December 25, 1890 — January 15, 1968
Like Charles Middleton, Noah Beery Sr., and other actors who shared his background in stage acting, John Davidson possessed a larger-than-life screen presence that made him ideal for portraying the equally larger-than-life heavies so common in movie serials. However, although Davidson made numerous chapterplay appearances, he didn’t play the principal villain nearly as often as he should have; most of his serial turns were as nefarious or enigmatic supporting characters. Nevertheless, these characters were invariably made memorable by Davidson’s great talent for being both subtle and grandiosely dramatic; his slyly sinister smile, his malevolent and rather snake-like glare, and his deep, resonant, and carefully modulated voice helped him to take control of many a scene.
John Davidson was born in Russia; he came to America with his parents when he was about a year old. His birth name is given as Isidore Davidson on the 1905 New York state census, although I suspect that “Davidson” may be an Ellis Island modification of “Davidoff.” Davidson’s parents settled in New York City, where he grew up–and where he began his thespian career at the age of eighteen. He made his first acting appearance on Broadway in 1908, initially using the name of J. Crossney Davidson before settling on his more familiar screen alias, and continued acting chiefly but not exclusively on the East Coast for the next ten years–first on stage, and then, beginning in 1915, in silent movies for studios headquartered in New York and New Jersey. Davidson also appeared in some California-filmed movies during the 1910s and 1920s, toured the country in a short play called “Circumstantial Evidence” in 1923 (as evidenced by Sioux City, Minneapolis, and Sacramento playbills), delivered lectures on the works of Strindberg and Ibsen, and made at least one trip to England circa 1924, to discuss a collaboration with the famed British writer Somerset Maugham. Davidson doesn’t seem to have permanently settled on the West Coast until 1928, when the dawn of the talkies was starting to create a demand in Hollywood for stage-trained actors who could memorize and deliver dialogue effectively. He started his talkie-era career playing major parts for Warner Brothers (Skin Deep, Kid Gloves) and Sam Goldwyn (The Rescue, The Thirteenth Chair) in 1929 and 1930; however, most of his subsequent sound movie roles were smaller, usually uncredited character parts as sinister foreigners, ruthless businessmen, or stuffy society types. His screen appearances were also much more infrequent than those of most other minor character actors, which leads me to think that he still kept one foot in the stage-acting world in which he had been so successful during the 1910s and 1920s. He also worked in radio during his time in Hollywood, while a ship’s passenger list shows he made at least one trip to Europe in 1935. Finally, he appears to have spent at least part of his time doing abstract paintings, an occupation which he had taken up back in 1919. A 1938 Los Angeles Times item refers to him as once being an actor but now devoting all his time to painting; this is an obvious overstatement, considering that Davidson was still acting in that year, but this second line of work may provide further explanation of why his movie roles were comparatively few.
B-films and serials would give Davidson his biggest post-1930 film roles; the first of his chapterplays was Universal’s 1933 effort, The Perils of Pauline. This serial cast him as the chief villain–an evil Eurasian scientist named Dr. Bashan, who was bent on obtaining an ancient disintegrating-gas formula that would enable him to rule the world; the sinister doctor pursued heroine Pauline (Evalyn Knapp) and her archeologist father (James Durkin) around the globe in search of this formula before finally falling an accidental victim to the gas he was seeking. The part of Bashan was one of Davidson’s largest chapterplay roles, but the serial’s screenplay didn’t allow him to make the character as sinister as he could have; Bashan rarely threatened the good guys directly, instead spending most of his screen time merely shadowing them. Still, Davidson gave Bashan as much menace as possible in the circumstances–playing the master villain in an inhumanly impassive but dangerously alert fashion that made him seem like a coiled cobra, and occasionally breaking out into deep-voiced and intimidating rages when Bashan received a setback to his plans.
Above: John Davidson (center) imperiously rebukes failed henchman Frank Lackteen (the ragged-looking fellow he’s seized by the arm); Charles Stevens is on the far left in this scene from The Perils of Pauline (Universal, 1933).
Davidson’s next serial was Burn ‘Em Up Barnes (Mascot, 1934), in which he played a small but pivotal role as a crooked race-car driver named Tom Chase. After failing in an attempt to kill the titular hero (Jack Mulhall) during a race, he tried to blackmail his villainous employers and was bumped off in Chapter Two; the hero was then framed for his murder and spent several ensuing chapters trying to clear himself.
Tailspin Tommy (Universal, 1934) returned Davidson to the boss-villain spot, but gave him only a little more screen time than he had enjoyed in Barnes; as an unscrupulous airline owner named “Tiger” Taggart, he made token appearances throughout Tommy–remaining inside his office and issuing orders to various underlings as he attempted run the rival Three Point airline out of business. Davidson made the most of his periodic appearances as Taggart, giving the hard-driving villain a ruthless and steely self-assurance.
The Call of the Savage (Universal, 1935) featured Davidson in its last two chapters as the scheming Prince Samu, the chief advisor to the Emperor of the lost jungle city of Mu–and the putative heir to the Emperor’s throne. When Mu’s noble captain of the guards (Harry Woods) returned from undeserved exile, bringing with him the Emperor’s long-lost daughter and true heir (Dorothy Short), Samu did his best to do away with the intruders, but was toppled from power when the Emperor learned of his treachery. Though Davidson entered the scene late in Call of the Savage, he came close to stealing the serial’s two concluding chapters–issuing orders with sweeping imperiousness, while engaging in palace intrigue with crafty cynicism.
Davidson didn’t make another serial until 1937, when he appeared in Columbia Pictures’ first chapterplay, Jungle Menace. As a shady doctor named Coleman, a member of a gang of rubber thieves, Davidson first appeared to assist in a murder in Chapter Three, but was arrested and dropped out of sight till he reappeared as a fugitive from justice in Chapter Eight; he became prominent in ensuing episodes, joining with two other fugitive heavies in an attempt to defeat both heroes and villains–but got drowned (off-camera) during a shipwreck in Chapter Eleven. Davidson played this seedy physician as a genteel souse, even though nothing was actually said about the character’s drinking habits in the script; he delivered his lines with comically overdone precision, beamed vacantly, walked around with an owlishly dignified but noticeably unsteady bearing–and stole each of the scenes that his character appeared in.
The Fighting Devil Dogs (Republic, 1938) featured Davidson in a brief but memorable bit as Lin Wing, the Consul for “Linchuria;” his character covertly tried to give the US authorities important information on the would-be world conqueror known as the Lightning–only to switch from suave cautiousness to panicked terror when the Lightning himself stepped from the shadows of the consul’s office (and killed Davidson’s character with an electrical pistol).
Davidson kept up his sporadic film career throughout the 1940s, appearing in A-movies, B-films like PRC’s The Devil Bat–and seven more serials, all of them Republic outings. The first of these chapterplays was King of the Royal Mounted (1940), which gave him a small role as Dr. Shelton, the head of a bogus sanitarium that was being used as a front for a Nazi mineral-smuggling operation. His best moments in this outing came when he unctuously tried to convince Mountie hero Allan Lane of the legitimacy of his medical establishment; this duplicity proved unsuccessful, and Davidson’s character was arrested soon afterwards.
The well-made and highly successful Adventures of Captain Marvel (Republic, 1941) cast Davidson as an Asian archeologist named Tal Chotali, who tried to dissuade his American colleagues from opening a supposedly cursed tomb in remote Siam; disregarding his warnings, the other archeologists broke into the tomb and discovered a powerful ancient “atom-smashing” device called the “Golden Scorpion.” One member of the archeological expedition soon began killing the others in hopes of gaining sole control of this device, assuming a mask and the alias of “the Scorpion” for the purpose; the inscrutable Tal Chotali frequently acted as if he might be the Scorpion himself–but ultimately proved to be innocent. This role was not the largest of Davidson’s serial parts, but it was definitely the most multifaceted–allowing him to be dignifiedly sneaky (when eavesdropping or otherwise behaving suspiciously), sternly authoritative (when rebuking rebellious native warriors), ghoulishly grim (when warning of the curse on the tomb), and even unfeignedly affable (when advising young hero Frank Coghlan Jr. in the final chapter). Davidson handled each aspect of the part with enjoyable flair, and made Tal Chotali an unusually distinctive “red herring” character.
Although the perennially popular Captain Marvel is probably Davidson’s best-remembered chapterplay, he received his most extended serial showcase in Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (Republic, 1941). As Lucifer, the brilliant scientific accomplice of the masked criminal known as the Ghost, he was technically a henchman but functioned as more of a co-mastermind, being treated as a respected equal by his boss throughout the serial. His character made many shrewd suggestions when discussing strategies with the Ghost, actively participated in numerous criminal endeavors, and provided the Ghost with the gadgetry he needed to execute his criminal schemes (chief among them an invisibility device). This part gave Davidson more scope for his particular brand of screen villainy than any of his other serial roles–and he took full advantage of it, using his inimitable voice and his formidable repertoire of sly facial expressions to make Lucifer seem suave, cold-blooded, and extremely wily.
Perils of Nyoka (Republic, 1942) featured Davidson as Lhoba, the sub-chief of an isolated tribe of sun-worshipping Touareg tribesmen; the tribal chief was amnesiac archeologist Henry Gordon (Robert Strange). Villainess Vultura (Lorna Gray) posed as the Sun Goddess and manipulated the two Touareg leaders into fighting against Gordon’s daughter Nyoka (Kay Aldridge)–who, with other explorers, was searching for the priceless Lost Tablets of Hippocrates. Gordon subsequently recovered his memory and aided his daughter and her friends in their quest–but provoked the ire of Lhoba by attempting to remove the tablets from their resting place in the Touaregs’ cavernous halls; the sub-chief subsequently proclaimed himself chief and rallied his men against the heroes, who narrowly escaped death before quitting the land of the Touaregs for good. Davidson’s appearances in Nyoka were intermittent, but he handled them with gusto–paying homage to Vultura with pop-eyed awe, grimly and fanatically invoking the Sun Goddess during a sacrificial ceremony, and furiously denouncing Gordon for his “sacrilege” towards the tablets.
Secret Service in Darkest Africa (Republic, 1943) gave Davidson a small non-villainous bit as a member of a council of pro-Allied North African sheikhs. Hero Rod Cameron called on him to examine a forged Moslem scroll that the Nazis had planned to use to turn the North African tribes against the Allies; Davidson’s humorously scornful dismissal of the bogus document was quite amusing. Davidson returned to evildoing in Captain America (Republic, 1944); as Gruber, the assistant of the mad genius Dr. Maldor (Lionel Atwill), he abetted his boss’s acts of vengeance against various scientists that Maldor felt had wronged him. Davidson had little dialogue in Captain America and never left Maldor’s museum headquarters; he spent most of his screen time smiling in evil approval of Maldor’s schemes, occasionally proffering a comment or a question.
Above: John Davidson operates a remote-controlled and explosives-filled truck, as George J. Lewis (right) and Lionel Atwill watch the truck’s progress on a screen in Captain America ((Republic, 1944).
Davidson’s final serial turn came in The Purple Monster Strikes (Republic, 1945), which told of a Martian agent (Roy Barcroft) sent to Earth to pave the way for a Martian invasion. Davidson made a few brief appearances as the grandiloquent Emperor of Mars, who periodically received Barcroft’s reports via a two-way televiewing device, and never failed to haughtily remind his emissary of the importance of his mission.
Davidson played a variety of bit parts in A-films (most of them for Twentieth-Century Fox) for the remainder of the 1940s and the early years of the 1950s; unlike many serial performers, he did very little television work. His film appearances became increasingly scarce as the 1950s wore on, and ceased entirely in the early 1960s; he passed away in Los Angeles in 1968.
If chapterplay producers had ever assigned John Davidson to play a character like Ming the Merciless, Dr. Satan, or Fu Manchu, he’d unquestionably be remembered as one of the serial genre’s greatest villains. However, while he never got a chance to bring his artfully theatrical acting style to a really meaty master-fiend role, he did use said style to establish himself as one of the most memorable of the serial genre’s supporting players.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to commenter and researcher James Swan for retrieving official documents and newspaper clippings which provided me with a wealth of information–including Davidson’s correct birth year, his real name and birthplace, the details of his stage career, his European trips, and his painting.