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L?Homme au chapeau de soie

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This Sunday, April 13, TCM will feature Max Linder during Silent Sundays. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this will give you an opportunity to see two of his short films and one of his final full-length silents.


Max Linder: the man in the silk hat




Max Linder 1883 to 1925



His work as a silent comic was highly acknowledged by Chaplin who referred to him as ?The Professor.? Keaton and Lloyd both considered him the father of silent film comedy. Raymond Griffith?s screen character owes him a debt for a remarkable resemblance to his ?dandy? character. Despite his enormous popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, today Max Linder is relatively unknown by American classic film scholars and fans alike.


Max Linder was born Gabriel Maximillen Leuville on December 19, 1883 in the French town of Saint Loubes near the wine district of Bordeaux. Born to parents who owned vineyards, they wanted nothing more for their son than what he already knew. A young Gabriel enjoyed spending his time among the vines and grape harvesters, rather than seated in a stuffy classroom, but a career in grapes was not among his goals. He enjoyed the circuses and traveling shows that toured France, and he became fascinated with the theater at an early age. A gifted mimic, he enrolled in the Bordeaux Conservatory at the age of sixteen where he studied drama and eventually performed in local theatre productions. He was doing what he loved but he found Bordeaux limited his ability to reach his dreams for dramatic training. He left for Paris in 1904 with hopes of attending the Paris Conservatory but he failed each of his three attempts at the entrance exam. He found work at the Ambigu theatre through Louis Gasnier, the casting director, and it was at this time that he dropped his birth name and began appearing as Max Linder.



L?Homme au chapeau de soie: Max Linder in Paris


Gasnier, who also directed films for the Path? Studios took a liking to Max and in 1905 cast him in his first film, La Premiere Sortie d?un collegian, or The School Boy?s First Outing. After a number of films in which he appeared as a variety of characters, The Skater?s Debut (1907) introduced the character of ?Max? who is the screens earliest distinctive film character. Max was a wealthy, well tailored, man-about-town who was frequently in trouble because of his affinity for beautiful women and the good life. At a time when comedy was played broadly for laughs, Linder created a subtle and complicated style of character comedy, while simultaneously reveling in the slapstick manner of the day. By 1911, Linder was directing and writing the scripts for his own films and his one-reel comedies were shown in France, Italy, Sweden, Russia and America. He was the highest paid entertainer of the day and his personal appearances drew crowds of hysterical fans. Linder might truly be called the first ?international film star.? His popularity was at its peak in 1914 and with the outbreak of World War I he attempted to enlist in the armed services. He was deemed unfit for combat, but he was permitted to act as a chauffeur to deliver military dispatches between Paris and the front. During the first battle of the Marne, Linder?s car was hit and he was stranded in the icy waters under a bridge held by the Germans. There as varying accounts that have him the victim of a gas attack, but the end result was that his health was seriously compromised and he was excused from further military service. The after effects of Linder?s war service was that his life was marked by periods of depressions, including nervous breakdown, and periods of heightened creativity. During a stay in the hospital in 1916, he was visited by George K. Spoor, president of Essanay films.





In 1916, the most popular comedian in the world was Charlie Chaplin. When Chaplin left his employer, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, for more money and independence, Essanay tried to replace him with Max Linder. Spoor offered him the opportunity to write, direct and star in 12 three-reel comedies to be made in the studio?s Chicago location. Linder viewed America as a two-fold opportunity to revive his health and his film career, but Chicago would prove a poor choice for Linder as the severe weather only exacerbated his already weak lungs. His first few American-made "Max" films didn't make the same impression as the Chaplin shorts. The financially troubled studio might have counted on Linder to restore its flagging fortunes; in any case Essanay could no longer afford to sustain the series, and cancelled production of his remaining films. Linder returned to France in 1917, but he was determined to find success in America, and he returned to Hollywood in 1919. He released Seven Years Bad Luck and Be My Wife both in 1921 and his last attempt The Three Must-Get-Theres in 1922 was a lighthearted spoof of Fairbanks' The Three Musketeers.



Max Linder, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Charlie Chaplin



Linder?s work, always successful in Europe, just never caught on in America, and he returned to his homeland discouraged. He all but gave up on the business and appeared in only two more films during 1923 and 1924 for director Abel Gance. Linder married Helene Peters on August 2, 1923 and a year later they had a daughter whom they named Maud. Tragically both Linder and his wife chose to die by their own hand on October 30, 1925, and the couple?s daughter was raised by her maternal grandparents.


Max Linder is compelling because of his talent and because of his personal story. He rose from modest beginnings to become the greatest movie star the world had yet known. He fought for his country, slowly slipped in popularity and died a tragic, and by some accounts mysterious, death. Linder appeared in over 600 shorts and six features, with only 80 shorts and three of the features known to survive today. Most of the films that do survive were gathered through the tireless efforts of Max and Helene?s daughter who began reconstructing her father?s legacy when she learned of her heritage as an adult.


Max Linder?s contribution to silent comedy cannot be underestimated. Linder influenced everyone from Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (the mirror routine he developed for Seven Years Bad Luck would be borrowed by The Marx Brothers years later.) Although Chaplin expanded and developed Max?s comic persona, Chaplin would borrow Linder?s restrained and minimal methods in approaching the medium of film. Chaplin paid homage to Linder on several occasions and dedicated at least one of his films to Max with this tribute, ?For the unique Max, the great master?his student Charles Chaplin.?



Max Linder with Charlie Chaplin

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