One person in film that I research is French director Louis Gasnier, whose biography I contributed to Wikipedia at Louis Gasnier Biography. Gasnier worked closely with, and is said to have discovered, silent film comedian Max Linder (1883-1925). Back in the ‘Naughties I worked as an editor for a major media information site and contributed to them a piece about Linder. Yesterday I discovered this text in an old email, and checked their site only to discover that the poor biography this was designed to replace is still there; perhaps mine was never added. Although I have readied several blog posts for this Halloween season I suspect I might not be able to get any of them up this particular Halloween as I am swamped. This Max Linder piece, though, was written in 2009 and I’d prefer that it not go unpublished.
French actor-director Max Linder was the earliest comedian in the movies to enjoy international fame. Linder’s gracious and agile command of slapstick and rudimentary, but significant, explorations of the interaction between comedy and dramatic elements were a direct influence on further silent film comics; first and most importantly Charlie Chaplin, whose threadbare tramp costume was the polar opposite of Linder’s natty, top hatted gentleman.
A native of the Gironde region in France, Linder was already an established stage actor when he entered the cinema with Pathé Frères in 1905. Among his early directors was Louis J. Gasnier, who made Max Learns to Skate (1907), the film in which Linder introduced the character known to moviegoers as “Max,” in his trademark silk top hat, suit, walking stick and manicured moustache. This film and Troubles of a Grasswidower (1912) are the most frequently seen of Linder’s short comedies, and in their time these titles were popular throughout the world; in 1912, Linder was the most highly paid actor on the screen. Troubles of a Grasswidower was directed by Linder himself; from 1908 he began to direct some of his own films, though after 1912 he preferred to do so with the help of an assistant. Not all of Linder’s films were necessarily comedies; some had a semi-documentary flavor in which the character Max would interact with non-actors, and others had a serious components, with Max panicking, trying to kill himself or having an intense emotional reaction to something, or being placed in a situation of real danger – with Linder doing his own stunts. European audiences were so fascinated with the character that at the peak of his popularity they followed him in whatever he did.
Linder was already high-strung and unstable psychologically by the time World War I broke out, but nevertheless left the movies in 1914 in order to join the war effort. Linder was wounded very seriously at least twice; being gassed in one instance and managing to survive when a shell hit the car he was driving as a volunteer. Ultimately, the French Army refused to allow Linder to return to active duty; the experience left him in poor health both physically and emotionally. Although he made a few films during this time, he found it difficult to return to his profession. The American Essanay Company stepped in at this juncture; their top comedy star, Charlie Chaplin, had left them and they were looking for Linder to replace him. Linder’s made three two reelers for Essanay, his first American films, but they were better received in Europe than in the United States, and Essanay swiftly cancelled his contract.
Linder resumed his career in Europe, but suffered a nervous breakdown and spent most of 1918-19 in a Swiss sanatorium. In 1921, he returned to Hollywood, founded his own production company and made three features of which the first, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) is the most frequently shown – its “mirror sequence” was later famously co-opted by The Marx Brothers, though Linder may have cribbed it from Chaplin. Although it is a virtuoso comic turn, Linder was already confiding to friends by this time that he no longer thought he was funny.
Notwithstanding, Linder enjoyed one more extraordinary artistic success upon his return to Europe with Au Secours! (1924) a short film made in collaboration with his old friend Abel Gance that combined elements of comedy, horror and experimental film techniques. That year, Linder also married, had a daughter, and it appeared that his life was back on track. Tragically, on Halloween 1925, Linder and his young wife perished in an agonizing double suicide (or murder/suicide; the truth is not known even today), an event which sent shock waves throughout the industry and for a long time irreparably damaged Linder’s reputation as a comic and movie star. The daughter, however, survived, and Maud Linder lived to play a critical role in Linder’s rehabilitation, first through producing the compilation film Laugh with Max Linder (1963) and then in directing the documentary The Man in the Silk Hat (1983), both devoted to her father. Max Linder made at least 200 films; some sources claim a figure closer to 500, but the true figure remains as yet unknown. Linder directed half of his known output: about a hundred of his films survive and continue to be seen in Europe, particularly in France, but only a handful are seen with any regularity elsewhere. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis
At that time there was a YouTube channel called “notremaxnational” which hosted about 75 Max Linder videos, and I regret that I did not see them all before the site was taken down. After Keystone, in Chaplin one notes a growing unanimity of style; the Little Tramp’s adventures and character are gradually refined down to the smallest detail in a vision that grows increasingly limited, though not without making gains in poignancy, depth, comic effect and great cinematic skill. What typifies Max Linder is a sense of variety; sometimes his films are comedies, sometimes not. But what unifies many of them is his desire to epatér le bourgeois which came long before the surrealists; the constant tribulations and follies of his prosperous, and panicky, character contained a grain of truth and satire. He knew that the dapper bourgeois of his day was doomed, but to the detriment of his health he sought to protect the society that he knew so well. I think of Max around Halloween; that his life ended as the self-destructive monster he became is not something I’ll ever fully understand, much as I comprehend and accept that his lesser contemporary Billie Ritchie was a self-centered jerk who was his own worst enemy. Knowing these things do not prevent me from enjoying either Ritchie or Linder, though in Linder’s case I do feel an additional kind of sadness; his work seldom gets much attention though his accomplishments were huge, and the nature of his fate will always keep some viewers away from his door. Nevertheless, Linder’s prodigious body of work is what it is, and I think everyone who cares about film should at least be aware of him. For those who are willing to follow the adventures of the “Man in the Silk Top Hat” there is a lot to discover and enjoy; Max Linder’s output is unique. — David Neal Lewis, Hamilton, OH 10-27-2015