Just Dandy: The Art of Max Linder

maxyHe was the first international movie star. The man Charlie Chaplin called his “professor.” A visionary writer-director.

And in 1925, Max Linder—sickened by war wounds, maddened by post-traumatic stress, and increasingly neglected by the audiences he had once delighted—died by his own hand. It was a very sad end for a very funny man.

Linder deserves perhaps more credit than anyone else for refining that curious alchemy that we now recognize as great screen comedy. His cocktail of uproarious pratfalls, farcical situations, surreal gags, and wistful, tender humor was utterly unlike anything that came before.

Over the course of hundreds of film appearances from 1905 to 1925, many of which he directed, he developed a signature mischievous, urbane style of physical comedy. In a 1917 interview, the comedian himself commented on this intentional, yet intuitive mix of high and low: “I prefer the subtle comedy, the artistic touch, but it is a mistake to say I do not use the slapstick. I do not make it the object; I do not force it; but I employ it when it comes in naturally.”

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Max Linder shows his affection for cats of all sizes.

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At five-foot-two, Linder looked tiny even in his splendid high hat. His dainty features, his fussy feline mustache, his spindly legs, and his glistening immaculacy of dress all gave the diminutive comedian the aura of a pretty wind-up toy. Such a comedic creation, a dapper, accident-prone bourgeois, could easily have fallen into the sort of frivolous comedy that sours as quickly as cheap champagne. However, Linder endowed his Max with a romantic fire and a befuddled enthusiasm that transcend time.

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Linder understood that only a proper man could ever truly be improper. In his full regalia, he dazzled viewers with head-to-toe elegance at the beginning of his films—and wound up sullied almost beyond recognition by the end of the reel. He didn’t look like the sort of man whose shoes would catch on fire, who would end up sharing a cage with a lion, or who would get trapped on the fender of an automobile. Which made it all the funnier when he did.

Unlike raffish Chaplin, woebegone Keaton, or boy-next-door Lloyd, Linder infused his onscreen persona with an upper-class whimsy. He does what he does not necessarily because he has to, but often because he damn well feels like it.

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Max wants to be a bullfighter? He grabs a rug hanging out to dry nearby and brandishes it like a matador, imagining an unlucky oncoming cyclist as his bull.

Max wants to woo two women? He does—and somehow in the process punches a friend, clocks a stranger on the head with a rotten apple, and starts a duel.

Max wants to take a bath? He can’t get the huge tub into his room, so he deposits it in the lobby of his apartment building, scandalizes the other tenants, and ends up fleeing the cops with the porcelain tub on his back like a turtle’s shell.

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Linder’s screen Max is a miraculous bungler, a sprite, a magical creature who happens to frequent mundane places of respectability. In his top-hatted silhouette, seemingly on equal terms with the Eiffel Tower in “L’anglais tel que max le parle,” we recognize a kind of transitional icon, the bridge between chivalry and modernity, between the 19th century gentleman and the 20th century superstar.

There is something heroic in the quixotic desires that stir him. And life imitated art. We’re talking about a man who wore three different suits per day and travelled with 46 trunks of clothes and accessories. Who fought a bull in Spain—and won to the joy and amazement of ecstatic crowds. A man who, although he could’ve avoided military service, volunteered for his country during World War I and had to be practically blown up, frozen in an icy bomb crater, shot twice, and reported dead before he would accept his honorable discharge.

His beautiful impracticality, his slavery to caprice, his cavalier courage all make him a true dandy and a great artist.

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Stand in front of an oncoming train? Pas de problème. Wear ugly boots? Quelle horreur!

In his pre-WWI short films, Linder already showcased a guillotine-sharp knack for conceptual, innovative gags. In “Le roman de Max” (1912), for instance, our man-about-town arrives at a hotel resort at the same time as a beautiful woman. We feel the electricity between the strangers as they wordlessly walk side by side up a series of staircases and lodge in adjacent rooms. However, no sooner do they place their dirty boots in the hall and close their doors than these shoes come to life.

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In an early example of pixilation (the animation of an inanimate object on film), the pointed toes wiggle and rub against each other in a strikingly erotic kiss. This trippy courtship image could never exist on a stage; it both mocks and poetically celebrates the intimacy of the film medium. It’s a trick borrowed from another early short, of course, but Max frames it and milks it for all its tenderness and charm. The next day, Max and the mysterious belle are hilariously drawn to each other by the insistent magnetism of their soles.

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Max Linder was likewise one of the first comedians to explore the humor of dream logic and the possibility of recreating it through editing. In “Max asthmathique” (1915), our little gentleman sojourns in the Alps and decides to do some skiing. Once he gets to the top of the slopes, he comes speeding down with such celerity that he careens over the mountain peaks, over the ocean, over the rooftops of Paris… only to wake up in his bed. The trick backgrounds and Méliès-ish editing as Max “flies” on skis over various terrains foreshadows Buster Keaton’s montage frolics in Sherlock Jr.

chaplinlinder1918Although the great silent comedians who followed Linder were pioneers in their own right, their debt of gags and comedic “grammar” to the Man in the Silk Hat isn’t hard to discern. Consider Max’s burlesque attempts at suicide (though less funny in retrospect) in “Max in a Taxi” (1917), Linder’s first film made in California.

Disowned by his father for bad behavior, the prodigal fop decides to end it all by lying down in front of an oncoming train. We see the train approaching in long shot, far away. Max, sartorially obsessed even in the face of death, flicks some of the dirt away from the train tracks and lies down. The train chugs forward—and turns onto a different track at the last possible second. Cut to: a very disappointed and outraged Linder in close-up.

If this description triggers a sense of déjà vu, that might be because Harold Lloyd famously included an almost identical sequence in “Haunted Spooks” (1920). Lloyd’s bespectacled boy loses “one of the only girls I’ve ever loved” and plunks himself right in the path of an oncoming trolley, with his back to the streetcar… which promptly veers in the other direction. Cut to: a medium close-up of Lloyd looking dazed. Certainly, Lloyd adapted the gag to his own particular tone (it’s part of a long sequence of suicide attempts), but one can detect strong echoes of Linder’s concept and timing. Keaton would also film a variation on this scene in “Hard Luck” (1921), in which the oncoming trolley backs up, leaving hapless Buster no choice but to find another way to off himself.

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The perennial richness of this routine seems all the more impressive, given that Max was forced to stay in a sanatorium for a relapse of his lung troubles shortly after the making of “Max in a Taxi.” And all the more sad, given the way some critics panned the film.

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Linder transitioned gracefully into comedy features. In Seven Years Bad Luck and Be My Wife, both made in 1921, comedy set pieces flow harmoniously into each other as the slightly sanitized Max curbs his roving fancies and tries to win just one dream girl. The better-known of the pair of films, Seven Years Bad Luck features Linder’s famous mirror routine, in which one of his servants tries to cover up the breakage of a mirror by pretending to be Linder’s reflection. You might have seen it… in Duck Soup, made over ten years later.

Be My Wife features a similar act of doubling, a scene in which Max, hoping to impress his lady love’s disapproving aunt, stages a fight behind a curtain. Pretending to fend off an unseen criminal, Max becomes a brawl of one. He even goes so far as to put another pair of boots on his hands and walk on all fours, giving the impression of two men tussling. However, the funniest part isn’t that Max is basically beating himself up. What’s most amusing is that he feels the need to do it in character—jumping from spot to spot, playing both the bad guy and the good guy with a flamboyant theatricality just for his own benefit.

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Linder’s life of comedy came to a tragic end. As he had observed, “They are closely akin—the tears and the smiles.” He explained shortly after returning from the war, “This great sadness has made me wish to bring more joy into the world. I want to make people laugh as never before.”

And 130 years after his birth, he is still doing exactly that.

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Absolutely no article on Max would be complete without mentioning his daughter, Maud Linder, who has tirelessly worked to preserve her father’s film legacy and to restore his place in cinema history. She is doing amazing work and everyone interested should buy the DVD “Laugh with Max Linder,” which showcases a few of his shorts and Seven Years Bad Luck in gorgeous condition.

As for the offerings you can find on YouTube, here are my recommendations for those just getting started on Linder’s brilliant filmography:

1910 – Max prend un bain

1912 – Max reprend sa liberté

1912 – Le roman de Max

1916 – Max entre deux feux

1917 – Max in a Taxi

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Beau Brummel (1924): Deeply Superficial

Poster“But the true beau is a beau-ideal, an abstraction substantialized only by the scissors, a concentrated essence of frivolity, infinitely sensitive to his own indulgence, chill as the poles to the indulgences of others; prodigal to his own appetites, never suffering a shilling to escape for the behoof of others; magnanimously mean, ridiculously wise, and contemptibly clever.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1844.

Superficiality gets a bad rap. After all, what does that much-maligned word denote, in its essence? It means an emphasis on the surface, on that which is readily apparent. Now, I will never condone an obsession with exterior beauty that dismisses any interior value; however, I cannot help but detect something heroic about the desire to project a surface of agonizing perfection. Appearance-consciousness rises to the level of greatness—and dare I say art?—when it demands extreme discipline and taste on the part the person who takes up the heavy burden of being an exalted human spectacle.

I am referring to that hallowed creature, the dandy. And if we want to enjoy Beau Brummel as anything other than a quaintly moving romance based on Clyde Fitch’s 1890 play, we need to introduce ourselves to this most charming phenomenon.

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The dandy as a cultural and literary concept resists a simple definition. It depends on whom you’re talking to, but I like Nigel Rodgers’s recent definition of “the perennial dandy principles: independence, elegance, courtesy, wit.” On a more philosophical level, the love of my life Charles Baudelaire likened the dandy to the Stoic of antiquity because the dandy wears a mask of whimsy and nonchalance even when in the throes of pain or misfortune or when sullied by the teeming mediocrity of the commercial world around him. His beauty is not vulgar because it cannot be bought merely with money (although it helps, all dandies agree); that beauty reflects his originality, his ability to style and reimagine himself.

And no man incarnated the ideals of dandyism more famously than Beau Brummel, the subject of today’s offering, a 1924 silent period drama based on his spectacular life. (N.B. I am spelling the character’s name Brummel because that’s how it’s written on the titles. However, the favored spelling, according to the junta at dandyism.net. is with two L’s.)

jackprofileBeau Brummel follows the trajectory of a rise and fall. As a young officer, Brummel falls in love with Lady Margery, an heiress betrothed to an aristocrat and fails to rescue her from the clutches of her family.

Deciding to climb the social ladder, Brummel ingratiates himself with the Prince of Wales by getting him out of an amorous jam. Through his careful cultivation of mannerisms and trends and his blistering wit, “Beau” sets himself up as the reigning king bee of the upper crust—but earns as many enemies as friends. Eventually, Beau grows too big for his breeches and winds up banished by the Prince to some frigid outpost in Calais, northern France, where he dies in utter penury.

Harry Beaumont, best known for another film about style and appearances, Our Dancing Daughters, directed this poignant tale with panache and an acute eye for stunning compositions and haunting details. In depicting the rise and fall of a fashion arbiter, Beaumont uses mirrors as a motif to explore the character’s self-consciousness. The first shot we see of Brummel is a shot of him between intertitles, reflected in an oval mirror. In that classical round frame, he resembles the immaculate, still images on 18th century cameos. This is the image—but the real man is onscreen, too, although you notice him as an afterthought. We understand that appearance means everything to Brummel. Paradoxically, the most profound desires of his soul express themselves in his drive to be flamboyantly attractive and debonair.

Once Brummel has fallen from grace, the mirror, once his friend, becomes his enemy. Barrymore brought me to tears in one scene where the ravaged, wasted Brummel tries to look at his face then turns away, pushing at the glass with his fingers, streaking it in dismay.

However, I hope that our director, the talented Mr. Beaumont, won’t roll over in his grave if I observe Beau Brummel wears the unmistakable charm and savoir faire of John Barrymore front and center—like a gracefully tied cravat—and deserves most of the credit for this film’s emotional impact. A rake, a genius, a matinee idol, and as self-destructive a man that ever existed, Barrymore incarnated the sardonic wisdom and reckless hedonism at the core of dandyism.

Our star is also responsible for perhaps this film’s most significant contribution to posterity: Mary Astor’s breakout role.

maryAstor—a woman rarely given enough credit for her depth and strength in her own time—initially attracted attention from Hollywoodland by winning a beauty contest. Superficiality, at least, brought her to the screen and to all of us. Her possessive parents, so cruel and pushy that they might have easily fit into the ruthlessly upwardly-mobile world of Beau Brummel, recognized her beauty as their cash cow. Mary played several minor parts until John Barrymore asked for her as his leading lady in Beau Brummel.

And that’s when life and art started to intertwine to the point that it would be hard to say which was imitating which. In her autobiography, My Story, Astor recalled her screen test for the role of Lady Margery and her first meeting with the Great Profile:

“We were both in costume of sorts, just enough to indicate the period, and as we were standing in for lighting my awe for this great man made me confused and awkward. Mr. Barrymore broke through my shyness by talking about everything under the sun but the picture; he made me laugh about something, and he gradually and skillfully made me feel that I was his contemporary as an actor and as a person. He told me he had seen a picture of me in a magazine while he was on a train coming out from New York, and the caption had appealed to him: ‘On the brink of womanhood.’ I told him I was seventeen, and he said, just a little sadly, ‘It seems so long ago that I was seventeen. I’m forty now.’

“ ‘That’s not so old,’ I said, and we were great friends.

“I know that on that afternoon we fell in love, and I am sure he was even more startled than I.”

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Barrymore gave Mary her first acting lessons and unlocked a new realm of ideas and intellect to this affection-starved girl. During some of these lessons, there was no studying, however. Exploiting a position of power and trust would be a kind way to describe Barrymore’s behavior. The forbidden relationship between the ingénue and the mentor over twice her age was a problematic echo of the roles that they poetically brought to life onscreen. Astor remembered,

“In the filming of the many romantic, delicate love scenes of Beau Brummel we could stand in each other’s arms, Jack in his romantic red and blue hussar uniform and white wig, I in the beautiful Empire style dresses, while the camera and lights were being set. We whispered softly, or just stood there, quietly loving the closeness; and no one was the wiser. Between scenes, Jack had the prop man place two camp chairs together just off the set, and we sat side by side.”

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And so, finally, after much perambulation around the film’s contexts, I arrive at Beau Brummel itself. Unlike me, this movie wastes no time; we don’t see the romance between Beau (or George) and Lady Margery blossom—we see it cut off in medias res.

Dressed in a bridal gown, Margery meets her beloved George, a dashing soldier, in the garden to say goodbye. She’s about to depart for a life bound to another man in a marriage of convenience. Watching Barrymore’s duly celebrated face going nose-to-nose with Mary Astor’s equally photogenic profile presents a sight so stunning and precise it borders on graphic design! I felt like I was looking at one of those dual-profile-chalice illusion sketches.

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Their dazzling united loveliness might sound like a superficial thing to remark on—but, again, it’s an instance where superficiality weds something more spiritual. The surreal perfection of these two people on the screen leads us to wordlessly understand that they are meant to be together. Our eyes know it and our eyes speak directly to our hearts.

Beau Brummel is one of those memorable films that captures the spark of an off-screen relationship. You can read it in Astor’s overly wide eyes and in the way Barrymore’s hands never seem to stop moving, but always seem to nervously long to caress a different part of this exquisite, delicate girl.

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Unfortunately, Lady Margery’s nasty, social-climbing mother (not so different from Astor’s real-life maternal unit) bursts in. This harpy forces the girl to choose between her duty and the man she loves—really, no choice, because she can’t exactly run away with an enlisted man. George leaves her in despair, vows to climb the social ladder with his charm and wit. He takes his miniature portrait of her and writes on the back, “This beautiful creature is dead.” We know that he will meet her again.

Mary Astor, even in her teenage years, possessed a striking aura of grief and maturity. For instance, after Beau leaves for France, she clings to the door he just exited through, almost squashed against it like a broken butterfly. Seen from behind and in a long shot, she communicates a universe of pain merely by wiggling her arms despondently.

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Except for when she was playing comedy (and even then), Astor interacted with the world as one who has been hurt by it. And with her pale complexion and those perpetual dark circles that even panstick makeup couldn’t conceal, she never looked like she got quite enough sleep. That is a strong part of her allure. You wonder what she was doing all night.

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Both her fragility and her fortitude shine through her portrayal of Lady Margery. Although the script gives her little more to do than watch and react, her soulful eyes, so dark that the appearance of the whites is startling, convey a sense of heartbreaking loss. As she turns her eyes to signify the screen direction of her departing lover, we feel her happiness slip away.

trioThe scenes between her and Brummel stand out as the best of the film. Now, that’s not to say that Barrymore doesn’t beguile us pretty much constantly. Whether he’s flirting with another man, treating the Prince of Wales like an inferior acquaintance, or coyly nodding at his jealous fellow officers, he swaggers exquisitely. However, when he encounters the love of his life, then and only then do we perceive the man worthy of all that external beauty.

When Lady Margery visits him in Calais, her youth still shines while Beau, ground down by poverty, has aged horribly. He’s crouched by the fire, gnawing on a piece of bread when she comes in. As she stands in the doorway, the awkward stillness of the shot-reverse-shot exchanges tear at our heartstrings. Finally, she enters, informs him that her husband is dead, and, in an unusual inversion of the movie proposal scene, asks him to marry her. Do I smell a happy ending after all?

No, alas.

As Beau tells her, “I am grown old, and changed, and tired of life.” After she departs, he starts to sob by the door, biting on his own hand to keep her from hearing and coming back to his aid.

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Call it vanity, call it stupidity, but he loves her so much that he couldn’t live with the thought of giving her a second-rate version of himself. Thus we witness the pride and integrity that sustains dandyism. We also observe a very genuine facet of Barrymore’s love for his teenage costar.

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As Astor noted, “I know Jack loved me. I know it as surely as I know the fact of my own existence. Fifteen years afterwards he was talking to me about it, telling me how surprised he had been to find himself beginning to love me that first day on the Beau Brummel set. Even then, fifteen years later, he didn’t dismiss it lightly. ‘It s a good thing I wasn’t free to marry,” he said then. ‘And it’s a good thing I couldn’t get you away from your family. I would have married you, and you would have had a miserable life.’”

bgIf that Calais scene doesn’t wet your cheeks, wait until the denoument, which finds Beau in a debtor’s hospital as a decrepit, crazy old man. His former servant visits him with the news that Margery is dying.

This news penetrates Beau’s senility and he begins to relive his best days with her. Cut to Margery in her bed. She breathes her last… and her splendid spirit rises from the bed. Her double-exposure soul descends into Beau’s squalid room just as he expires. And he too emerges from his mortal coil as the idealized officer he once was.

Why is it that our celluloid souls are supposed to look like ourselves—but in the prime of life, at our youthful pinnacle? Are we being superficial? Or perhaps we associate that beauty with hope and with the time in our existence when we still aspired to something. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when funerary statues were made to resemble the departed individual at the age of 33, since that was considered the “perfect age,” the age at which Christ had died. So, once again, we see that it’s not so easy to separate the superficial from the spiritual, the corporal from the ethereal.

As the ghostly Lady Margery and Beau embrace, the shimmering schmaltziness of this telepathic love-beyond-life scenario actually works and triggers a surge of weepy fulfillment. The visual pleasure of gazing at such picturesque people, combined with the verisimilitude of the actors’ star-crossed love affair, succeeds at provoking a catharsis. After all, cinema is sort of a dandy; like Brummel, this art of surfaces runs surprisingly deep. It can see the veracity and purity of a love that no one else could perceive. And preserve that love for almost 90 years.

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