The Tragedy of Film’s First Comic: The Max Linder Collection

By Wade Sheeler

There was a time when he was the most famous comedian in the world. He was the highest paid actor, and broke all box-office records. He was the French Cinema’s greatest star before the First World War, but today, except for devoted fans, he’s not much more than a footnote. He was Max Linder. A man who Charlie Chaplin himself called, simply, “The Great Master.”

There’s been a small resurgence of interest in Linder in recent years, which you can probably thank Quentin Tarantino for. It’s the scene from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds where the young German soldier (Daniel Bruhl) is discussing film with the theatre owner (Melanie Laurent) who is changing her marquee sign out front to announce a Max Linder film festival. “I always preferred Linder to Chaplin,” says Bruhl. “Except Linder never made a film as good as The Kid.”  For those who pour over every line of Tarantino dialogue like Bible study, this was new information to many, and a Linder refocus was in order.

Thankfully, Kino Classics has aptly rewarded the curious with Slapstick Symposium: The Max Linder Collection, offering up four restored comedies on one DVD from Linder’s Hollywood period, 1917 – 1922. While purists argue his French films are superior, there’s enough in this current lineup to appease those who are searching for examples of this pioneering film comedian. Three of the four give examples of his screen alter-ego, “Max,” an elegant but “disaster-prone” bon vivant who falls in and out of trouble despite his best efforts to get drunk and steal the affections of whatever hapless woman is in his proximity.

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Max Wants a Divorce (1917) is the only “short” two reeler in the collection, and it follows Max, a newlywed, who receives a letter that he’s to inherit 3 million dollars from his deceased Uncle’s trust if he’s still a bachelor. (It’s kind of a reverse of the Buster Keaton comedy Seven Chances, eight years before it was conceived). He and his new bride consort to find a woman for Max to cheat with, then have a detective spot him, so they can get divorced, he can claim the inheritance, and then they can be remarried. While the state of the print is in pretty bad disrepair, there’s enough to deliver the necessary ingredients for several belly laughs and definite proof that Linder’s style is noteworthy. He and co-star Martha Mansfield have an adorable rapport, and are able to convey their true love for one another, even though Max is eager to seduce someone to guarantee the divorce. (Sadly, Mansfield wouldn’t live past the age of 25, after a tossed match during a shoot set her and her “highly combustible” dress on fire).

The first recorded “mirror” routine, Seven Years Bad Luck, 1921

Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), at 57 minutes, considered a feature at the time, is Linder’s most famous film, and allows him the opportunity to illustrate some of the great gags and scenarios that made him such a legend. Yet again, a wealthy yet effete dandy, Max’s butler and maid break his dressing mirror and find a way to make him think it was his doing. He then runs away from his fiancée and his life, thinking he can protect himself against an impending seven years of bad luck. And of course, Max’s ability to be his own worst nightmare insures the more he tries to achieve a low profile, the more trouble he gets into. He’s immediately stripped of his identity and cash by shrewd thieves and has to stowaway on a train, pose as a thief himself, then a station agent, racking up the charges and police officers hot on his trail at every turn. His brilliant use of physical comedy, combined with his subtle reactions and timing became an (admitted) template for Chaplin and Keaton, and belied the over-the-top mayhem that Mack Sennett and his Keystone Cops trademarked.

The standout gag is the mirror pantomime: Max’s cook imitates him, they shave and dress simultaneously, and the whole time keeping Max ignorant to the fact that the mirror is broken. The long takes and perfect synchronicity of the two meant this was a meticulously choreographed bit. It’s the first recorded example of this age-old routine, and was the inspiration for the Marx Brothers’ classic version from Duck Soup.

Be My Wife, also from 1921, is the standard story of the clueless Max winning over his fiancée although his behavior should warrant institutionalization. The girl’s aunt can’t stand Max, and keeps trying to sabotage the nuptials, and even after their marriage, works to reveal Max for the cad she believes he is. One of the many gifts Linder excelled at was his ability to wring humor out of a gag even when other comics would have exhausted the premise. A mouse being dropped down Max’s tuxedo while dancing with his bride may result in him squirming in spasms like we’ve seen in countless iterations, but little would we expect that before he rids himself of the rodent, it would given birth in his pants, so the routine continues with baby mice flying out of his coat and pants and ending up in other peoples clothes, finally decimating the entire reception. (Again, a gag used ad infinitum thoughout the decades, most recognizably with The Three Stooges.)

The final film of the series, The Three Must-Get-Theres, (1922) is a very funny parody of the Dumas classic, with Linder trading in the black tie and tails of “Max” for Cavalier costumed “D’Artagnan.” This is the most successful comically of the four, and what’s really surprising is Linder’s direction and execution; purposely bringing modern elements into this period piece. Musketeers are seen jumping into taxis, grabbing telephones and running into modern buildings. This makes the film feel fresh and spontaneous, much the way Mel Brooks would skewer period genres in Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles 50 years later.

Like Chaplin and Keaton, Linder directs all four of these fine examples, and in fact, directed, wrote and produced almost all of his films– a majority of which are sadly lost today.

Linder was most successful in Europe, even when silent filmmaking meant that with translated subtitles, any film could feel universal in story and scope. He started making movies in 1905, nine years before Chaplin first stepped in front of a camera. Between 1912 and 1917 he made 100 “Max” comedies, and while his films made him a household name across the Atlantic, he was only moderately successful in the states. He made two different attempts to produce films here, and even made a lifelong connection with Chaplin while in resident. In fact, the two were seen all over Hollywood together, staying up late discussing, choreographing and planning out gags and routines which Chaplin would heavily borrow for years.

With great talent can come great troubles and sadly, Linder suffered from a sickness hardly understood in the first half of the twentieth century; clinical depression. The illness first raised its head when he was an ambulance driver in the First World War. The atrocities he witnessed stayed with him long after the last shot was fired, and he had a hard time assimilating back into filmmaking. He seemed to get a handle on it, but his struggles in finding success in the states seemed to take its toll, and sometime during the making of The Three Must-Get-Theres, Linder admitted to close friends that he could no longer concentrate on his performance and gags, as he was obsessed with the specter of death. He and his then wife, Helene Jean Peters, only 18, were obviously bad for each other, as the two made a suicide pact. They overdosed on barbiturates, but were discovered in the hotel room before they could succumb. The attempt was covered up by Linder’s personal physician, but the two were hell bent on ending their lives, and only a little over a year later, on Halloween, 1925, after attending a performance of Quo Vadis where the characters slit their wrists, the two were inspired to try again, and succeeded.

Upon reviewing the available examples of Linder’s work, it’s no question that he inspired a generation of comedians and filmmakers to follow, but time has become the great equalizer. Born from a troubled mind was the work of a comic genius, as was the case so often afterwards, Linder deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated today. Kino’s collection is a great start, and hopefully, will yield an understanding of the “Great Master” as well as the discovery of more of his lost, and once cherished works.

About Wade Sheeler 152 Articles
Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he'll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

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