Wednesday 19 December 2012

The Paris Archives: the death (and life) of Max Linder


Le Petit Parisien, 1/11/1925
The news broke on November 1st - ironically the Toussaint, or the day of the dead. Max Linder, the famous French silent film actor, had killed his wife and himself in a Paris hotel.

"Le dernier film de Max Linder..(est)..un drame navrant, pitoyable” (The final film of Max Linder is a depressing and pathetic drama) wrote Le Petit Parisien, before going on to outline the story's plot. It began late on October 30th (1925) when Max Linder and his young wife returned back to their hotel (the Hotel Baltimore on the Avenue Kléber). As they entered, Linder told staff that no-one should disturb them the next morning.

Linder's Mother in law though had an appointment with her daughter the next day, and became worried when nobody answered the phone in the hotel room. She decided to head over to the hotel herself, and eventually insisted that staff open the door to the room. As the door was pushed open, a terrible sight was in front of them - the lifeless couple lay side by side on their bed in a pool of blood. 

Although a doctor was quickly called, both were declared dead before the day was over.

The building had only recently been transformed into a luxury hotel when the tragedy took place (on the 4th floor). The hotel is named after Lord Baltimore, "its famous first guest" according the hotel website. It remains largely unchanged today.

Although nobody knows for definite what happened, it is believed that Linder drugged his wife and slit her left wrist, before doing the same to himself. As Le Figaro reported, it was a sad story, but one that many wouldn't find surprising. How could it have come to this for the world's first international film star? To find out, we need to take a look at the artist's Paris years.

Max Linder's early life in the South West of France and how he came to move to Paris is described over on Invisible Bordeaux. Linder had chosen to be an actor, but initially this proved to be a struggle. He was refused entry to the prestigious Conservatoire three times before eventually joining up with one of his previous teachers at the Ambigu theatre (an establishment near the Place de la République that was eventually closed and demolished in the 1960s).

His big break came on a cold winter's day in 1905. "Do you want to do some cinema" asked one of Linder's colleagues at the theatre. "What's that" replied Linder "A kind of theatre, except that you act in front of a machine. You joke around. You'll get 20 francs."

Max Linder soon became known simply as 'Max' the dandy character he created. This figure would also be one of Chaplin's principal inspirations.

Max Linder was filmed skating - and falling over - on a frozen lake in Vincennes and Les Débuts d’un patineur became his first success. Linder found that he had a talent for something he hadn't previously known existed, and was quick to produce other short films, always improvising and showing a sharp instinct for the nascent desires of the public.

Signed up by Pathé, then amongst the largest film producers in the world, Max Linder negotiated previously unheared of salaries - up to 1 million francs a year, but he was also contracted to produce 150 films in three years - an average of almost one per week.

Many of these films were made in a studio that still stands today - the Studio Albatros in Montreuil to the east of Paris.

Still occasionally used for filming, these buildings - which later became an industrial facility for many years - mostly offer working spaces for artists today. They were originally almost completely made of glass, and although many panels are missing today, the building is listed and protected. A future Invisible Paris post will focus entirely on these studios.

Max Linder became a name that was known worldwide, but several events would have a severe effect on the personality behind this sobriquet (his real name was Gabriel Leuvielle). The first was a serious accident he suffered on stage at La Cigalle (as well as making one film a week, Linder also continued performing in theatres) where he impalled himself whilst performing a stunt on roller skates. Although the accident almost killed him, he - superficially - made a quick recovery.

The second event was the First World War. Given his popularity and the role he could play as an entertainer, Linder was told he wouldn't have to join the army, but he nevertheless insisted that he should have a mission. His exact role is not clear, but what is known is that he was discharged from the army in 1916 after an injury or illness, probably a result of the hours he spent in freezing cold water in a bomb crater after an explosion. 

The third event stemmed from this discharge, and was also a huge opportunity. Max Linder moved to America, replacing Chaplin at the Essanay studios in Chicago, but this chance would prove to be his first failure. He had signed up to make twelve films, but only made three before homesickness and ill-health forced him back to France.

During his convalescence, Linder fulfilled one of his dreams - he bought a cinema in Paris (known at the time as the Kosmorama), redesigned it and gave it his name. The cinema still bears his name today.

Max Linder was very attached to the establishment, and often appeared on stage there, literally coming out from (behind) the screen. All this 'sans augmentation de prix'!

Max Linder quickly realised that there would be one problem with his cinema - he couldn't show his own films as he didn't own the rights. He projected mostly American films, including those of Chaplin who in many respects was his competitor. 

When I ask the current owners if there are any remaining remnants of the period in the cinema I receive a rather brusque response. 'We don't have any information or anecdotes' they tell me, 'and the cinema has been demolished and rebuilt several times since its origins'. After informing me that they are nevertheless very attached to the the personality of Max Linder, they give me another name - 'his daughter Maud can give you all the answers you need'.

Eventually, all the threads of this plot lead to Maud. If we know anything about the life and work of Max Linder today it is largely down to her efforts. But where did she enter the story?

Max Linder's career stalled after his first trip to America. He continued to make films, but with little of his previous energy. He nevertheless had several major successes, including the three films he made when he returned to America in 1919.

By this time Linder was probably already suffering from the catch-all condition of the time - neurasthenia, which is probably a mix of depression and post-traumatic stress. Now approaching his 40s, Linder had not yet married, but that would soon change in somewhat bizarre circumstances.

During another period of rest in the French Alps, Linder met a 16 year old girl named Ninette Peters. The two fell in love, but when the young girl's mother refused to sanction the relationship, Linder and the Peters fled to Monte Carlo. To avoid creating an even greater scandal, Peters' mother eventually gave Linder permission to marry her daughter, with the wedding taking place on August 23rd 1923 in Paris.

The couple moved to a very chic address in the capital (11bis avenue Émile-Deschanel near the Eiffel tower), but all was clearly not well with Max Linder. Speculating the day after his death, newspaper Le Petit Journal reported that he had been using drugs since sustaining his war injury, and had even encouraged his young wife to use them too.

Linder's Paris home (via Google Street View)

During these troubled times, Maud, their daughter, was born in June 1924. It should have been a happy period, but Linder's fragile mental state decided otherwise. As all the paper's reported after his death, there had already been one previous suicide attempt, in a hotel in Vienna. On that occasion, Peters had merely pretended to take her overdose, and was able to call for help after Linder had taken his.

Towards the end of his life, by all accounts Linder was taciturn and morose. He was also slowly removing himself from public life, resigning from committees and associations, and selling his cinema (although on this occasion he did insist that the new owners should always have two seats available for his daughter).

How the end eventually came will always contain an element of mystery, but the result was an 18 month old orphan, Maud. As she later told journalists, she would not even know about her parents until she was 10 (she was brought up by her maternal grandmother, the same person who had found the dying couple in the hotel), and didn't see any of his films until she was 20. 

After discovering who her father was though and what he had created, she then set out to honour the memory of a person she never knew. As she explained to the Liberation newspaper in 1995, "j'y ai tout laissé, sauf ma maison. Mais j'ai vendu des meubles, des objets... J'ai été couverte de dettes. J'ai parfois l'impression que c'est mon grand fils de père." (It's cost me everything, except my house. I've sold furniture, objects...I've run up big debts. Sometimes I have the impression that my father is my son).

Max Linder was a pioneer, and Maud quickly discovered that this meant that a lot of his work was created before proper storage facilities were built. If so much of his work is still missing, it is partly also because of Linder's family who inherited his belongings, but who had never supported his choice of career. Maud would later find reels of destroyed film buried in the family's garden.

It is perhaps too easy to speculate that by collecting and restoring images of her father Maud Linder is trying to build something tangible and worthwhile from a man who she not only never got to know, but who had also killed her mother and made her an orphan. Whatever her motivations though, the French cinema family can be thankful that at least one person has actively sought to preserve the memory of the first international film star. 

Note: As Invisible Bordeaux reports, her life's work may soon result in the creation of a museum and arts centre in the city of his birth. The site also explains why 2013 might be a big year for Max Linder, and gives links to online resources where you can view clips of Linder's films!


gee said...

the best blog on paris in my opinion. can you tell me decent places to eat near the gare lyon and gare nord that are reasonable for lunch

Adam said...

Thanks superchick. I'm not sure about the Gare de Lyon, but near the Gare du Nord you've got the best Indian restaurants in Paris on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis - they are also very reasonable!

Anonymous said...

Indian food gives me diarrhea!

Unknown said...

I should have posted my comment years ago

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