Today is the birthday of silent screen comedian Max Davidson (1875-1950).
Davidson was an interesting transitional figure in the evolution of ethnic stereotype in the cinema. For years he was Hollywood’s best known “Jew”. I put the quotes because though Davidson may have been a real Jew, he also played one, with all the traditional 19th century marks: the hand rubbing, the beard pulling, the shrugs, etc. So…why transitional? Well…look: his beard is real! I’m not being snarky. The height of Davidson’s fame came with a series of two reel shorts for Hal Roach from 1927 to 1929. Contrast Davidson’s character with that of Mack Sennett’s most prominent “Jew”, Ford Sterling, and there you have the difference in a nutshell. Real beard vs. fake beard. Affectionate portrayal vs. malicious slur. Human vs. clown. Others, like Franny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Jolson, etc later took us much further down the road to humanizing Hebrews for public consumption. Davidson continued to portray pawn brokers, parsimonious merchants, Shylocky fathers and the like with names like “Izzy” (there was a whole series of those) or “Cohen”. And thus, transitional.
Born in Berlin, he came to the U.S. in his 20s and acted in vaudeville and melodramas. His first movie 1912 was The Transformation of Mike, directed by D.W. Griffith, whom Davidson had known from the theatre. By the time Davidson retired he had been in over 180 films, both shorts and features. When talkies came in he was mostly busted down to bit or ensemble parts. Audience complaints (and the dislike of the character by studio moguls) contributed to the falloff of his career. One of his last films was Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
For more on silent and slapstick film don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.