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Classic Comedy to the Max

"The great master" at work; CLOCKWISE:  THE THREE-MUST-GET-THERES; BE MY WIFE; MAX WANTS A DIVORCE; SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK.
"The great master" at work; CLOCKWISE: THE THREE-MUST-GET-THERES; BE MY WIFE; MAX WANTS A DIVORCE; SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK.(c) Kino Lorber, Inc.

THE MAX LINDER COLLECTION

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Sometimes it really is a wonderful life – at least for movie comedy fans like me when the umpteenth editions of Flushed Away are somewhat trounced by the gallant efforts of Kino Lorber (in conjunction with Lobster Films), who have made my DVDreams come true with the release of THE MAX LINDER COLLECTION (part of their ongoing Slapstick Symposium series).

Regrettably, save for silent movie/comedy aficionados, the name of Max Linder today means little; in fact, toward the last few years of his life it meant “feh.” Yet, at his peak, Linder was, indisputably, the greatest. The French-born comic actor saw early-on (in fact, VERY early-on) the seamless potential of cinema and comedy (one of his first appearances was in Georges Melies' The Legend of Punching). The experience proved to be nothing less than a revelation for the young actor (and soon-to-be writer/director/producer), who, at the dawn of the 20th century, conceived and starred in a slew of hilarious escapades revolving around his “Max” character. What set these apart from the then-standard kick-in-the-ass/laugh-at-the-camera exploits was Linder's sophistication, both in style and narrative. His wildly inventive slapstick utilized the camera as part of the gag. Like Keaton, he monkeyed with perspective and bizarre compositions; like Lloyd, he effectively dealt with hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye trickery. Except he did it first. This was appended by his superb situation structure. While American nickelodeon gawkers were howling at some guy being chased by a renegade fire hose, Linder was wowing his native Frenchmen (and women) with sublime, wacky approaches to the battle of the sexes. Indeed, to put it in a nutshell, Max Linder was Lubitsch with sight gags. He achieved and succeeded in artistic heights where subsequently Blake Edwards and even Frank Tashlin aspired to but never quite reached.

I can think of no better compliment than the one from his biggest protégé (and competitor) Charlie Chaplin, who amazingly dubbed Linder as “the great master.” For Chaplin to bow to any contemporary funnyman was considered a virtual impossibility (gag men on his pictures would have to gage sequences in installments, to make it look like Chaplin thought of them himself; as late as Limelight, Chaplin was limiting the screen time of supporting player Buster Keaton).

Cinematically, Chaplin never came close to Linder. Linder knew that the camera was more than a recording device; it was a prop, vital to the narrative. He also valued the relevance of continuity – something Chaplin treated cavalierly and even shamelessly.

Like most great comedians, Linder's life was rife with tragedy. Blessed with good looks and athletic abilities, Linder became an actor of note at the Bordeaux Conservatorie. By 1899, he was already dallying with the growing popularity of the movies. By the early 1900s, he had created his Max character, and was turning out a vastly remunerative series of one-reelers; relevantly, his swelling fan base included both males and females. The Max character was a likeable but over-privileged man-about-town whose number one obsession comprised beautiful women. He pursued (and was pursued) by an array of gorgeous Parisian honeys, and enjoyed every minute of it, even when it embodied the dangerous consequences of husbands, animals, and the elements. Again, this wasn't merely chasing bathing beauties around the sea shore; there was a far more psychological factor involved. Max had a specific affection for women with...well, imposing rear ends. Pivotal to Linder's personae (and his protagonists and antagonists) was his reliance on disguise, which played an integral part in his scenarios. Back in the 1980s, my best pal Ric Menello and I saw a festival of Linder comedies, ca. 1910. To put it mildly, we were floored. The laughs were huge; the modernity of his technique was jaw-dropping. I can vividly remember Max Takes a Picture, where Linder spent a voyeuristic day at the beach. It out-Tati-ed Tati. His astute inspection of the ladies’ derrieres, prior to his strategic deployment of photo-grab-yours, was devilish in a manner that I suspect would have tickled the fancy of Rabelais (I have personally christened the short Booty and the Beast). There was also Max Does Not Speak English, a kinder, gentler romantic effort with Linder hopelessly in love with a woman he chance-encountered on a train. “He tops them all!” decreed Menello – to which I heartily concurred. Linder's stardom was halted by the arrival of that pesky skirmish known as The Great War (or later, WWI). Max enlisted, and saw the worst that modern warfare could entail. He emerged with a medical discharge prior to the Armistice a ruined man, physically (he had been wounded several times) and mentally (so emotionally broken that he would now drift into long periods of severe depression).

An invitation to make movies in the United States temporarily lifted his spirits, and his output here was (not surprisingly) miles above the current fare. Distribution was not top-notch, and his pictures, while praised by fellow comedians, did only middling business. He returned to France, which did little to improve his demeanor, and, in fact, contributed to his melancholia. Linder tried America for a second time in the early 1920s, where he created some of his most famous works. Whether it was because they were ahead of their time, or, perhaps their being hobbled by the less-than-satisfactory publicity (compared to the Chaplin and Keaton entries), the lukewarm receptions pushed him farther toward the deep end. He married 18-year-old Helene Peters in 1923, hoping the union would be the key to renewed happiness. Linder continued to make (but no longer direct) movies, his final release being King of the Circus. On October 31, 1925, Linder committed suicide along with his wife of two years.

Truth be told, whenever I heard of the four great silent clowns, I always naturally figured they meant Linder, Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin – and in that order (I was never a Harry Langdon buff, perennially disturbed by his grown-up baby “charm”). I still do.

The four pics encompassing THE MAX LINDER COLLECTION are from his two American periods, spanning 1917-1922. It includes his most celebrated comedies, THE THREE MUST-GET-THERES and SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK. It also contains the lesser known BE MY WIFE and the 27-minute romp MAX WANTS A DIVORCE. Any comedy fan worth their salt should immediately add this disc to their library.

Here's a brief rundown on the quartet in the non-chronological order in which they are presented (don't ask me why).

1922's THE THREE MUST-GET-THERES is probably Linder's most famous title. And with good reason, being a hilarious parody of the Douglas Fairbanks 1921 rendition of the Dumas adventure tale (I envision Fairbanks' reaction as doubling over with laughter; I'm sure he did view it, likely recommended by his UA partner Chaplin). Perfectly copying the look of the straight version, Linder's take on 17th century France is tailor-made for the comedian's agility and deranged artistry, resulting in outrageous cartoon sight gags involving horses, swashbuckling and, natch, amorous merry-making. Linder's France is also anachronistic, having him riding to Paris throughout a countryside dotted with telegraph poles, serenading his beloved with a uke and a rescue by motorcycle cops. There's also a royal carriage resembling a Ford flivver and some hysterical title cards (the dissenting peasant movement “put more people underground than the New York City subway.”). The names of the characters are as funny as the main title, which remains one of my all-time favorites (Linder is Dart-in-Again – and his fishy cohorts Octopus, Walrus and Porpoise; the horny Queen is nicknamed Pussy-bunk and the evil cardinal Richie-Loo). Linder's supporting cast includes Jobyna Ralston as his lady-love and the effervescent Bull Montana as Richie-Loo.

To this day, the superb visuals of THE THREE MUST-GET-THERES are mind-boggling. Linder slyly incorporates slo-mo into his tapestries, which often echo period paintings. Then there is his techno-crazy imagery – the highlight being a Busby Berkeley high-angle “death shot” wherein a gaggle of enemy soldiers encircle Linder, rapiers in hand. They stab inwardly (as he ducks), managing to simultaneously kill each other. Dare I say it's side-splitting.

The picture was excellently co-photographed by Max Dupont and Enrique Juan Vallejo and is presented with its original color tints. Unfortunately no complete print exists (and no American print at all); this 57-minute cut was assembled from a variety of sources, but primarily sourced from a 1955 restoration by the Netherlands Filmmuseum. Missing bits clearly compromise some gag pay-offs and set-ups, but, hell, that's all there is. Chalk up another victory for studio negligence. A music track by Maud Nelissen brings to mind those frequently annoying avant-garde scores for silent movies that seemed to flourish in the early 1960s (curious to see what TCM could do with it).

1921's BE MY WIFE is another extraordinary Linder excursion into the world of inept wooing, improper courtship, marriage, (supposed) infidelity, deception, sexuality and resolution. Max is out to win the hand (and the other body parts) of lovely Alta Allen. Allen's Margaret Hamilton-ish aunt (Caroline Rankin), however, thinks he's unworthy and instead suggests she breed with Max's slimy best friend Archie (Lincoln Stedman; think Lindsey Graham doing a Grady Sutton impression). Archie has a sure-fire way to score with babes: lie to them. He also has Pal, his canine “isn't he cute?” ammo – a cur who is nothing less than his wing-dog. Max resorts to chicanery himself, pretending in one outstanding sequence to be a burglar, whom he violently dispatches as his frightened girlfriend, Archie and auntie cower in an adjoining room. Other disguises include a singing teacher and a scarecrow. It's the foiling of the “burglary” that eventually gets auntie to give Max her reluctant consent to marry her niece.

The wedding reception goes south when sore loser Archie releases a pregnant rodent down auntie's back. The lady mouse chooses this moment to deliver as a black jazz band goes into a sprightly riff. Auntie's gyrating screams and contortions draw applause and praise from the rest of the guests before the newly-born offspring scatter out from under the battle-axe, sending the well-wishers running for the hills.

Yet this is only the beginning. Married life with Max proves a drain on his bank account. Auntie encourages Alta to spend like nobody's business, which she does at Madame Coralee’s, an exclusive fashion boutique. Alas, the dress shop is a front for a brothel/bootlegging racket which the Madame (Rose Dione) runs with her henpecked husband (Charles McHugh, listed as Mr. Madame Coralee). Mistaken identity plays a big part in the finale as the fashion showroom (by the pull of levers and press of a button) revolves into bedrooms and barrooms and then back again (with tape-measuring assistants and seamstresses popping out of sliding walls and retracting floors), eventually catching Archie in flagrante delicto with another married neighbor. Max briefly ends up with the joint's African-American maid (“I'll find myself a Chinaman or a redskin!” threatens Allen in retribution) while Auntie gets it on with lecherous Mr. Madame Coralee.

BE MY WIFE, as one might surmise from the above, is not your standard romantic comedy. Another long-thought-lost film, WIFE was assembled from two nitrate color-tinted prints by Lobster Films in collaboration with the Fondazone Cineteca Italiana in Milan.

The movie was originally distributed by Goldwyn, and was shot by the terrific d.p. Charles Van Enger. An appropriate music score by Eric Le Guen accompanies the frenzied visuals, which aside from the above include Max's apparent severe shampooing of a woman's head, mercifully revealed to be him watering a strange plant. Pal, by the way, turns out to be the most intelligent cast member, being the only one aware of the ridiculous behavior that motivate the stupid humans. It's that kind of a movie; in short, a must-see.

1921's SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK is anything but for comedy fans. Once again teamed with the curvaceous (and perfect space alien-named) Alta Allen, Linder relies upon phobia to tell his slapstick tale of unrequited love...which gets wrecked.

At the bachelor party for superstitious Max, the affluent groom is unaware that (once again) his best friend (F.B. Crayne) is a cad – out to snare his luscious bride. It must be spring, 'cause everyone's horny as hell – even in the Linder household. His butler and maid’s (Ralph McCullough, Betty Peterson) rapacious shenanigans result in the destruction of a full-length mirror. Knowing their boss's penchant for abiding by the good-luck rules, they grab the cook (Harry Mann), dress him like Max and force him to pantomime the hungover master of the house as he attempts to shave.

This brilliant gag, used by generations of comics since its inception here (primarily by The Marx Bros. in Duck Soup, and an I Love Lucy episode guest starring Harpo), has never been as fresh or manic as in Linder's deft mitts.

The eventual realization that he has broken the sacred glass escalates into a roller-coaster free-for-all that has to be described to even give readers an inkling of its craziness. Max's belief that he is now plagued by the title's curse (appended by a visit to a sexy psychic) causes him to screw up a pre-wedding meeting with Alta, who calls off the engagement. Max's “friend” at once moves in to pick up the pieces of her shattered heart. Linder decides to take a vacation, but is robbed at the station. On board, he meets a pretty passenger (Thelma Percy) and they commence to flirt. Max must hide, since he now has no ticket or money. Enter the comic’s beloved disguise subterfuge…with a vengeance. Linder assumes the role of a black porter, sneaks back into the car carrying his new squeeze and begins whispering sweet nothings. She turns and sees the “African-American,” and promptly throws a racist fit. She angrily intends to inform her father – the railroad station master. Max pretends to be the station master himself, turning the depot upside down. The police give chase, as Max seeks refuge in a zoo. After climbing an elephant, Linder defies the law by jumping into the lion's cage (an amazing sequence, as it's not done with rear screen, nor actors in lion suits; it's the real deal, and nervously funny). A love-sick lioness falls for Max and won't let him go. That the animals seem to understand Max way better than the people is underlined when an orangutan adapts Linder's disguise technique and dresses like a cop. Max is apprehended and thrown into jail. There he basically becomes the “bitch” for a cootie-infected cellmate (Cap Anderson), who orders Linder to scratch his back. Max gets bored and falls asleep, raising the curtain on the movie's ultimate nod to the surreal. Linder dreams he's in a fantasy world, the only male in a land of beautiful women, who, in one sequence, sprout out of the ground in a sensual female harvest. The ladies insist Max get back with Alta, who turns up and agrees. The dream ends when a rudely awakened Max is hauled into night court. There he sees Alta and his friend about to tie the knot. All ends well as Max is reunited with Alta – and the friend ends up with the buggy convict.

If this doesn't at least pique your interest, you should probably stop reading this review. SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK is non-stop lollapalooza of a picture. To be succinct, there is simply nothing like it.

Like the other titles in this quartet, SEVEN YEARS has small bits missing but, again, nothing to deter one from the royal enjoyment of witnessing the stunning lunacy of a true genius. Like BE MY WIFE, SEVEN YEARS is photographed by Charles Van Enger; the tinted print is highlighted by a nice score by Robert Israel. It's the kind of movie that even after one has seen it, one is still spellbound in disbelief (that is, in a good way).

The final entry in the set, 1917's MAX WANTS A DIVORCE is also my favorite (Kino has indeed saved the best for last). Strangely enough, even though it's the earliest of his American pics in the package, it's also the most advanced and sophisticated. The movie, released by Essanay, was the company’s valiant (but failed) attempt to find a superstar replacement for the recently-bolted Chaplin. Max's costar is the lovely and tragic Martha Mansfield (it seems that the Mansfield moniker proved a horrific omen for U.S. movie actresses). The pair are a fun-loving, happily married couple whose world is thrown for a loop when Linder's eccentric relative dies, bequeathing him a fortune on the proviso that's he's single.

The pair decides to stage an adulterous affair, hire a correspondent witness, get a divorce and collect the dough.

Here's where the movie's brilliance kicks in. Usually a slapstick pic utilizing this thread-bare plot (pretending to be either married or single in order to achieve wealth) would veer off with the star teaming up with a lowlife buddy to share uproarious misadventures. By replacing the other male with the agreeable female mate a cliché is joyously avoided and the narrative significantly heightened by an undeniable erotic charge. Mansfield's suggestions for Max's lover are hilarious – best visualized when the pair signs up for a Jazz Age version of a Speed Dating party. Naturally, Linder's choices are all babes (including Helen Ferguson, later a famed Hollywood publicist who formidably counted Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Robert Taylor and Jeanette MacDonald among her clients), while Mansfield's are hideous specimens, some carrying frightening physical and psychological deformities.

Once the couple finds a suitable cheat-mate they rent a love nest, hire the correspondent, inform the cops and dream of their future fortune. Mansfield, cognizant of the lure of the flesh, sweetens the pot by disguising herself as the maid, thus ensuring no hanky-panky ensues.

The movie literally takes a crazy turn with the introduction of a startling subplot. It seems the local insane asylum is being pressured to move its location. Their head shrink secures a residence in the very building Max and Martha have leased for their sex charade. With the place now bubbling over with hot and cold running Napoleons (and other fruitcakes), therapists, cops, Max, Martha, the unsuspected amorous hottie and others (all displaying the physical and mental badges of various costumes and vocations) DIVORCE concludes with a fast and furious climax that magnificently defines innovative pandemonium.

While listed as a two-reeler, DIVORCE, at 27 minutes, runs closer to three reels (the difference possibly explained by the speed at which the existing elements were transferred). Featuring a score by Donald Sosin, the Kino Lorber edition is a restored collaborative effort between Kino Classics, Lobster Films, and the Nurodni Filmovy Archiv (Prague). God bless 'em, as MAX WANTS A DIVORCE is a marvelous example of the silent comedy at its peak, and from the nimble hands of one of its prime practitioners. What can I say? I love this movie to death!

In a perfect world, all four of these Linders would exist in complete, pristine 35MM prints – identical to the quality of the Roy Export Chaplins or the recent Blu-Ray of The Big Parade. Nevertheless, armed with the sad knowledge of what happened to roughly 90% of silent negatives (some heinously intentional), it's astounding that we even have as much as we do (a catalog that, thankfully, seems to be growing with unearthed re-discoveries every year). That said, the acceptable quality comprising THE MAX LINDER COLLECTION comes as close to making this world perfect for classic movie fans as currently conceivably possible.

THE MAX LINDER COLLECTION. Black-and-White and color tints. Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 stereo audio. Kino Lober/Kino Classics. CAT # K1303. SRP: $29.95.