Silent Screen Stars

Introduction to Max Linder: A Silent Screen Star

Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle, known as Max Linder, was a French actor, writer, comedian and screenwriter of the silent film era when dialogues could not be screened with the motion pictures. The sort of screening, though old fashioned, required immense talent to portray the plot of the movie without using sounds and vocals. Max was, unfortunately, masked by great performers of the era, but it may not be wrong to say that he was a pioneer of the film industry. He died young, and his efforts came to light, unfortunately, a long time after his death.

Early Life

Conservatoire de Bordeaux

Max Linder was born in June 1988 in Gironde, France, to wealthy vineyard owners, who expected him to take over the family business. Max, however, had other plans. He was a lover of arts and particularly theater. In pursuit of his passion in 1901, he enrolled in Conservatoire de Bordeaux, a school for arts in Bordeaux France. Here he began acting on stage and established a contract with the theater, continuing to play various characters on stage from 1901 to 1904. In 1905, he adopted his stage name Max Linder which would be used for all his later works.

Early Career

French film producer Charles Pathé

How he joined the cinema life is an interesting story, a little dramatic and touching we can say. During a stage performance, producer Charles Pathé saw the spark in Linder. The producer sent him a note telling him that he had, in his eyes, what was needed for acting in front of the cameras. He said he saw a fortune in Linder’s beautiful, soulful eyes. He promised to help him establish a film career. It was with Pathé’s assistance that Max took flight as the first film star, which was not to be recognized until much later.

Film Career

Max Linder started his film career with the assistance of Pathé. For Pathé, he starred in supporting roles in many films. Max preferred comedy and his career laid down for then and even now the standard guidelines for cinema comedy. Max Linder became a star in the silent film era, choosing comedy as his domain and taking pride in it. While today we all know the name of Charlie Chaplin as the legend of silent comedy, few know that the pioneer of silent comedy and the mentor of Charlie Chaplin was Max Linder.

From 1905 to 1907, Max starred for small roles in many comedy films. Some notable films include The Young Man’s First Outing (1905) and Serpentine Dances. His first leading role came along in a movie called The Legend of Punching.

In a stroke of luck, Pathé’s star actor René Gréhan left the company in 1907, which was to become Max’s opportunity to rise to stardom. Max then took over the role from Grehan and appeared on the screen in a peculiar attire that was later to become his style.

In 1907, Max first appeared as the character Max, who was to become a recurring character in a series of short motion pictures. Moreover, Max Linder was also an innovator in creating a series featuring a recurring character in a comic style. Max, in a silk hat, a cane, and a dandy style of clothing, became a peculiar character in the genre of situation comedy.

In his short movie starring as Max in 1907, he performed the “windmill routine,” which is heavily attributed to Charlie Chaplin. But little do most people know that is was first performed by Max Linder, in his debut performance as Max, in a motion picture titled The Skater’s Debut. Again as luck would have it, the departure of another of Pathé’s top comedy actors left the spot open for Max. Director Gasnier and Linder discovered that the character Max was very popular with the masses, and they decided to stick with it, producing popular films like A Young lady Killer and The Cure for Cowardice.

The year 1910 saw the making of two very popular Max films, with Pathé as a producer, including the autobiographical film, Max Linder’s Film Debut, which was about Max Linder’s early life and career starring Pathé himself too. By the end of 1910, Max had become very popular with the masses.

In 1911, Max began co-directing his own films and achieved some masterpieces during this time. Max, Victim of Quinine, is one of those films.

Linder became a highly-paid actor in France, brought to him by the fame he gained through the silent film industry. He toured Europe entertaining audience with his spectacular performances, at the end of which he demanded a salary of 1 million francs, setting a precedent for actors to be heavily paid for all generations to come.

Max Linder in 1913

Max enjoyed these privileges from 1912-14 and made films that were to be remembered for a long time. In 1914, the outbreak of World War I saw a decline in his career, but not before he could manifest his patriotism through a film The Second of August, that Year.

During the War

The outbreak of World War I saw the manifestation of Max’s patriotic spirit. Finding that he was physically unfit for combat, he worked as a dispatch driver. He was relieved of army duty, and the reasons were conflicting stories. It was even rumored that he was killed. However, after exiting the army, he took it upon himself to entertain the soldiers and work in his capacity to fulfill his duty by making films. It was during this period that Linder went through a serious bout of depression, which was to have serious consequences.

Max’s Entry in Hollywood

After the legend, Charlie Chaplin, had left George K. Spoor’s Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, Spoor offered the role to Max, who was the pioneer and leading pantomime specialist. Misfortune fell upon them, and none of the Hollywood-made Max films were successful. The production house canceled the remaining films in the contract after attempting three, which were nothing but big flops.

Still perturbed by the war, and having failed in Hollywood, Max returned to France in 1917, where he built a cinema, and made another successful movie, which earned him money and regained some of his popularity. Another attempt to take over Hollywood resulted in Max creating his own production company in the U.S and a film, Seven Years Bad Luck, which helped him earn some fulfillment of his dream of success in Hollywood. The film is considered by some to be his best one.

A still from the American comedy film Seven Years Bad Luck, starring and directed by Max Linder 

Late in his life, he felt the fun element is lost, which is why he started making a few serious films, including a semi-serious film Au Secours meaning HELP! Linder’s last film was The King of the Circus. The work on his next film, Barkas le Fol, would never be completed.

During his stay in Hollywood, Max befriended Charlie Chaplin. The two got along very well. They would often sit and chat until dawn as it was reported. The two discussed ideas and film making. Although Charlie Chaplin is known more popularly with the masses, he declares himself to be Linder’s disciple, as he did so in the signed photograph that he sent to Max, reading, ‘To Max, the Professor, from his disciple.’

 Chaplin closed his studio for one day upon hearing of Linder’s death.

Personal Life and Death

In 1923, Max Linder married an 18-year-old woman named Hélène Jean Peters, with whom he had a daughter, Maud.  Linder had never recovered from the depression he contracted from working as a driver during World War I. His health declined consistently. In February 1924, in what was described as a suicide pact Linder and his wife were found dead, with slashed wrists. It is arguable whether Linder killed his much younger wife and then committed suicide or was it really a pact that led them both to end their lives.

A letter sent by Hélène to her mother in which she said that “He will kill me.” This was reported by The New York Times on November 2, 1925. However, all this murder-suicide thing remains a mystery to date. 

Filmography

Linder’s films usually revolved around his character, Max. Here are some of his Max and other films: 

  • 1907: The Skater’s Debut
  • 1909: A Young Lady Killer
  • 1909: Max And The Lady Doctor
  • 1909: The Cure for Cowardice
  • 1910: Max Goes Skiing
  • 1910: Max takes a bath
  • 1910: Max Linder’s Film Debut
  • 1914: The Second of August
  • 1914: Max and His Mother In Law
  • 1916: Max and the Clutching Hand
  • 1917: Max Comes Across
  • 1917: Max wants a divorce
  • 1917: Max and His Taxi
  • 1919: The little cafe
  • 1921: Seven Years Bad Luck
  • 1921: Be My Wife
  • 1922: The-Three-Must-Get-Theres
  • 1924: Au Secours!
  • 1925: The King of the Circus

Legacy

Although Max Linder was not soon recognized for the significant role he played in the film industry, his films were loved and watched by all. His character, Max, became a powerful figure of the time. Max was a mentor of the great comedians like Charlie Chaplin, who would forever be remembered for the art they created.

Although Linder left a movie incomplete and his work was not screened after his death, his daughter took up the job to have a compilation of three of Linder’s Hollywood films to be displayed at the Venice Film Festival. His daughter, Maud, ensured that her father’s name was commemorated and never forgotten.

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