Max Linder is a name not as familiar today as that of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or even Harold Lloyd, and yet his contribution to silent film comedy was enormous; he was the first big comedy film star. He began making films in 1905, but it wasn’t until 1907 that he took the lead role in what turned out to be a long series of comedy shorts. For these he adopted for himself the persona of “Max”, a dapper man-about-town with a liking for the good life and women. This adoption of a screen persona was hugely influential and no doubt prompted Charlie Chaplin to find his own recurring character, The Tramp, nearly a decade later.
He was successful both at home in France and internationally at the time of the outbreak of World War I. He stopped making films and became a dispatch driver as part of the war effort, and it was at this time that he started suffering from bouts of depression. By 1916, he had been relieved of his duties, and made the move to America to make films for Essanay studios, but the American films did not have the success of those he had made in his native France, and he returned home after his contract was cancelled.
Ill health prevented him from working, but he returned to America in 1921 to make three feature films but, despite now being considered some of his best work, they were not hugely popular at the time. He married in 1923 but, still suffering from bouts of chronic depression, he and his wife committed suicide in 1925. Linder was 41.
Max Takes a Bath is a typical Linder short film, with differing sources giving the film a date as 1908 and 1910. The premise is straightforward: Max buys a bath, struggles to get it back to his apartment only to find that the only way he can fill it is by using the tap in the hall outside his room. He drags the bath into the hallway in order to fill it, but then finds the bath is too heavy to drag back into his room and so he proceeds to take his bath there. However, this rather shocks others living in the apartment block and the police and firemen are called in order to remove Linder and his bath from the premises.
It is of great credit to Linder that such a basic narrative still provides laughs today, over a hundred years after the film was made. Even in 1952, when Linder was an all but forgotten figure, Bela Bálazs wrote that “this bit of fun is most filmic, not only because a number of things are made visible in it which cannot be shown on the real stage, but also because these new motifs represent a type of grotesque psychological reaction which could not have been shown in the past” (Balázs, 1952: 27-28).*
Many of Linder’s shorts have only been issued on French DVDs and without English subtitles, but Max Takes a Bath uses no intertitles at all to tell its story. It is available for all to enjoy on Youtube. The genius of Linder is finally being rediscovered, although there is always a sense of sadness that this most likeable and jovial of comedians also ended up as one of the most tragic.
*Balázs, B., 1952. The Theory of Film (Character and Growth of a New Art). London: Dobson.