If you love film history, you’ve probably heard that the dapper French comedian Max Linder is credited as being the first “name on all the posters” screen star. No less a celebrity than Charlie Chaplin would refer to Linder as “the professor.” But aside from that, many folks’ exposure to Linder is likely confined to viewing a couple short comedies, seeing a few portraits and stills, and hearing that the man’s life ended in some kind of tragedy.
Surprisingly for such a seminal figure, Linder’s been the subject of very few books…but that’s starting to change. Recently released from BearManor Media, Lisa Stein Haven’s The Rise & Fall of Max Linder is helping to fill a noticeable gap in silent comedy fans’ book collections.
Each area of Linder’s life is covered succinctly, from his childhood to stints with studios like Pathé, Essanay and so on. Haven shows that his “boulevardier” character seems to have evolved early on, and would’ve had wide appeal to the French audiences who flocked to see him at the theaters. The writing is straightforward and packed with facts and trivia (did you know even Linder had screen imitators à la Chaplin?). While there’s a veritable sea of theater dates, stage character names and film titles to account for in Linder’s life story, the book is breezily paced–fitting for an entertainer who seemed to have barely taken the time to breathe while working on an avalanche of plays and short films.
Equally impressive is the filmography, an amazingly detailed piece of work by Haven’s project partner Catherine Cormon. We’re talking not just titles and synopses, but film speeds, reel lengths, release titles in other languages, lists of archives known to have prints, etc. It’s eye-popping. Considering that Linder appeared in literally hundreds of films (the filmography is almost half the book!), let’s just say it must’ve been a daunting task.
As alluded to in the book’s title, Haven also illuminates the darker aspects of Linder’s life, which seem to have affected him longer than many people realize. While onscreen he was an enthusiastic, excitable boulevardier, offscreen his mental state grew increasingly shaky and he was constantly suffering internal ailments and various injuries. Significantly, it’s pointed out that morbid humor (plots about suicide, gun-related gags, etc.) crops up even in his earliest films. His mental decline and treatment of his family at the end of his life can make for a difficult read, and made my respect for his daughter Maud Linder increase even more. A champion of her father’s work while still being clear-eyed about his personal life, Maud knew far better than most how to separate an artist from his art.
The Rise & Fall of Max Linder is absolutely an important piece of silent comedy scholarship and a useful resource for students of early film (not to mention archives who just might have some Linder films stored away without knowing it). I have a feeling it will prod other researchers to seek out even more information about this singular performer–as Haven herself states in the preface: “…I hope it will be one very good book among many more on Linder in the years to come.”