Sunday, November 5, 2017

Max Linder and André Deed: The First Comedy Team of the Cinema

Max Linder finds a way to look taller in Max Joins the Giants (1912)
The comedy film that I am about to present represents an important piece of film history.  The film was made in 1908, which was years before Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd were making films.  It was a time when the biggest comedy stars of the cinema were Max Linder and André Deed, each of whom starred in their own series for Pathé Films.  Pathé delighted moviegoers when they united the two popular funnymen before their cameras.  Linder and Deed worked together in least four films, but the only one of the films known to exist is Unwilling chiropodist.  A 16mm copy of that film was recently found by filmmaker/collector Emiliano Penelas in Argentina. 

Linder and Deed are equally prominent in Unwilling chiropodist.  Deed is the first to appear.  He is a chiropodist who has been summoned to an affluent home to treat the madam's aching feet.  Deed, festooned with an extravagant wig and pointy Van Dyke beard, expresses courtesy and deference to his wealthy benefactor with a never-ending series of showy bows and sprawling hand gestures.  The next guest to arrive at the home is Linder, who is having an affair with the woman.  The woman sends Deed to the dining room once her maid announces her lover's arrival.  Linder provides a much more subtle performance than Deed.  But then, when he comes before the woman, he articulates virile passion as only Linder could.  In many of his films, the comedian burst into excitement at the sight of a pretty young woman.  He often smiled, cavorted, and threw kisses.  This time, he gets down on one knee to profess his undying love.  Meanwhile, in the dining room, Deed gets down on one knee to profess his undying love for a hefty cook.  Linder is parodying the ardent suitor of melodramas and Deed is in turn parodying Linder's parody.  When the husband arrives home suddenly, Linder must pretend to be the wife's chiropodist.  The narrative switches back and forth between the two men, who remain in different rooms.  The actors do not appear together until the final moments of the film, at which time Deed is tossed out of a window and falls on top of Linder.  The film fades as the two men happily shake hands.

Max Linder and André Deed in Unwilling chiropodist (1908).
Have a look at the actual film.



Linder remade the film in 1914 as Max pédicure.

 
 
 
 
In 1940, film critic Pablo C. Ducros Hicken wrote about Deed in the article "Historia Argentia de Toribio Sanchez" (Deed's character Boireau was named Toribio Sanchez in Spanish releases).  Hicken discussed Linder and Deed collaborating on a film entitled Max steals cleverly.  The article includes a photo of the comedians together in a scene.  Deed, dressed up as an Apache gangster, is being arrested by a police officer while Linder, eager to lend his assistance, holds a gun on Deed.

 
No film among Linder or Deed's credits is named Max steals cleverly.  Most of the films that Hicken talks about in the article are known by names different than the ones Hicken provides.  Georg Renken, the foremost authority on Linder, has addressed the specific matter of Max steals cleverly.  He has found that the action depicted in the photo exactly matches the action described by the Pathé Catalog for a 1907 comedy, Idée d’apache.  The film involves two burglars who compete to rob a luxurious home.  The one burglar, described in the literature as a "vicious and stupid cretin," applies brute force and brute intimidation in breaking into the home and getting the residents to cooperate.  The housemaid runs for help and runs into the other burglar.  This burglar, who is stylishly dressed and well-mannered, is able to convince the housemaid that he is a police officer.  He facilitates the arrest of the first burglar and then discreetly gets away with the homeowner's valuables.  This is a perfect vehicle for Deed, the cloddish cretin, and Linder, the wily gentleman.   It is a classic opposition familiar to comedy fans.  Think, for instance, of Hope and Crosby.  Or, maybe, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

Linder and Deed had come a long way in the two years that preceded Unwilling chiropodist.  The best information that is available at this time indicates that Linder's first film with Pathé was First Night Out, which was released in August of 1905, and Deed's first film with Pathé was The Wig Chase, which was released in May of 1906.  Hicken, who knew Deed, reported that Deed preceded Linder at Pathé.  He said that Deed made his debut at Pathé playing a clumsy waiter in a film produced in 1905.  But, for now, Deed's first known Pathé film is The Wig Chase, which is regarded to be one of the most imaginative of the early chase comedies.

Illustration for The Wig Chase (1906)
Variety was the spice of a film catalog.  A Pathé ad read, "Good subjects (comic, dramatic) all Pathé."  The company assured that the people who saw their films would have a variety of emotions stimulated.  It offered tragedies about sexual jealousy and alcoholism, rough-and-tumble adventures (sometimes with French cowboys), crime dramas, historical dramas, and a varied collection of comedies.  It was likely with the variety principle in mind that Pathé sponsored two comedians with vastly different styles.  It can certainly be seen today, in hindsight, that the contrasting styles of Linder and Deed complement one another.

Hicken wrote:
While Max Linder brought scenes of vaudeville, of finer grace, in situations usually gallant, Deed was debating in very simple arguments.  Ashes of Buddha presented a colonel who commissioned his assistant (Deed) to remove an urn from the mail with the ashes of Buddha, sent from India.  The return journey was very complicated, and between bumps, rollovers and various accidents, the sacred content was, in unprecedented volume, scattered over coffee tables, hats and preoccupied readers.  Cretinetti  stole a carpet [1909] showed the actor dragging a long carpet through endless and uncluttered streets and walks, sowing confusion and disaster.  In Sanchez has guests (Pathé Frères, 1912), the actor receives a bouquet of flowers.  Not having at hand a coin with which to give to the delivery man, and before the man's significant glance, he removes a flower from the bouquet and gives it to him.  Then, to the strange regard of the man, he trims a few twigs [off the flower] to complement his gift. . ."
Deed was quicker to establish his screen character, the disaster-prone simpleton Boireau.  Boireau took form in the comedian's earliest films, including The Wig Chase, Boireu Moves (1906), Three Cent Leeks (1906). The Son of the Devil Spends the Night in Paris (1906) and The Inexperienced Chauffeur (1906).

Hicken recognized the importance of Deed in film history.  He wrote:
He was always airy, to the delight of his audience.  To fight against brigades of guards, to elude creditors, to dominate the angry mother-in-law, to outdo a hypnotist, was all a task at hand.  With his car he bored through walls and, in a crazy succession of incidents, he ended up in a trash can, battered, but proud of having achieved some naive purpose.  This Pinocchio species of impossible adventures, supernatural, playful until the end, had conquered for the first time the chuckle of the fans, and all this four or five years before Chaplin debuted in Keystone. . .
Deed's films were filled with exuberant antics and fantastic effects.  In The Inexperienced Chauffeur, Deed's inexperience as a driver causes him to weave wildly down the street and hit lampposts and market stalls.  An even better example of Deed's exaggerated style of comedy could be found in The Son of the Devil Spends the Night in Paris, which introduces Deed as a junior Devil speeding through the streets of Paris in a flaming automobile.


By comparison, Linder's comedy was subtle, expressive and personal.  The only thing that produced a flame in a Linder film was a lighter extended to the tip of a gentleman's cigarette.  But it took Linder slightly longer to develop his character, the dandy boulevardier that fans would come to know as "Gentleman Max."  Film historian Richard Abel, author of "The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914," traced the character's evolution in an eloquent study of Linder's early films.  He wrote:
[Linder] alternated between performing as the lead and simply walking on as an extra.  Even when he played a leading role, however, as in the comedies apparently directed by [Louis] Gasnier, his character fluctuated – from a schoolboy in La Premiere Sortie to the young dandy in Les Debuts d'un patineur.  Yet one crucial character trait remained relatively constant: Linder often acted like what Eugen Weber has called the leisured French bourgeois rentier or, at least, a lower-class bourgeois figure with pretensions to that status, and occasionally – as in The Would-Be Juggler – showed signs of the subtly affected elegance that would later become his trademark.
Linder in one of his earliest films, Rencontre imprévue (1905).
It is generally accepted that the "Max" character made his film debut in the 1907 comedy Les Debuts d'un patineur.  For the film, Linder improvised stumbles and spills as he trekked across a frozen lake on skates.  Dozens of other people skated around him, but Linder managed with his elegant attire and lively frolics to stand out from the crowd.  After seeing this film, it is hard to imagine Linder ever serving as an extra in a film.  But Linder was, in fact, an extra in the 1906 comedy Lèvres collées (translated into English as Joined lips).  Here is a description of the film provided by a contemporary source, The Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle:
A lady and maid are seen in a post office, where the lady is posting some letters, using the maid's tongue for moistening the stamps.  With each successive application the stickiness becomes more pronounced.  Meanwhile a young man, evidently the beau of the maid, is waiting for a chance to greet his sweetheart.  While the lady posts her letters the two lovers are seen affectionately embracing each other. As the lover imprints a kiss upon his sweetheart's lips, the gum from the stamps adheres to his mustache and sticks.  All efforts to separate them prove futile, and in final desperation a pair of scissors is brought and they are cut apart.  Part of the man's mustache clings fondly to the girl's lips and the final picture, a close range view, shows the happy but parted lovers.
Linder remained in the background as a postal customer.  Notice in these screen captures from the film that Linder appeared on screen as a dapper gentleman well before he starred in Les Debuts d'un patineur.


An example of a walk-on role by Linder can be found in Madam's Tantrums (1907).  The Kalgoorlie Miner, an Australian newspaper, described the film's plot as follows:
Madam's Tantrums shows what a wrathful woman can accomplish in a house with a large staff of servants and hangers-on, who are kicked from here to Hackney by madame when her anger has been set fairly boiling.
A print of the film is housed at the EYE Film Institute Nederlands.  Catherine Cormon, a manager at the facility, reported that Linder appears in the film as the Madame's lover.  She wrote, "His appearance is very short: he walks in and gets chased away by Madame."

Linder has been conclusively identified as an actor in 37 films made from 1905 to 1908.  He has been tentatively linked to 15 other films made during this period.  Renken has compiled a comprehensive list of these films on his website http://www.maxlinder.de/.  Renken wrote, "The number or titles of the films [Linder] shot in the first 1 ½ years are largely unknown.  While in an interview (Caras y caretas, 12.4.1913) he spoke of 'rare films,' which he made between his stage performances.  He remembered eight years later to have 'turned a drama or a comedy every day' (Cinémagazine, 25.11.1921)."

Abel was correct to call Max "a lower-class bourgeois figure with pretensions to that status."  The character is often struggling to fit into bourgeois society.  The easiest way to pretend to be high-class is to dress high-class.  But his clothing have a tendency to betray him, as I have written about in my previous essays on the comedian.  He splits the seat of his pants at a party in A Difficult Position (1908).  He covers up the open tear with various objects - a platter, a seat cushion, a chair, a handkerchief and a lady's fan.  Moving Picture World reported:
His downfall comes only when the lady asks him to tie her shoe lace.  He is stunned by the request, but pulls himself together and makes a daring attempt to oblige one-handed.  But this feat being impossible he gives up, and the guests discover the tear.  The beau sits on the floor in despair, but too late, for all are already gathered round him, and 'mid much laughter and ridicule he succeeds in dashing out of the room without turning his back toward the company.
The film was remade in 1910 as Shame on Max (released in France as Max manque un riche mariage).  It is a routine that would be performed years later by Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, Jerry Lewis and Mike Myers.  In Max Sets the Style (1914), Max is getting ready for a party when he rests his feet too close to a fireplace and sets his shoes ablaze.  The best replacement footwear that he can obtain on short notice are crude work boots.  In Max's Hat (1908), Max has a series of hats destroyed in various accidents on his way to have dinner with his prospective in-laws.  My research only recently turned up a 1910 comedy called Max's Feet Are Pinched (released in France as Le soulier trop petit).  Max's new shoes are too tight.  While having dinner with his fiancé's family, Max slips off his shoes to give his feet some relief.  At first, his foot odor becomes a disturbance to everyone around the table.  Then, his fiancé's dog runs off with the shoes.  This becomes a problem when Max is asked to dance.

Max is appalled to be wearing work boots in Max Sets the Style (1914).
This is a good opportunity to clear up misinformation that likely started with something that Alan Williams wrote in his 1992 book "Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking."  Here is the passage:
[The young dandy] character was the exclusive property of the actor [René] Gréhan, who was, with Andre Deed, one of [Pathe's] most successful series comics.  In 1907 Gréhan got a better offer at a new competing studio, and his departure left a big gap in the company's production schedule.  Linder was chosen to fill Gréhan’s shoes, as well as his evening coat, dress shirt, and tie.  Assuming the costume and much of the manner of Gréhan’s character 'Gontran,' Linder made, under Gasnier’s direction, Les Debuts d’un patineur/Max Learns to Skate (1907), the first work in which he becomes, recognizably, 'Max.'  The film was not a hit either with audiences or with Pathé executives, however.  For two years it remained without a sequel, while Linder continued to perform as a lead or secondary character in various other projects for the studio.
René Gréhan
Grehan's name came up again when Richard Abel examined Linder in his 1994 book, "The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914."  He wrote:
[O]ne can speculate that the Pathé company may have considered constructing a series around Linder that would complement the Boireau films.  For some reason, however, these films did not establish Linder as a major comic, and Pathé seems to have turned to Gréhan, whose elegant, swaggering Parisian dandy, Gontran, might supplement Deed's work for the company.
Here are screen captures of Gréhan from Gontran et la voisine inconnue (1913).

 
 
 
 

Abel added, "As played by Gréhan, by contrast, Gontran is an anxious, overconfident bourgeois type not unlike Max — and his polished style of performance and facial appearance (large eyes, hair parted in the middle, and thin mustache) do remind one of Linder."

Much new material about Linder, including articles, films and studio literature, have become available in the last twenty-five years.  In light of this material, let us examine the claims of Williams and Abel.

To start, Abel claimed that Linder did not achieve major success until 1910.  To prove this is untrue, Renken provided an article that was published in Comœdia in March, 1908.  The article makes it clear that Linder was a great success at the time.  It is predicted in the article that the comedian is headed for worldwide fame.  Four months later, Linder was the star attraction at the grand opening of the Cirque d'Hiver, an historical theatre that had been converted to a picture house.  Linder was well-received at the high-profile event.  It was reported in the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly:
An interesting feature of a long programme was the presentation of a film in which one of the artistes performing at the Pathé theatre was seen receiving a telephone message and leaving his house hurriedly for the theatre.  Colliding with numerous passers-by a chase is set up and the artist is seen entering the theatre in rags.  At this stage the artist himself appeared on the stage and took up the tale of adventures, the novelty being a great hit.
This was a gimmick that Linder used at live shows for years.  The audiences always responded enthusiastically.  Linder continued to gather fans from his stage and film appearances.  In the fall of 1909, Pathé launched a major advertising campaign designed to promote Linder as "the first truly international star."

Next, Abel suggested that Deed was much bigger star than Linder.  Renken found nothing to indicate that Deed was a bigger star than Linder in 1907 and 1908.  Renken wrote, "It seems both were quite successful. . ."

Williams claimed that Les Debuts d’un patineur, in which Linder officially introduced his world-famous character, was "not a hit" and it diminished the studio's faith in the comedian.  Renken wrote, "I have not seen any evidence, that Debut d'un patineur (The Skater's Debut) was NOT a success.  I have seen however press reports that it was greeted with 'gales of laughter' (Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, Jun. 20, 1907)."

Williams claimed that Gréhan was one of Pathé's early comedy stars and he created a dapper character that Linder later imitated.  He doesn't specify when Gréhan started at the company, but he is clear that the comedian left in 1907.  That story doesn't appear to be true.  Gréhan made five or six films for Pathé in 1910, after which he moved to the Éclair Film Company.  Renken's exhaustive research did not turn up any evidence that Gréhan worked at Pathé before 1910.  By 1910, Linder had been appearing on screen in his popular role for three years.

Abel's account is closer to the truth than Williams' account.  Abel claimed that Pathé had become disillusioned with Linder, who had failed to catch on with audiences, and brought in Gréhan as a potential replacement.  Gréhan may have, in fact, been a potential replacement.  Linder had a history of bad health.  He had been unable to work due to illness from October, 1908, to March, 1909.  He was sidelined again in December, 1910, due to appendicitis.  It could be that Pathé brought in Gréhan to satisfy exhibitors in case their fragile star became sick again and was unable to stay on schedule.

Linder remained an active force at Pathé from 1905 to 1917.  He turned out a wide variety of delightful films during this period.  A film that remains a favorite of Linder fans today is Max toréador (1913), in which Max trains to become a bullfighter.  

 

Linder occasionally tried to be as fantastic as Deed.  He could be found at his most far-fetched in Max asthmatique (1915).  Max, who has come to the Alps to improve his breathing, dreams that his breathing has become astoundingly powerful.  At first, he manages with a casual exhale to knock over skaters at an ice rink.  Then, he uses the force of his breath to overtake his competitors in a ski race.  Unable to stop, he flies over the mountains, crosses the sea, passes over a city, and finally crashes through a roof.



Additional notes

While researching this article, I learned about a Linder comedy called Max virtuose (1913).  The plot involves Max using a mechanical piano to trick his girlfriend's father into thinking that he is a piano virtuoso.  This was a stock plot used by many comedians.  I wrote about this before in article titled "Sing, Clown, Sing!"

I also learned about a Pathé comedy called L'Electrocuté (1908).  To my knowledge, neither Linder nor Deed appear in this film.  But the film got my attention due to its imaginative plot.  A cook falls asleep in a chair while peeling vegetables.  Later, she gets sleepy while serving dinner and spills soup on her employer.  The employer is furious and throws her out into the street.  The cooks sees a store that sells electrical devices.  She has herself covered with electrical wires and keeps an electrical current flowing through her body.  Now that she is electrified, she no longer wants to sleep and moves at a rapid speed.  Her employer gives her back her job, but he is unsettled when she serves his dinner at full speed.  She trips coming down the stairs and falls into a water basin, which causes her to short-circuit.  Her employer is disgusted by her performance and fires her again.


I would not have been able to write this article without the help of Georg Renken.  The website that Mr. Renken has devoted to Max Linder is a vast resource, which likely includes every contemporary article ever written on Gentleman Max.


Other Reference Sources

Abel, Richard.  The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914, Updated and Expanded Edition.  Berkeley: University of California Press (1994).

Hicken, Pablo C. Ducros.  "Argentine History of Toribio Sanchez."  The Nation (January 14, 1940).

Williams, Alan.  Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press (March, 1992). p. 60.

3 comments:

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  2. Congratulations for this article and thank you for your consideration. I was looking for another Andre Deed film (I suppose) and I found your blog.

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