Shorts! Blogathon: TROUBLES OF A GRASS WIDOWER (1912)

This post is part of the Shorts! Blogathon presented by Fritzi over at Movies Silently!  Check out the other entries here!

Grass Widower

Definition of GRASS WIDOWER

: a man divorced or separated from his wife
: a man whose wife is temporarily away from him

What is a fellow to do when his wife becomes so fed up with him, she goes back home to Mother?  In the case of Max Linder the answer is, attempt to carry on with hilariously disastrous consequences.

The plot is quite simple.  A husband (Max Linder) is making his wife (Jane Renouardt) crazy and ignoring her during dinner.  Finally fed up with this behavior the un-appreciated wife decides to head back home to her mother.  Her husband is initially delighted at having the whole house to himself and sets about doing daily activities.  However, he soon finds that things are not so delightful and the house descends into chaos.  Will his wife ever return?

So, let’s get a little background shall we?  Gabriel-Maximillien Leuvielle, better known as Max Linder, was a French actor, director, comedian, producer, and screen writer of the silent film era.  His parents were vineyard owners and expected him to continue in the family business but Max was enthralled by the traveling circuses and theaters that came to town.  In 1899 he enrolled in the Bordeaux Conservatorie and from 1901-1904 was a contract player in the Bordeaux Théâtre des Arts, adopting the stage name of Max Linder.  Then in 1905, Max got his big break.  “Do you want to do some cinema?” asked one of Linder’s colleagues at the theatre. “What’s that?” said Max.   “A kind of theatre, except that you act in front of a machine. You joke around. You’ll get 20 francs.” answered his friend.  Max agreed and was filmed skating, and falling, over and over on a frozen lake for a short called Les Débuts d’un Patineur.  This was to become his first success and showed Max a world that he had never known before, cinema shorts.  Max was eager to continue and soon began producing his own short films.

Max’s onscreen personality was a dapper dandy, a suave gentleman full of charm and manners, but one who was liable to get into various comedic disasters usually due to his womanizing behaviors.  His characters were usually dressed with a top hat and a distinctive mustache, and Max often adapted and improvised his performances to fit the desires of the movie going public.  Max Linder soon became the very first internationally recognizable film star.  Signed on by Pathe, in 1910 Max Linder and his films were so popular that he was filming a comedy a week at the studio and was earning 1 million francs a year.  But soon Max had to take a break from his demanding schedule.  A childhood bout of cholera and a roller skating accident that occurred during his film career had damaged his health and continued to trouble him years later.  But this absence was short lived and by 1911 Max Linder was back and making shorts.

In 1914 World War I broke out and Max enlisted in the French Army.  He served for two months as a dispatch driver before being dismissed due to his poor health.  After being dismissed, Max continued to do his part to support the war effort by entertaining the troops.  In 1916 Max was offered a contract to make films in America which he accepted.  While in America Max Linder met and befriended Charlie Chaplin, a relationship that would go on to affect Chaplin’s entire career.  For example, Max Linder’s influence can directly be seen in Chaplin’s Little Tramp character.  American audiences largely ignored Linder’s films and they made little to no money, leading to Max’s contract in America being cancelled.  Max returned to war-torn France where, suffering from depression, he made no films until after the war’s end.  In 1919 Max made a new film that became a moderate success in Europe but which remained unseen in America.  However, bolstered by the modest success of his newest film, Max decided to take on Hollywood once again.  Creating his own production company, Max Linder Productions, Max made two feature films starring his dapper Max character neither of which made an impact on the American audience.  He then took on the role of “Dart-In-Again” in The Three Must-Get-Theres, a spoof of The Three Musketeers starring Douglas Fairbanks.  Although both Fairbanks and Chaplin praised the film, it did not make money at the box office and Max returned to France.

Now severely depressed, Max Linder made two final films in France but he no longer felt funny. As he is quoted saying to director Robert Florey, “The public is mildly amused by my situations…but where were the explosions of laughter that we hear when Charlie’s on the screen?”  He married eighteen year old Hélène “Jean” Peters in 1923 and in 1924 the couple welcomed a daughter named Maud.  But even the joys of marriage and fatherhood could not raise Max’s spirits.  Both husband and wife suffered emotional problems which became evident in early 1924 when they attempted to commit suicide together at a hotel in Vienna, Austria before they were found a revived.  The doctor covered up the situation, calling it an accidental barbituate overdose.  On October 31, 1925 Max Linder and his wife attended a performance of Quo Vadis.  In the play the main characters bleed themselves to death and later that night the Linder’s died the same way.  Charlie Chaplin is said to have closed his studios for a day out of respect for the death of a man who is barely known by American audiences today, but one who he thought of as his teacher.

And what happened to baby Maud? She was raised by her grandparents who waited until she was about twenty years old before they told her what really happened to her parents.  After seeing one of her father’s films, Maud realized what a star her father had been and resolved to make his films accessible to the public once again.  In 1963 she made a film compilation of her father’s last three films from Hollywood entitled Laugh With Max Linder which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and won the Étoile de Cristal.  In 1983 she made a documentary called The Man in the Silk Hat which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival.  In the 1950s and 1960s she worked as a journalist, and as an assistant director for Jean-Paul Le Chanois.  She published a book in France entitled Max Linder Was My Father in 1992, and in 2008 she was awarded the Prix Henri Langlois for her work in promoting her father’s legacy.  And the most amazing part?  She is currently still alive and residing in France.

The life of Max Linder is undoubtably tragic, as so many great comedic talents’ seem to be.  He was never understood or accepted by the American audience even though he gave them one of their greatest and most popular film stars, Charlie Chaplin.  Even today he is relegated as a footnote in the history of silent comedy and is not well known, which is a shame because he is just as funny and clever as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Jacques Tati, and yes Charlie Chaplin.   There are even aspects that made me think of Mr. Bean and I wonder if Rowan Atkinson has ever watched Max Linder.  His humor is not over the top antics or crazy slap stick, it is more realistic and more grounded in every day.  The situations that Max gets into are funny of course and a little crazy but they are never too bizarre to make sense.  Max Linder is the reason that we have Charlie Chaplin and a major influence in the early days of silent comedy.  He was the first international film star and he has, unfortunately, been largely forgotten.  So, let’s take this moment to doff our top hats to the memory of Max Linder and watch him doing what he did best.