Wednesday, December 29, 2010

DVD Report: The Max Linder Box Set

[post 108]

The rediscovery and remastering of silent film classics, reintroducing these artists to the public by way of annotated DVD box sets, has been a  great gift to the physical comedy fan. First it was Chaplin and Keaton, then Lloyd and Langdon, followed by Charley Chase, Douglas Fairbanks and, most recently, that modern silent clown, Pierre Etaix.  And now finally the father of silent film comedy, Max Linder, is being justly celebrated for his pioneering career that spanned over 400 films, about 130 of which have survived, in a handsome 6-disc DVD set complete with historical commentaries and new musical scores by New York's own Ben Model.

Okay, I just made all that up. Yep, the DVD cover picture too.  (Blame Photoshop.) Sorry about that, but there's no Max Linder box set, no definitive collection, no historical retrospective. Which is a shame, not only because his work is so deserving of it, but because the passage of time means no one is still alive who worked with him (he died in 1925) to answer all our questions.  (Yes, I have questions.) Keaton and Chaplin were rediscovered in the 60s when they and many of their collaborators were still kicking, resulting in a treasure trove of material on their incredible body of work. No such luck here.

What we do have are two DVDs showcasing some of Linder's work, and it is these I will review here:

Laugh with Max Linder
Image Entertainment (2003)

Classic Video Streams (2009)

Laugh with Max Linder was compiled by his daughter Maud and is most valuable for containing his wonderful feature film, Seven Years Bad Luck. It also has a musical score composed to go with the actual films, whereas the Rare Films DVD uses some generic Dixieland music as a background throughout, which does more harm than good.  Oh well, just wait for that definitive DVD box set!

The Rare Films of Max Linder DVD is more recent but contains mostly early films from 1905 to 1912. To give this some chronological perspective, keep in mind that by the time Mack Sennett founded Keystone Studios in 1912, Linder had already made a couple of hundred films.  In 1913, Sennett hired Chaplin, who did not debut his tramp character until the following year. As for Keaton, his first film appearance wasn't until 1917, when he had a role in Fatty Arbuckle's   The Butcher Boy.

So Linder was pretty much on his own, ahead of his time and far from Hollywood, in the beginning grinding out a film a day for Pathé in Paris. In the process, he pretty much invented the comic narrative film. While early filmmakers often used gags as their subject matter (see these previous posts), it was Linder who developed a recognizable character — that of an often inebriated Paris dandy — and began to develop stories around him.  The first movies were nothing more than simple gag ideas, but over time Linder developed his foppish character, his storytelling skills, and his use of film language.

By the time you get to Linder's "feature-length" films (about an hour long), the artistic progress is very much in evidence. Now working in Hollywood and Paris, his fame eclipsed by Chaplin, Linder is still somewhat ahead of his time in shooting features.  Here are the dates of his four features:

The Little Cafe (1919)
Seven Years Bad Luck (1921)
Be My Wife (1921)
The Three Must Get-Theres (1922)

And the dates of the very first features made by Hollywood's fearsome foursome:
• Chaplin — The Kid, 1921
• Lloyd — A Sailor-Made Man, 1921
• Keaton — The Three Ages, 1923
• Langdon — Tramp. Tramp, Tramp, 1926

Max Linder: Character Actor
Max Linder the actor ( Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle) always played the character Max Linder, a well-to-do Parisian with a knack for getting himself into trouble, usually with women, often from too much drinking.  Here's a sequence from the opening of Seven Years Bad Luck:

Later in that movie, disguising himself to hide from the train conductors after having lost his ticket money, Linder shows his versatility as a comic actor:

Max Linder: Gag Meister
Most gags are older than the hills and were not invented by the famous performers who usually get all the credit. Linder's broken mirror routine predates the Marx Brothers by more than a decade, but of course he was hardly the first.  But you know me, I do get my jollies pointing out earlier versions of gags, so here are a couple from Linder's films that you may have seen elsewhere — and many years later.

Ye olde getting your coat caught around a pole routine, from Linder's  Max and the Quinquina (1911):

In case you were wondering about the card bit at the end:  nice plot device. In the first half of the movie, a drunken Linder insults every big shot in town, inciting each of them to challenge him to a duel at dawn, for which they each hand him their business card. In the second half, every time he gets into trouble he produces one of these cards, is immediately mistaken for the big shot, and is given preferential treatment.

And here's Buster Keaton ten years later in The Goat (1921):

And as Hovey Burgess reminds me, Soviet clown Oleg Popov did the same thing in his slack wire routine, "accidentally" wrapping his coat around the wire.  (I haven't been able to find a clip of him doing that exact bit, but probably have it somewhere and will add it here if I do locate it.)

Here's another classic bit from Be My Wife, his 1921 feature film of which only 13 minutes survive.  Max is disguised as a piano teacher so he can get closer to his beloved. When he discovers the piano is too far from the bench, he tries to move the piano rather than the bench. His girlfriend's aunt Agatha shows him the easier way:

And now here's the legendary Swiss clown Grock doing the same gag:

Grock started working with his first partner in 1903, so for all we know he may have beaten Linder to the punch with this one.  In any case, it's Grock who gets the most comedy out of it, fleshing out the gag with his clown's dumb determination and then allowing us to share in the joy this naive character experiences at the revelation that there is indeed a better way.  With Linder it doesn't really work because his far more clever character would never do that, unless as an intentional joke.

Also from Be My Wife is this extended sequence in which Linder stages a mock fight (with himself!) to impress his beloved Mary and especially her aunt that he is the better potential husband, and not Simon, the cowardly milquetoast rival that Aunt Agatha is promoting for the position.

And a similar sequence from Charley Chase's classic Mighty Like a Moose (1926).  Here's the wild situation: Charley and his wife both find themselves unattractive and both secretly undergo medical procedures to improve their looks.  They meet outside the home, fail to recognize each other, and start flirting. Charley is the first to realize the truth of the situation and, as a firm believer in the male's innate right to the double standard, schemes to punish his wife for cheating on him with himself.  Yes, wacky!  So Charley the husband beats up Charley the lover.

Although I hope to get around to writing in more depth about the variations on the broken mirror routine, any introduction to Linder would not be complete without his superb version of it from Seven Years Bad Luck.  In this clip, two amorous servants have just accidentally broken the mirror, and one of them enlists a buddy to hide the misdeed from Max.

What I most like about Linder's gag work, however, is how he learned to develop and integrate gags into his story.  His broken mirror routine can certainly stand on its own, but it is also integral to the plot because the seven years of bad luck that Max spends the whole movie hoping to avoid is triggered by the second breaking of the mirror.  Likewise in the same movie, you'll find a nifty gag wherein an imprisoned Max is cowered into scratching the back of his tough and bullying cellmate.  The reprise of this in the courtroom scene totally works...  but you'll just have to see the movie to know what I'm talking about!

Max Linder: Cinematographer
Coming from the theatre and making his first film in 1905, Linder was an early adapter to the form, no doubt learning through trial and error what worked in the new medium, how to use time, space, and special effects to create comedy beyond what he could do on stage.  In my interview with her, Maud Linder singled out the 1906 short, Max Takes a Bath, as a good example of her father's early use of film. 

Fast forward to 1921's Be My Wife, whose opening scene is a cute visual gag where an overprotective Aunt Agatha is fooled by an optical illusion.

Linder's success and the parallel progress of the art of film allowed him to work with other talented artists who brought greater production values to his movies.  One of these was Charles Van Enger, whose cinematographic talents are very much in evidence in the framing and lighting for Seven Years Bad Luck. Here's his bio from the Turner Classic Movies site.

Charles Van Enger (1890-1980), a leading cinematographer of the silent era, worked with Maurice Tourneur on films such as The Last of the Mohicans (1920) and with Ernst Lubitsch on The Marriage Circle (1924) and Lady Windermere's Fan (1925). Although credited as an assistant cameraman on The Phantom of the Opera (1925), he reputedly set up many important shots in that film. He spent much of his later career at Universal, working on everything from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). By the late 1950s, he was working mainly in television on shows such as Gilligan's Island.

Wow! From Max Linder to Gilligan's Island — now there's a career span.

Here's a rundown of what you'll find on each DVD:

Rare Films of Max Linder
A Skater’s Debut (1905) = 4:21
His First Cigar (1906) = 5:05
Max Gets Stuck Up (1906) = 3:01
Max Takes a Bath (1906) = 4:38
Legend of Ponchinella (1906) = 7:32
Max’s Hat (1908) = 8:55
Troubles of a Grass Widower (1908) = 9:48
Max and the Lady Doctor (1909) = 5:59
Max Fears the Dogs (1909) = 2:44
Max and the Quinquina (1911) = 16:44
Max Plays at Drama (1911) = 7:01
Max Juggling for Love (1912)     6:42
Max and his Dog (1912) -- 6:33
Max and the Statue (1912) = 9:58
Max and his Mother-in-Law (1912) = 24:12 (!!)
Be My Wife  (1921) = 13:33

Laugh with Max Linder
Boxing with Maurice Tourneur (1912) = 2:40
Love's Surprises (1913) = 6:13
Max Takes a Picture (1913) = 13:06
Max Sets the Style
(1914) = 8:53
Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) = 61:52
Be My Wife  (1921) = 13:33

Both of these DVDs are available from Amazon. Laugh with Max Linder is also available from Netflix and on Amazon video on demand.


Ben Model said...

Thanks for the mention in your opening teaser paragraph! The YouTube user "notremaxnational" has posted a ton of Linder films. Click here to go to notremax's YouTube channel to watch these.

Ben Model

Jonathan Lyons said...

I almost left an excited comment on facebook. Glad I read the full post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John! What a masterful article. I've seen the Linder doc put together by his daughter - but the film clips are rather ephemera - good to know more about the films and the timeline.

Dan Vie
Vancouver BC

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