Max Linder (born Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle on this day in 1883) is the cinema’s first comedy star. You never heard of him? Shame on you!
Linder was a French music hall comedian who began starring in comedies in 1905, eight years before Charlie Chaplin, on whom he was a major influence. The top-hatted bon vivant Linder was an international star for close to a decade before the First World War virtually shut down the French film industry. For much more on the French comedies of this early period, see my essay on How the French Invented Film Comedy. These one-reel shorts, many of which are available on Youtube, are a joy, and they have the added benefit of having been shot in turn-of-the-century Paris. Even if they weren’t funny, they would be breath-taking historical records.
After the war, Linder was hired by Essanay Studios as a replacement for Chaplin. He also made films with other studios. Check out Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) — Linder performs the well known “mirror routine” a dozen years befor the Marx Brothers revived it in Duck Soup.
Linder continued to make films in both France and the U.S. until 1924. His last film King of the Circus is thought by some to have inspired Chaplin’s The Circus. Diminishing popularity, depression, and health problems stemming from an old war wound took their toll. In 1925, he and his young bride took their own lives. Far too many clowns have left us in that fashion. But a giant like Linder? It shouldn’t happen to un chien.
And now some exciting, time sensitive Max Linder news. On January 24, 2022, l’Institute Lumière in Lyons France will be hosting a rare screening of Linder’s King of the Circus! It’s not quite a century old, but I guess they couldn’t wait! How I dearly wish I could attend, for all sorts of reasons. I would if I could, as the saying goes. But there’s over a month to make your own plans to attend, if you’re able. Details are here.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including giants like Max Linder, don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, and for more about the variety arts past and present (including French music hall), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.