Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: June, 2019

Max Plays at Drama (1913)

Another comedy short from Max Linder in which he aspires to something, only to fail spectacularly, and humorously, to achieve it. This time, the humor relies on editing, which is an interesting new feature.

We see Max in a small circle of friends (2 men, 3 women). He is holding forth or reciting for their amusement, and they all laugh and applaud appreciatively, but apparently Max was attempting to be serious. He tells them they should come see him in his new dramatic play, and writes them out an invitation. The scene now cuts to Max, in period dress, standing on a small stage. He gives a bow and begins to perform. The sequence is cross-cut between him and the audience, where his friends are seen prominently sitting in the first two rows. At first, his performance is drawing applause, but in the middle of a scene in which he is professing love over the telephone, a woman comes on stage and yells at him, flustering him so that the apparatus is caught in the curls of his long wig. This draws laughs rather than applause. The story develops such that the two women fight a duel over Max, which is handled in deliberately formalized manner with fencing foils. The one who yelled at Max is victorious, stabbing the other (presumably the recipient of the phone call) with her sword. Max now runs on stage, his wig still quite frazzled, and threatens her with his sword, which he cannot pull from its sheath. She runs off stage anyway, and Max kneels to lament the loss of his love. Unfortunately, his wig keeps falling over his face, drawing more laughter, so he takes it off to give his final soliloquy. As he does, the audience is shown to be looking increasingly concerned, even horrified, by the action on stage. Finally, in a reversal of “Romeo and Juliet,” Max pulls poison from his pocket and drinks it, giving his final words as he dramatically dies. As soon as he has fallen across the body of the dead woman, he leaps up and runs to the front of the stage to receive his applause, but when the cut comes we see the entire audience has fallen asleep. Max does not appear alarmed, and he quickly goes off stage and comes back with a fire hose, which he turns on, spraying the audience and letting them know what he thinks of their performance.

Most of this movie depends on the cross-cutting from stage to audience. Because it’s a silent film, we can’t gauge how good or bad Max’s performance is, so we need the reaction shots to understand how the story is progressing. This also adds a bit of suspense to the denouement, because the last we saw, everyone seemed to be rapt with attention, but at the very end we learn that Max has gone on too long and everyone fell asleep. I don’t recall another of Linder’s movies that relies so heavily on reactions and cutting, so that makes this one a special case. Otherwise, it’s fairly typical of the structure of many of the Linders I’ve reviewed in recent months – Max is sure at first that he will be able to do something, then learns to his chagrin that it isn’t as easy as it looks, and his reactions as the pressure mounts are increasingly desperate. Max’s natural charm makes watching him fail at something a surprisingly delightful experience.

Director: Lucien Nonguet

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 6 Min, 11 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1906)

This early short from Edison incorporates several technical advances worthy of Méliès, but employs them in a decidedly different manner, producing a very “American” special effects comedy, despite its being a remake (not to say outright rip-off) of a British original. It’s particularly interesting as one of the first iterations of a persistent early cinema myth.

The classic proscenium-style frame actually does depict a stage in this instance, a stage on which a screen has been set up for projecting motion pictures. There is a box visible to the left of the screen, and a man sits in it, presumably part of a larger, invisible audience. The first movie begins with a title telling us that the program is “The Edison Projecting Kinetoscope.”  The actually movie’s title is “Parisian Dance.” We see a young lady in modest attire come on the screen and do a dance, which does involve raising her skirts for a a few kicks. The man in the box gets increasingly excited, eventually jumping down onto the stage to join the filmed lady in the dance. She disappears and a new title tells us we will next see “The Black Diamond Express.” A train track appears and our rube again gets very excited, leaning forward into the screen to see the oncoming train. As the train rushes past the camera, he panics, and dives back into his box for safety. The final film is “The Country Couple,” and it involves a rustic young man and woman having a brief romantic interlude. The man again leaps onto the screen, perhaps jealous or perhaps angry because the girl reminds him of his daughter. He attempts to attack the young man, pulling down the screen as a result and revealing the projectionist behind it. He and the projectionist proceed to get into a scuffle, rolling across the stage in combat.

It was a pretty clever idea, using a series of old Edison pictures to fill in as “movies-within-a-movie” to develop a whole new plotline. It also required some technical understanding of how to handle split screen effects. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well when “Uncle Josh” gets in front of the screen: he tends to disappear as if he’s gone behind the screen, or to become transparent so we can see the movie projected on top of him. Still, this movie gave us a kind of “Shadowrama” almost ninety years before MST3k. I’m pretty sure that films were not rear-projected at the time, as we see here, and that in a real situation the projectionist would have been situated in front of the screen, not behind it, approximately at the position that the camera is for the purposes of shooting this movie. I suspect that the reason he is moved is so that he can be revealed to the audience when Uncle Josh pulls down the screen, since editing and multiple camera set ups are not within the framework of this movie, and also the reveal works dramatically much better than someone yelling at Uncle Josh from behind would. The “cinema myth” I refer to above is the commonly-recurring trope about people panicking and running from theaters when a train was shown coming at the camera. It appears unlikely that this ever happened, but the story expresses the power of cinema to move people, something that apparently film makers were already aware of in 1902.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Charles Manley

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max and His Dog (1912)

This short movie from Max Linder shows him in a close relationship with an animal, and less successfully with a human. It seems to have been a fairly cheap production, compared with some of the ones I’ve reviewed recently, but it has an interesting structure.

An intertitle tells us that Hanni (Jane Renouart) has two suitors, but can’t make up her mind, and a scene (the longest of the movie) establishes this by showing her standing between Max Linder and another man (Henri Bosc). Each one tries to woo her, but each time he seems to be making progress, the other interrupts. Finally, she hits upon the expedient of having the draw straws. Max wins, and another intertitle tells us that they are married, but soon she has second thoughts. We see Max discover her writing a love note, but she claims it is for him. His suspicions are aroused, however, so he calls in his dog, “Dick.” The dog seems to want to follow Max, but Max finally persuades it to stay on guard. When Henri comes in and goes into the bedroom with Jane, Dick springs into action. He goes over to the phone and pulls it off the hook with his teeth, then barks into the receiver. We see Max, at his office, pick up the phone and appear surprised, and Max and the dog are briefly intercut, then a shot of a rainy Paris street appears to stand in for Max’s hurried flight home. Max enters the bedroom and catches the illicit lovers sitting at the end of the bed, fully clothed, but obviously becoming intimate. It appears Max will fly into a rage, but he restrains himself and gives a pitying smile as he calls in the dog, who brings in a suitcase.* Hanni pulls out a hat from the suitcase and puts it on, sadly leaving her once happy home in shame. A final shot shows Max sharing coffee with Dick, his only true friend in the world.

For once, Max is not the big loser in one of his movies, although he is cuckolded and winds up losing the girl. Still, the end seems to imply a kind of affection and a self-sufficiency far beyond what he demonstrates in “Troubles of a Grasswidower.” On the other hand, seeing him get the upper hand in the situation really isn’t as funny as his usual failures. The movie consists of just a few camera set ups on small sets, and I almost wonder if it wasn’t an effort to save money so that some of the bigger location films could be made with the profits from other Linder work. They probably had a rapid schedule of putting these out and had to maintain that schedule to keep exhibitors happy. What stands out about it, though, is the close-ups on the dog using the telephone, and the interesting editing of the telephone sequence. On closer inspection, the “rainy Paris street” scene I described seems has something going on on either side of the screen – it is a Feuillade-style split screen with the dog and Max talking on the phone on either side. As such, it represents Pathé adopting a convention of “film grammar” from Gaumont, making for a specifically French cinematic trope. At any rate, this is the one part of the movie that deviates from extremely conventional Nickelodeon-era shooting and editing, and is what makes this movie worth checking out.

*= I consulted the book “Max Linder: Father of Film Comedy” by Snorre Smári Mathiesen for this review, and the marked sentence is paraphrased from his description of the film.

Director: René Leprince, Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder, Jane Renouart, Henri Bosc

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max Juggles for Love (1912)

Max Linder stars in this comedy short about a man’s attempt to woo a young lady with an odd requirement for her paramour. It seems like some of the footage might be missing, but there’s enough here to get the story across.

The movie begins with Max in a room with a young lady, and her father standing between them. Max reveals an enormous bouquet of flowers, which seems to delight the girl, and she ushers her father out of the room. As soon as they are alone together, however, she attacks him, and Max runs in panic from her blows. She forces him to sit down and exits the room. We cut to her father’s office, where he is working on some papers. She comes in and uses a feather pen to tickle his ear, smiling and laughing and jumping about. When he gets up to urge her to see to her guest, she sits on the desk and writes out a letter. The letter states that while Max is attractive, he doesn’t “seem too healthy.” She insists that he demonstrate an ability to juggle three balls in order for her to consent to marriage. The father delivers the letter, which reduces Max to tears, and he commiserates for a moment until Max resolves to learn to juggle. He makes a brief effort with his hat and cane as he walks out the door, but the girl is standing on the balcony above. When he throws his cane too hard, she catches it and substitutes an umbrella, which consternates Max. He walks further down the street and finds some fruit at a fruit stand to practice with, but he bumps into a passerby who starts throwing fruit at him until a policeman arrives. Next, we see Max in the shambles of his apartment. Apparently he has tried juggling everything (right now he’s practicing with pillows) and he just can’t get the hang of it. Suddenly, his face lights up and he dashes off a note to the girl telling her to bring her father over to see him juggle. They receive the letter and look dubious, but prepare themselves and go to his apartment. When they arrive, there is a large screen set up in the room, and Max goes behind it, sticks his arms out and easily juggles the balls. She insists on a second demonstration, and knocks the screen down while he is doing it, revealing a hunched-over juggler substituting for Max! Max is once again in tears as she laughs at him.

I wonder if the original movie didn’t show more of Max’s attempts (and failures) at juggling. It seems to move rather quickly from his efforts on the street to his ruined apartment. The (uncredited) comedienne in this movie contributes a great deal to it with her apparently sudden mood swings and childish body language, especially in the scene in her father’s office. She seems to really enjoy tormenting Max, which makes her the perfect foil for his exaggerated emotional reactions. Linder himself is a pleasure to watch, as always. The camera work remains pretty standard, and the editing structure simply follows a linear thread, but the movie works as comedy because of the performances. However, the logic of the set doesn’t really work at the end – the girl and her father enter from behind the screen and should be able to see the juggler as they are shown to their seats. It is assumed that since the audience can’t see behind the screen, they accept that the characters cannot either.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 6 Min, 30 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Max and His Mother-in-Law (1914)

This short film stars Max Linder as an unfortunate husband who brings his mother-in-law along on his honeymoon, with the expected frustrations and pratfalls ensuing. It’s one of the longest (2 reels!) Linder films I’ve seen.

The movie begins just after the wedding, at home, with Max and the bride still in their wedding finery, and the new mother-in-law in tears. Each time Max tries to get his wife alone, the mother bursts in crying and clutching at her little girl. Finally, Max leads her out to the train station, apparently resolved to begin the honeymoon early, but the mother pulls her daughter off the train and Max is stuck alone, getting off at the next station and running all the way back to find them. After appearing to threaten his mother-in-law, he agrees to the three of them going together. They return, apparently the next day (Max and wife are now in appropriate travel garb) and board the train together, arriving at an alpine lodge and taking a horse-and-sleigh from the station to their destination. Because the mother-in-law is so large, Max has to sit in front, with the driver, instead of with his wife.

The next day is a series of follies, similar to “Max Learns to Skate,” except this time he’s perfectly capable of snow-bound sport, but the mother-in-law is a consistent foil. First, when they go skating, Max’s skating lesson to his wife is interrupted because the mother-in-law doesn’t dare to move at all. When he tries to help, she falls over repeatedly, bringing max down with her and injuring him so he skates badly. Then, they try sleds, but Max’s wife insists that he ride with her mother and take care of her, but she keeps screaming and throwing her arms around him so he can’t see or steer. Finally, she is dumped off the sled and rides to the end on her bottom. Then, they try skiing, and once the mother-in-law has hers on, Max gives her a shove and off she goes, soon with Max and wife in pursuit (on foot). When they find her, she’s upside-down in a snowdrift. They pull her out and try to get her on to a train back to the lodge, but she still has one ski on and can’t mount the train. Max has the bright idea of putting her on a horse and tying the horse to the back of the train, but by the time they get to the lodge, the horse has freed itself and mother-in-law is dangling from a watering tower. Max helps her down and seems finally ready to lose his temper completely, but there is an unexpected reconciliation and all three hug one another.

This movie is pretty typical in terms of structure, but what makes it stand out is that Max Linder was not at the center of the physical comedy. I’ve never before seen Pâquerette, the comedienne that played the mother-in-law, but I have to say I was impressed with her frequent stage falls and deliberate clumsiness, all the more difficult to pull off because she was a large woman. Especially on the ice, she shows adequate control to make it look as if it is impossible for her to stay standing, and yet she consistently falls on cue. Max adds to the humor with his often over-the-top responses to her, and then having to suddenly change emotional registers immediately to placate his wife. Most of this is, as usual, handled in long shot more with gestures than facial expressions. The movie was apparently shot on location in Switzerland, so would have represented a bigger expense than usual for a Pathé comedy, which may explain its length as well: Having committed so much to the picture, they wanted a product that would justify the expense.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder, Pâquerette

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max and the Statue (1912)

Another short film starring Max Linder that follows his familiar cycle of excited anticipation leading to disaster, but in this case the plot takes a bizarre, almost surreal, turn. Max has to use a great deal of physicality here, because his face is hidden for much of the movie.

We see Max reading the newspaper in a well-appointed home. A servant comes in and delivers a note, which causes Max to get up and dance about joyfully. He calls the servant back and has him bring his top hat, then goes out. The next scene shows him at a costumer’s, wearing a sort of outlandish Arabian Nights outfit, apparently very happy about how he looks in it, but the costumer suddenly realizes that all of his costumes are reserved for tonight’s party, and removes it. Max is very disappointed, and gets ready to leave, but the costumer calls him back: There is just one costume still available, a suit of armor. Max doesn’t seem to like the idea, but the costumer is persuasive, trying on the helmet for him to show him how it looks. Finally, Max agrees. At the party, we see a lot of people running about dancing in costumes. Max is quite noticeable in his full-length suit of armor, and he catches a tall woman in a hood and mask. He persuades her to come with him for a drink, trying to get her to remove her mask so he can kiss her, but she demurs. He orders Champagne, and lifts the faceplate of his costume, but she keeps her mask on throughout. We see a brief close-up of the two of them, Max leaning in for a kiss, she laughing and remaining aloof.

Later, Max, still in his armor, is slumped over the table and the woman is gone. The waiter wakes him up to present the cheque, but he cannot get through his armor to his pants to reach his wallet. In the process of trying, he drunkenly knocks the table over, and the waiter finally gives up and hauls him out to the street to sleep it off. Now we see a pair of thieves, who break into the Louvre, where they rather bizarrely decide to make off with a suit of armor, rather than an easier-to-carry item like a painting. When the night watchman discovers what has happened, he alerts two policemen, and together they go in search of the missing statue, only to find a suit of armor lying on the ground just in front of a nearby café. They haul the statue back, finding it difficult to stand it on its stand, and cover it over with a sheet. The next day (presumably), it is unveiled and the artist receives a medal. No one seems to notice that it is slouched over and occasionally moves or teeters a bit. That night (presumably) the thieves return and decide to steal the new statue, I suppose because they got so much for the first one. They haul Max back to their subterranean hideaway and pull out tools, apparently planning to cut him into smaller pieces for easy transport. When they start to saw into his stomach, Max wakes up and they both run out in horror, running into the arms of the police, who have apparently successfully tracked them this time. The police insist that they show them the statue, but when they get back to the table they left him on, it is empty. Suddenly Max staggers back on screen, playing a guitar, still in his suit of armor. Police and thieves both run out in panic.

Max has to use his body for a lot of the humor here, since his face is covered for about 2/3 of the run time. It’s remarkable how recognizable his body language is, particularly in the scene at the party where he meets the girl. He also gets to show off his “funny drunk” skills once again, as we saw in “Max Takes Tonics.” It strikes me that the more climactic, and slightly more believable, ending would have been for him to come to life during the ceremony instead of some number of hours later, at the hideout. The images of the thieves starting to cut him up, and of Max dancing about with the guitar were funny, admittedly, but it just seemed like an opportunity was missed when a crowd of Paris high society were solemnly saluting him. It would have saved them two camera set ups and some film as well, so Max must have been dedicated to the ending we see. Somehow the thieves’ hideout made me think of Feuillade, while the dancing suit of armor seemed straight out of Méliès, so this film was firmly grounded in the young French cinematic tradition.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (incomplete, but with music).