Roger Ebert has a trivia question to test if you are worthy of telling him a piece of movie trivia: “Who was the third great silent clown?” The correct answer is Harold Lloyd, he following both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
But there’s a fourth. Maybe he’s not a “great” silent clown, but he was an important and famous figure in his time, France’s Max Linder.
I first heard Max Linder’s name thanks to Quentin Tarantino and “Inglourious Basterds.” If you haven’t seen a film of his, it’s not your fault. Of hundreds of shorts and a handful of features, not even a hundred survive and practically a dozen are even available for viewing. He came from a French vaudeville background and began acting in 1905, actually predating Chaplin and earning him the title of “The Professor” by Chaplin himself. He never achieved fame in America, but otherwise he was a global star. World War I and illnesses hampered his career, and he killed himself in a suicide pact with his wife in 1925, never knowing the pain of irrelevancy after the silent era.
Now one of his most well known films is “Seven Years Bad Luck,” where he plays a man trying to avoid bad luck after he shatters a mirror, only finding bad luck in the process.
If Chaplin was a lovable and innocent tramp, Keaton was a stone faced clown and Lloyd was a headstrong everyman, then Linder must have been the movie star of the bunch.
Linder’s character was a sociable, wealthy gentleman aptly named Max, and Linder himself was way better looking than the lot of his silent companions. He has a look that makes him resemble a grizzled Clark Gable or even Johnny Depp at times. He looks the part, whereas Chaplin and Keaton were flawless aliens and Lloyd was just lucky to be there.
But what’s more, Linder often plays the straight man in all of his gags. Rather than perform stunts and prat falls, Linder is just unassuming and unlucky. He gets in trouble with his girlfriend when he transforms her living room into a surreptitious dance hall for her servants, blindly plunking away at the piano with his back turned not realizing how much trouble he’s about to get into.
He’s an exuberant and natural presence, and if he’s not as physically talented as his silent clown peers, he can arrange the camera in such a way that the payoff is the same. In one scene, Max (a fairly short guy) hides behind a burly giant to sneak onto a train, walking carefully in his stride and giving the audience a perspective that prevents us from seeing him as well. Another director would just have its audience assume the train conductor couldn’t tell where he was hiding.
Linder also recycles gags from his vaudeville roots, but he imbues his own unique style and punchline into each one. The famous example from this film is an opening mirror gag. Most will recognize it as strikingly similar to the routine performed by the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup.” One man pretends to be the other man’s reflection in a broken stand-up mirror, and the other suspiciously tries to test if he’s actually seeing himself. Something like this could only end one way, but Linder makes it special. He starts to shave in front of the mirror and lather himself with shaving cream. His reflection doesn’t have any cream in the jar beside him, so Linder assumes that, like his reflection, there’s nothing on his brush.
Another age old gag sees Linder get glue on his hand and be unable to let go of anything he touches. Hats, paper, doorknobs. These are all the usual beats such a gag can go through, but perhaps only a director from overseas would be bold enough to make it risque in the way Linder does, latching his hand onto a woman’s blouse until her entire dress pulls off as she tries to escape.
No one trying to get into silent comedy should start here. Linder does not have the pathos of Chaplin or the stunts of Keaton, but he does display roots that reveal how influential and enjoyable he once was.