The Rise & Fall of Max Linder: The First Cinema Celebrity (hardback)
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The Rise & Fall of Max Linder: The First Cinema Celebrity (hardback)

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The Rise & Fall of Max Linder: The First Cinema Celebrity

by Lisa Stein Haven, filmography by Catherine Cormon

6x9 format

402 pages

ISBN softcover: 9781629337135

 Max Linder, born Gabriel Leuvielle in St. Loubes, France in 1883, started in films with the Pathe Brothers in Vincennes, just outside of Paris in 1905, making him one of the first film comedians that became world-renowned. In fact, there is evidence that Linder was the first screen celebrity to see his name in print. His comedy timing and gags (Linder started writing his own scenarios early on) have been copied and imitated by many of his followers, including Charlie Chaplin.

Linder's story is both a comedy and a tragedy. His meteoric rise to fame by 1907/8 hit a roadblock in 1914 with the onset of World War I, and was dealt a death blow by his attempts to revive his career in America and Austria. His marriage to a young wife was ill-fated and ill-timed, leading Linder to take the life of his wife and himself on the night of October 31, 1925, leaving a 16-month-old daughter behind, Maud, who would devote her life to restoring his film legacy.

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of Max Linder: The First Cinema Celebrity by James L. Neibaur

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of Max Linder: The First Cinema Celebrity by Silentology


The Rise & Fall of Max Linder, the First Cinema Celebrity
--  Richard Abel

Richard Abel is Emeritus Professor of International Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Michigan. He has lectured and written extensively on early cinema and on American and French silent cinema.

Who was Max Linder (1880-1925), and what do we really know about his "cinema celebrity"? Those are questions Lisa Stein Haven wants to answer. What prodded her interest? The relative paucity of attention to Linder in English-language film histories and the recent overdue attention in French studies of his film work, following the death, in 2017, of Maud Linder, who had written two memoirs of her father.1 Unable to meet Maud or to access material in the newly formed Institute Max Linder in Lyon, Haven had done much original research, before the COVID pandemic, in at least 18 archives, libraries, and personal collections in France, Austria, the Czech Republic, and the United States - the source of the book's hundred photos. She also benefited from work on Linder generously shared by Jean-Claude Seguin and Georg Renken. That research forms the basis of her fine, if incomplete (she admits) life story of Linder. Although she includes some analysis of selected films, she points to fuller interpretations found elsewhere in both French and English. That said, Haven's text makes up just two-thirds of the entire book. Filling the last one hundred plus pages is Catherine Cormon's invaluable Linder filmography, indebted to Renken. Extensive and detailed, it includes each film's title(many in other languages too), length, projection speed, black & white or tinted/toned, release dates, exhibition venues, and archive sources. In short, The Rise & Fall of Max Linder really is two books in one - a double pleasure.

                Making use of Maud Linder, Haven's biography is particularly good on Linder's early years. Born Gabriel Leuvielle in a small village in southwestern France, he went to school in Bordeaux, became skilled at fencing, and began performing on stage, adopting the pseudonym of Max Linder. In 1904, he left for Paris to take small roles in several major theaters and, one year later, in films. Drawing on Seguin's research, Haven gives some credence to the claim that Linder acted in several films made by The'ophile Pathe' before his brother Charles hired him for his Pathe'-Fre'res company, which quickly dominated France and then the world. As he became increasingly famous in films, Linder performed less on stage, often in charity events. Whether his "Max" character first appeared in Le Pendu/The Man Who Hanged Himself/Attempted Suicide (1906) or Les de'buts d'un patineur/Max Learns to Skate (1907), he always was, in Eve Golden's quoted words, a "dapper but hapless boulevardier in impeccable morning coat and silk topper." 2 Photos reveal that he was quite short, slender, light weight, but athletic, with unusually large eyes. By 1909, Linder had a Pathe'-Fre'res contract commensurate with his popularity, was starring in and directing one of a series of short comic films each week (often shot in neighborhoods around the Vincennes studios and factories), and soon had his name emblazoned in many titles as in Max est Distrait/Max is Absent-Minded (1910). As early as 1908, for Pathe's "fe'te du the'a'tre," he appeared in his first film-sketch act. It began with a projected film in which a phone call sent him racing through crowds thronging the Paris streets to arrive at the theater in tatters, where he ran on the stage to conclude his "tale of adventures." When, in 1912, Linder opened a two-year tour of half a dozen European countries, one of the highlights was this signature film-sketch, reworked with footage shot in whatever city in which he was performing.

                Haven clears up lots of misinformation about Linder's military service, which was minimal and spent mostly in hospital because of pulmonary problems. Discharged in 1915, he went on another cinema-theater tour in Italy before being lured to America, in 1916, to make comic films for Essanay, replacing Chaplin, who remained a friend. On the costly, elaborate set of the S.S. Espagne, Linder heightened the antics of his first film, a story based on his own travel across the Atlantic that had him thinking a bombing was a joke played by friends. Released in the wake of many torpedoed ships, Max Comes Over (1917) seemed in bad taste; neither it nor his other two comedies lived up to Essanay's expectations. Chastened, his celebrity in tatters, Linder returned to France, rebuilding the Cine' Max-Linder (bought in 1914), where his first feature, Le Petit Cafe'/The Little Cafe' (1919), premiered. Despite the film's success, Linder tried once more to work in Hollywood's far better facilities and to indulge in the lavish entertaining there. In 1920, with the help of friends and colleagues, he formed Max Linder Productions and released three relatively profitable feature films, the last of which, The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922), gently mocked Fairbanks's The Three Musketeers. Yet, dissatisfied with his distribution contracts, Linder left again for France, still smarting from his love-hate relationship with Hollywood.

                One of Haven's most valuable contributions to Linder's life story is her research on his increasingly vulnerable physical and psychological condition. He first became ill enough to halt filmmaking for weeks in 1908-1909 and underwent appendicitis operations in 1910 and 1911. His war service resulted in a weakened pulmonary condition, perhaps even tuberculosis. He again became gravely ill in 1917, before returning to France and Switzerland to convalesce. Able to make only Abel Gance's short film Au Secours (1923) after Le Petit Cafe', Linder went back to Switzerland, where he was caught in an avalanche, breaking both arms and suffering internal injurites. In 1923, he married a far younger woman, Ninette Peters, and began working at Vitan-Film in VIenna on his last film, Le Roi du Cirque/King of the Circus (1924). As his career declined further, his physical condition worsened and led to "morbid jealousy" and abuse of Ninette. Linder first attempted suicide with her in February 1924; then both died on October 31, 1925, Whether this tragic end came from a double suicide or a murder and suicide is still unclear.

Lisa Stein Haven: The Rise & Fall of Max Linder, the First Cinema Celebrity. Orlando, FL: BearManor Media, 2021. English, 402pp. Illus. Extensive filmography and source information compiled by Catherine Cormon. Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-62933-712-8.

1 Maud Linder, Max Linder e'tait mon p'ere, Paris: Flammmarion, 1992, and Max Linder, Les Dieux de cine'ma muet, Paris: Atlas, 1992.

2 Eve Golden, Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001), p. 76.

-- Library Journal