Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Unknown Silent Comic

by Paul Etcheverry

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, whose career dated back to D. W. Griffith's heyday 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, deeply frustrated by this strange new land - and, in his two-reelers for Hal Roach, even more vexed by his goofy family.

The San Francisco Silent Film Fest showed a 35mm restored print from the 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 Boy Friend and the devastatingly funny Pass the Gravy (1928) stand out as unrelentingly hilarious examples of the Roach Studio style.

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