Silent Superstars: The Dapper Max Linder
Today, we tend to consider famous folks like Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin to be our earliest movie stars. But there were some screen actors and actresses who rose to fame even before they did. One of them was a dapper little man with a silk top hat and almost manic-looking eyes. And in fact, this little man was apparently the very first bona fide film star: the French comedian Max Linder.
Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle was born on December 16, 1883. His family owned a vineyard in Saint-Loubès in the Bordeaux region of France — a vineyard and winery that is still running to this day. As a boy, Max adored going to the traveling stage shows. When his older brother Maurice became a professional athlete, Max’s parents fondly hoped that their younger son would one day run the family business. However, the free-spirited boy felt “life among the grapes” couldn’t compete with the magic of the stage.
He was sent to the Lycée de Talence school, where he was less interested in his studies than in acting in plays with fellow students. He enrolled in the arts conservatory Conservatoire de Bordeaux as a teenager, somewhat to his family’s chagrin (they considered acting to be a lowly profession). Max was undeniably talented, however, and was soon winning awards for drama and comedy.
Max then joined the Bordeaux Théâtre des Arts, and eventually worked his way through stints at various regional theaters. Faced with the displeasing realization that his son was now most definitely an actor, Max’s father forbid him from using the family name of “Leuvielle.” He tried using the last name “Lecarda” before switching to the pleasing “Linder,” which he spotted on a shoe shop sign.
At that same time, cinema was becoming a popular novelty, with many of its pioneers working in France. At the suggestion of film director Louis Gasnier, Linder joined the esteemed Pathé Frères studio around 1905. He mainly played bit parts and supporting roles, and it’s thought that his first substantial role was in The Young Man’s First Outing (1905). When Pathé’s slapstick comedian René Gréhan left for greener pastures, Max took over his “well-groomed boulevardier” character. It suited him, and soon his silk top hat, impeccably-tailored suits, and white gloves were becoming his trademark.
Pathé decided to feature him as the character “Max,” starting with Max Wants to Skate (1907), a simple short showing the character trying ice skating for the first time. His expressive face and talent for slapstick made him a natural fit for comedies. While clowns such as Charlie Chaplin or Roscoe Arbuckle would use shabby or awkward-fitting clothing as part of their humor, Linder’s humor revolved a respectable, fashionable gentleman constantly blundering into embarrassing situations or getting carried away by his own enthusiasm. He would make a huge number of shorts, with titles like Max Fights a Duel, Max Takes a Bath, Max is Forced to Work, and Max’s Feet Are Pinched.
The comedian’s popularity skyrocketed in the late 1900s, and by 1910 he was the most popular film star in the world — years before Chaplin, Arbuckle, or Mabel Normand gained their followings. U.S. actress Florence Lawrence is often thought to be the first movie star, but the claim to that title may technically go to Max Linder since he was given his own ad campaign by Pathé early on.
Soon Max was co-directing his shorts, and in 1912 was able to get complete control over his films. He churned them out quickly and efficiently, later saying his studio started work at nine in the morning and could finish a short by four in the afternoon. He had a good sense of where to place the camera, and many of his interior sets had an elegant French charm.
Max’s busy career was interrupted by World War I, which would have a profound effect on him. While the French army found him physically unfit for service, he patriotically signed up to be a dispatch driver. While on the front lines he was injured, either by a bullet to his lung or mustard gas inhalation (accounts vary). Whatever the case, his recovery time was slow and he would suffer from PTSD to the end of his life.
Following the war, Max was invited to appear in Essanay films in the U.S. (where he famously met with Charlie Chaplin, who idolized him). Back in France, he opened a theater christened the Ciné Max Linder and began to slow down his film output, still too traumatized from the war to make many appearances on the screen.
He attempted a comeback in Hollywood in 1921, making the feature Seven Years’ Bad Luck — often considered his best film. He followed this up with Be My Wife (1921) and The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922), a satire on the Douglas Fairbanks film The Three Musketeers (1921). These didn’t do as well as he hoped, so he returned to France for the final time. In 1923 he would marry 18-year-old Hélène Peters, and they soon would have one daughter, Maud.
Max would only appear in three more films in the mid-1920s, one being the short Au Secours! (1924), a kind of horror-comedy made by Abel Gance as the result of a bet. By this point, the comedian was suffering a great deal from depression, and photos from that period show him looking increasingly haggard.
In 1925, after attending a play in Paris, Max and Hélène returned to their hotel and took their own lives (they had reportedly made a pact). It was a tragic end for the once world-renowned star.
Yet time has been merciful to Max Linder. While he is still a bit obscure, a number of his charming early comedies survive thanks to his daughter, Maud. Raised by grandparents after her parents’ death, Maud discovered her father’s work when she was in her twenties. While she didn’t have warm feelings toward the man who left her so soon, she was impressed by the screen artist and made it her mission to find and preserve as many of his films as she could. Thanks mainly to her, they still exist to charm us today.
Much of Max Linder’s work remains fresh, and his image as “The Man in the Silk Hat” still has instant appeal to us today. Here’s to hoping that future generations will continue to get a kick out of the man who was, perhaps, the world’s first official movie star.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.