Monday, October 22, 2012

The Swing Game



One of Max Linder's early films was a morbid 1906 comedy called Le Pendu, which translates as The Hanged Man. The film begins, as many Linder films begin, with Max in love. Max wants to marry a baron's daughter, but the baron will not consent to his daughter marrying a film actor. Linder made an interesting choice in his series to play a fictitious version of himself. His celebrity as a film actor became a subject for mocking in a number of his films. This is a concept that was later adopted by other comedians, including Jack Benny, Louie C.K. and Larry David. Max may be a film actor known for his sense of humor, but his rejection by the baron does not put him in the mood to be funny. Instead, he goes into the woods and hangs himself from a tree. Max is discovered by a servant gathering truffles. The servant finds a gardener with a scythe and asks for his help in cutting the man down, but the gardener is less than willing. The gardener, according to a Variety critic, "dares not cut the rope without the presence of an officer." He hurries away to bring back a policeman. The policeman is not sure of the official procedure for dealing with a despondent man hanging from the limb of a tree. He leaves the scene to visit the station house and returns with his sergeant. The sergeant in turn consults the police commissioner. Max's father is summoned to the scene, but he refuses to go out in public without first putting on a necktie. The bourgeois man's meticulousness when it comes to properly adjusting his tie shows the same obsession with the social dress code that Linder's character demonstrated so often in his films. Like father, like son. In the meantime, Max is wriggling at the end of the rope with his hands fumbling for support and his tongue bulging out of his mouth. This is dark, dark stuff.

  
I was asked by someone if Le Pendu was evidence that Linder had been plagued by suicidal thoughts years before he committed suicide in 1925. I felt compelled to argue against that assumption. To start, Linder was not responsible for the scenario of Le Pendu. The film was in fact a remake of a film written and directed by Alice Guy Blaché for Gaumont. In Blaché's Le Pendu, a husband rebukes his mother-in-law for playing her phonograph too loud. His wife rushes to her mother's defense and the two women run the cranky husband out of his home. The man, despondent, hangs himself from a tree. The man is taken down from the tree and he appears by all evidence to be dead. His wife sobs uncontrollably, which prompts her mother to take action. The woman turns the crank on her phonograph and the music that comes out is able to miraculously rouse the man from his tragic slumber. As pointed out by film historian Alison McMahan, the Gaumont film focuses on the romance of the couple while the Linder film is more concerned with mocking the "institutional bureaucracies" that often incapacitate government officials.

La Pendu came up during a recent interview with Elio Quiroga, who is producing a documentary on Linder. Quiroga imagined that most people would be shocked today to watch this "awful comedy" of a man hanging himself. But suicide was not a shocking subject at the time. Linder's top rival, André Deed, used the suicide premise on a number of occasions. In 1909 alone, Deed produced three suicide comedies - Boireau n'est pas mort, Le Suicide de Boireau and Cretinetti si vuol suicidare. It was inevitable, though, that Deed's efforts would go nowhere. First, Deed's cartoonish character was as indestructible as Wile E. Coyote. Deed throws himself under the wheels of a speeding car, but he rises up again in the next moment without a scratch. This comic fool was also unlikely to succeed in his suicide attempts out of sheer incompetence. Deed could try to hang himself from a tree, but it wouldn't be long before the tree branch would crack and the comedian would fall to the ground.

Linder's character is considerably more crafty and more real than Deed's character. Could his suicide efforts so easily be thwarted? In Le Pendu, the tree branch does not break. The film shows Max hanging from a noose for six or seven minutes while people, including a small boy, react with horror and panic. It is understandable that a person seeing the comedian's prolonged death struggles would be disturbed. Bob Lipton, IMDb reviewer who saw the film at a recent Museum of Modern Art exhibit, was certainly unsettled by what he saw. "This," he emphasized, "is the slow, strangling sort of hanging in which the victim expires slowly." The dark humor of this scene was emphasized by the film's German title, Moderne Schaukelpartie, which translates as Modern Swing Game.

The end of the film, which is important to this discussion, has come into question. I, myself, have never had access to the film and must rely on accounts of other people. McMahan, who carefully examined the film for the purposes of "Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema," understood that Max had expired before he was cut down from the tree. He is only brought back to life due to an outlandish method employed by a doctor who has arrived on the scene. The doctor attaches a bicycle pump to Max's mouth and works the pump to fill his lungs with air. The bicycle pump works as magically as the phonograph in reviving the man from death. The girl's parents, who have been deeply affected by Max's display of emotion, agree to let Max marry their daughter. But a critic with Variety who reviewed the film at the time of its release noticed something else that no other viewer has mentioned. When Max is finally taken down, the critic was able to clearly see a hook attached to his coat, which meant that the jilted suitor was hanging safely from the tree all along. In the end, Max never had any intention of killing himself and his death struggles were nothing more than an act. A Variety critic wrote, "This relieves what would be otherwise a gruesome sight."

Linder made another suicide comedy in 1910. This time, he wants to marry Catherine, but Catherine's father insists that his daughter marry a banker with substantially more money than Max has. Max, unwilling to go on living, hires a criminal to take his life. Max is waiting for the hitman to arrive when a messenger arrives at his home with an urgent letter. It's good news. According to the letter, Max has inherited a large fortune that will make him more wealthy than his banker rival. The problem, though, is that he must now duck and dodge the hitman so that he can live long enough to share his newfound wealth with his beloved Catherine. The film was released in France as Le Pacte, which refers to the "pacte" or pact that Max comes to arrange with the hitman, but the film was released in the United States under the more general title Max in a Dilemma.

Linder remade Le Pendu in 1914. In this version, it is made clear beforehand that Max is not really hanging himself. Max can be seen wrapping one end of the rope under his arms so that he can safely hang from the tree. The ruse is made evident by the film's U.K. title, Max's Persuasive Suicide. This is not to say, though, that the film was presented everywhere with a comforting wink to theater patrons. The film was released in Germany under the bleak title Max will sterben, which translates as Max Wants to Die. Possibly, different cultures have different tolerance levels when it comes to doom and gloom.

The biggest difference between this film and the original is the ending. After cutting Max down from the tree, the police commissioner assures Max that he will visit the girl's father with him and assure the man of Max's serious intentions. He tells Max that the man cannot possibly refuse him this time. Max is filled with optimism when he and the police commissioner confront the father, but the father is not moved in the slightest by the police commissioner's pleas. Max, who has never removed the rope from around his neck, attaches the other end of the rope to a chandelier and hangs himself for real. This ending is, without question, far more grim than the ending of the original film.

The following clip from Max in a Taxi (1917) shows yet another time when Linder looked to derive humor from failed suicide attempts.

video

As you could see, the tree branch did break that time.


When all is said and done, this comic suicide business is nothing more than a stock routine that continued on for decades. The routine was performed by many different silent film comedians, including Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Larry Semon. The comedian's motives varied at times. In Tweedledum Institutes His Life (1913), Marcel Perez attempts to hang himself, drown himself and blow himself up in order for his wife to collect on a life insurance policy. In Dead Easy (1927), Bobby Vernon goes through various attempts to kill himself as a publicity stunt.

The pay-off gags varied as well. This is a scene from Haunted Spooks (1920) in which Harold Lloyd attempts to kill himself by jumping off a bridge.

video

In Love's Last Laugh (1926), the suicidal man (Raymond McKee) jumps off a bridge only to land safely in the swimming pool of a passing cruise ship. This scene is played with a different twist entirely in Better Off Dead (1985).

video

Better Off Dead was an entire feature film about a man trying to kill himself.  There's a scene in which John Cusack tries to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning.

video

And, of course, there's a hanging scene.

video

Here are hanging scenes from other comedy films.

Hard Luck (1921)

video


Delicatessen (1991)

video

Linder had no patent on the suicide routine and, despite his sad end, it would be wrong to assume his performance of the routine meant that he had long been of a disturbed mind. The many joyful comedies that Linder produced are discussed extensively in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film."

"Jajajajja. I luv my life!!!!"



Nikki Finke, the editor of Deadline.com, ruffled a few feathers when she protested Julie Bowen scoring an Emmy win for her comedy work on Modern Family.  Finke cut straight to the point when she stated, "Beautiful actresses are not funny."  Comedy, in her view, has to do with "emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you."  I addressed this very subject in an essay called "Beauty and the Pratfall," which is included in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film" (now available on Amazon.com).   My belief is that, while beauty does not make it impossible for an actor to be funny, it does make it less likely that an actor can be funny.

The pain and humiliation of the unfortunate have long been a big part of comedy.  Max Linder delivered to the cinema, in exquisite form, the comedy of embarrassment.  Take a look at this clip from Mon Pantalon Est Décousu (1908).

video

I have found myself returning to this simple old routine from Linder again and again.  I wrote about it in "The Funny Parts."  I wrote about it in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film."  I wrote about it before on this very blog.  


Elizabeth Banks, a pretty actress who does a lot of comedy, argued against Finke's remarks on her blog.  She stated emphatically that she has never had a problem being entertained by a pretty woman performing comedy.  She provided as an example Sophia Vergara, whose work she generally finds funny.  She insisted that, whenever the actress is performing, she is never in the slightest bit distressed or distracted by her "gorgeous breasts."  She added that it really made her laugh when, during the Emmy ceremony, Vergara split her dress.  Yes, this really happened.  Photographic evidence is provided below.


It was a real-life version of Linder's split seam routine.  But being desirable means never having to say you're sorry.  This is evident in Ms. Vergara's reaction to the mishap.  Vergara was not pained.  She was not humiliated.  The bare cheeks of her backside were visible through the split seam and her response was to snap a picture of her backside and tweet it to the nation.  This was the joyful message that accompanied the picture: "Jajajajja.  I luv my life!!!!"  This is far from the distress expressed by Linder.


Of course, it isn't only an issue of beauty.  It is also a sign of the times.  I made the point in "The Funny Parts" that shame is too often lacking in our modern culture and this has rendered this sort of comic business irrelevant.

Comedy trades in the shame that a person feels when, in one way or another, they prove to be less than adequate.  Beauty, in all its perfection, does not present inadequacy to the world.  This is Curly Howard in his underwear. 


This is Elizabeth Banks in her underwear. 

video

There is a difference.  Can that really be denied?  It is worth noting that, in the Banks scene, the filmmakers expected to get the biggest laugh from a less fit character's oversized belly.  

I speak about this at length in "Eighteen Comedians."  I examine the comic stylings of various pretty actresses, including Thelma Todd and Katherine Heigl.  I compare Linder's split seam routine with a similar routine performed by Priscilla Lane in Four Wives (1939).  Can beautiful women, or beautiful people in general, normally be funny?  We report.  You decide.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Interview: Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film


 
I enjoyed talking to Derek McLellan for his Dream Factory podcast.  We had a lively conversation about the comedians featured in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  I thank Derek for his cordiality and insight.  The podcast can be found here.