- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

Page 52 of Walter Kerr’s invaluable book, “The Silent Clowns,” is devoted to a breathtaking photo portrait of the French comedian Max Linder (1883-1925), who became the first internationally recognized star of silent film comedies in the decade before World War I. It’s a right profile pose that displays two of the characteristic Linder props, a top hat and an expertly barbered moustache.

The caption reads “The immaculate Linder.” For moviegoers of the 1970s (the book was published in 1975), he probably would have resembled no familiar actor so much as Omar Sharif, possibly costumed for Dr. Zhivago’s wedding day. Observers half a century earlier would have noticed a resemblance to Charles Chaplin, who was six years younger and acknowledged Mr. Linder as an inspiration — and also to Charley Chase and Raymond Griffith, a pair of dapper comedians who became more prominent after Linder’s premature death in 1925. A follow-up suicide attempt, employing swallows of veronal and injections of morphine, proved fatal.

Among other tools of the trade, it’s conceivable that Mr. Chaplin derived the comic use of his rear end from Linder, who had a flair for folding at the waist in ways that exposed his posterior to target practice or collisions. During a sequence of his genial 1921 American feature, “Seven Years Bad Luck,” the centerpiece of a vintage compilation “Laugh With Max Linder” available on DVD, this tendency threatens to leave him at the mercy of speeding streetcar or automobile bumpers while positioned in the middle of a bustling city street.

Despite the glorious photograph, “The Silent Clowns” dismissed the Linder career with faint praise. It’s difficult to tell how much of the voluminous backlog — about 200 titles that commenced in 1905, many of them one-reel comic sketches — Mr. Kerr had been able to see. He insists that the star remains “essentially an indoor man,” averse to chases in wide-open exteriors, although “Bad Luck” itself showcases gags at train depots and a zoo.

The hero is obliged to hotfoot it away from a squad of police officers before reaching the temporary sanctuary of the zoo. Once there, he initially stays out of reach by climbing an elephant. It’s more effective when he takes refuge in the lion cage, where fugitive and a lioness trade prolonged hugs.

Judging from “Bad Luck,” Linder knew a lot about casting trained animals. The lion interlude is even more satisfying because the movie begins with a kitty sight gag — the hero’s pet awakens him after a long night of carousing by licking his moustache.

The sight of Linder’s eyes opening wide over this form of stimulation is lovely to behold. A bit later his character, also called Max, a long-standing convention of the Linder movies, offends his fiancee by stashing her pet poodle, memorably named Frizotto, in a large flower vase. This social blunder sets up a logical pictorial topper: watching the pooch drip copiously from the tail after being plucked from hiding. The fiancee gets the last word, wittily, “It’s all over with Max. Frizotto declares eternal enmity.”

The son of a Jewish wine-cultivating family from the Gironde, Max Linder was born Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle in 1883. The vineyards were evidently no competition for a theatrical vocation. He was a young and successful stage actor and music hall performer when attracted by the promise of motion pictures. Hired by Pathe Brothers, Linder became a distinctive and popular movie performer by 1906. Before long, he was entrusted with the direction of most of his own prolific output.

I would assume that a substantial amount of the surviving filmography has been preserved in France and transposed to home video. Very little is available here. Four Pathe shorts are appended to “Laugh With Max Linder,” a mixed bag that ranges from the fiendishly inventive to the barely amusing. The fiendish sample, “Troubles of a Grass Widower,” observes him making a shambles of an apartment while struggling to keep house. His technique, in whatever room, is to create a pile of wreckage, and this pretext leads to an impressive finale, in which he brings a wardrobe down on himself while searching it in a frenzy for a missing tie.

Modern antiquarians should be intrigued to learn that there was a genuine “dark side” to this adroit and pioneering funnyman. Linder was given to moods of despondency, and this disposition may have been intensified by wartime injuries. He volunteered himself and one of his autos for battlefield courier duty in World War I and survived a shell burst that demolished the car.

Recognizing that the American film industry had surged past the European competition as a consequence of the war, Linder made two expeditions to Hollywood and completed four features. There’s a lot to like about “Seven Years Bad Luck” in retrospect, but none of the Hollywood comedies was decisively popular when new. Moreover, the star himself looks somewhat careworn circa 1921. The established and emerging American clowns, notably Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, must have seemed appreciably younger and fresher. They might have defied competition from any source, let alone a Frenchman who was looking middle-aged — and a bit haunted — at 38.

Linder returned to France and starred in two final movies, in 1923-24. One, directed by Abel Gance, was titled “Help!” A timely rescue was not in the cards.

TITLE: “Laugh with Max Linder”

CONTENTS: A compilation, released theatrically in 1963, that includes the 1921 comedy feature “Seven Years Bad Luck,” plus four silent shorts and an excerpt from a second 1921 feature, “Be My Wife.” Restoration supervised by David Shepard. Musical scores and accompaniment by Robert Israel.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

DVD EDITION: Image Entertainment’s Blackhawk Films Collection

WEB SITE: www.image-entertainment.com

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