At first glance, he appears to be an actor from society dramas. He had perfectly creased trousers, well-shined shoes, a coat and tie, white gloves, and, most impressively of all, a high silk top hat brushed to a fine sheen. But then there’s those big, practically bulging eyes–eyes that could only belong to a comedian.
These are the eyes of Max Linder, a film comedy pioneer that paved the way for all the great comedians of the silent era and beyond. If there’s a comedy routine you like, chances are Linder got there first. While he isn’t as well-known today as folks like Buster Keaton or Mabel Normand, Linder shares their aura of timelessness. All he needs is to be introduced to new audiences–for who today in this era of steampunk and all things vintage can resist comedies starring a dapper Edwardian gentleman with a tidy mustache and a top hat?
Linder was born on December 16, 1883. Fittingly, the “Man in the Silk Hat” was originally Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle, the son of wealthy vineyard owners in Saint-Loubès in the Bordeaux region of France. His parents hoped their high-spirited boy would one day run the family business, but Max felt “life among the grapes” was no match for the excitement of the theater.
He was sent to the boarding school Lycée de Talence, possibly so he’d become more disciplined, but Max was soon merrily staging plays with his fellow students. When he was a teen a family friend helped him enroll in the Conservatoire de Bordeaux. Max won awards for drama and comedy, became a contract player with the Bordeaux Théâtre des Arts, and eventually worked his way through various regional theaters. His parents were none too pleased with all of this–their son, an actor! His father forbid Max from using and thereby besmirching the name of “Leuvielle,” so he tried adopting the name Max Lacerda. But it was discarded when a better name appeared: “Linder,” which he spied on the sign of a shoe shop.
Around 1905 he also began to act for Pathé Frères, a topnotch film company quickly gaining stature in young world of the cinema. His parts were small at first, and it’s thought that his first large-ish role was in La Première sortie d’un collégien (1905), otherwise known as The Young Man’s First Outing or First Night Out. When Pathé’s slapstick comedian René Gréhan left the company, Max was asked to take over his character–that of a well-dressed gentleman. He took the character and ran with it, affecting a persona of an immaculately-groomed boulevardier dressed to the nines and constantly either blundering into trouble or getting carried away by his own enthusiasm.
Pathé decided to feature Linder as a star, beginning with the brief short Max Wants to Skate (1907). A plethora of shorts followed, many with the name of “Max”: Max Foils the Police, Max Takes a Bath, Max is Forced to Work, etc. In 1909 Pathé launched a full-on publicity campaign for Linder, the first one for a film actor–predating a similar campaign for U.S. star Florence Lawrence. Linder’s fame began to spread, and by the end of 1910 he was one of the world’s most popular film actors–if not the most popular. There were other noted film comedians at the time, such as André Deed, but in the days before Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Buster Keaton, “The Man in the Silk Hat” arguably stood alone.
By 1912 the superstar had assumed complete control over his shorts, which he churned out amazingly fast–some were completed in a day. He had an eye for camera setups and a clear flow of action, and many of his interior sets retain their elegant French charm today. His enthusiastic “Max” character blundered through an endless variety of quests to try new things, or to get a girl, or to simply run his own household. His light comedy-style situations usually came with a slapstick twist. In one film he might attempt to become a boxer and end up in the ring wearing rollerskates, in another he might get a new top hat which keeps getting crushed, and in another he might take part in a duel…on horseback…in a parlor.
Although he had the option, Linder didn’t use thick makeup or fake mustaches or funny clothes as was common on the stage and screen. His humor came from his energy, timing, physical skills and expressive face–especially those manic eyes.
1912-1914 were perhaps Linder’s “golden years,” only cut short by the vast conflict of World War I. He patriotically attempted to enlist in the army, but was declared physically unfit. Undaunted, he became a dispatch driver on the front lines and was injured in the line of duty. Exactly what those injuries were is hard to confirm. Various reports stated everything from mustard gas inhalation to pneumonia to a bullet through his lung–one paper even proclaimed that he had been killed (a story which was only retracted after Linder himself telephoned the publisher). Whatever the case, it’s thought that Linder suffered from WWI-related PTSD until the end of his life.
In 1916 the Essanay studio in the U.S. invited Linder to appear in their shorts. He agreed, and made the two-reeler Max Comes Across (1917), followed by Max Wants a Divorce and Max and His Taxi. Unfortunately the films were not very successful, and Linder would soon return to Europe…but not before befriending the new star Charlie Chaplin (who idolized Linder, referring to him as “the professor”).
After this, Linder’s filmmaking became more sporadic. He opened a theater (the Ciné Max Linder, which still exists although the building is different), but only appeared in The Little Cafe (1919) before returning to the U.S. to attempt a comeback. He started his own production company and drummed up publicity in interviews. Emma-Lindsay Squier, an interviewer from Picture-Play Magazine, joked about her difficulty in trying to communicate with the French-speaking star and shared her impressions of him:
Max is small of stature, with brown eyes of amazing brilliancy and vivacity. His face is marvelously expressive, and his hands speak every language in the world. He illustrates everything when he talks, from dying with the fever to sewing on a button. He is always on the alert, quick of speech and action, and a born pantomimist. He has a friendly way of putting his hand on your arm in moments of emphasis. He dresses in a manner essentially Continental, gaining an effect of smartness without ostentation.
In that particular interview Linder spoke proudly of being a “what you say–pioneer–in picture work,” and described what it was like to make comedies in those early days (Squier’s “French accent” spellings included): “We work from nine in ze morning to four in ze afternoon, and zen–she was fineesh!” He also earnestly explained that French comedies were not risqué, as Squier had assumed: “…Ze screen is for children–for everyone; comprenez-vous? Eet is necessaire to be veree careful. I never make a screen comedie which is risqué–jamais!”
During his second round in the U.S. Linder made what many consider to be his most hilarious picture, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), containing the famous “mirror routine” years before the Marx Brothers would use it in Duck Soup. But he wasn’t quite satisfied. He tried his hand at satire with The Three-Must-Get-Theres (1922), a sendoff of the Three Musketeers. It wasn’t successful, and Linder began to feel he was losing his touch. He returned to France for the last time.
He only appeared in three more films. The most famous one today is the two-reeler Au Secours! (1924), the result of betting Abel Gance that he couldn’t make a short film in only a few days. (One wonders if Linder had been bragging about how quickly he had churned out shorts back in the 1910s.)
Au Secours! is notable as a quirky mixture of drama and comedy with some experimental shots thrown in. But in my opinion it’s also notable for the startling scene where Linder’s character thinks his wife is in grave danger and he nearly goes out of his mind with horror. A closeup captures his screaming, raving terror in a way that’s almost uncomfortable.
Linder’s PTSD had been worsening for years. Newspapers would quote him talking about the horrors of WWI, and by the mid-1920s depression made it difficult for him to work. Pictures show his face looking increasingly lined and haggard. Linder had married 18-year-old Hélène Peters in 1923–it was his only marriage–and not long after the couple had a daughter, Maud. But Linder’s increasing instability took a tragic toll. In 1925, after attending a performance of Quo Vadis in Paris on October 31st, the couple returned to their hotel and ended their own lives. (Some sources say Linder coerced his wife into it.)
Tragic ends tend to overshadow stars’ talents. Discussions inevitably turn to their untimely deaths or unfortunate scandals, and the actors themselves turn into shadows, “familiar names” that crop up in book after book with little sense of the real human beings behind them. Olive Thomas, Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle are a few prime examples (although historians are working on it).
But by some strange (kind?) twist of fate, the actor with one of the most horrifying and saddening ends of all seems to have fared a little better. Yes, there are articles that talk about his death, and silent film fans certainly know about it, but if I post a picture of Max on social media it’s not necessarily going to be flooded with comments about what a tragic, sad figure he is, or get bogged down with endless speculation on the circumstances of his death, etc. etc. etc. (If I post a picture of Arbuckle, now, there’s an inevitable chorus of “Poor guy,” “Such a sad story” and “Maude delmont was a #$%@#%!!”)
No doubt this is partly because Linder isn’t as well known as other comedians. But it’s an oddly lucky break, nonetheless.
But Linder’s tale has had one more twist of fate–or perhaps, a touch of grace–in the form of his daughter Maud. Only a year and a half old when her parents died, she was raised by her grandmother and knew nothing about her parents until she was 10. At age 20, she saw one of her father’s films for the first time. While she didn’t have warm feelings towards the father who left her and took her mother with him, Maud strongly felt that the artist was someone whose work needed to be preserved. She decided to find and save as many of his films as she could.
In this 2010 interview with physical comedy blog All Fall Down, Maud frankly explained her motivation behind this task:
…It’s not because he’s my father. He’s the most lousy father that you could think of…killed my mother, killed himself, left me at 15 months…But when I saw him on the screen when I was twenty, I thought, “Bad father, fine, but anybody can be a father, but very few people are good creators.” So I forget about the father, I don’t say “daddy”…but I do say “Max Linder.” And I think that he really deserves to have–to be better known and show his films much more, and in good condition…
She has since located much of his work, compiled the film Laugh With Max Linder, released a documentary called The Man in the Silk Hat, and written a book, Max Linder etait mon pere. As a result of her many years of dedication, his charming films survive to be studied and enjoyed today.
It’s been well over a century since Max Linder first stepped in front of the camera, but his vivid personality and wonderful gags are as fresh as ever. With his instantly appealing image of a silk-hatted gentleman, Linder is prime to become an inspiration to new generations of comedians. And to film historians and preservationists, the daughter who did the most to make that possible is already an inspiration.
Golden, Eve. Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000.
Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
Massa, Steve. Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2013.
I found the following articles very interesting:
And I very much enjoyed this tribute to Linder by blogger The Nitrate Diva: