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The Fall and Rise of Max Linder

There’s an autographed photo of Charlie Chaplin, inscribed “To the one and only Max, “The Professor”. From his disciple, Charlie Chaplin. May 12th 1917.”

The “Max” in this scenario was Max Linder, the seminal French comedian.  Chaplin was often stingy about acknowledging his debts to his various collaborators and peers, but he was never shy about praising Linder.  When Max Linder, died, Chaplin shuttered his studio for a day out of respect.

Linder’s influence extended far beyond Chaplin, though.  His screen comedy laid the groundwork for the entirety of the silent comedy era that followed: he made films full of absurd sight gags and slapstick, grounded in character and driven by farcical situations.  There’s scarcely a comedian who came in his wake whose work does not bear an overt and demonstrable debt to Linder’s.

That being said, Linder’s films are not nearly as well known as you’d expect given that background.  Some of his best works show up on TCM from time to time and are available on DVD; some of his pioneering early shorts are available on a Blu-Ray box set from France—true, true.  But being available and being watched are two different things.

Linder’s legacy is clouded, you see, by the unsettling facts of his life.  If I tell you “Max Linder is a genius of comedy, go see his films,” your next question is going to be, “Sounds great—tell me more about him.”  At which point, this whole conversation takes a sudden dark turn, and that’s the problem.

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The conventional wisdom in film history is that Charlie Chaplin heralded the start of the modern star system.  Prior to his success in Keystone films in 1914, the story goes, American movies didn’t bother to even mention the names of the performers—but that changed with Chaplin, whose name became a bankable commodity in itself.  This may be true with respect to Hollywood history, but in France, Max Linder was a marquee brand name in comedy years before anyone even heard of Chaplin.

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Funnily enough, “Max Linder” wasn’t his real name—he had to conjure up that stage name when his folks objected to his choice of career.  He was born Gabriel Leuvielle, son of prosperous winemakers.  He had little interest of following in the family business, though, and pursued an acting career.  This was too disreputable a profession for Father Leuvielle, who forbade him from using the Leuvielle name.  Rechristened “Max Linder,” he was recruited by Pathe in 1905 to appear in screen comedies, and immediately became a sensation.

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By 1910 he was the top movie actor in the world.  By 1912 he was directing his own films, and was the highest paid entertainer in the world.  Some competitors decided to mimic him and pass their films off as ersatz Linder films.  (How many of these career milestones sound like those of Chaplin to you?  All of them?)

He was so beloved, he was turned down by the French army in WWI when he tried to enlist—no, no, Monsieur Linder, we need you to keep entertaining us on screen, they said.

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Except, that’s not strictly true.  It’s not a lie per se, because I accurately repeated the story as it’s appears in most biographical histories of this great comedian.  But in the same way that the name “Max Linder” was a façade to hide the sting of a prosperous French family having a son choose a scandalous profession, this story about Max Linder being turned away by the French army is a story that was told to hide a painful truth.

The fact is he did serve, in some capacity.  And hee was injured, in some way possibly involving a bomb.  Maybe he was shot.  The details are sketchy and poorly documented.  But he emerged from WWI a wreck of his former self—and increasingly reliant on drugs to keep himself functional.

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Shell-shock haunted many veterans of WWI.  But it was rarely spoken of, and when it was spoken of, it was in dismissive and belittling terms.  The idea that brave young men could come back from war alive and physically sound but permanently psychologically scarred by the fundamental ugliness of war was a threat to too many patriotic myths.  Easier to blame to victims and move on.  But Linder was too big a pop cultural figure to simply ignore, too beloved to be blamed.  So, his wartime service was simply erased from cultural memory—he couldn’t be a war-damaged veteran if he’d never been to war, right?

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Meanwhile, Linder circled depression,  but he found a girl he loved.  She loved him back.  She was just a teenager (some bios increase her age to “18” to try to make this part of the story less skeevy—the life story of Max Linder is a mess of truthiness).  They ran off together, and the girl’s family decided to pretend they’d given consent to their marriage—yet another lie, yet another attempt to tamp down the scandal.  But it was a doomed relationship, and a drug-fueled one (if you wish to draw comparisons to Sid and Nancy here, I won’t object).

On November 1, 1925, the bloody bodies of Max and his young wife were found in their hotel bed.  It was a murder-suicide.

 

I’m trying to tell this story with as little sensationalism as possible.  I don’t want to take attention away from the glory of his comedy genius.  Because I don’t believe you have to erase the tragedy of his final days in order to appreciate his glorious artistry.

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It was in the earliest, formative years of cinema that Linder made such shorts as Entente Cordiale—involving the slapstick delivery of a piano, years before Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy tried their hands at such a premise.  Or Les Vacances de Max, in which he smuggles his wife inside his suitcase, in a strikingly Buster Keatonish mode.  Max et Jane veulent faire du theatre is a prototype of a Charley Chase farce, in which the titular Max and Jane try to avoid being set up by their matchmaking friends by donning absurd disguises to put each other off—only to end up falling in love despite the grotesque charades.

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Max prend un bain ends with a gloriously cartoonish finale in which comedy policemen scale a building to chase a runaway bathtub.  This is one of the rare moments where I can’t give Max the prize for being first–Ferdinand Zecca’s 1907 short The Policemen’s Little Run predates Max prend un bain by 3 years.  Oh, but wait—Linder’s film opens with a brilliant gag of trying to fill a bathtub one glass of water at a time, a joke borrowed many years later (several times, in fact) by Roscoe Arbuckle.

Linder is also often credited with creating the “mirror gag” later popularized by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.  That’s not entirely accurate, since Harold Lloyd filmed the routine in 1919, two years before Linder, but the point here is that Linder was first or among the first across a matrix of slapstick gags and joke structures that fueled the careers of the major comedians who followed in his wake.

And while that’s what he should be remembered for, that doesn’t mean we need to forget the truth of his life, with all its pain and tragedy.

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6 Responses The Fall and Rise of Max Linder
Posted By swac44 : January 16, 2016 1:50 pm

I’m guessing Linder was also a huge influence on Douglas Fairbanks, another mustachioed, handsome and debonair go-getter whose early success was in brisk physical comedy before moving on to the epics of Robin Hood and The Black Pirate. I have a laserdisc of the compilation film Pop Goes the Comic, which I believe is mostly made up of films he made for Essanay in the U.S., and on the back it just says that he was injured twice in the First World War and died in 1925.

I’d like to see more of his French films, I’m guessing the survival rate for them isn’t great give the effect of two world wars, but I hope TCM gives him some more screen time down the road.

Posted By Doug : January 16, 2016 5:28 pm

‘Comedy is pain’ is as true as ‘water is wet’.

Posted By Rob Farr : January 16, 2016 10:14 pm

Max’s 1925 suicide was sadly predictable. The New York Times reported on a suicide attempt soon after Max left America having made three unsuccessful features. I hope someone revives his first feature, Le Petit Cafe, made in 1919, and his last, King of the Circus. Multiple prints survive in European archives, but have never been released on DVD, in the US at least.

Posted By AL : January 17, 2016 11:29 pm

Dying is easy–comedy is hard

Posted By Ben Martin : January 18, 2016 5:24 pm

I remember reading how accident prone Max Linder was, having fallen from a ropes and such in live stage appearances more than once, and winding up in the hospital multiple times for extended stays. Also, it appears Linder was reported killed in action in WWI sometime in 1914. (Rumors squelched days later.) “Run over by a truck” or some such thing. He was a reckless driver with many accidents, including perhaps, as some speculate, the one that supposedly caused his near death in the war. (Falling behind on his Essanay contract in 1917 was attributed to chest shrapnel from the war.) Later his car accidents were sometimes considered suicide attempts. He was even arrested for speeding in Los Angeles during one of his several stays there. I believe his daughter wrote a book on him, but not sure it is available. The time might be right for a definitive biography (hint, hint.)
By the way, I wonder if you might sometime consider shining your incisive spotlight on one of my silent comedy heroes, the overlooked Lupino Lane.

Posted By preston122 : January 20, 2016 1:46 am

The daughter made a documentary on him in the 80s:

THE MAN IN THE SILK HAT
http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/505281/Man-in-the-Silk-Hat-The/

I screened it in a museum film series when it came out. Don’t know whether it’s still considered accurate. Anyone else familiar with it?

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