One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on her trip to a film preview:
There’s a new comedian who’s going to bump himself into the bright lights right alongside of the top-notchers, and his name is Max Linder. I mean, he’s going to duplicate the success he has already in his native France, where his name is a household word in every café.
Max Linder’s latest picture, Who Pays My Wife’s Bills? was shown before the regular audience at the Rosemary Theater in Ocean Park last Friday evening, the comedy being unannounced with any fanfare of press-agent bugles. It took the house by storm. Max Linder himself, accompanied by Charlie Chaplin and one or two other friends, stole into the back of the house, and the comedian must have been gratified, for the diggings got noisy right on the getaway and there was hardly a minute that the film didn’t page the laughs and land ‘em.
Max Linder is a comedian of rare artistry. He has a feeling for comedy that is absolutely inspired, and he never overdoes his fun by a fraction. Moreover, he has a French finesse which enables him to put over any sort of an incident or action, however spicy, without ever for a moment appearing vulgar.
It seems like Kingsley wasn’t familiar with Linder’s decades long career (or maybe she thought that her readers weren’t). Born December 16, 1883, he had had been making short comedies since 1905. He was a huge movie star; his charming and dapper “Max” persona was one of the first internationally recognized recurring movie characters. When World War 1 began, he served as a dispatch driver for the French Army, where he was injured and gassed. He also began to suffer from chronic depression. He was dismissed from the army. In 1916 was hired by Essanay Studio and he went to the United States. But his work wasn’t the same. In Photoplay, Julian Johnson reviewed his first American short, Max Comes Across, and he found it sad:
Do you remember, not so many years ago, the light, graceful spontaneity of Max Linder? His stunts seemed as unpremeditated as Chaplin’s, yet there was a Gallic suavity—an elegance, even—about all that he did which no other screen comedian has ever manifested. That peculiar, intangible Linder quality is lacking in his first American photoplay, Max Comes Across. This is the vitalized portrait of a man struggling to be funny; creating laughs from nothing, instead of letting laughs spring at ease from laughable situations. I saw Max Comes Across in a great New York theater, containing nearly four thousand people, and at many moments the picture had the huge house in a babelish uproar. Yet…Linder today seems to me an affected, serious man who looks tremendously old when he permits his countenance a reposeful moment. The solemnity of war has written something across his features that all his smirks, and jumping, and mugging, and cross-eyed strains can’t efface.
Linder made two more shorts, but they weren’t box office successes either, and he returned to France in 1917. After the armistice he made a feature there, The Little Café, which was a big hit in Europe.
So he decided to try his luck in Hollywood again. He was well-known enough to Los Angeles readers that on November 20th, 1919 Kingsley’s editor Edwin Schallert reported that Linder’s boat from France had docked in New York and he planned to come to Los Angeles to make films. He arrived in late December and formed his own production company. Before Kingsley met him, he had made Seven Years Bad Luck, which was released by Robertson-Cole. When it premiered locally on June 12th, 1921, Kingsley’s colleague Anthony Anderson really liked it, calling it ”a very clever bit of fooling, written and directed by himself—and particularly well written and directed, at that—to keep his audiences in ripples of laughter for a happy hour or so.”
The movie that was previewed this week was Linder’s second American feature. Unfortunately it didn’t have a regular release until the following year and he had to find a new distributor (Goldwyn) for it. Renamed Be My Wife, Edwin Schallert was much more lukewarm about it than Kingsley had been after seeing the preview, writing “if you haven’t seen anything to make you laugh during the past few weeks take a jaunt down to the California Theater. Max Linder is there in Be My Wife, and he’s making everybody agreeably happy. Max always does a number of funning things. You’re sure of that. They may not be howlingly funny but at least they are entertainingly amusing.” He pointed out how tastes in comedy had changed: “The only trouble with Linder’s photoplays is that they’re not built up to whopping big thrills like those of Lloyd, Semon and others.”
Linder tried one more time, abandoning his Max character and making a Three Musketeers / Douglas Fairbanks parody called The Three Must Get Theres. He screened it for Fairbanks and the Times reported “nobody enjoyed it more than Doug.” However, it wasn’t financially successful either, and in June 1922 he went back to France.
Linder made only two more films: a horror film directed by Abel Gance called Au Secors in 1922 and The King of the Circus in 1925. His mental health continued to be bad, and later that year he and his young wife Helene Peters either both died by suicide or he murdered her then killed himself (investigators couldn’t find out which).
Anthony Anderson, “Linder Gay Comedian,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1921.
Julian Johnson, “The Shadow Stage,” Photoplay, May 1917, p.86.
Grace Kingsley, “Linder Here,” Los Angeles Times, December 25, 1919.
“Linder’s New Comedy Delights the Stars,” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1922.
Edwin Schallert, “Linder Diverting,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1922.