As I've mentioned before, the first international film star was the French comic, Max Linder. He was also the first true film comedian—the first to develop a "language" of gesture and expression that not only overcame the limitations of silent film but took advantage of the relative intimacy of the medium.
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.
And now because I love you, I present my favorite Max Linder short, Max victime du quinquina (Max Takes Tonics) (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.
winner: Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, a.k.a. Little Nemo (prod. Winsor McCay)
nominees: L'inferno (prod. Milano Film); The Lonedale Operator (prod. D.W. Griffith); Manhattan Trade School For Girls (prod. unknown); Max Victime du Quinquina a.k.a. Max Takes Tonics (prod. Pathé Frères)
winner: Max Linder (Max victime du quinquina a.k.a. Max Takes Tonics)
winner: Dorothy West (Swords And Hearts)
nominees: Linda Arvidson (Enoch Arden Parts 1 & 2)
winner: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro (L'inferno)
nominees: D.W. Griffith (The Biograph Shorts); Max Linder (Max victime du quinquina a.k.a. Max Takes Tonics); Winsor McCay and J. Stuart Blackton (Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, a.k.a. Little Nemo)
Francesco Bertolini and Sandro Properzi (L'inferno) (Art Direction-Set Decoration); Emilio Roncarolo (L'inferno) (Cinematography)