Feature by: Cullen Gallagher
Posted on: 28 July 2008
“Laughter is a new kind of weapon. A type of light gun, very effective in cases where there is no need to employ heavy tanks of social wrath,” wrote Sergei Eisenstein in 1937, describing his ideal vision of Socialist Comedy as a new genre.1 Just over thirty years earlier in France, as cinema was nearing the decade mark and Georges Méliès was exploring the fantastic and the macabre as had never seen before, Max Linder was aiming his revolutionary camera-as-gun at the bourgeoisie and their sacred rituals. He tore down pretension and ridiculed respectability. The very symbols of social refinement – clothing, manners, marriage, propriety – are the targets for his humor. The greatest victim, however, is always Linder himself: his transgressions always end with his expulsion from the class he strived to attain. It is this liberation from respectability that is the archetypical Linder scenario.
He might not have had the political aims of Eisenstein, but Linder’s anti-establishment subversion is as clear in a film like Max’s Hat (1908) as it is in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). (Buñuel’s film, even by virtue of its title, is one of the seminal anti-bourgeouis statements made on film.) Both films, in fact, rely on a similar tactic: the continual interruption of a social nicety, something so seemingly insignificant that often goes overlooked but when left unfulfilled interrupts the rehearsed performance of normality. In Discreet Charm, the characters are forever sitting down for dinner, only to be interrupted again and again, their every attempt at dining thwarted, while in Max’s Hat Max’s top hat is continually the target of a violent, cosmic force that Max is powerless against. A workman carrying a door on the street stops momentarily, and right as Max passes the door slips and lands directly on the protruding, immodest black trophy on Max’s head; another time, a curious cat pushes a potted plant out of a window; and still another time, Max’s hat, standing too high (just as Icarus, with his wax wings, flew too close to the sun), gets caught in the door of a cab. Like a peacock unable to strut its feathers, Max is unable to parade his social status on his sleeve—or, more precisely, on his head. The walk of high-class, once a walk of privilege, becomes a walk of hazard and humiliation.
Eventually deciding to keep his umpteenth new hat in a box until he reaches his destination – already a sign of capitulation, Max has forgone both the walk and the cloth of his class – he puts on his hat only after he arrives at a friend’s house. But as one does not wear a hat inside the house, Max opts to keep the hat on the floor by his side. To his horror, a passing dog lifts its leg and relieves itself in the hat just at the moment his hosts arrive and wish the shake his hand. Passing the urine filled hat from hand to hand (a regression to the childhood fear of loss of bladder control), the host eventually takes hold of it and, admiring the hat, puts it upon his head. Urine spills down over his body and Max flees from the room, shamefaced and guilty. Fin. No resolution is given, for none is necessary: Max has lost face in front of others and contributed to the humiliation of his host. He is by no means a gentleman any longer: he is the beginning of the counter-cultural icon which Charlie Chaplin will inherit and perfect, agitating the complacent middle- and upper-classes and destroying their sense of security. One can only imagine that for years to come, whenever the host picks up a hat, he will no doubt double-check its contents to check for urine.
The influence of Linder on Chaplin has been commented upon before, but it’s worth stressing that in the Tramp’s costume one can find the ghost of Max’s respected citizen: for both comedians, the cane and the hat are symbols of status—for Linder a status at risk, and for Chaplin a status always out of reach. A key difference between their attitudes, however, is the lack of pathos in the comedy of Max Linder. “In Chaplin’s films,” Eisenstein observes, “we have love of mankind, solicitude for the ‘smaller brother,’ tears for the humiliated and insulted, for those whom fate maltreats.”2 In Linder, however, we only have the humiliated and insulted, persons whom fate maltreats, but no tears, and no love for mankind.
A film like Max and His Mother-in-Law (1912) steams with bitterness as for 24 minutes we watch as Max’s honeymoon is continually interrupted by his wife’s tag-along mother. As in Max’s Hat, Max here begins in a state of relative respectability: he’s won the girl’s hand, they’ve already married, and are running to catch a train. Unable to let her daughter leave, the wife’s mother hauls her off the train at the last minute. Reluctantly, Max agrees to let the mother accompany them on their honeymoon. Max, of course, spends the entire time fussing over mother: picking her up after she falls on the ice, squeezing her onto the back of his sled, and chasing her down the hill as she speeds out-of-control on her skis. There is nothing humanistic about this prolonged insult: certainly, its funny, but we feel no pathos for any of the characters, only frustration at Max’s inability to consummate his marriage in whatever way was permitted on-screen at the time. They never even get to sled together! Even at the film’s end, it is a three-way hug between husband, wife, and mother: seemingly a sign of reconciliation, but in fact yet another continuation of the subversion of marital romance. If Max’s Hat attacked social costumes, then Max and His Mother-in-Law strips any sense of romanticization from marriage.
Is there any aspect of bourgeois life that Max Linder does not decimate? Courtship becomes a debased charade in two films from 1912. In Max Juggles For Love, his marriage depends on whether or not he can juggle three balls at once. After destroying his abode while practicing (its admirable how quickly entire rooms are brought to ruin, proof of how delicate the façade of respectability is), Max decides to hire a professional juggler and try to pull the wool over his lover’s eyes: inevitably, his hoax is discovered, and the film ends with Max on the floor, humiliated, with his lover and her father pointing at him and laughing. And in Max and His Dog, Max wins his bride only because he picks the long slip of paper in a lottery. Realizing he is the wrong man, she carries on with another in secrecy. After training his dog to call if another man comes over, Max catches them in the act and sends them both away. The final shot: Max sharing tea with his dog, his only companion. Is a relationship with a dog any less a joke than marrying because of a lottery? The ending is, perhaps, less of a satire than the beginning.
An essential part of the Max Linder character is that he tries to uphold the expectations of his class, and his failings are not due to inadequacies in his character, rather they are due to some cruel twist of fate: a force, unable to be deterred, that seems bent on tripping up Max and revealing the upper-class for the surface-level performance that it is. In Max Takes a Bath (1906), Max purchases a bathtub and carries it back to his apartment only to discover that the faucet is in the hall. Once he fills the tub, however, he can not move it. A sudden decision to bathe in the hallway turns disastrous as several neighbors pass by in horror, eventually bringing in the police to haul away Max-as-indecently-exposed. And in His First Cigar (1907), Max’s inability to handle the noxious fumes leads him to public humiliation.
Max Linder’s films mostly end with him becoming a spectacle, much to his and society’s chagrin. The arch of his films is from respectability to embarrassment and failure: instead of following the code and fitting in, Max transgresses social boundaries and sticks out. He is on display, but not as the model citizen with which his films begin, but as the manifestation of the chaos and disruption the social codes are meant to prevent. Max Linder: poster child for all that the bourgeoisie does not want to be. It’s one way to get noticed, but that isn’t what Max wants.
So what is it that Max wants? To skate without falling down (Max Learns to Skate ); for fly paper to not stick all over him (Max Gets Stuck Up ); to smoke a cigar like everyone else; to bathe; to get married; to go on a honeymoon; and particularly for dogs not to chase him through a stranger’s apartment, up through a chimney, and onto the roof (Max Fears the Dogs ). But mostly, he wants for us not to watch him. He’d like nothing more than to have empty, bourgeois promises fulfilled in moderation. But this is impossible, for just as the gestures of the bourgeoisie are little more than a charade, Max Linder’s fate was to reveal the charade as such. But not just to himself, but to a large audience—millions across the world. Max’s curse/gift was to display the absurd niceties in large, shadowy figures across the screen, figures that fall on their rear, get struck on the head, and topple over whenever possible. While revealing all the frustrations of life, he also reveals the salvation of laughter. While it would take Charlie Chaplin to discover the moon in the gutter, Max Linder was able to start the journey from the center to the margin, for it is only from the outside that he and Chaplin are able to look in with such insight, clarity, and imagination.
1 Sergei Eisenstein, “A Few Thoughts About Soviet Comedy,” Notes of a Film Director (New York: Dover Publications, 1970), 111.↩
2 Eisenstein 109.↩