Silent Star of August 1996

Max Linder

Does this sound familiar? The valet, having broken the mirror, in desperation stands behind the empty frame, carefully mimicking his employer's every move.

If you guessed Max Linder, you would be right. This clever gag, invented by the dapper Parisian, was used to great effect in Seven Years Bad Luck in 1921.

"Max Linder" was born Gabriel Leuvielle December 16, 1883 in the French town of Saint Loubes near the wine district of Bordeaux. Born to wealthy parents, who owned vineyards, young Max was far more fascinated with the circuses and travelling shows that toured France at the time. A gifted mimic, Max entered the Bordeaux Conservatoire at age 16. After acting with various troupes and theatres, Max ended up before the cameras of Charles Pathe in July, 1905.

After a series of turns as a variety of characters, it wasn't until 1907 with The Skater's Debut that the introduction of the character "Max," the wealthy, well-tailored, man-about-town in morning clothes or tuxedo brought Linder success.

Perhaps a man before his time, Linder's "Max" was the screen's earliest distinctive film character. At a time when comedy was broadly played for laughs, Linder's Max was invariably a nattily-dressed sophisticate, the wastrel son of wealthy parents who got into one scrape after another yet who emerged unscathed.

One of the best and one of his more successful examples of his type of humor is the one-reeler Max and the Statue. Max attends a costume ball, dressed as a suit of armor. After drinking too much at the party, he passes out on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, during the evening, a new suit of armor to be unveiled at the Louvre the next day is stolen by a pair of thieves. The police, discovering the theft, stumble upon Max. They take him back to the Louvre where he is unveiled for the Museum committee. They depart, whereupon the thieves return, take Max, and, back in the hideout, attempt to open the armor with tools. Max awakens, scares the burglars, then, in the final frame, strolls away, strumming a guitar.

One can see from this bit the seeds of ideas that were later adapted by Chaplin and others. For example, in City Lights, Chaplin is found fast asleep, cradled in the arms of a public statue about to be unveiled. Indeed, during Linder's lifetime Chaplin was often quoted as praising "the professor," and acknowledging the debt he owed to Linder. Clearly, Chaplin's skater in The Rink owes much to Linder's skater in The Skater's Debut, and Max's arrogant headwaiter in Max is Forced to Work and Max - Headwaiter is echoed by Chaplin's waiter in Dough and Dynamite and Modern Times.

Linder's output was prolific; he literally made hundreds of the "Max" situation comedies, with titles such as Max Takes a Bath, Max's New Landlord, Max - Aeronaut, and Max in a Dilemma. Meanwhile, Linder's popularity spread, and by 1910 he was offered $12,000 to make personal appearances with his films in Germany. By 1913, his 2- month tour of Russia brought him $600 per day.

In 1914, the spectre of European war brought on periods of depression that were to haunt Linder to the end of his life. Deeply patriotic, Linder attempted to enlist in the French army. He was turned down, but was permitted to act as a chauffeur to deliver military dispatches between Paris and the front. During the First Battle of the Marne, Linder's car was hit, and was stranded in the icy waters under a bridge held by the Germans. Damage to his lungs excused him from further service.

The rest of Linder's life was marked by periods of deep depressions, including nervous breakdown, and periods of creativity and more films. While in the hospital in 1916, he was visited by George K. Spoor, president of Essanay films. Having lost Chaplin, Spoor wanted Linder to "take his place" and offered him $5,000 per week to write, direct, and star in 12 three-reel comedies to be made in the studio's Chicago location.

Chicago was a poor choice for Linder; the severe weather further antagonized his already-weak lungs. Additionally, his two first films for Essanay, Max Comes Across and Max Wants A Divorce, were poorly received, Linder believed, due to the studio's insistence on comparing Linder to Chaplin. His third film for the studio, Max and His Taxi, filmed in California at Linder's insistence, marked the end of the Essanay/Linder collaboration. Deeming the experiment a failure, in 1917 the contract was cancelled. Max returned to Paris, where he continued to make films.

Nonetheless, still determined to find success in America, Linder returned to Hollywood in 1919. He released Seven Years Bad Luck in 1921 and Be My Wife, also in 1921. He made his last U.S. attempt with The Three Must-Get-Theres in 1922, a lighthearted spoof of Fairbanks' The Three Musketeers.

All for naught. Linder's work, always successful in Europe, just never caught on in America. Defeated, he returned to Paris, where he halfheartedly made 2 more films. On August 2, 1923, he married 18-year old Helene Peters. Two years later they had a daughter, Maud Max Linder.

But Linder's depression, coupled with his disappointment over his failed film career, had finally pushed him to the edge. On October 30, 1925, Linder pressured his distraught wife into a suicide pact. They were found the next morning by her mother. Both died later that day.

Max Linder's contribution to silent comedy cannot be underestimated. His comic gestures, planned expressions, anachronisms, contrasts, and use of the unexpected, as well as his comic chase scenes (pursuits) became the comic inspiration for generations of comedians.

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Copyright © 1996 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
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