Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Jewish Prudence - 1927

Country: United States
Language: English (intertitles)
Director: Leo McCarey
Writer: Leo McCarey
Stars: Max Davidson, Johnny Fox and Martha Sleeper
Release Date: 8 May 1927 (USA)
Also known as: Es kommt immer anders, als... (Germany - alternative title); Prudence (USA - rerun title)
Production Co: Hal Roach Studios
Sound Mix: Silent
Color: Black and White
Genres: Short | Comedy
The hilarious silent-film comedy 'Jewish Prudence' is fairly easy to obtain in film libraries, but all known English-language prints of this movie have the original title card 'Jewish Prudence' removed and a new title card spliced in, so that this film is now renamed 'Prudence'. If you can't locate this very funny movie under its original title, try looking for it under the less offensive (and less funny) name 'Prudence'.
The title 'Jewish Prudence' is of course a pun on 'jurisprudence', but it also refers to the character played by silent-movie comedian Max Davidson in his starring films. Davidson, who was indeed Jewish (and with strongly Semitic features), tended to play a stereotypical Jewish character on-screen. This can be unpleasant for modern viewers, but Davidson usually steered clear of the more vicious aspects of a Jewish caricature. His on-screen character tended to be resourceful rather than cunning, frugal rather than an outright money-grubber. Max Davidson reminds me of the English actor Ron Moody, whom he physically resembles: Moody has proudly used his Jewish heritage as a basis for most of his acting roles, yet his portrayals never become offensive.
In 'Jewish Prudence', written by Stan Laurel and directed by Leo McCarey, Max is a father saddled with three grown children who will never amount to anything. His daughter (Martha Sleeper) is bone-idle. Max's older son (Jesse De Vorska) is an incompetent schlemiehl whom Max pressures into taking a job as a lorry driver. The younger son (Johnny Fox) is an idiot who wants to be a professional Charleston dancer. (Fair enough: that's how Lord Grade got started.) A handsome young lawyer (Gaston Glass), newly admitted to the bar, wants to marry Max's daughter, but Max refuses to consent until lawyer Gaston wins his first court case.
When Max and his dancing son witness a road accident, Max sees a chance to make some money by persuading Johnny to fake a leg injury. There's an uproariously funny sequence in which Johnny feigns injuries by displaying a false leg while concealing his real leg inside a hollowed-out cushion. Of course, several things go wrong. (At one point, Johnny's got three legs showing.) When Max gets a visit from two men who seem to be insurance claims adjusters, Johnny plays his scam for all it's worth. This scene has a very funny payoff. Johnny Fox, who gave an amazing performance as the supernatural visitor in 'One Glorious Day', gives a splendidly physical performance here as Max's son. Eugene Palllette, hefting only a fraction of his later girth, is impressive as one of the visitors. Spec O'Donnell, who played Davidson's son in so many of his films, is absent from these proceedings.
SPOILERS COMING. Meanwhile, Max brings suit against the driver who supposedly injured Johnny. The lawyer for the defence is none other than Gaston, who humiliates Max and Johnny in court by exposing them (hilariously) as liars and frauds. Gaston wins his case and then smoothly claims the right to marry Max's daughter. Max drives away in disgust, but his car is immediately hit by a truck. Gaston eagerly offers to represent Max in a lawsuit against the truckdriver, but the driver turns out to be (of course) Max's other son!
'Jewish Prudence' is extremely funny; even more so because (unlike many other Hal Roach comedies of this period) it actually has a believable plot. Director Leo McCarey's comic pacing is brisk and excellent. The climactic trial scene in this film must have been good experience for McCarey when he directed Chico Marx's trial in 'Duck Soup'. However, I was annoyed by one 'impossible' gag in 'Jewish Prudence' during the courtroom sequence, when a solemn portrait of George Washington is seen to burst out laughing at Max's pathetic testimony. This sort of gag is acceptable for a totally unrealistic comedian such as Harpo Marx, but it drastically conflicts with the comedic style of Max Davidson, who tended to play very plausible and realistic characters. It's only due to fears of Political Incorrectness that Max Davidson's (Jewish) screen characterisation is so seldom available to modern filmgoers.

1 comment:

  1. In his memoirs, Pinto Colvig recalled doing an animated gag for this film--presumably when the portrait of Washington grins.