Friday, July 12, 2013

Dead French in L.A.: Max Linder Directed Here 1916-1922 Chaplin's Friend

Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle (16 December 1883 – 31 October 1925), better known by the stage name Max Linder, was a French actor, director, screenwriter, producer and comedian of the silent film era. His onscreen persona "Max" was one of the first recognizable recurring characters in film.

Linder (born Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle) was born on December 16, 1883 in Caverne, near Saint-Loubès, Gironde, France. His Catholic parents were wealthy vineyard owners and expected Linder to take over the family business; his older brother Maurice Leuvielle (b. June 28, 1881 in Saint-Loubès) had become a celebrated national rugby player. But Linder grew up with a passion for the theatre and was enthralled by the traveling theater and circus performances that occasionally visited his town. He later wrote that "nothing was more distasteful to me than the thought of a life among the grapes."[1]

Max Linder enrolled in the Bordeaux Conservatorie in 1899. He soon received awards for his performances and continued to pursue a career in the legitimate theatre. He became a contract player with the Bordeaux Théâtre des Arts from 1901 to 1904, performing in plays by Molière, Pierre Corneille and Alfred de Musset.

In the early 1900s, Linder appeared in short comedy films for Pathé, usually in supporting roles. His first major film role was in the Georges Méliès-like fantasy film The Legend of Punching. During the following years, Linder made more than one hundred short films portraying "Max," a wealthy and dapper man-about-town frequently in hot water because of his penchant for beautiful women and the good life. Starting with The Skater's Debut in 1907, the character became one of the first identifiable motion-picture characters who appeared in successive situation comedies. In 1911, Linder began co-directing his own films (with René LePrince) as well as writing the scripts.

During the first world war, Linder worked as a dispatch driver and entertainer. It was during this time he suffered his first outbreak of chronic depression. In 1916, Linder moved to the U.S where he became a major star and formed his own production company in 1921. After a brief move back to France, he returned to the US and made Seven Years Bad Luck and Be My Wife but neither were able to find a major audience in the US. Other films followed, including The Three Must-Get-Theres and Au Secours! which became a success with English critics. However, the later films proved unpopular with American audiences and as a result, Linder became depressed. He made his last film The King of the Circus in 1925, but his illness worsened. In 1925 he committed suicide along with his wife of two years Heléne "Jean" Peters.

Move to the US and career decline 1916–1925

In 1916, Linder was approach by American film producer George K. Spoor, the president of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, to make twelve short films for him in the US at a salary of $5,000 a week. Earlier that year Charlie Chaplin, then the most popular comedian in the world, had left Essanay for more money and independence at Mutual Film and Spoor wanted to replace Chaplin with Max Linder. whose pantomime skills were equally accomplished. Linder was offered a new contract from Charles Pathé, but accepted Spoor's offer and moved to the United States to work for Essanay later that year. Unfortunately his first few American-made "Max" films were unpopular both critically and financially. The first two, Max Comes Across and Max Wants a Divorce were complete failures, but the third film, Max and his Taxi was moderately successful. The financially troubled studio may have been counting on Linder to restore its flagging fortunes and cancelled production of the remaining films on Linder's contract.[1] Max and his Taxi had been shot in Hollywood and while there Linder had developed a close friendship with Charlie Chaplin. They would often attend events such as boxing matches or car races together, and according to writer Jack Spears, "while working on a picture Linder would go next door to Chaplin's home and discuss the day's shooting. The two often sat until dawn, developing and refining the gags. Chaplin's suggestions were invaluable, Linder said."[1]

Linder returned to France in 1917 and opened a movie theater, the Ciné Max Linder. But due to his depression and anxiety about the still ongoing war, he was unable to continue making films and was often quoted by journalists about the horrors of the front lines. After the Armistice in 1918, Linder was able to regain his enthusiasm and agreed to make a film with director Raymond Bernard, the feature length The Little Café in 1919. In the film, Linder plays a waiter who suddenly becomes a millionaire, but simultaneously is tricked into a twenty-year contract to be a waiter by the cafe owner. The film made over a million francs in Europe and briefly revived his career, but was financially unsuccessful in the US.[1]

Four years after failing to become a major star in the US, Linder made another attempt at filmmaking in Hollywood and formed his own production company there in 1921. His first film back in the US was Seven Years Bad Luck, considered by some to be his best film. The film contains one of the earliest (but not the first) examples on film of the "human mirror" gag best known in the scene between Groucho and Harpo Marx in Duck Soup twelve years later. Linder next made Be My Wife later that year, but again neither films were able to find a major audience in the US.

Max Linder, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin

Linder then decided to dispense of the "Max" character and try something different for his third (and final) attempt: The Three Must-Get-Theres in 1922. The film is a satire of swashbuckling films made by Douglas Fairbanks and is loosely based on the plot of Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers. The film was praised by Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, but again failed at the box office. At the films premiere, Linder had said to director Robert Florey:

"You see, Bob, I sense that I'm no longer funny; I have so many preoccupations that I can no longer concentrate on my film character...The public is mildly amused by my situations, but this evening where were the explosions of laughter that we hear when Charlie's on the screen?...Make people laugh, its easy to say make people laugh, but I don't feel funny anymore."[1]

With his depression making it difficult for him to work, Linder returned to France in 1922 and shortly afterwards made a semi-serious film: Au Secours! (Help!) for director Abel Gance. The film is essentially a horror film set in a haunted house, with occasional moments of comedy by Linder. The film was released in England in 1924 and was critically praised, however the legal copyright of the film prevented it from being released in France or the US for several years. Linder's last film was The King of the Circus directed by Édouard-Émile Violet (with pre-production collaboration from Jacques Feyder) and filmed in Vienna in 1925. In the film, "Max" joins a circus in order to be closer to the woman that he loves. The film includes such gags as a hungover "Max" waking up in a department store and the film's plot is similar to the Charlie Chaplin film The Circus (1928). In late 1925, Linder was working on pre-production for his next film Barkas le fol, which would never be made.[1]

Max Linder and daughter Maud

Marriage and death

As a consequence of his war service, Linder suffered from continuing health problems, including bouts of severe depression. In 1923, he married an eighteen-year-old Heléne "Jean" Peters, who came from a wealthy family and with whom he had a daughter named Maud Max Linder (also known as Josette), born on July 27, 1924.[3] The emotional problems besetting Linder evidenced themselves when he and his wife made a suicide pact. In early 1924 they attempted suicide at a hotel in Vienna, Austria. They were found and revived, the incident being covered up by the physician reporting it as an accidental overdose of barbiturates. However, in Paris on October 31, 1925, Max and his young wife attended a theatrical performance of Quo Vadis (in which the main characters bleed themselves to death) and committed suicide later that night in the same manner.[4] They drank Veronal, injected morphine and cut open the veins in their arms.[1][5][6] Max Linder was buried at the Catholique cimetière de Saint-Loubès.

Harry Fragson and Max Linder


After Max Linder's death, Chaplin dedicated one of his films: "For the unique Max, the great master - his disciple Charles Chaplin." In the ensuing years, Linder was relegated to little more than a footnote in film history until 1963 when a Max Linder compilation film titled Laugh with Max Linder premiered at the Venice Film Festival[7] and was theatrically released. The film was a compilation of Linder's last three films made in Hollywood and its release was supervised by his daughter, Maud Linder. In 1983 Maud Linder made a documentary film titled The Man in the Silk Hat, about Linder's life and career.[1] It was screened out of competition at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.[8] In 1992, Maud Linder published a book about Linder in France, Max Linder was my father and in 2008 she received the Prix Henri Langlois[9] for her work to promote her father's legacy. In his honor, Lycée Max Linder, a public school in the city of Libourne in the Gironde département near his birthplace was given his name.

Linder's influence on film comedy and particularly on slapstick films is that the genre shifted from the "knockabout" comedies made by such people as Mack Sennett and André Deed to a more subtle, refined and character driven medium that would later be dominated by Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and others. Linder's influence on Chaplin is apparent both from Chaplin sometimes borrowing gags or entire plot-lines from Linder's films, as well as from a famous signed photo that Chaplin sent Linder which read: "To Max, the Professor, from his disciple, Charlie Chaplin."[1] Mack Sennett and King Vidor also signaled out Linder as a great influence on their directing careers. His high society characterizations as "Max" also influenced such actors as Adolphe Menjou and Raymond Griffith.[1]

In his heyday, Linder had two major rivals in France: Léonce Perret and Charles Prince. Perrett later became a successful director, but his early career included a series of "Léonce" slapstick shorts that were popular but nowhere near the stature of Linder's films. Charles Prince, on the other hand, was gaining popularity during his career and was nearly equal to Linder by the beginning of World War I. Prince's screen persona was "Rigadin", who like "Max" was a bumbling bourgeois socialite who always got into trouble. Both Linder and Prince were employed by Pathé in the early 1910s and they often used the same story lines, sets and directors. Years after both comedians' careers were long over, Linder has received several revivals in interest while Charles Prince remains mostly forgotten.[1]

In popular media

Max Linder is referenced in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds where the owner of a cinema in Nazi occupied Paris in 1944, Shosanna Dreyfus, says that she will be having a Max Linder festival. The relative merits of Linder and Chaplin are then discussed by the German soldier, Frederick Zoller, who argues that Linder is superior to Chaplin while also admitting that Linder never made anything as good as The Kid.

Selected filmography

1905 The Legend of Punching
1907 The Skater's Debut
1909 A Young Lady Killer
1909 The Cure for Cowardice
1910 Max takes a bath
1910 Max Linder's Film Debut
1911 Max, Victim of Quinine
1911 Max and His Mother-in-Law
1911 Max Takes Tonics
1912 Max and His Dog
1913 Max's Hat
1913 Max Virtuoso
1914 Max Does Not Speak English
1914 Max and the Jealous Husband
1914 The Second of August
1916 Max and the Clutching Hand
1917 Max comes cross
1917 Max Wants a Divorce
1917 Max and his Taxi The Little Cafe (1919)
1921 Seven Years Bad Luck
1921 Be My Wife
1922 The Three Must-Get-Theres
1924 Au Secours!
1925 The King of the Circus


1.^ Wakeman, John. World Film Directors, Volume 1. The H. W. Wilson Company. 1987. pp. 671-677.
2.^ Paul Merton's Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema
3.^ "Parents of suicide dispute over child. French Comedian and Wife Who Killed Themselves in Paris Left Conflicting Wills". Associated Press in the New York Times. January 20, 1935. Retrieved 2010-07-12. "Nine years after the double suicide of Max Linder, celebrated French movie comedian, and his wife the court contest for custody of their daughter, Josette, has been renewed between two embittered families."
4.^ Vincent Canby (April 1, 1988). "Homage to Max Linder, Early French Film Comic". New York Times. Retrieved 13 June 2009.
5.^ "Max Linder and Wife in Double Suicide. They Drink Veronal, Inject Morphine and Open Veins in Their Arms". New York Times. November 1, 1925. Retrieved 2010-07-12. "Max Linder, one of the earliest film comedians in the world, committed suicide this morning in a death compact with his lovely wife, formerly Miss Peters, a wealthy Paris heiress."
6.^ "Max Linder's Wife Could Not Quit Him. Refused to Heed Her Mother's Pleading, Though She Wrote 'He Will Kill Me.' Both Left Last Letters. "Quo Vadis" Film Is Believed to Have Pointed One Way of Suicide to Star.". New York Times. November 2, 1925. Retrieved 2010-07-12. "Permission to bury the bodies of Max Linder, France's great cinema actor, and his wife, was given today by the Magistrate in charge of the inquiry into the causes of their death, and so it must become the official version that they died in a suicide compact on either side of the world."
7.^ [1], British Film Institute, accessed 12 January 2012


1 comment:

  1. Great post! So interesting. Have a great weekend honey! Kori xoxo