Once upon a time, a little more than a century ago, the graceful silhouette of Max Linder reigned the silver screens, his top-hatted charmer held as the very symbol of mirth to millions across the continents. Tragic though his life turned out in the end, for five crucial years – from late 1909 through 1914 – Max ruled as the standard to whom others were compared, a superstar long before the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks had even made their first appearance in front of the camera.
Born Gabriel Leuvielle to a family of French winegrowers in 1883, Max was in the midst of a rather modest stage career when he made his first batch of one-reel films in the summer of 1905 at Pathé Frères, at that time the leading distributor of motion-pictures. At first mostly motivated by the welcome additional paycheck, his subsequent screen work proved quite spotty initially, as he still considered the stage his true vocation. This attitude would soon change, however, as he found himself being exposed to audiences far vaster than the stage could ever grant him.
Like nearly all film performers prior to the 1910s, Max was not recognized by name at first. Even so, starting around spring 1907 with short films such as Les débuts d’un patineur (Max Learns to Skate), it was clear that a distinct style was on the rise. Less of a burlesque than other screen jesters of the era, Max may to this day strike us as surprisingly easy to identify with, or indeed ”human.” He was, in the words of film historian Rune Walderkranz, the ”first [character] in film history to be portrayed with psychological credibility and, amidst all the situational comedy, a certain finesse.”(*)
While Max’s earliest films were directed by others, most often Louis Gasnier or Lucien Nonguet, from late 1910 onwards the comedian supervised the majority of his own films. By now widely famous by name as well as appearance, his salary increased steadily within the next few years, resulting in a 1,000,000₣ contract in 1912. As he enjoyed the zenith of his career, a number of Max’s films from this period remain remarkably fresh, funny, and on occasion even sweet-natured. Among his most memorable work include titles such as the hilarious Max prend un bain (Max Takes a Bath, 1910) and Max victime du quinquina (Max Takes Tonics, 1911); the tender Le roman de Max (Affinity, 1912) and L’anglais tel que Max le parle (Max and the Daughter of Albion, 1913); and the brief skiing fantasy Max asthmatique (1914).
Having undertaken two extensive tours of Europe in 1912-1913, where crowds of fans greeted him “with hurrahs in the streets” wherever he went, Max’s renown appeared boundless. However, his career came to a halt as he joined for army service at the onset of World War I, serving as dispatch driver from late 1914 onwards. Having reportedly endured several injuries, he found himself discharged after six months, but proved unable to resume his earlier, prolific schedule upon his return home. Meanwhile, a number of other, younger comedians were attaining widespread fame, most notably a certain Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood.
Having made two transatlantic journeys in the late 1910s and early ’20s – stints which resulted in classic features such as Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) and The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922) – Max spiraled into a state of severe depression. He made one last feature in 1924, an Austrian production entitled Max, der Zirkuskönig, before his dismal condition grew critical, and he and his wife Hélène “Ninette” Peters were found dead at the Baltimore Hotel of Paris on November 1, 1925, in what was officially declared a “suicide pact.”
The couple left behind a little daughter, sixteen-months old Maud-Lydié. Raised by her paternal grandparents – and, later on, her maternal grandmother – Maud was for a long time kept nearly unaware of what an illustrious figure her father had been in his time. As she came of age, however, she was stunned to discover the artistry of the father she never knew; as she set out to restore his legacy, in 1983 her efforts finally resulted in the loving tribute and documentary, The Man in the Silk Hat. It is largely thanks to Maud’s persistence that Max Linder, nearly a century after his death, continues to gain new fans and admirers.
This article courtesy of Snorre Smári Mathiesen, author of the book Max Linder, Father of Film Comedy, to be published by BearManor Media autumn 2017.
(*) Waldekranz, Rune: Filmens Historia – Del 1 (P.A. Norstedt & Söners Förlag, Stockholm, 1985), p. 207.