BluRay/DVD Reviews

MAX LINDER (KINO)

By • Jun 26th, 2014 •

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SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK will come to first-time viewers as something of a revelation. It’s popularly known that Chaplin acknowledged Max Linder as a role model, and that Linder was an early exponent of structuring the ‘classic gag,’ something Chaplin studied, augmented and surpassed. But this film shows pioneering routines by the French comedian that many undoubtedly believe were created later by American silent and talkie filmmakers.

Take for instance the mirror sequence in SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK. Max is out celebrating his upcoming nuptials. The next morning, as he lies in bed hung over, his servants break a full-size standing mirror. Someone (looking half like Chaplin, half vaguely like Linder), mimics every move Linder makes from the other side of the mirror in the hopes of deceiving him into believing that it hasn’t been broken. Though it may not have been the first ‘human mirror’ routine, it’s a great sequence, with lots of ingenious variations on a comic idea – variations on such ideas being one of Linder’s strengths since MAX LEARNS TO SKATE in 1907.

In ‘The Marx Brothers Scrapbook’ by Richard Anobile (still one of the greatest, most unexpurgated books about the late period of vaudeville and the early period of Hollywood), the author asks Groucho about DUCK SOUP (1933), and in particular, about that film’s classic mirror sequence in which Harpo endeavors to mimic and fool Groucho. Groucho replies: “I remember we did it that one morning. It was all (director Leo) McCarey’s idea.” Does this mean that by 1933 the silent work of Max Linder had been forgotten? Or was Groucho not really saying what it seems like he was saying? Did he really mean that McCarey ‘devised’ the mirror scene for DUCK SOUP, not that he ‘invented’ it?

For hopes of clarification I went to Peter Bogdanovich’s book, ‘Who the Hell Made It?’ in which the director/author interviews a seriously ailing Leo McCarey in his hospital room. McCarey addresses DUCK SOUP, but keeps the focus on his personal displeasure at working with the Marx Brothers. The mirror scene isn’t brought up.

I’m going to hazard a guess – that McCarey had seen SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK. He was fully at play in the silent period, was even responsible for teaming Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. He knew comedy. He had to have known the work of Max Linder.

McCarey’s mirror sequence in DUCK SOUP was a brilliant piece of work. So, in a delightful surprise, was Harpo Marx’s revisitation of it in a 1955 I LOVE LUCY episode, with Lucille Ball on the other side of the mirror trying to fool Harpo. But Harpo and Lucy are paying homage to the scene in DUCK SOUP. Or are they? At one point they both touch hands to wipe an imaginary smudge off the mirror. That bit of pantomime was in Linder’s mirror scene, but not in DUCK SOUP.

The eons have passed, and the public no longer knows Linder’s work. So this collection, and in particular the excellent SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK, should be included in any Film History class on Comedy. The quality of the print is good. The tinting is softer and more pleasant than it was on a version of the film that was released as part of a different collection released by Image Entertainment years ago. Though over three minutes longer than the Image version, the source seems to have the same areas of visual weakness and damage. The inter-titles, however, are often different.

The Image disc had an excerpt from BE MY WIFE. Kino’s presentation has the entire film. Each of the feature films in this collection is quite different stylistically. BE MY WIFE evolves into a sort of Shakespearian comedy of errors. I found it droll but minor. However, at one point, making her displeasure known about what appears to be his flirting with other women, Linder’s fiance says, through an inter-title, “What! You have nerve to come here after cheating on me with two different-colored women. I’ll find myself a Chinaman or a Redskin!” The political incorrectness is so excessive on that title card, it almost takes the curse away.

The Kino collection also has Linder’s parody of Douglas Fairbanks’ THE THREE MUSKATEERS. The film’s title, THE THREE MUST-GET-THERES, reveals the film’s flaw: too much time is spent before he finally hooks up with the Muskateers. It’s more frustrating than it is funny. It is however, historically interesting. And both it and SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK have pre-Busby Berkeley direct-overhead two-dimensional design shots, one with swords, the other with toasting glasses.

Linder was really ahead of the curve.

And like Chaplin, he had a beautiful face. Also like Chaplin, he kept his closeups to a minimum. When we were treated to one, it was exhilarating. He was like a more energized and gleeful Terry-Thomas.

In 1925, having returned to France after his US career failed to ignite with audiences, and suffering from acute depression, Linder and his wife of two years went to a live performance of Quo Vadis, wherein the protagonists died by bleeding themselves to death. The Linders decided to go home and try it themselves. They succeeded. Max Linder died on Halloween, 1925. He was 41. His wife was 20.

(Houdini also died on Halloween, in 1926, aged 52.)

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