Monday, July 15, 2013

Seven Years’ Bad Luck (Max Linder Productions/Robertson-Cole, 1921)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching the Turner Classic Movies “Silent Sunday” feature — one of them, anyway — the marvelous 1921 silent comedy Seven Years’ Bad Luck, starring French comedian Max Linder, who also wrote, directed and produced the film. Linder was born Gabriel-Maximilian Leuvielle in Saint-Loubès, Gironde, France on December 1, 1883 and started making films as early as 1905 —thereby putting him ahead of Charlie Chaplin (who made his first film nine years later), Fatty Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Buster Keaton, Snub Pollard, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon as the first true superstar comic of the movies. Unfortunately, Linder has become hard to assess because so few of his films survive, and the ones that do … well, the only Linder item Charles and I had seen before this was a 1914 split-reeler (five to six minutes) in which Linder spent most of the movie disguised as a donkey (as did his rival for the heroine’s affections — don’t ask), and the film was funny enough in a crude way but didn’t really establish Linder as one of the greats of silent comedy. Linder had an unhappy career trajectory; when Chaplin left Essanay Studios in 1916 Essanay hired Linder to replace him — perhaps figuring that the logical replacement to a comic from England would be a comic from France, perhaps thinking that with some people already saying that Chaplin had borrowed extensively from Linder they could score big by bringing over the original.

Unfortunately, Linder didn’t take too well to American filming conditions — and according to his biographer, Michael Brooke, he’d also started having health problems when he was drafted to fight in World War I and was the victim of a poison-gas attack. “Although offered a contract in America, recurring ill-health meant that his US films had little of the sparkle of his early French work, and a brief attempt to revive his career by making films for the recently formed United Artists (one of whose founders, of course, was Chaplin) in the early 1920’s came to little, although these later films are now regarded as classics.” Brooke wrote “He returned to France and killed himself in a suicide pact with his wife in 1925.” Made by Max Linder Productions for a short-lived distribution company called Robertson-Cole, Seven Years’ Bad Luck turned out to be a comedy masterpiece, with all the “sparkle” one could want, screamingly funny and good enough that this one film is enough to establish Linder as one of the greats of silent comedy. Note that this film was made in 1921, which rather begs the question of who influenced whom; Linder can’t have been unaware that whatever early success he’d had in France had long been eclipsed by Chaplin’s worldwide popularity, and it seems clear to me that much of Seven Years’ Bad Luck was influenced by Chaplin’s work. One of the most famous sequences in Seven Years’ Bad Luck is the “mirror” gag — two similar-looking people stand on either side of an open frame and think they’re looking at their own reflection in a mirror — which was most famously performed by Groucho and Harpo Marx in Duck Soup in 1933 (and reprised by Harpo with Lucille Ball on an I Love Lucy episode in the 1950’s). Linder is often credited with inventing the gag … only Chaplin had done it five years earlier (in, ironically enough, The Floorwalker, the first film he made for Mutual Studios after leaving Essanay). Chaplin’s influence also seems to be strong in a later sequence in which Linder has a dream of himself in a mock heaven full of beautiful girls that literally sprout up from under the ground — a year after Chaplin had done his own version of a mock heaven in The Kid.

Nonetheless, Seven Years’ Bad Luck is a very funny movie, showing off Linder’s usual character — the wealthy boulevardier whose money helps him get into all sorts of scrapes — and also hinting at films made years or even decades later. The opening title tells us that Linder (he uses his own name for his character) is about to forsake bachelor life and get married — and the first shot is of Linder at his bachelor party, shot from overhead in an uncanny anticipation of Busby Berkeley’s famous overhead shots in his musical numbers. Linder goes home, roaring drunk (he may have been imitating another Chaplin Mutual, One A.M., here), throwing his clothes out the window and tossing a bilious-looking tonic onto his hanging dress suit (he thinks his window is the closet door, and vice versa), and when he gets up the next morning his cat is licking Linder’s whiskers and two flies have settled on his face. (In a modern movie there’d be a credit to the “fly wrangler.”) His servants John (Ralph McCullough) and Mary (Betty Peterson) are amorously wrestling when they accidentally break his mirror, and in order to avoid getting caught having done so they get Linder’s cook (Harry Mann), who resembles him closely enough to make it work, to impersonate him on the other side of the mirror frame, setting up the mirror gag (and though Linder might not have thought it up he sets it up and stages it perfectly) — only just as Linder gets suspicious that the other person is not his reflection, he throws his shoe at the mirror — and the mirror shatters: John and Mary had called a glazier to come over with a replacement mirror. Linder is utterly horrified at having broken the mirror and is convinced he’s going to have the proverbial seven years’ bad luck — and of course, being a silent comedian, he acts in outrageously stupid ways that bring about exactly the bad luck he fears. Invited over to the home of his fiancée Betty (Alta Allen), he decides not to drive because he’s read a newspaper article about auto accidents (incidentally, the insert shot of the newspaper has the central article in English, but all the print surrounding it is in French), so he hits on the idea of mounting a horse and riding there. When that turns out predictably dreadfully, he decides to walk instead — and ends up in imminent danger of a car running over him, ultimately getting caught on the front bumper of a car whose owners, a young couple, chew him out for trying to hitch a ride on their car.

When he finally gets to Betty’s home he and Betty’s dog Frisotto take an instant dislike to each other — Linder finally hides the dog in a water pitcher — and she breaks off the engagement because Frisotto doesn’t like him. (Between the cat in the opening scene and the dog in this one, Linder takes a refreshingly unsentimental view of household animals.) Betty’s mom urges her to make up with Linder, and she’s about to do so when she catches Linder doing a Hawai’ian dance with her servants and this time mom tells her to dump Linder — and she accepts the proposal of Linder’s best friend (F. B. Crayne) instead. Linder decides to leave town on a train, only as soon as he gets to a new city he’s robbed (he obligingly hands his valise to one of the robbers and his jacket — containing his wallet, with all his money — to another while he’s fighting with the third) and, suddenly broke, he has to sneak onto a train to get home. He ends up in a stationhouse in which the stationmaster (Hugh Saxon) has stepped out and left his daughter (Thelma Percy) in charge. Linder impersonates the stationmaster and, asked by a Black woman to sell her a ticket to New Orleans, instead gives her all the tickets he has in his drawer — earlier Linder had donned a black stocking to disguise himself as a Pullman porter on a train — only she also asks him to ship a package, he gets glue on his hands, and in this genuinely “pre-Code” movie he ends up with his glue-soaked hand stuck on Thelma’s dress, which he pulls completely off while she’s struggling to get away from him. Linder is arrested and asked by another prisoner to scratch his back — and while he’s doing this he nods off and dreams that the prisoner is his fiancée Betty, leading to a surprisingly audacious Gay gag for 1921 in which he wakes up as he’s about to kiss the other prisoner — who later shows up in court with him and seems quite taken with him. The movie ends with Linder restored to his social position but his ex-girlfriend still married to the other guy.

Charles noted that Seven Years’ Bad Luck was made with an awareness of class and its privileges (or lack of them) that pretty much disappeared from the movies after the silent era — I’d already noted that the three most famous silent comedians all had clearly defined class strata: Chaplin as the poor man, Buster Keaton as the rich man and Harold Lloyd as the middle-class man — and watching Linder’s greased-skids descent down the social ladder in this movie it occurred to me not only that this film could be read as the prequel to Chaplin’s work (Chaplin did acknowledge that he thought of his Tramp character as “a run-down gentleman”) but that Preston Sturges might have been influenced by it when he made Sullivan’s Travels, another comedy about a man of status and position who by a combination of his own arrogance and circumstances beyond his control loses it all. It also occurred to me that Linder might have been an influence on the recent film The Artist — when Charles and I saw it I’d assumed that the appearance of the male lead was based on Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., but it seems in retrospect that both his looks and some of the gags may well derive from Linder. (Gee, a bunch of Frenchmen make an homage to silent-era Hollywood — why wouldn’t they have drawn on the films of a great French silent star for material?) Basically Seven Years’ Bad Luck is perched on the cusp between Chaplin and Keaton; Linder resembles Chaplin in the mobility of his facial expressions and many of his gestures and movements seem “Chaplinesque” (though without seeing more of Linder’s pre-Chaplin films it would be hard to be definitive about who influenced whom), but Seven Years’ Bad Luck also seems like a Keaton film in embryo, partly because he’s cast as rich instead of poor and partly because so much of it takes place on a train. Whatever else Seven Years’ Bad Luck is, it’s also very, very funny, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone who likes silent comedy at all not being taken with it!