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The Fine Art of Frustration

Max prend son bain (By the Doctor’s Orders / Max Embarrassed)

Lucien Nonguet, Pathé-Frères, France, 1910

The comedy in a Max Linder film often revolves around the frustration of Max’s efforts to complete a certain project. In Max prend son bain, the original project seems simple enough: his doctor suggests a soothing bath to relieve the hiccups. Complications, however, ensue because (improbably enough) Max doesn’t have a bathtub; he duly purchases one, but the cumbersome physical object—or, more precisely, the effort to make use of it—becomes the source and focus of the film’s comedy.

We pick up the action when, as a result of a series of preliminary frustrations, a naked Max has been arrested for taking a bath in public. He escapes from the police station by turning the tub upside down and scuttling along the sidewalk like a turtle (1). When the police give chase (2), the film takes the form of the familiar course comique—a version of the comic chase that cuts between parallel actions (often combined with trick photography); see the discussion of Ferdinand Zecca’s La Course des sergents de ville in Chapter 6.3. Unfortunately, Max’s escape route is obstructed by a building (3), and, against all expectations (and in defiance of gravity), he begins to scale the façade, still bearing the bathtub on his back (4). The shots of the bathtub scaling the building are effected by the same trick that Zecca used in La Course des sergents de ville (1907): Max is photographed from above by a downward-angled camera as he crawls across a horizontal painting of the façade (5), and the same trick allows the policemen to clamber after him (6).

Unlike the conclusion of La Course des sergents de ville, which involves a mere reversal of the chase and a simple comic gag, the climax of Max prend son bain brings us back to the object of Max’s desire and the source of his frustration: because the bathtub is too big for the skylight on the roof of the building (7), Max can neither make good his escape nor take his prescribed bath. Frustrated beyond his usual level of tolerance—and stripped of the elegant attire that apparently facilitates his normally urbane demeanor—Max finally makes use of the bathtub by throwing it at the gang of policemen climbing the façade of the building (8,9).

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