Friday, September 12, 2014

Early Max

My favorite resource for information on silent films is The Moving Picture World.  The other day, I was skimming through early issues of the magazine when I came across reviews and summaries for the pioneering work of a talented newcomer named Max Linder.  Now, I need to point out that Linder's name was not emblazoned in ad leaders or noted in bold typeface in review headlines.  It was standard practice at the time for a film actor to go uncredited for his efforts.  This meant that the magazine's writers never knew Linder by name.  A critic who wished to praise Linder for his performance could only refer to him as "the Pathé comic" or "the Pathé funny man."  By 1910, this would change.  Evidence of the change can be found in an issue of Variety dated June 1, 1910.  A columnist for Variety's London Notes reported, "[S]everal of the London picture places are advertising certain pictures with the names of the players."  As incredible as this may seem now, this was major news at the time.  The writer specifically noted that Linder, "probably the best known of the picture actors," was one of the actors receiving star billing at these theaters.

Of course, it could be wrong to assume that a person today would be astounded to see a movie poster without the stars' names prominently featured.   CGI spectacles have replaced movie star vehicles, which means that actor names are barely visible in many of today's movie posters.  For all of the acclaim that Bryan Cranston has received as an actor, he is not going to get prominent billing next to Godzilla.

Compare this to promotion for an older film, The Patriot (2000).  Although the film depicted epic, real-life battles of the American Revolutionary War, it was the name and likeness of star Mel Gibson that dominated the poster.

Movie star poster with star billing

CGI poster without star billing

In my perusal of Moving Picture World, I became interested in the summaries of three Linder comedies.  The stories were not the sort found in Linder's most celebrated work.  The comedian, who was at his best playing a dapper boulevardier, is miscast as a workman in one film.  In the other two films, the comedy sometimes depends more on camera tricks than on the clever actor himself.  The most appropriate vehicle is Tormented by his Mother-in-law, which finds Linder obsessing over domestic woes.  Understandably, Linder was still refining his style of comedy at the time.     

The action in these films, as described, was nonetheless amusing.  Let us now go through complete summaries of the action.

A Glorious Start (1907)

Max looks forward to a carefree flight in a balloon.  Unfortunately, he fails to pull the grapnel into the basket.  The grapnel, which drags along beneath the balloon, catches onto a police officer's coat, carries the officer into the air, and eventually dumps him into a canal.  It then tears off the roof of a building, panicking the building's occupants.  But this is just the beginning of the havoc.  The grapnel latches onto a newspaper kiosk, then a doghouse, then a baby carriage.  One by one, the items and their respective occupants are dropped to the ground.  The people below are frightened when the kiosk and the doghouse suddenly drop out of the sky and burst into pieces.  Eventually, the balloon becomes deflated and gets caught in a treetop.  An angry mob awaits Max as he climbs out of the tree.  This is the type of mass destruction comedy that would become a specialty of André Deed and Marcel Perez.  Perez in fact reworked the plot of A Glorious Start twice - first in 1910 with Tweedledum's Aeronautical Adventure (released in France as Robinet appassionato pel dirigibile) and then in 1911 with Tweedledum, Aviator (released in France as Robinet aviatore).  A print of A Glorious Start (under its original French title Les débuts d'un aéronaute) is being held in the Lobster Films archive. 

The Hanging Lamp (1908)

This is an early iteration of the clumsy workman comedy.  A homeowner hires Max to install a heavy brass lamp in the ceiling of his living room.  In the apartment above, a gentlemen has trouble putting on his boots because his oversized stomach is preventing him from bending forward in his chair.  He sits on the floor to make the task easier, but it is just at this moment that Max drills a hole into the ceiling.  The drill bores straight into the man's backside, causing the man to let out a terrible cry.  The man tries to scramble to his feet, but he finds it impossible to break free from the drill.  A Moving Picture World critic wrote, "[The drill] gnaws at his vitals like a hungry wolf, and won't let go of his struggling prey."  The homeowner, who has heard his neighbor's cries, rescues the neighbor and tosses Max into the street.  [The film was released in France as La suspension.]

Tormented by his Mother-in-Law (1908)

Max imagines his hated mother-in-law wherever he goes.  At a restaurant, he sees the woman in a bottle of soda.  He becomes so agitated that he accidentally spills the soda on other patrons and gets ejected from the restaurant.  He then sees his mother-in-law in a car mirror and shatters the mirror into pieces.  He is at his wits' end when a woman on a park bench suddenly transforms into his mother-in-law.  In the end, Max has to be committed to an insane asylum.  [The film was released in France as L'obsession de la belle-mère.]

I also came across a few non-Linder curios that were produced during the 1909-1916 period.

The Old Lord of Ventnor (1909, Kliene)

A lord orders his wife to be beheaded for dancing with the peasants.  The clever wife uses a dummy's head to fake her execution. 

Cat in the Pot (1909)

This European comedy, distributed in the United States by the Chicago Film Exchange, is somewhat gruesome.  At a farm house, a starving tramp removes a boiling chicken from a soup pot and replaces it with the farmer's pet cat.  The farm hands realize that something is amiss as soon as they taste the bitter soup.  The men finally expose the tramp's deception when they reach inside the pot and pull out the bedraggled corpse of the cat.

Snowball (1909, Itala)

A group of boys hurl a barrage of snowballs at a homely, long-haired violinist.  The snowball fight quickly escalates.  The film ends with the violinist being rolled inside a huge snowball to the front door of his home.

The Ghost (1909, Eclair)

A drunk man gets tangled up in his bed sheets and, while trying to free himself, he falls down a flight of stairs and tumbles out into the street.  It isn't long before the ghostly appearance of the shrouded man is terrifying passersby and causing a widespread panic in the neighborhood.

House Full of Agreeables (1909, Aquila)

A man moves into an apartment which the owner has advertised as quiet, but his neighbors' quarreling and playing of musical instruments create a sufficient din to drive the new tenant from his rooms.

Save Us from Our Friends (1910, Pathé Frères)

A newlywed couple is preparing for their honeymoon night when the groom's best man enlists the aid of other wedding guests to play pranks on the blissful pair.  The guests find it amusing to throw cabbage down the chimney and stick a hose into the window to spray cold water at the couple.

When We Called the Plumber In (1910, Clarendon)

A plumber and his assistant manage through their clumsy efforts to flood a family's home.  The highlight of the film occurs when the plumber cracks the water main under the floor.  He attempts to plug the spurting leak by moving a bed on top of it, but the jet is so powerful that it lifts the bed high into the air.

From what I could determine, this film initiated a longstanding trend of comic plumbers demolishing homes.  Similar comedies, including A Fair Exchange (1910, Essanay) and The Plumber (1911, Selig), followed soon after.

For Professional Services
(1912, Edison)

Tom (William Wadsworth) comes up with a gimmick to meet Alice (Cora Williams), a pretty female doctor.  He attaches a dummy's arm to his shoulder so that he can pretend that his arm has been broken and needs to be set.  A similar routine turns up in Jewish Prudence (1927), in which Johnny Fox uses a fake leg to make insurance investigators believe that his leg was paralyzed in a trolley car accident. 

Funnicus Has an Idea (1913, Eclair)

Funnicus and Tortillard watch through a window as a maid inside prepares a hearty meal.  Funnicus figures to frighten away the maid so that they can steal the meal for themselves.  The two men rob a pair of balloons from a toy merchant and draw grotesque faces on them.  Then, they deftly fasten the balloons to their collars and tuck their heads under their coats.  As expected, the maid is alarmed to see these strange balloon-head beings and runs to find the police.  Before the maid can return, the pair make off with the coveted meal.  The film was originally released in France under the title Gavroche forte tête.  The film's star, Paul Bertho, was featured in many comedies for Lux and Éclair from 1911 to 1914.

Funnicus Invests His Savings (1913)

Softy's Little Way (1913, Eclair)

Softy is knocked unconscious when a box falls out of an upper window and hits him in the head.  Softy finds when he regains consciousness that he cannot resist spinning around in circles.  An eminent surgeon opens Softy's injured cranium and extracts a spinning top that entered his skull when the box struck.  The surgery ends successfully, restoring Softy to his normal state. 

Blood Tells (1916, Ideal)

A blood transfusion from a burglar transforms a purity league chairman (George Robey) into a rake.

You can read more about Monsieur Linder and early film comedy in my book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film

Here are a few photos that I found in The Moving Picture World. 

This is a photo of Augustus Carney, who was leading film comedian from 1910 to 1914.
Alkali Ike's Motorcycle (1912)

Madge Evans was a busy child actress in the silent era.

In the 1930s, the actress had no problem transitioning into adult roles at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  She co-starred opposite several popular leading men, including Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney and Clark Gable.

This ad for The Stage Child (1911, Thanhouser) is proof that the controversy of child actors goes back more than a hundred years.

Lige Conley's antics got more than their fair share of attention from the press.

This is Chaplin imitator Ray Hughes in In and Out (1918).

I have no idea where this production still came from.

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