Book Review: Max Linder – Father of Film Comedy by Snorre Smári Mathiesen

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The story of a screen comedy giant’s rise and fall is a haunting tragedy.

Feted by Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, Max Linder was one of silent era’s biggest stars. Born to wealthy vineyard owning parents, Linder would dazzle audiences all over the world. Shooting films nine years before Chaplin, Linder was a cultural icon but today is largely forgotten outside of French-speaking territories.

A comic genius Linder is now recognised as one of the first performers to introduce subtlety. His cane carrying, silk hat wearing screen persona “Max” foreshadowed Chaplin’s tramp. Chaplin would later refer to Linder as ‘his master.’ Following a meeting, Chaplin inscribed a photograph “To Max, the Professor, from his disciple, Charles Chaplin.” More productive than Chaplin, Linder is believed to have shot 500 films of which around 100 still survive.

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Traumatised by experiences in World War One he suffered from bouts of depression for the rest of his life. In February 1924 Linder and his wife made a suicide pact. An attempt to end their lives in a Vienna hotel was thwarted. Contemporary news accounts reported the pair had accidentally overdosed on barbiturates. In October 1925 Linder and his wife retired to a Paris hotel after attending a performance of Quo Vadis. Linder told staff that the room should not be disturbed. The following morning Linder’s mother in law tried to phone her daughter. When her calls were not answered she implored hotel staff to forcibly open the door. Entering the room hotel staff and Linder’s mother-in-law were confronted with the sight of two blood-soaked corpses. Max Linder was 41, his wife was 21. Immediately after hearing the news Charlie Chaplin closed his film studio for a day as a sign of respect.

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Despite being an important figure in the evolution of screen comedy Linder has become a footnote. His name and work are largely forgotten outside of France. A 1983 documentary The Man in the Silk Hat directed by his daughter Maud was a moving homage to an unknown father. More recently Linder has been referenced in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Kino Lorber’s release of a boxset containing four American films has been welcomed by cinephiles but the superior French productions are currently unavailable in English speaking territories.

Attempting to restore Linder’s reputation a biography by Norwegian writer Snorre Smári Mathiesen is an expertly research account of the early days of cinema and a life tormented by the horrors of conflict. Researching silent film the author became aware that despite references in noted European cinematic historical texts there was very little information about Linder in English publications. Similarly, in the pre-YouTube and DVD era, it was practically impossible to track down a VHS copy of Linder’s films. The absence of material made Linder seem more compelling and the author embarked on a quest to discover all that he could about the actor.

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An impressive first step on the road to ensuring Linder’s work is more widely known. The author acknowledges a forthcoming biography by Lisa Stein Havn and concedes that it will probably become the definitive text. Max Linder – Father of Film Comedy is an effective introduction to the actor’s life and legacy.

Demonstrating why numerous silent era comedians revered Linder the author presents a vivid account of an ascension to international megastardom and final years blighted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Due to the particularly dark nature of Linder’s post-war existence, the final chapters are uncomfortable. Even-handed in his analysis of screen icon and person, the author celebrates Linder’s cinematic achievements and is reassuringly frank about his off-screen persona.

Max Linder – Father of Film Comedy is published by BearManorMedia

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