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Alexei Davydov, sometimes actor and costume designer in Hollywood from 1928 to 1972, was born in Saratov, Russia, on May 12, 1893. He died in Los Angeles under the name Alexis Davidoff on November 30, 1972. There is precious little information about him on the internet, so let’s put together what we can.
According to US government records, he arrived in the United States in 1921. It appears that he came through New York, although I cannot confirm that for certain. It would also appear that he moved to California almost immediately upon arrival. There is a record of him applying for US citizenship on December 26, 1923, although it’s possible he did not receive a positive response to that application. He applied for citizenship again (or a renewal? – was there such a thing?) on February 14, 1929. He arrived with a wife, Seraphine (Serafima) Davidoff, whom he married at the age of 25, i.e., around 1918. They had a daughter Vera. I do not know what happened to Seraphine, but Davidoff’s wife at his death was the bit actor Frances Mack.
The closest I can come to placing Davidoff in an extended family – and it’s not very close – is when I occasionally find the middle initial of “D.” (The California Death Index, 1940-1997, offers the “D” initial.) That, of course, would be the patronymic in Russian, but it could refer to any number of names, so it really doesn’t help any. The one Russian source of information that I find uncharacteristically fails to provide a patronymic, and clearly just skims information off of Western sources (IMDB being the best of them). A Russian geneology chart for the prominent Davydov family does not include a listing for Alexei/Alexis.
I find Davidoff in the 1940 Census as living in “block No. 6” of N. Alexandria St. in Los Angeles. By 1942 he had moved to the small but neat location that we offer today: 350 N. Westbourne Dr., Los Angeles.
Davidoff appears to have begun his career in Hollywood in 1927, working on a potboiler called Surrender. As IMDB describes it, the story is about a young Jewish woman who “is forced to either give herself to a Russian officer or watch her village burn.” Davidoff was the technical advisor. This film starred the great Russian silent actor Ivan Mozzhukhin (the oft-met French spelling is Mosjoukine), alongside US star Mary Philbin. Universal Pictures hoped Mozzhukhin was going to be their next big star, but it didn’t turn out that way. He never worked in Hollywood again. Davidoff, however, had gotten a foothold in Hollywood and, according to IMDB, he now worked on three more films as a technical advisor on things Russian. These films also had him rubbing shoulders with interesting people. Tempest (1928) was made to a script written on the basis of a story by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater, and it starred John Barrymore. He advised on another Russian-themed film, The Woman Disputed (1929), a story similar to Surrender, starring Norma Talmadge. His last outing as a technical advisor was for Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored (1931), starring Marlene Dietrich as an Austrian spy in Russia.
Davidoff made his acting debut in Dishonored, playing an officer, although, as was frequent in his acting career, this performance went uncredited at the time.
IMDB tells us that between 1931 and 1953 Davidoff acted in 16 films, every one of them uncredited. When you read some of the blurbs for these movies, you can’t help but suspect he was happy not to be publicly associated with them. One film, World and the Flesh (1932), was still another of those potboilers about a virginal beauty having to bargain off her chastity to save others. You look at these plot descriptions and you wonder if Hollywood producers and writers of the time understood any other kind of plot. The kinds of roles Davidoff played were more or less of a kind: Traveler in Warsaw (Once Upon a Honeymoon, 1942), Interpreter in King Vidor’s An American Romance (1944), the Headwaiter at a Russian cafe in The Razor’s Edge (1946), three different waiters in three different films – Raw Deal (1948), Larceny (1948), and his last acting job, Half a Hero (1953), starring Red Skelton.
The British Film Institute adds a few acting credits that IMDB omits. They include: 5 Fingers (1952), where he played a Turkish guard, and Beau Geste (1939), where he played a Legionnaire. BFI also adds a technical advisor credit: The Most Dangerous Game (1932). This brings Davidoff’s total acting credits to at least 18, and his advisor’s credits to at least five.
As the acting jobs dried up, Davidoff began getting jobs in the costume departments of many films, sometimes (six, to be exact) as Costume Designer, but more often (21 times) as one of the employees in the wardrobe department – from costumer to wardrobe supervisor. His first job in this capacity was in 1956, and he continued on working regularly until 1964. All of the films were B-grade potboilers or Westerns. The first was a noir thriller called Accused of Murder, and the last was Apache Rifles. Some of the titles are expressive enough to bring up the sensation of an entire era: Duel at Apache Wells (1957), The Last Stagecoach West (1957), Taming Sutton’s Gal (1957), The Wayward Girl (1957), Juvenile Jungle (1958) and so on.
You’ve got to love some of the blurbs for films Davidoff worked on: “High school teacher gets in trouble when he tries to teach a class in sex education” (The Explosive Generation, 1961); “Teenpage punk-hoodlums steal a car and embark on a tragic joyride” (Young and Wild, 1958); “They played a dangerous game of chance with only their lives as the stakes” (An Affair in Reno, 1957), etc.
The MUBI film website offers photos from three films involving Davidoff – Panama Sal (1957) and The Hoodlum Priest (1961), where he designed the costumes, and Larceny (1948), where he performed one of his roles as a waiter.
The penultimate film on which Davidoff worked was Raoul Walsh’s A Distant Trumpet (1964), where he answered for the men’s wardrobe. This film has the rather dubious honor of being included in a book called 77 Movies That Just Missed Awards or Audience Applause. The book’s title notwithstanding, the author clearly has no love lost for the film. “It’s certainly not a whale of a good story,” writes John Howard Reid. …”the story is so weak and conventional and… its characters are such stereotypes… and are so weakly and flacidly played…,” well, you get the picture.
Finally, I’ll add that Davidoff is buried at Forest Lawn in Hollywood. And with that, I have said everything I can possibly say about this mostly unsung Russian immigrant who helped fuel Hollywood in its heyday.