There's a youthful gleam to the face we see in "The Man in the Silk Hat" (opening Friday at the Nuart), the face of a long-dead performer from a vanished era--France's premier silent movie comic, Max Linder.
The face glows. It has an elegant twinkle, an irrepressible sense of romance and fun. Even if we've never seen it before, there's a strange familiarity in that jaunty mustache, that pearly smile, those wide, dark eyes that all but blaze with merriment.
And perched above is the owner's signature, a shiny black silk hat--a chapeau that keeps its impeccably rakish angle even as the owner dances, with gliding, giddy, little steps, through the parks of Paris.
Max Linder is the subject of this delightful, deeply moving memoir by his daughter, writer-director Maud Linder. From 1905 to 1915, he was the reigning clown prince of movies. That was when Charlie Chaplin was just starting out--and Chaplin emulated Linder, as did many others. Of all the movie's slapstick dandies--the Adolphe Menjous, Fred Astaires and Cary Grants--Linder was probably the most joyous, the least earthbound. Perhaps it stems from his silence--a stillness he made musical.
Capering on movie-hall screens near the beginning of the century in a series of short films--most of which he wrote and directed himself--he made an imperishably vibrant figure. He was a fashionable, resilient, zesty young Parisian, a romantic optimist perpetually thrown into mad circumstances, perpetually breaking free of them.
For 10 years, as we see in Maud Linder's film portrait, Linder projected this ebullience and sparkle, delighting the world. Then he became a living casualty of World War I: He volunteered for the front, was hit by mustard gas and returned an invalid. He had been a natural athlete, a man who soared through life--on skis, on boats, across rooftops. Now there was something burnt out beneath the smile; the genius had survived, but much of the joy was gone. He kept making excellent films--a few in America--but his face looked haggard, the grin pinched. He fell ill frequently. Finally, in despair, he killed himself and his young bride.
Maud Linder, now 61, never actually knew her father. He committed suicide in 1925, when she was a baby. But she met him years later, on the screen, in snippets of film retrieved from the past. Some were almost decomposed, some--from Pathe Studios near the turn of the century--incongruously sharp and fresh. Her years of searching and devotion--uncovering about 80 of her father's more than 500 films from collections around the world--has obviously brought father and daughter together. She calls him " mon fils de pere " (my son, the father). In the wonderful "Man in the Silk Hat," she has given him a rebirth.
It may be the most remarkable compilation of its kind ever assembled. Using these film clips (bits of 42 of Max's movies), Maud Linder reveals the story behind them. It's the tale of her irrepressible papa: his youth on the Bordeaux vineyards and docks, his journey to Paris in the heyday of the Belle Epoque and his conquest of the City of Light--using that infant artificer of light, the cinema, which he mastered almost at once.
She can do this because Linder, forced by his Pathe contract to turn out a film a day, continually looted his own past for gags. He re-created his experiences, then burlesqued and twisted them, turning life into farce, stinging farce into life. Linder's movies have edge--and made the world howl in recognition--because there were germs of truth behind his wildest fancies. He takes us to his family estate (and shows both his parents and sister); he recalls his theatrical initiations; he takes his camera outside and shows us Paris, the provinces and the garden spots of the day. And he demonstrates all his great loves: sailing, skiing, bicycling, the theater--and women.
He is a shameless romantic, an Olympian flirt. His eyes, hands and feet speak fugues of seduction, however silent his lips. On a train, he woos an English girl by drawing cartoons. In one Cote d'Azur interlude, his shoes take matters into their own hands, flying away to play footsie with the boots of the lady next door.
And, as with every great silent comedian, he dances. And not only Linder: The world dances, too--maids, butlers, lady loves, the very tables, chairs and paintings on the wall; all gambol and whirl. Linder, like Charlie, pirouettes through life, tripping a light fantastic through the Bois de Boulogne, skipping to that faraway, dying music we can never hear.
Did the music stop forever after he was gassed? Some of the clips after 1915 show real genius. One, from an old music hall routine, was lifted by the Marx Brothers for the famous mirror sequence in "Duck Soup," by Chaplin in "The Floorwalker."
Linder's American films, like his Douglas Fairbanks parody "The Three Must-Get-Theres" (done, with Fairbanks' blessing, on his own sets), are often gems of comedy. But the spirit itself seemed quenched. This giant among comedians gradually slipped from the world's sight and stages.
When Maud Linder first "met" her father, years later in a Cine club, she had never guessed at his one-time stature. She disliked comedians, thought them vulgar. Then she watched Linder for the first time--and laughed and was captivated, as were millions before her.
And as, one hopes, they will be captured again. Lovingly assembled, lovingly edited, lovingly narrated, presented with a spirit of discovery and renewal, the clips Maud Linder shows in "The Man in the Silk Hat" (Times-rated: Family) bear testament to the timeless magic of film.
If, as Jean Cocteau said, it is the artistic medium that shows death at work, then it must show life at work as well. Life is what it shows here--flashing, leaping, caught forever in a roguish smile, a crinkled mustache, capering feet and a suavely proffered black silk hat.