|| PART OF A TWIN FEATURE PUBLISHED WITH INVISIBLE PARIS! || One of the most influential (and yet often overlooked) sons of the Bord...

Max Linder: the overlooked silent movie star from Saint-Loubès


One of the most influential (and yet often overlooked) sons of the Bordeaux region is Max Linder, the successful actor, director, screenwriter, producer and comedian of the silent film era.

He was born Gabriel Leuvielle on December 16th 1883 at the home of his wealthy vineyard owner parents in Cavernes, a district of the quiet town of Saint-Loubès to the north of Bordeaux, close to the south bank of the Dordogne river. Growing up, Gabriel showed little interest in viticulture and instead he found himself to be fascinated by the shows put on by travelling entertainers and circus troupes. He rapidly developed an interest in drama and theatre.
The birthplace of Gabriel Leuvielle/Max Linder.

As a youngster, Gabriel proved an energetic handful for his parents, who dispatched him to Talence where he became a boarder at the Lycée de Talence (now Lycée Victor Louis). While there, he put on a number of drama shows with fellow students. In 1899, one Dr Ducan, mayor of Saint-Loubès and a friend of the family, became aware of this fruitful pastime and, unbeknownst to the family, helped Gabriel enrol for tuition at the Société de Sainte-Cécile/Conservatoire de Bordeaux establishment.


Come July 1903, the then 19-year-old actor won the Conservatoire’s awards for first prize in comedy and second prize in tragedy. His acting career had already been gaining momentum with contract performances at the Théâtre des Arts. Gabriel’s father went on to forbid him from using the name Leuvielle, so his surname momentarily switched to Lacerda. The budding actor soon realised this stage name lacked clout. In 1904, he saw a better option staring at him from a bootmaker's shopfront. From then on, he would trade as Max Linder.

Also that year, a fellow actor, Charles le Bargy of the Comédie-Française, urged Linder to audition for the Paris Conservatoire. Although rejected on three occasions, Linder relocated to Paris and worked his way into the theatre circuit there before appearing, from 1905 onwards, in a number of short comedy films for Pathé, many of which were made at studios in Montreuil that still stand today (as documented by Invisible Paris). When Pathé’s slapstick star René Gréhan left the company, Linder took over his role, retaining Gréhan’s high-society dandy-ish demeanour. Linder’s recurring character became aptly known as “Max”: a wealthy figure who would frequently get into trouble because of his taste for womanising.

Max Linder with (left) Charles Chaplin.
The character became well-established, the films became enormously successful and by 1910 Linder was one of the most popular actors in the world. By 1912, he was such a bankable name that his contract with Pathé earned him one million francs per year. Over the following two years he was at his peak, producing films including Max Virtuoso, Max and His Dog and Max and the Jealous Husband. When war broke out he attempted to enlist in the French army but was turned down as it was considered he had a role to play as an entertainer for the people. He did however contribute to the war effort (possibly as a dispatch driver between Paris and the front lines) before being dismissed in 1916 after an injury or illness, probably a result of the hours he spent in freezing cold water in a bomb crater after an explosion.
"To the one and only Max,
"The Professor". From his disciple,
Charlie Chaplin. May 12th 1917."

That year, Linder moved to the United States, committed to making twelve short features for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, whose Charlie Chaplin – who described himself as a "disciple" to Linder and went on to become a close friend – had recently moved on to Mutual Film. The first two American-made Max films were unsuccessful, while the third, Max and his Taxi, fared a little better. Essanay were struggling financially though and, with no turnaround in sight, the remaining films were cancelled.

Suffering from ill health and homesickness, Linder returned to France, acquiring the Kosmorama movie theatre in Paris. It became the Max Linder Panorama, and is also documented by Invisible Paris in the other part of this twin feature. He appeared to have been profoundly affected by the Great War and it would be some time before he began making films again. In 1921, Linder decided to have a second attempt at breaking Hollywood and formed his own production company there.

A still from Seven Years Bad Luck (source: Silent Volume).

His first production, Seven Years Bad Luck, became regarded as his career masterpiece and included a famous scene where Max stands before an empty mirror frame while a servant stands behind the frame mimicking his gestures. Although not the first instance of the "human mirror" gag, it was particularly well-executed and may have inspired the similar scene in the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Seven Years was followed by Be My Wife. A third film, The Three Must-Get-Theres, which pastiched The Three Musketeers, was also a moderate success but Linder retreated to France where he made some more “serious” films (Au Secours and Le Roi du Cirque) before neurasthenia (a mix of depression and post-traumatic stress) began getting the better of him.

In 1923, he married the 18-year-old Hélène "Ninette" Peters and together they had a daughter, Maud, born in 1924. The Max Linder story came to an abrupt end though on October 31st 1925 in a Paris hotel room when Max killed his wife before taking his own life. This tragic finale is detailed over at Invisible Paris.


Throughout both the glory years and the troubled years, Max Linder never forgot his roots, regularly returning to his hometown (the 1911 film Max en Convalescence was even set there!) and holidaying in Arcachon. It is reported that the express train from Paris to Bordeaux would stop especially at the tiny station in Saint-Loubès so that the star could alight in his hometown. His final resting place is the Leuvielle family vault in the town's cemetery, just a few hundred metres away from the house where he was born. Although his stage name does not feature on the tombstone, lasting tributes throughout the small town include a community hall, a secondary school and a street which all bear his name.

A still from "Max en Convalescence"
 

Over in Bordeaux, Max Linder’s legacy is far more difficult to detect, although this may change in the coming years. The Aquitaine region, with backing from the city of Bordeaux, has earmarked for redevelopment the quayside area where the city’s abattoirs used to be. A cinémathèque, or cinema library and multimedia centre, is planned and Max Linder will be among the local silver screen personalities who will be given pride of place in the new institution. Invisible Bordeaux will be monitoring developments closely!…

Demolition work at the former abattoir in Bordeaux,
set to welcome the Aquitaine region's cinémathèque initiative.


In the meantime, 2013 looks set to be a big year for Max Linder followers. A DVD box-set (containing ten films, two documentaries and a book) has just been released by Éditions Montparnasse, and his films will be shown, with live musical accompaniment, throughout the year at venues around France and Europe. One of these sessions will be a homecoming performance in Saint-Loubès on February 15th, where daughter Maud, now 89, will be giving a talk, reflecting on the years she has spent recovering, compiling and restoring films, photos and artefacts featuring the father she lost when aged just two (although it wasn't until she was quite a few years older that she learnt the truth...). Her lifelong ambition is to see his legacy celebrated in a permanent institute much like the one being planned in Bordeaux.

This trailer for the box-set gives an idea of what to expect in Saint-Loubès and, further down the line, in Bordeaux:


Click here if video doesn't display properly on your device.

2 comments:

  1. wonderful article about a great, nearly forgotten comic genius

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for that kind feedback!

      Delete