Sunday, February 13, 2011

Max and the Donkey (Pathé, 1912)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Right after that we watched Max and the Donkey, a 7 ½-minute one-reeler from French comedian Max Linder, made for Pathé in 1912 and a real gem, a charming comedy in which as the movie opens a young woman, Lili (Paulette Dorsy), has just become engaged to a young man (Joé Dawson) — only Max Linder (using his own name for his character, as Laurel and Hardy did later) wants her too, and he offers to take her for a ride on his donkey. Her fiancé gets wind of this and dresses up in a donkey costume, substituting himself for Linder’s real donkey, and one of the choice gags is when Linder and Lili both sit on the fake “donkey” and he can barely bear their weight. (We never learn how he got rid of Linder’s real donkey, or why Linder never noticed the difference.) There’s a charming chase scene between Linder and the faux “donkey,” during some of which they climb down the side of a building (represented by placing a painted backdrop of a building on the studio floor and having the actors crawl on top of it — it’s an unconvincing effect but the very early-movie dorkiness of it, especially when the “donkey” walks across it and you can see the creases in the cloth as he passes, just adds to the charm), and a final fight scene in which the “donkey” bests Linder and wins from him a promise not to court Lili again.

Linder is frequently thought of as an influence on Chaplin, and there are certainly gestures and moves from Linder here that seem “Chaplinesque,” but he’s not quite as funny as Chaplin because he’s playing a well-to-do dandy. What made Chaplin so great was not only that he used the gestures of a gentleman but he used them while playing a tramp — one doesn’t expect the homeless (or near-homeless) character Chaplin played in film after film to have the effortless sang-froid Linder shows here — but Max and the Donkey is still a very funny movie and whets my appetite for more of this fascinating and ultimately ill-starred (he died in 1925 at age 41 after having attempted a career in Hollywood — when Chaplin left Essanay studio in 1916 they hired Linder to replace him, but American audiences didn’t take to him and he returned home) comedian.