Posted in 1920s, Movies, Silent film

When avoiding bad luck creates even worse luck

Though Max Linder (né Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle) made hundreds of films between 1905–1925 and was the original screen comedian, he’s sadly not nearly as well-known today as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or Roscoe Arbuckle. Even the overrated, creepy Harry Langdon seems to be more popular.

Like too many silent stars, Max also suffers from the misfortune of lost films. More than a few survive, but many others are lost. Thankfully, his daughter Maud (1924–2017) did a lot to resurrect his legacy and preserve his films.

Seven Years Bad Luck, released 6 February 1921, is not only one of Max’s best-known films, but is also widely considered one of his very finest among his surviving body of work.

Max gets absolutely schnockered at his bachelor party, and is so drunk he doesn’t even realize he’s in his own house when he comes home. In the morning, he awakens with a terrible hangover. But that isn’t the least of his troubles. Max woke up at the noise of a mirror breaking, caused by his amorous valet and maid.

John, the valet, immediately calls for a new mirror to be delivered to Max’s house, and lies to his employer that the noise was nothing but Mary, the maid, dropping a napkin. While Max is still in his room, John gets the chef, who very much resembles Max, to dress up as their employer and pretend to be him on the other side of the now-empty mirror frame.

The ruse works very well at first, as the chef exactly copies Max’s every single movement. However, Max eventually realizes there’s another person on the other side. When he leaves the room, the deliveryman arrives with the new mirror.

Max returns and throws a shoe at the mirror, thinking his chef is still standing there. Alas, the new mirror immediately breaks, and Max is horrorstruck. Being very superstitious, he believes he’s been dealt seven years of bad luck.

Max decides to call for his horse instead of taking his car to visit his fiancée Betty (Alta Allen), then imagines himself getting into a terrible accident and decides to just walk there. This proves even more dangerous than either driving or riding a horse, and Max barely makes it there in one piece.

While waiting for Betty, Max asks her supposed psychic maid to read his palm. She says she sees a dog threatening his happiness, and Max promptly grabs Betty’s cute little fluffy white dog Frizotto and sticks him in a vase.

Max tries to prevent Betty from seeing this, but she discovers it sooner rather than later, and is so outraged she calls off their engagement.

Betty’s mother phones Max and says Betty changed her mind and wants him to come back, then tells Betty she ought to give Max a second chance and not behave too rashly over something so silly. This attempted reconciliation ends in another breakup when Betty walks in on Max jamming on the piano to a jazz record as the maid dances. Betty is horrified by such “scandalous” behavior.

Max asks his best friend to pay a call on Betty and try to get her to relent in her cruel edict, little realizing his supposed buddy has designs on Betty. His friend, who isn’t named, lies to Betty that Max decided to marry an ex. Betty then asks how she might get revenge, and the friend suggests she marry him.

Before Max can find out about this shocking new development, he steps into a fight between two strangers on the street and ends up robbed of his wallet. Max had been planning to take a train trip, but now has no money to pay for it, and must find a way to sneak aboard.

The comic situations only escalate from there, as Max continues to court bad luck in his attempted pursuit of avoiding it.

Will Max ever defeat his string of bad luck and reconcile with Betty?

Posted in 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, Movies, Silent film

Max Linder and Harold Lockwood

The first part of this post is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Max Linder (né Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle) (16 December 1883–31 October 1925) was born in Cavernes, France, to winemakers Jean and Suzanne. He always loved the theatre, and enrolled in the Conservatoire Bordeaux in 1899. Before long, he was winning awards for his acting.

From 1901–04, he was a contract player with Bordeaux Théâtre des Arts. He also acted for the Parisian theatre Ambigu-Comique. The stage surname Linder was randomly chosen in 1904, after a walk in Bordeaux brought him to a Linder’s shoe store.

In 1905, Max began acting in Pathé films, usually in supporting roles. He made a film almost every day. By 1910, he’d created his very recognisable screen character, a dapper dandy with a silk top hat and a moustache, who always gets mixed up in wild misadventures.

Max’s films were hugely popular, and he became the world’s first recognisable screen character, in this era when most comedians had screen personas instead of just playing funny people in funny situations. He starred in hundreds of films during the 1910s.

Like many other early comedians, he also did all his own stunts and came up with a lot of his own material. In 1910 alone, he made one short a week. The French adored Max and looked forward to his weekly adventures.

When ill health and a near-fatal roller-skating accident in 1911 took Max out of commission, his fans waited patiently for his return. To explain his absence, he appeared in the documentary Max Dans Sa Famille.

By 1914, he was famous worldwide, and kept getting more popular. During 1912–13, he toured Spain, Germany, and St. Petersburg. His million-franc Pathé contract was for one film a week, 150 films over three years. Life seemed great for Max.

Troubles began when he fell victim to mustard gas during WWI. This took him out of the service after mere months. He returned home extremely ill, and didn’t return to acting till 1916.

Chicago’s Essanay Studios offered him a $5,000 a week contract in the wake of their big star Charlie Chaplin’s departure, but Max was only able to make three of the planned dozen films. He went to an L.A. sanitarium before going home to France. Max recovered from pleurisy by Lake Geneva.

Max returned to film in 1919, and his fans were delighted to have him back. At the end of that year, he returned to Hollywood, where he made features including Be My Wife, The Three Must-Get-Theres, and, most famous of all, Seven Years Bad Luck.

Unfortunately, Max’s health began acting up again, and he returned to Europe. In 1921, he proposed to 16-year-old Hélène Peters (sometimes called Ninette). Her mother rightly refused to let her marry someone 22 years older, and Max caused a scandal by taking Hélène to Monte Carlo.

On 23 August 1923, Max and Hélène married.

On 23 February 1924, when Hélène was five months pregnant, she and Max attempted suicide, but were revived. Their daughter Maud was born on 27 June.

Max’s luck seemed to be improving, as his next film, King of the Circus, won much acclaim. Sadly, his mental and physical health continued deteriorating, and Hélène filed for divorce.

On Halloween 1925, he and Hélène died in a suicide pact or murder-suicide. Maud (who passed away 25 October 2017) was raised by her grandparents, and did a great deal to restore her father’s films and reignite public interest in him.

Harold Lockwood (12 April 1887–19 October 1918), a hugely popular matinée idol born in Brooklyn, is one of those silent stars whose work we can’t appraise accurately. Though he made over 100 films, only about five are known to survive. Most of what we have to go on are vintage film reviews.

Harold was raised in Newark, and became an exporter after graduation. He wasn’t very happy with this career choice, and turned to vaudeville acting. In 1910, he entered film, and worked for four studios.

During WWI, Harold and May Allison co-starred in over 23 films and became one of the most popular screen couples of the era. In real life, Harold was married to Alma Jones, by whom he had a son, Harold, Jr., who later became an actor himself.

Sadly, Harold was one of the 50–100 million victims of the 1918–19 flu pandemic, which mostly killed young, healthy people. He was only 31.

Posted in Movies, Silent film

Classic silent and early sound comedians, Part V

This installment spotlights comedians including W.C. Fields, Max Linder, and Lloyd Hamilton. Since writing this in 2005, I was able to see some of Harry Langdon’s films, and quickly came to the conclusion that the people who have claimed him as the “forgotten” or fourth great silent clown are mistaken, if genuine in their intentions. He actually kind of creeps me out. He was rather popular for a rather short time. I’m far from the only one who feels there’s a bit of historical revisionism going on when certain people try to claim him as some undersung silent comedy genius.

***

12. Mabel Normand was the silent queen, débuting in 1910 and quickly becoming the favourite of the legendary producer Mack Sennett; she was one of his famed Bathing Beauties. She also appeared in a few of Chaplin’s early shorts, though her most prolific teaming was with Roscoe Arbuckle, frequently playing his wife, girlfriend, or love interest.

She was so great that Sennett (whom she was mutually in love with, despite how they never married) established the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, at which she worked very hard and successfully, rarely ever using a stunt double to do the more hazardous things associated with slapstick. Unfortunately, in the early Twenties she was linked with the events on the night of the bizarre unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor (even though Mabel had nothing to do with the murder), and coupled with her bad spending habits and out of control personal life, she fell from grace, making her final film in 1927. In 1930 she died of TB-induced pneumonia.

13. W.C. Fields had been in show business for some time before he finally made a name for himself in the early Thirties. His silent pictures are said to be hit and miss; he didn’t really come into his own until you could hear his voice, which matched his personality and appearance perfectly. However, some of his better silent films, such as It’s the Old Army Game, which he did with his friend Louise Brooks, were later remade into sound films.

His screen persona was that of a curmudgeon, and he was very delightfully curmudgeonly, too funny, entertaining, and interesting to dislike, even though he drinks like a damn fish and is frequently rude and mean to children and animals (though supposedly in real life he liked kids). Another integral aspect of his screen character was his big bulbous red nose; he also wore an array of funny hats.

He started out in vaudeville, primarily as a juggler, which was how he came into contact with Louise Brooks, who was dancing for the Ziegfeld Follies during the time he was juggling for them. He was a very good juggler, though he had to wear gloves to protect his hands because of a skin condition. Louise remembered that he was very modest, chaste, shy, and polite, and one of her few real friends when she was dancing there; it seems surprising such a personality would become such close friends with a woman who was famously very very sexual.

He was also the second choice for the title role of the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz (there had been an earlier version in 1910, starring a very young Bebe Daniels as Dorothy). He might not have been as young, handsome, or physically daring as some of the other comedians of the era, but he was funny, put on a great show, was very entertaining, and had that natural presence and personality. When you’ve got that, you don’t need looks or youth to carry you through. It will ooze right off the screen before you even say a word, and like Stan Laurel once said, a truly great comedian will get laughs even if he’s just sitting and reading the phonebook.

14. Harry Langdon is yet another man-child comedian, a whey-faced baby-faced clown who was quite popular for a time in the Twenties, so much so [some] people consider him the fourth great silent clown (as though rankings mean much of anything; all these guys were great, whether they’re “officially” placed as #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #15, #35, or #100!). Not all people dig his man-child character, and certainly he made some foolish decisions that cut his career shorter than it might’ve otherwise been (such as firing Frank Capra after their falling-out during the making of Long Pants), decisions that also produced weaker material than usual (what else do you expect when you’re directing yourself and thus have no one around you to tell you you’re making bad choices about material?).

From Long Pants in 1927 on out, most of his films were financially disastrous, and though most of his acting was done in talking pictures, those films are generally not considered as good as the stuff he was doing in the silent era. He’s like a good number of other comedians on the list; either you like him and find his brand of humour appealing or you don’t. Thankfully, some of his films have come out onto DVD now, with hopefully more to follow in future, so you can judge for yourself if you think he deserves to be called the fourth great silent clown or if you personally just don’t find his humour appealing.

15. Larry Semon, like Charley Chase, may just be one of the funniest actors you’ve never seen or heard about. Nowadays he’s best-remembered for directing The Wizard of Oz in 1925 (the 1939 version was not the first or only one); he also appeared in the picture as the Scarecrow (and believe it or not, Oliver Hardy played the Tin Man). Sadly, he died at only 39 mere years of age in 1928.

In the early Twenties he even was giving Chaplin a run for his money as the greatest, most popular screen clown. Unfortunately, most of his surviving films are his later ones, which aren’t his best, so it’s really hard to acccurately judge him, even though other more representative surviving films plus his reputation attest to a truly great clown and wonderful entertainer.

People issue proclamations about how he was unfunny, egotistical, and too crude a physical comedian based on only seeing a handful of very unrepresentative films; the old trick of judging a person or thing by something either unrepresentative or shown out of context on purpose to make it seem ridiculous. It’s like how only a handful of Theda Bara’s films survive; how can you determine if she’s really worthy of all the great things that’ve been said about her if you’ve only got below-par outings with which to judge her?

16. Max Linder, a dapper Frenchman in a top hat, was a cinematic pioneer, making his first film in 1905. It’s been said that his top-hat screen persona was the first recognisable screen figure, paving the way for comics like Harold Lloyd, Stan and Ollie, and Charlie Chaplin.

Probably his best-known film is 1921’s Seven Years Bad Luck, which was recently shown on TCM as part of their April Fools celebration, on the day they showed nothing but films by Charley Chase, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Harold Lloyd. Seven Years Bad Luck is a great, triumphant film for many reasons, one of his very best, surviving or lost; it also contains the original mirror routine which was later done in 1933’s Duck Soup (not to be confused with the 1927 Laurel and Hardy short also called Duck Soup and later remade in the sound era as Another Fine Mess).

This film is available on the only DVD collection of Max’s work issued to date, along with four shorts and an excerpt from Be My Wife. Sadly, only about a fifth of his 500 films are known to survive, and not all in the greatest of conditions; even sadder still is how this great actor and comedic legend exited that incarnation, by suicide at the age of 42, right after killing his wife. No one has yet found a motive for this sad, shocking turn of events.

17. Lloyd Hamilton was never one of the major clowns in his day, but he wasn’t such a minor comedian as to be considered obscure either. Incidentally, some of his films featured Virginia Rappé, who was also just a minor star who probably would be remembered about as well as, if not less so, than Lloyd Hamilton is today had it not been for the scandal that occurred after her untimely death.

He started working in films in 1914 and starred in a number of comedy serials—the Mermaid comedies, the Sunshine comedies, and as Ham in the Ham and Bud series. During work upon one of the lattermost comedies, he suffered a compound fracture in his left leg, which had him unable to work for months following. Supposedly the comedic walk he used in his later comedies was inspired by this injury. (Curly Howard also had an injury that inspired the funny walk he did to hide his limp; he accidentally shot himself in the foot but was so terrified of surgery he never had it worked on; his big brother Moe was the one who found him after this accident.) In 1931 he was hit by a car and hurt his left leg all over again; two months later, upon his release from hospital, he was showing a friend how well he could walk sans crutches, fell, and broke his right leg.

This rather obscure comedian is also mentioned near the end of chapter 14 of Cheaper by the Dozen, talking about the film shot of their family eating dinner at way past normal speed to make it look like they raced to the table, ate dinner, passed plates, and ran away from the table in about 45 seconds, with laundry, esp. diapers, prominently in the background: “We saw the newsreel at the Dreamland Theater in Nantucket, and it got much louder laughs than the comedy, which featured a fat actor named Lloyd Hamilton.”