#573) Pass the Gravy (1928)

#573) Pass the Gravy (1928)

OR “Chicken Nugget”

Directed by Fred L. Guiol

Written by Reed Heustis

Class of 1998 

The Plot: Silent film comedian Max Davidson plays a gardener who has an ongoing feud with his neighbor Schultz (Bert Sprotte), owner of prize-winning rooster Brigham. The two decide to put their differences aside when it is announced that Schultz’s son (Gene Morgan) is engaged to Max’s daughter (Martha Sleeper). The two families have dinner, and Max’s son Ignatz (Spec O’Donnell) is tasked with buying a chicken. But Ignatz keeps the money for himself and steals Brigham instead. All goes smoothly, until Ignatz notices that the cooked chicken still has a First Prize tag on its leg, which has just been served to Schultz. Hilarity ensues.

Why It Matters: The NFR’s very brief write-up mentions Max Davidson’s status as a German-Jewish performer who “caricatured established Jewish stereotypes of the day”. Silent film expert Steve Massa is on hand with an essay with more information on Davidson’s film career.

But Does It Really?: I…guess? Max Davidson is all but forgotten today, but his comic facial expressions manage to stand out amongst the likes of Keaton and Chaplin. “Pass the Gravy” is still entertaining (although be warned there is a bit of animal cruelty), and thankfully doesn’t lean on the Jewish stereotypes Davidson was famous for. As a representation of Max Davidson, “Pass the Gravy” has just as much a right to be in the NFR as any other lesser-known silent star. “Pass the Gravy” gets one of my trademark “slight pass” designations for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Emigrating to the US from Germany as a young adult, Max Davidson started out as a performer in vaudeville. These performances led to silent shorts with Biograph, where he played a Jewish caricature named Izzy. By the 1920s, Davidson was working for Hal Roach, eventually getting his own series of starring roles as a put-upon father.

Title Track: No one actually says “Pass the gravy” in this short, so…what was the point of that title?

Other notes 

  • Leo McCarey is credited here as Production Supervisor, and I’m not sure what that means. McCarey started off as a gag writer for Hal Roach, working his way up to director and producer. The only description I can find of his supervisor work is that he “supervised the direction by others”. I guess it would be the equivalent of a TV showrunner today?
  • There are already way too many intertitles in this movie. One states that while Max’s character raised flowers, Ignatz raised “what it’s not polite to mention”. I assume they mean Hell.
  • Ignatz is played by Walter “Spec” O’Donnell, who earned his stage name thanks to the large amount of freckles on his face. It truly is a sight to behold.
  • As I mentioned earlier, there is an uncomfortable amount of animal abuse in this movie. Chickens are being handled aggressively and thrown into the air, culminating in a shot where an entire flock is thrown over a fence. This is entertainment? For the record: American Humane did not start supervising on-set animal treatment until about 1940.
  • I will admit, the reveal of the First Prize tag made me laugh out loud. Unfortunately the rest of the short is everyone slowly figuring it out, and then spending half the film trying to explain it to Max. There’s some fun pantomiming from Morgan and Sleeper, but man does it go on forever.
  • Oh my god; figure it out, old man! And when is someone gonna pass the gravy!?

Legacy 

  • Max Davidson transitioned to supporting roles in sound pictures, but a rise in complaints from Jewish communities (as well as the continued suppression of depictions of Judaism in film) led to Davidson’s career fading away. Davidson died in 1950 in a retirement home, his film career long over.
  • Like Max Davidson, the rest of the cast transitioned to sound films, though none of them ever became big names. The only members of the “Pass the Gravy” team that would go on to fame and fortune were cinematographer George Stevens and production supervisor Leo McCarey; both of whom would go on to be successful film directors.
  • “Gravy” director Fred Guiol would go on to collaborate with George Stevens on several of his movies, co-writing the screenplays for “Gunga Din” and “Giant“, and serving as associate director for “A Place in the Sun” and “Shane”.
  • Hmmm, a movie where they kill off a character’s prized animal for retaliation. Where have I seen this before….?

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