Book Review: The Rise and Fall of Max Linder: The First Cinema Celebrity
Back around 1970 there was an informative book entitled Clown Princes and Court Jesters that offered chapters on lesser-known comedians of the silent era. This included some of the true pioneers of the moving image, such as John Bunny, Augustus Carney, and Max Linder. Author Lisa Stein Haven’s new book from Bear Manor Media explores the life, career, and tragic end of Frenchman Linder, citing his lasting significance to film history.
Max Linder began in films in 1905, making him the first world-famous movie comedian. Writing his own scenarios early on, Linder’s comic vision was so impactful, it influenced nearly all who came after him, most notably Charlie Chaplin. In fact, when Chaplin entered movies in 1914, Linder’s international stardom hit a snag due to World War One. He came to America in 1916 and joined the Essanay studios. Chaplin had been Essanay’s biggest star, but he left for Mutual that year, so the studio felt Linder would be an apt replacement. Sadly, Linder’s films were unsuccessful and his contract cancelled.
Linder returned to France and didn’t make another film until after the war’s Armistice in 1918. He then returned to movies, graduating from short subjects to feature films, and even returned to America to make Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), which is arguably his screen masterpiece.
These basic details are reasonably well known to comedy film historians, but Lisa Stein Haven’s book offers much more information. The author deeply researched Linder’s life and career, and her book gives us some specific reasons as to why and how the early films were so successful, how the Essanay movies were misfires, and how his post-war comeback resulted in some fine work. There is information on Linder’s service during the war, his other ventures outside of movies, and his close friendship with Charlie Chaplin, the two masters inspiring each other.
However, the darkness of Linder’s life is also examined carefully, the author providing details as to his bouts of depression, severe jealousy of the young wife he married in 1923, and his belief he was no longer funny, resulting in breakdowns. Linder killed his wife and himself in 1925, leaving behind a baby daughter. The daughter, Maud, first saw one of her father’s films at age 20, and actively pursued keeping his name and legacy alive until her death in 2017 at the age of 93. Lisa Stein Haven carefully offers thorough information on all of these aspects of Linder’s life and career, enlightening the reader with an understanding and appreciation of this important motion picture pioneer.
The book concludes with an exhaustively complete filmography compiled by Catherine Cormon.
Books on cinema figures are always welcome, especially when they have made an impact on film history. While not a filmmaker, Max Linder was a creative actor and writer, whose comedy was foundational and important to the language of cinema. Lisa Stein Haven’s book is an indispensable contribution that is a must for all libraries, research centers, historians, and fans.
The book is available here: Max Linder