Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Unknown Silent Comic

The funniest film shown at the 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival featured a comic only known to the most devoted of classic movie buffs: Max Davidson.

You won't hear much about Max (1875-1950), whose career dated back to D.W. Griffith's heydey at Biograph, these days. The Berlin-born comedian's stock-in-trade was a Yiddish stereotype, rarely seen today, but absolutely rampant in the silent era. Max played a 60+ immigrant straight off the boat (having that in common with tens of thousands of new arrivals to post-WW1 New York City), deeply frustrated by this strange new land. Inhabiting his blustery characters with subtlety and nuance, Davidson played numerous supporting roles with Mabel Normand and other headliners at the Hal Roach Studio.

In Max' very funny starring series of two-reelers for Roach, produced in 1927-1929, he's even more vexed, as patriarch "Papa Ginsberg" by his unendingly goofy family.

The San Francisco Silent Film Fest showed a 35mm restored print from UCLA Film And Television Archive of THE BOY FRIEND (1929) as part of last Saturday's Hal Roach Studio tribute. Since it is both timelessly wacky and the least "ethnic" Davidson comedy I've seen (I didn't catch a single joke about his heritage in the entire film, and that's fairly rare for 1920's-era humor), this will be the one that gets revived and perhaps chosen for DVD release. The premise - not wanting their young daughter to get married anytime soon, the Davidsons act loony when the boyfriend visits - is simple, and brilliantly realized by Max and co-star Fay Holderness.

Why are we even talking about Max Davidson? First, unlike a lot of other comedians who depended on stereotype schtick, he was a most talented actor, very funny, fully capable of transcending the limitations of these roles. Secondly, in a brief stretch between history-making stints creating the Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy two-reelers, Leo McCarey contributed inspired direction and writing to the Davidson series. THE BOYFRIEND and the devastatingly funny PASS THE GRAVY (1928) stand out as unrelentingly hilarious examples of the Roach Studio style.


Anonymous said...

I had the opportunity to see “The Boy Friend” at the Capitolfest this past weekend in Rome, New York at the Capitol Theater. It was very funny – a basic premise played out with great humor. In fact, Davidson’s short received more laughs than the Harold Lloyd short (“Hey There!”) that was screened. I, for one, would certainly purchase a DVD of Davidson shorts.

paul etcheverry said...

The late period silents starring Max Davidson, Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy are the gold standard, arguably the funniest two-reelers ever made.

I consider Harold Lloyd one of the few comedians who actually hit his stride after making the move from shorts to features.