Sunday, August 14, 2005

Laugh with Max Linder

Max Linder will forever be remembered as the man whom Charlie Chaplin called his “professor”. Chaplin’s immense respect and praise of Linder as a comedian has forever ensured Linder the kind of critical attention that other comedians of the same period lack. Linder, in a sense, created screen comedy. He was the first major comedy star, originating in France, and began appearing in films as early as 1905. From the period between 1905 and 1917, Linder created a number of short comedies for Pathe studios in France. Following an injury in the first World War, Linder came to the United States to make films for the Essanay company, and produced several independent feature films as well, before his death by suicide in 1925.

For years, the work of Max Linder has been frustratingly difficult to see. It was, for many years, available only in cut-down versions prepared by his daughter, Maud. Those two compilation films were more or less the only way to sample the films of one of the great comic minds of the early film period. Now, thanks to the usual high-quality preservation work of David Shepard and Film Preservation Associates, four of Linder’s early shorts are available, in pristine complete prints, on DVD. “Laugh with Max Linder” (Image) is the new collection of Max Linder’s work that is sure to win him new fans. Linder is ripe for re-evaluation, and this disc is the perfect place to start for those unfamiliar with his work.

First up are four short films by Linder, from his period in France. These four shorts include “Troubles of a Grass Widower”, “Love’s Surprises”, “Max Takes a Picture”, and “Max Sets the Style”. These four shorts are basically situational comedies. Linder milks the most humor out of individual situations as opposed to the frenetic, action-oriented slapstick comedies of Keystone and others. This is perhaps where we can best see his influence on Chaplin-in that he preferred to slow down the pacing a bit, focus on character and situations, and work on milking gags for all their comic worth. Additionally, these shorts provide a glimpse of the humor that Linder made popular over the hundreds of shorts he made during these years.

Next up is the main feature, “Seven Years Bad Luck” (1921), cited by some as being among the finest of silent screen comedies. This film was made in the United States, and sees Linder later in his career, but still at the height of his comic powers. The premise of the film concerns a wealthy man (Linder) who is set to be married. Following the breaking of a large mirror (including the famous mirror routine), he believes he will be daunted by seven years bad luck, and must go out of his way to avoid potentially unlucky situations. Along the way, he gets himself in to far more trouble than if he had just gone about his usual routine. As with most silent comedies, plot is not the focus here, but rather the situations and the way Max’s character reacts to them.

The disc is wrapped up with some nice special features. One of these is footage of Max clowning on the set with a visitor and friend, director Maurice Tourneur. The other is a 13 minute excerpt from Linder’s 1921 feature “Be My Wife”. This segment is quite funny, and for years was the only surviving piece of this feature. The entire feature now exists, but according to sources who have seen the entire film, this 13 minute segment is one of the few highlights of the film. This is the same segment that was included on David Shepard’s “Slapstick Encyclopedia” set several years ago. The disc is a wonderfully funny and well-priced collection that will be a revelation to anyone unfamiliar with Linder’s brilliantly funny work. To those who are already familiar with him, this set is still a must, as it is by far the most complete and pristine collection yet available of one of the funniest men to grace the screen.