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Great European Lives: Max Linder

Of all the hundreds of hours of footage shot of Max Linder during his extraordinary career at the dawn of cinema, the most poignant was filmed in the spring of 1917 and lasts for barely a minute.

It’s an informal snippet of Linder and Charlie Chaplin together in the US, where Linder has just arrived from France to fill the gap left by Chaplin at Essanay Studios after the latter had decamped to Mutual. Chaplin at the time was arguably the biggest star on the planet but you wouldn’t know it looking at the brief film of him and Linder horsing around for the camera. They stand by a car, Chaplin in blazer and straw boater, barely recognisable as the famous tramp; Linder, as ever, immaculately turned out in a light suit and homburg hat. Chaplin begins by imitating the capering, dancing walk that was the trademark of the top-hatted dandy ‘Max’ character that made Max Linder the first great film comedian. Linder in return performs an immaculate impersonation of Chaplin’s tramp, walking in a circle, knees akimbo, elbows jutting at just the right angle. Chaplin then leans forward eagerly, wide-eyed and grinning, instantly recognisable as Linder at his pre-war peak, dropping to one knee and kissing the back of Linder’s hand in the manner of his celluloid alter-ego making romantic overtures to a pretty woman. There are energetic handshakes, an embrace and the Frenchman climbs into the car and is driven away. When that footage was shot Chaplin and Linder were the most famous comedians in the world and stood on the cusp of genuine greatness. Chaplin, 26 years old, would spend the next two decades at a remarkable creative peak, making some of the greatest comedy films of all time and redefining the entire notion of fame. Linder, six years older, had achieved unprecedented celebrity via the studios of Europe before the war and was all set to take America by storm. Chaplin remains a genuine cultural icon while Linder is barely remembered, a footnote in the early history of cinema, a man without a legacy. Their divergent paths after that piece of footage can, with the benefit of hindsight, be detected in those few brief seconds of two genius comedians playing up for the camera. Chaplin, who always described Linder as ‘the professor’ and labelled himself ‘the disciple’, looks genuinely thrilled, starstruck even to be in the same frame as his idol, his wide grin clearly genuine. Linder’s smile is equally broad, yet there’s a hint of something darker in his demeanour. The smile has the faintest smidgen of force and there are shadows in his eyes that were entirely absent from his pre-war persona. Linder had travelled to the US directly from hospital in France where he’d been recuperating from injuries suffered on the Western Front. To this day nobody is entirely sure of the nature of those injuries; some say he was forced to hide for many hours in the icy water of a flooded shell crater, others that he was among the first to be gassed, while Linder himself spoke of being shot through the lung. Either way he was never the same man again, nor was he remotely the same comedic force of nature that exploded out of Europe in the years leading up to the conflict. In a magazine interview published around the time of the Chaplin meeting, Linder is unusually candid about his war experiences. Where the reporter must have been expecting the usual prepared puffs and platitudes about his delight at being in the US and how much he was looking forward to making American audiences laugh, instead he got something much darker. ‘It has been a terrible experience I have been through,’ said Linder. ‘I have seen men suffer; I have seen men die; I have been close to death myself. Soldiers, monsieur, learn to laugh. The horror of the battlefield is terrible. It is ghastly. To brood on it drives men mad. Each day is a new life and the man in the trenches lives for that day. ‘He smokes his pipe or cigarette, or he goes without; he eats his rations, or he goes without; he does his work; he amuses himself as best he can; he jokes; he laughs; he fixes bayonets and charges the cannon’s mouth – and dies. It is all the same; it is his life.’ Going on describe two occasions where he narrowly escaped death while witnessing the deaths of his comrades, no wonder Linder, who had insisted on enrolling as a regular private rather than taking on the propaganda and troop entertainment roles offered to him, was never again the wide-eyed innocent dandy, ever hopeful of romance, always falling into farcical, harmless scrapes. It’s almost impossible to appreciate today just what a phenomenon Max Linder was in the early years of cinema comedy. He made more than 500 films – of which barely 100 survive – and during his most productive periods was churning out a new film every day, an astonishing level of stamina and creativity. He made his first films for Pathé in 1905, was a superstar by 1910 and from 1912 was earning an estimated million francs a year. He was mobbed wherever he went and could count figures as diverse as Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and George Bernard Shaw as fans, all for the simple reason that he was incredibly funny. Before Max Linder, film comedy was no more than unsophisticated slapstick, coarse and violent, but what Linder introduced was character. Given the basic technology available at the time it was hard to bring much nuance to the screen: everything, whatever the genre, had to be conveyed through hammy gestures and exaggerated facial gurning. Linder brought unprecedented subtlety film comedy through plausible facial expressions and a nuanced physicality. His ‘Max’ persona was usually dressed in top hat, tails, patent leather shoes and spats and carried a cane, skipping through the streets with a fresh-faced vitality that appealed to audiences everywhere. With his name usually featuring in the title – Max Foils The Police, Max’s First Job, Max Takes A Bath – Max Linder became the archetype of everything that followed: Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, all the greats owed a debt to Max. So prolific was he that he even made films while on holiday, or on his regular tours of public appearances. The son of a wealthy Bordeaux vineyard owner, Linder was convincing as a man-about-town as he lived the same high life he portrayed. There are films set on yachts at Monte Carlo or skiing in the Alps that involved little more than taking the cameras on holiday with him. In Barcelona in 1913 he even made Max The Toreador by inserting himself into a real bullfight and fighting a real bull. On and off the screen he was a charming man living a charmed life until the war changed everything. That 1917 assault on America lasted for just three indifferently received films and he soon returned to Paris, convinced he wasn’t funny anymore. Restless, increasingly gaunt and haunted by his war experiences, the once prolific Linder made only half a dozen films between 1917 and 1924, his last being a frankly odd two-reeler Au Secours!, in which Max spends a night in a haunted house tormented by visions. At one point his face fills the screen, eyes wide with terror, expression contorted with fear, a far cry from the whimsical cane-twirling daydreamer skipping through the streets of Paris of his pre-war heyday. As he approached 40 Linder became increasingly reclusive and depressed. He married a teenager named Helene Peters, known as Ninette, with whom he had a daughter. Ninette would confide in her friends of her husband’s violent rages and night terrors. In February 1924 there were reports of the couple spending time in hospital after an accidental overdose of a sleeping draught in Vienna, actually a failed suicide pact. On October 31, 1925 the Linders returned to their Paris hotel after an evening at the cinema, told the porter they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances and ascended to their suite. The next day Ninette’s mother found the couple lying on the bed soaked in blood. They’d taken a huge quantity of Veronal and injected themselves with morphine. Linder had then cut his wife’s left wrist before his own. ‘I have seen all the sorrows of the world,’ he said in that 1917 interview, ‘now I will try to bring more joy into it.’ The sorrows of the world finally proved too much for Max Linder, but thanks to the digital restoration of his surviving films at least the immense joy he brought to it for a few glorious years is now preserved forever.