Be My Wife (1921)
This rare feature-length comedy by Max Linder is part of his second round of Hollywood-produced films, but it didn’t catch on with audiences as he had hoped, and there was no major revival of his career. How does it hold up for us today?
The movie begins with a visual pun, as we see Max in profile pouring water over the head of a girl. In reality, he is watering plants which are in a vase designed to show the silhouette of a girl in profile (something similar is being done with pottery urns today). He is visiting the love of his life, Mary (played by Alta Allen), and is helping with the chores. Unfortunately, Mary has a spinster aunt (Caroline Rankin) living with her, who sees the profile through a window and concludes that he is with her in the bath. She rushes in to catch them, and is baffled how Mary got her hair dry so fast. Archie is another suitor (played by Lincoln Stedman, who bears a certain resemblance to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and he brings his dog over, charming the aunt (the dog bears only a slight resemblance to Arbuckle’s dog Luke). Max hides outside and meets Mary, but Archie and Aunt Agatha are still around, so he hides out by disguising himself as a scarecrow (as Buster Keaton had recently done as well). There’s a good deal of humor about the dog barking at the scarecrow, the scarecrow kicking Archie from behind, and the two lovers stealing moments when no one is looking. Eventually, the aunt comes to investigate, loosens the dog’s post, and the dog chases the scarecrow until it tries to climb a fence, then performs an impressive leap to latch its teeth into Max’s backside.
Later, Max tries another ruse to get close to Mary. He puts on a false beard and pretends to be a singing instructor. The only problem is that he can’t play the piano, so the aunt is quickly suspicious. So is the dog. Max and Mary begin a duet, which is, to judge by the aunt’s reactions, quite soothing, but Max forgets about his beard and soon has it up around his head, rather than down on his chin. Now the dog knows what’s up, and a new chase is on. Max runs through palm trees, and pole vaults over the fence right in front of Archie, who hits him with a mallet. Max’s final attempt is using a pair of old boots to frighten the family into thinking a ruffian has broken into the aunt’s house. Archie is paralyzed with fear, but Max, knowing there is no danger, goes alone into the room. He pretends to have a violent battle, using the shoes below a curtain to simulate the dancing steps of two combatants. When the dog comes in, the fight becomes real, and Max gets him to bite one of the shoes and tosses him out the window.
His valor proved, Max has won the girl, and the next scene (or reel) begins with their wedding. Archie is there as the best man (apparently Max has no real friends), and he has a plan to spoil things: he drops a mouse on the floor, which quickly runs up Max’s leg. Max is able to get through the ceremony, despite some odd behavior, but refined dancing at the reception is impossible for him. He discovers the ploy and gets the mouse out, but he’s still moving and itching in odd ways. Eventually, it transpires that the mouse gave birth to a whole little brood of baby mice, which are soon unleashed on the dance floor, terrifying women, including the aunt, who has one caught in her dress for a while, doing a ridiculous dance.
The final act concerns the couple’s married life. Archie is still hanging around, hoping that Mary will forget about Max somehow. The action centers around the shop of Madame Coralie (Rose Dione), who sells dresses, bootleg liquor, and space for adulterous couples. Mary buys a very expensive dress, instructing Madame Coralie not to send the bill to her husband. Max shows up with Archie, looking for a drink, but they have to sit through a fashion show first, and Max decides to buy a dress also, and now he knows the latest models, so when his wife claims she got it second-hand, he knows better. Meanwhile, Archie has made an appointment for a rendezvous with a married woman, but her note to him wound up on Max’s person, so the aunt and Mary now believe Max is cheating. Max also finds the note, and thinks it was written by Mary to Archie. When the dressmaker’s drunken husband shows up with the bill he wasn’t supposed to present, Max asks him to hide him so he can catch his wife in the act. He suggests “the furnace room” just off the room that is used by couples, where it is “105 degrees in the shade” according to a subtitle. Max is sweltering in there when Archie begins his liaison, and he keeps filching drinks off the sideboard, just to keep cool, which makes Archie think there are ghosts at work.
Things come to a head, with multiple police raids, Max getting stinking drunk, and gags involving rotating walls that hide illicit goings-on from the police. Ultimately, Mary and Aunt Agatha show up, and see Max begging the (black) maid for a drink, though they think he’s asking for a kiss. Mary makes some rather racist (though typical, for the movies of the age) comments, indicating that she’s through with Max and plans to have multiple lovers herself. Mr. Coralie shows up, looking for lodgings now that Max got him in trouble with his wife, and Mary comes on to him aggressively. She also kisses Archie. Max is furious, and attacks Archie in the living room, once again proving to be the braver man, even in actual physical confrontation with a larger opponent. He figures out what has transpired and forces Archie to tell Mary that he was the one with the date with Mrs. Du Pont, who sends a note confirming it. They are reconciled, and the aunt finds Mr. Coralie in her bed. The end.
So why didn’t contemporary audiences like this? It seems possible that they just weren’t ready for feature-length comedies, unless they starred clowns they had already come to love. Some hints can be found in this review in the “Exhibitor’s Herald:”
Written, directed and acted by the star, this farce misses being funny by several hundred points. There is too much muchness to it and it is likely to prove tedious to those looking for something funny. Five reels.
“Be My Wife” is good in spots, but the farcical humor is prolonged until it bores instead of entertains. A down- town theatre audience. Chicago, found occasion to laugh but once or twice dur- ing its unreeling. Many of the scenes are well handled, it is well produced and photographed, but it would have gained considerably by being shortened a little. It showed evidence of too much padding. Then, too, the story is far from original. The same theme has served comedians since comedies were first born.
This reviewer is pretty clear that it was too long for their taste. Interestingly, the synopsis that follows has the sequence of events very different from what I just described from the surviving prints. Possibly there had been a different edit or else this person wasn’t paying terribly close attention.
By a happy coincidence, I (re-)watched this movie on its exact centenary, April 2, 2021. Keep that date in mind, it helps contextualize the film. I’ve reviewed a good number of Max Linder movies on this blog – going all the way back to 1907 with “Max Learns to Skate.” Linder was a huge star internationally at a time when the French film industry was dominant, and, as I mentioned above, there were two efforts to import his style of comedy to the United States after “Hollywood” became a brand: the first was in 1916 and included the film “Max in a Taxi.” This having failed, he returned to France for several years, but by 1921 he was ready for another try, which this film was a part of. It’s pretty impressive that he was allowed to make a movie this long at a time when the vast majority of comedies were two-reelers. His friend Charlie Chaplin had released “The Kid” in January, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had been putting out features since November, 1920, but that’s two of the biggest stars of the time, and just a matter of months before this release. Even Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were still working in short format at the time. Linder had never had as big a following in the USA, and had utterly failed to make a hit five years before, and no one had heard from him since. It seems like Samuel Goldwyn, who backed this, was taking quite a chance.
For his part, Linder seems to have decided that the era for broad slapstick was over, and to have gone in for something more sophisticated. This movie’s style reminds me very much of an Ernst Lubitsch film, and I doubt that’s accidental. No doubt Linder had seen Lubitsch’s work in Europe and he probably felt he couldn’t compete with the athletics of the clowns Chaplin and Arbuckle and needed to work on more situational humor, using his European attitudes toward morality to create a world that would (hopefully) appeal to American audiences. Apparently, this didn’t pay off as he had hoped. I don’t think Linder really had it in him to successfully mimic Lubitsch. His early comedies sometimes deal with “sophisticated” topics like divorce or cheating, but they do so in a childish spirit that makes him more accessible. Here, he is still charming (and looks great in a top hat) but some of that “pep” is gone, for want of another word; he seems a bit world-weary and frustrated. Before, it had been part of the humor that his exuberance was always overthrown by reality, but here we never really see the “happy Max” that makes the “ruined Max” such a stark contrast. Also – while his “Max” character was never really defined, we always got the impression that he was sort of an upper class ne’er-do-well, with scarcely any skills to deal with financial reality. Here, we still have no idea what he does for money, but his concern over his wife’s spendthrift ways suggests someone more grounded in dollars and sense.
None of this is to say that this is not an enjoyable movie for us today. Fans of Linder will be thrilled to see such an extended example of his skills, and there are some very nice remastered copies (not always the case with the early work), that really give you a chance to appreciate how good-looking he was. It’s fortunate that he, or someone at Goldwyn pictures, thought to hire a good cinematographer. Charles van Enger would go on to shoot “The Phantom of the Opera,” as well as all of the movies Lubitsch made for Warner Brothers, so the visual work here is top class. I quite enjoyed the lengthy sequence where he’s stuck in the “furnace room” – this was a classic Linder bad decision gone catastrophically wrong, and he plays it for all its worth. I also like the opening competition for the hand of Alta Allen and there are some laughs in Alta’s efforts to get revenge on Max with every man available. This may not have been quite what audiences were looking for (or ready for) in 1921, but it stands up pretty well in 2021.
Director: Max Linder
Camera: Charles van Enger
Starring: Max Linder, Alta Allen, Lincoln Stedman, Caroline Rankin, Rose Dione
Run Time: 57 Minutes
You can watch it for free: here.