Oh yes. Silent Steve makes old Jack discover the silents again. No – stay! This is rather fun. A 1908 tale of a man, abandoned for being a dick by his wife, left alone to wash-up, shop, cook for and dress himself… Something of an eternal battle in the households of the old, the middle-aged and the young – because we’ve not really developed that much in 110 years… And the star?
Who’s heard of Max Linder, then?
Let me explain. Before Chaplin, before Keaton, before the one dangling off a clock, there was Max. He was a Frenchman, working his comedy in short silents for the Pathé Frères company en France. And he was monumentally successful. The French, the British, the Americans, all loved him. He was the first person to be named ‘director’ over a film’s titles. He was the first properly international movie star. He was the first man on earth to demand – and get – a 1,000,000 francs deal from his studio. And he was the slapstick-cum-situational comedian who laid all the foundations for the more famous folk who made it in Hollywood.
Max played ‘Max’ – a bit of a nice-but-dim toff, a flirt and a natty dresser. This man in the silk hat, the father of film comedy, did all the mirror tricks, sticky-paper tricks and domestic chaos scenes that were so popular into the 1930s. And he was working before World War One. He starred in hundreds of shorts, working from 1905 to a peak of success before the war, then staggering on to reduced success and a desperately sad ending in 1925.
He wasn’t shy of regurgitating stories, mind, but take a look at this one: his first go at the Troubles of a Grass Widower – the US and prevalent title, but a.k.a. Vive La Vie de Garçon back home, and Hurrah for Bachelorhood in the UK. Ten short minutes of self-induced domestic chaos. He took a second go in 1912 (same US title; Max Reprend sa Liberté back home).
To the story: it made me smile. Been there, had these moments in the 1950s. Max and Mrs Max have a breakfast row: she wants to talk, he wants to read the paper, she storms off to see her mother, he does a little dance because he can hear himself think now. Looking at the pair of them, they had their chance to communicate when piling on all those clothes, quiffing the hair and sorting the elaborate neckwear. A few things made old Jack instantly nervous as removal-resistant prejudices showed themselves: sexism, tick; entrapping wife, tick; gargantuan mother-in-law, tick; incompetent man, tick – but, play fair, those are the laughs. Left alone, this grass widower gets a reality check.
Theatrical hilarity begins: Max washes up, gives up, takes the crockery outside and hoses it down before accidentally smashing it all in the micro-kitchen. What surprised me was, a few feet into the Twentieth Century and it really feels like it: okay, the running water is outside, but the brickwork is the same, the plates, cutlery, washing-up gloves and utensils are all there…
Max heads off to the market to buy stuff for tea then stops to flirt. The incongruous toff, all long coat and top hat, hides the vegetables behind his back and a kid – full of silent-comedy-jumps – steals them, gets chased and kicked away. Better days… It’s sweet and simple and gives us situation, character and comedy. Sitcoms were on their way…and flirting is eternal.
Old Jack’s favourite part – and arguable the most horrific – is Max’s attempt to cook for himself. He finishes off a plucked foul with scissors, before dumping it into a museum-worthy stove with veg, eggs and anything he finds to hand, then elects to clean a boot, spills the liquid polish, spoons it up and uses the spoon in the cooking. Gotta love the big theatre comedy of the 1800s finding its place in film…
The last three minutes are for you to enjoy. Here, Max isn’t so much incompetent as an idiot. He becomes obsessed with finding a tie across several sets (charmingly, having buttoned a collar to his shirt, reminding you how long ago this was made). Things don’t end well, and, as Mrs Max and her mother arrive, you can sense Chaplin and Keaton laughing and learning thousands of miles away.
Is it any good? Yeah, you know what, it really is. Ten sharply made minutes, creative and sympathetic to the modern eye given Max’s personality and situation… Silent Steve and I laughed together and forgot this was history. It is simply a funny man, showing us ourselves, our foibles and sillinesses, and exaggerating them for the giggles of our great-grandparents.
I remember, back in the 1970s, when old silents – rough, dark copies – popped up on television for our kids to watch. And, of course, they quietly hated them. Max makes his points for the middle-aged audience: those with homes, domestic rows, household duties, the urge to flirt for emotional sunlight, and the craziness of little lost things – then a tie, today the car keys, perhaps. This is grown-up comedy from yesteryear and made by the first comedy master of this new, cinematic art. Chaplin called him the Professor.
Give it a go. It’s free and all over the internet! And in his 1912 version the chicken isn’t dead yet…
There’s a book out on Max.