it take for Ignatz to realize what he's done? 2) How soon will his father find out? And, most significantly, 3) What will Schultz do when HE finds out? As it happens, the boy, his sister, and her fiancée become aware of the problem pretty quickly, so much of the humor is based on their efforts to communicate the bad news to Max without communicating it to Schultz. Spec O'Donnell has a nice pantomime bit acting out the sequence of events for his sister, Martha Sleeper (an adorable actress, by the way, and one of the great unsung comediennes of the silent era). Martha, in turn, gets to perform several hilarious bits after she and her boyfriend escape from the dinner table and flee to the next room, then frantically attempt to signal Max. He looks on in bewilderment as Martha and her beau enact the courtship of hen and rooster, and even portray the Execution of Brigham in gruesome detail, but each time Schultz whips his head around they quickly turn their act into a spirited dance, or an impromptu game of football. (The boyfriend is played by a fellow named Gene Morgan I've never seen elsewhere, and he's quite good in these vignettes.) Eventually, of course, the jig is up, but it's impressive how much mileage the players are able to get out of the situation before the denouement.
Max Davidson himself is a funny little guy with bushy hair, expressive eyes and a broad range of facial expressions. As I suggested up top, he may not have been the most versatile of performers, but he surely deserves to be remembered, for much of his surviving work is quite enjoyable. Pass the Gravy is an offbeat and rather dark exercise in visual comedy that is likely to please silent comedy buffs.