It's a busy day here at the Monkeyhouse—Katie-Bar-The-Door and I are celebrating our wedding anniversary, the dog is celebrating her fourth anniversary of being with us, and silent film comedian Max Linder is celebrating his birthday! Who was Max Linder? Why, the first international film superstar, that's who. If you've seen Martin Scorsese's recent movie Hugo, perhaps you spotted a couple of Max Linder posters in the background.
Anyway, in Max's honor, I've stitched together excerpts from three separate essays about silent film comedy into a single post focusing on his life and films.
The first international movie star was Max Linder, a French comedian not just in the style of Charlie Chaplin but the guy Chaplin was often imitating early in his career, a fact Chaplin himself freely acknowledged. Born to a family of vintners in the Bordeaux region of France, Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle joined a troupe of actors touring France. In Paris, he discovered motion pictures and signed with Pathé in 1905, changing his name at the same time. He made over two hundred movies in his career, most as the recurring character "Max," an upper class roué who is a bit baffled by practical matters.
Linder wrote and directed his own films and in the years before World War I, he was the biggest star in Europe.
Unlike most of the comics of this era, Linder largely eschewed the slapstick style of Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies in favor of gesture and reaction; and as film historian David Thomson points out, "there was little of the sentimentality that American comedians resorted to."
Thanks to the close-up, a storytelling device unique to film, an actor no longer had to play to the back row of the theater—the camera brought the back row to him. Whether intuitively or by design, Linder realized the broad gestures and inane dialogue of music hall comedy were largely devices for indicating to an audience what to pay attention to as the actors set up a gag. On film, simply lifting an eyebrow would suffice.
While situational comedy had been around since the theater of ancient Greece, until film allowed for recognizable settings, and more importantly, recognizable characters with recognizable needs and desires, film comedy was limited to the most simplistic gags. With a reel of film growing longer—around ten minutes rather than the 45-seconds of the Lumière brothers' standard offering—it became possible for filmmakers to put fully-realized characters and situations on the screen, and so far as I can tell, Linder's "Max" was the first three-dimensional character in the history of movie comedy. You can imagine "Max" existing before the cameras started rolling, continuing to exist after they stopped, and in between, behaving on screen the way a real person would, albeit at the heightened levels required of farce comedy.
With the elbow room to portray an actual character, Linder could derive laughs from the juxtaposition of this character—the dapper aristocrat—and the chaos he created around it, a welcome breakthrough, believe me, if you've suffered through more than a hundred comedy shorts featuring mischievous boys and one-note gags.
Not to mention he was just better at it than anybody else, until Charlie Chaplin came along in 1914 to raise the bar.
Because, as I mentioned before, Linder worked during a time when it was cheaper to buy a camera and steal an idea than to pay the rental fee on the original film, it's easy to compare and contrast the way different filmmakers handled the same comic idea—a laboratory experiment, if you will, in what is and isn't funny.
For example, one of the favorite props used to generate laughs in turn-of-the-century comedies was glue—apparently, a hundred years ago pots of the stuff just sat around waiting for people to fall in it. Alice Guy's La glu (The Glue) (1907) is typical of the era: a mischievous boy brushes glue on various surfaces—a staircase, a bicycle seat—much to the consternation of various adults. Basically a one-joke pony repeated over and over again to no great effect.
Linder, on the other hand, in the one-reeler Max ne se mariera pas (Max Is Stuck Up) (1910), built on the idea the way a classic comedian would. On his way to his fiancee's for dinner, Max stops at a bakery to conduct a little routine business and accidentally gets stuck to a sheet of flypaper. What begins as a minor inconvenience, shrugged off with bonhomie and good humor, becomes a minor annoyance, then becomes a potential source of embarrassment when he arrives for dinner only to find he's still stuck, and escalates into a full scale disaster as he and his future father-in-law wind up wrestling over a serving dish and destroying the entire set.
You've seen this sort of progression in a hundred comedies, from the Marx Brothers to Adam Sandler, but you didn't see it before Max Linder, not in a movie anyway.
My favorite Max Linder short is Max victime du quinquina (Max Takes Tonics), and his performance in it makes him my choice as the best actor of 1911. He made it three years before Chaplin, but if I had told you Linder copied it move for move from the little Tramp, I dare say you'd believe me. The intertitles are in French (with a German translation!), but there are only a couple and the gist is easy enough to figure out—feeling rundown, Max visits a doctor who prescribes a tonic of red wine and quinine bitters. Soon roaring drunk, Max is mistaken for a big shot and helped "home" by a helpful policeman.
It's in two parts:
Linder's career came to a virtual end during World War I after he was injured by mustard gas while serving as a dispatch driver in the French army. He never fully recovered and although he later made films at Chaplin's United Artists, he never again regained his audience. In 1925, he and his wife killed themselves as part of a suicide pact.
Postscript: And for those of you who can't get enough of Max Linder, here are two more short comedies, Max reprend sa liberté (a.k.a. Troubles of a Grasswidower) (1912) and Le hasard et l'amour (Love Surprises) (1913).
Max reprend sa liberté (1912)
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