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A short, elegantly coifed, mustachioed gentleman shuffles into the room, a seemingly flawless and handsome example of the French bourgeoisie in the early twentieth century. The man, awkwardly shuffling, clumsily determined, dapper and yet disarming, attempts to charm a lovely young woman, occasionally succeeding.

One of the most successful comic actors of the silent film era, Max Linder starred in several hundred films, most of which he wrote and directed himself. In 1912, he was the highest paid French actor in the world, making an incredible one million francs that year.

In Republic of Images, Alan Williams refers to him as “indeed the entire French cinema’s greatest star of the prewar period." As David Cook explains in A History of Narrative Film, Max “became world famous for his subtle impersonation of an elegant but disaster-prone man-about-town in prewar Paris." Despite his monumental popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, today Linder is relatively unknown to American film scholars and aficionados alike.

Max Linder was born Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle on December 16th, 1883, in the small village of St. Loubes, Gironde, in Bordeaux, France. His parents were grape farmers who supplied many wine manufacturers and controlled a large vineyard, and they wanted nothing more for Max than what he already knew, but a career in grapes was the last among his goals. Max showed an early penchant for the stage, and as a teenager he enrolled in the Bordeaux Conservatory where he studied drama, eventually performing in local theatre productions.

Max was doing what he loved, but he longed for the spotlight, and a larger audience was necessary for his star to rise in the way he knew that it would. While working at the Ambigu theatre after moving to Paris in 1904, Max dropped his birth name and started calling himself Max Linder.

While continually attempting to pass the entrance exam for the Paris Conservatory (he failed the test at least three times), Max landed his first roles via the extras casting coordinator at the Ambigu, Louis Gasnier, who also happened to direct films for Pathé, and quickly took a liking to young Max and cast him in his first film, La Premiere Sortie d’un collegien, or The School Boy’s First Outing, in 1905.

Things appeared to be changing dramatically for Max when, in 1907, he was chosen to fill a role made popular by a successful comic actor known simply as Grehan after he left for another studio. Williams states, “Linder was chosen to fill Grehan’s shoes, as well as his evening coat, dress shirt, and tie. Assuming the costume and much of the manner of Grehan’s character ‘Gontran,’ Linder made, under Gasnier’s direction, Les Debuts d’un patineur/Max Learns to Skate (1907), the first work in which he becomes, recognizably, ‘Max’." Unfortunately, neither the real Max nor the Max character made much of an impression, though Linder stayed on with Pathé and worked on other projects.

Two years later, in 1909, Max reprised his version of Grehan’s Gontran, and all of a sudden he was a star. Between the years of 1909 and 1914, Max Linder made a film almost every two weeks, and he rocketed into the position of the first real international star of the cinema. According to Williams, “He made tours of Spain, Russia, Germany, Eastern Europe. Everywhere he was mobbed. Women were said to contemplate suicide at the thought of his inaccessibility."

Max created one of the most memorable stage presences the cinema had known in its short history. Most of his films, as stated on the website Collector’s Homepage, “revolved around the blameless bachelor Max who lives in luxury and gets into funny situations because he is after a well-behaved, pretty young lady."

Unlike some of his successors, like Mack Sennett, who relied on an overt, exaggerated or a more “slapstick" comic style, Max, according to Rick DeCroix in his article “The Man in the Silk Hat," “specialized in a more refined and subtle comedy mode. An early practitioner of situation comedy, his films invariably concerned the uprooting of social expectations and mores." In other words, Max relied upon more reserved gestures and expressive facial expressions than some of his contemporaries who pandered more overtly to the camera. As Williams has commented, “Broad slapstick would in any event have been out of place with the Max character, a distracted bourgeois dandy played with a real sense of what it meant to belong to the bourgeoisie."

A sort of all-purpose and moderately successful character actor, once Max stepped into his version of Grehan’s likeable, clumsy dandy, he had found his niche and never looked back; Linder could easily be called the father of typecasting, though he didn’t seem to mind. As the website Mugshots argues, he “exemplified the French ideal of joie de vie, always coming up smiling no matter what disaster befell him."

The key to Max’s international, cross-cultural, and class-transcending fame was his ability to make different people laugh for different reasons. Though Max was always impeccably dressed in the requisite tuxedo and tails, with a top hat and a cane, all clear signifiers of the aristocracy, his bumbling antics could interest anyone from a tramp to a duke.

Linder had a real talent for holding the viewer’s attention and making the most out of minimal sets and plots. In “Laugh with Max Linder," Mark Zimmer explains that Max was always “willing to milk a situation for all its worth and then change locales to set up the next set of gags." The bourgeoisie could laugh at him for being a misdirected one of their own, constantly managing to get himself into difficult and amusing situations, like in Le Chapeau de Max (1913) when he is invited to a formal dinner, and has an impossibly difficult time selecting and retaining the perfect hat for the occasion, or in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), when Max breaks a mirror, and despite spending the rest of the film attempting to avoid situations which would cause him trouble, he still brings the worst kind of luck upon himself. This film, one of Max’s most famous, features a scene in which Max mimics himself in a mirror, a difficult technical marvel that, filmed with a double, took an incredible amount of time to rehearse, but some viewers still think of it as the first and the best “broken mirror" scene ever filmed. Zimmer comments, “Particularly notable is the early sequence where his valet (who originally broke the mirror himself) sets up the cook to mirror Max’s every move in the frame. This gag was of course picked up by others such as the Marx Brothers, but it’s fluently pulled off here, with exquisite timing and very long takes that must have required a great deal of effort to achieve."

Bourgeoisie viewers could relate to the situations and laugh at Linder’s impropriety and inability to assimilate properly, while working class and other viewers could simply laugh at Linder’s good natured buffoonery, his character’s tendency toward the bottle, and his weakness for attractive young ladies. As Williams reminds us, most of Max’s humor “springs from the conflict between Max’s extreme self-confidence, as aspect of his social position, and his incompetence at even the simplest tasks."

Linder influenced everyone from Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin to Fatty Arbuckle, Abbot and Costello, and The Three Stooges. “Although he expanded and developed Max’s comic persona, Chaplin would borrow virtually intact Linder’s restrained, minimal methods in using the film medium, " Williams states. Indeed, Chaplin paid homage to Linder on several occasions, both referring to him as “my professor," as DeCroix explains, and, according to the Collector’s Homepage, dedicating at least one of his films to Max with this tribute: “For the unique Max, the great master—his student Charles Chaplin."

By 1910, Linder had been writing and supervising, and by 1911 also directing, all his own films. His popularity was at its peak in 1914, when he went to war. Linder fought in the French army for two years of World War I, and afterward his career was never the same. He had been a victim of a German poisonous gas attack, and his already slight constitution was irreversibly affected. He returned briefly to French films, but finding his popularity vanishing, he accepted an offer from Essanay and moved to the US in 1916.

Continuous bad health affected the American phase of his career. In mid-1917, after only three films, he got double pneumonia and spent nearly a year recovering in a Swiss sanitarium. When he returned to the US in 1921, he formed his own production unit, releasing through United Artists. But after making only three more American films, including the famous parody of Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers, The Three Must-Get-Theres, he returned to Europe, where he married the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Paris restaurateur in 1923, Jean Peters. Max was forty-years-old. Soon thereafter, by many accounts, Max was sinking into a deep depression, dealing with his fading stardom and his ill health.

In 1925, Max and his young bride poisoned themselves and slit their wrists, leaving an infant daughter behind. Nearly forty years after Max’s shocking death, his daughter, Maud Linder, started a campaign to bring her father’s legacy back to light. In 1963, Maud Linder wrote and directed a film tribute to her father entitled En Compagnie de Max Linder, also known as Laugh with Max Linder or Pop Goes the Cork. This pseudo-documentary, nearly impossible to find, was narrated by the legendary filmmaker, René Clair, and features many clips of the great Linder, in his element. However, the film received little attention, and according to many critics, her efforts only deepened the mystery surrounding the premature death of one of silent cinema’s great artists.

Maud Linder was not satisfied with her work, and twenty years later, she decided to make another attempt to honor her late father on the big screen. In 1983, she released L’Homme au chapeau de soie, or The Man in the Silk Hat. This time Maude Linder wrote, directed, and narrated her documentary, but to no avail. Though her second effort would not slip into obscurity just as easily as her father or her previous film had, it too received little notice, though cult fan groups hoard it as the only “documentary" available on the elusive Max. Unfortunately for those who wish to know the real man, those who appreciate the truth, The Man in the Silk Hat answers precious few tough questions. As DeCroix tells us, “The Man in the Silk Hat is a film with one main purpose: the resurrection of Max Linder’s position in the film comedy pantheon. Obviously, it is a labor of love, and therein lie certain obstacles. Always striving to fulfill its goal, this documentary celebrates rather than investigates. We learn much of Linder’s engaging screen presence but little of his tormented private life."

DeCroix’s call for investigation is not unwarranted but none have answered it. Few film scholars disagree with the placement of Max Linder near the top the catalog of talented, influential, and beloved comic actors, but his daughter’s films seems to leave us wanting more. According to Maud herself, “There was no real explanation for this tragedy [the double suicide] and I never tried to find one."

Max Linder is compelling because of his talent and because of his personal story. He rose from modest beginnings as a grape-farmer’s son to become the greatest movie star the world had ever known. He fought for his country, slowly slipped in popularity, and died a shocking, mysterious death. His films appealed to just about anyone who liked the cinema, he influenced some of the most famous comedians of all time, and now, shockingly, tragically, he is largely unknown.

November 2004

From guest contributor Chris Driver

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