“The Idea of Burlesquing a Dandy”

  When he was principal comedy director at Biograph in 1910-1911, Mack Sennett studied Pathé-Frères imports and would later announce that “Frenchmen . . . invented slapstick.”[1] Sennett would soon specialize in his own brand of anarchic slapstick at his Keystone Comedy Studio, but he admired the popular Max Linder’s more restrained style and, as an actor himself, once modeled a character called “the French dude” after Linder’s dapper Parisian dandy (see Figure R9.17).[2] (Linder is the subject of Biographical Sketch 9.1, and his approach to developing slapstick comedies as clever satires is discussed in Reading 9.2.)


                   Mack Sennett

Sennett also introduced Charlie Chaplin to the movies when he hired the British music-hall comedian at Keystone in 1914 (see Figure R9.18 [3]), and according to Sennett, Chaplin esteemed Linder so highly that he learned French in order to converse with his idol when he visited France in 1921. “There is no doubt,” Sennett later remarked, “that [Linder’s] style had a considerable impact on Charlie Chaplin’s development as a comedian.”[4] Sennett’s assessment of Linder’s influence on Chaplin, though not terribly reliable, is often echoed in both historical accounts of early screen comedy and biographical accounts of Chaplin’s development as a screen comic. British critic Raymond Durgnant, for example, contends that Chaplin’s skills as a mime “must have owed something” to Linder;[5] American film historian Lewis Jacobs holds that Chaplin’s Little Tramp character was born when Chaplin “took the idea of burlesquing a dandy” from Linder’s comic persona.[6] Certainly, Chaplin and Linder became close friends when Linder came to work in America for the first time in 1917; the photo in Figure R9.19 was probably taken in 1921, on the occasion of Linder’s second tenure in Hollywood (see Biographical Sketch 9.1).[7] Reportedly, there exists another photograph which Chaplin inscribed “To Max, the Professor, from his disciple, Charles Chaplin.”[8]


              Charles Chaplin, The Rink,

            Lone Star Mutual, USA, 1916

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The Issue of “Regulation Gags”; or, Thematic Affinities

  The question of influence, however, is a complicated one. More than one commentator has noticed similarities in certain gags used by Linder and Chaplin, but there’s a problem in arguing for influence on this basis: like every early screen comedian, both Linder and Chaplin borrowed freely from a large repertoire of gags that had long been staples of the music-hall or vaudeville stage. American critic Walter Kerr calls them “regulation gags,”[9] which are really gags developed around similar themes.

Chaplin’s adventure on roller skates in The Rink (1916), for instance, certainly recalls Linder’s struggle with ice skates in Les Débuts d’un patineur (Skater’s Debut or An Unskilled Skater, 1907—see Figure 9.19). Chaplin’s version, however, is derived from a music-hall sketch written and first performed by his brother Sydney in 1909, when rollerskating had become a craze in England; in the same year, Charlie had a part in the sketch with a different touring company, and by 1910 he was reprising Syd’s leading role. In any case, Chaplin’s development of the gag is much more inventive than Linder’s: while Max’s ineptitude recapitulates the standard comic business in many a music-hall act, Chaplin elaborates on the premise by reversing our expectations—the Tramp can cause calculated mayhem because he can skate with consummate skill (see Figure R9.20 [10]).


         Max Linder, Max et l’inauguration

    de la statue, Pathé-Frères, France, 1913

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A variation on another thematic gag drives the narrative of Max et l’inauguration de la statue (Max and the Statue—1910), in which Max attends a costume ball dressed as a knight in armor on the very same evening that thieves steal a valuable suit of armor from the Louvre. After the ball, a drunken Max passes out on the sidewalk, where he is found by police looking for the stolen museum piece. Assuming that Max is what they’re looking for, they return him to the museum, prop him on a pedestal, cover him with a sheet, and await the unveiling. When the sheet is pulled away, Max’s woozy head wobbles, but no one notices, and the satisfied spectators leave.

Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) opens with a much more elaborate variation on a similar theme. At the dedication of a large statue, a pompous speaker babbles unintelligibly while a solemn audience awaits the unveiling. When the drapery is pulled away from the statue (actually, a series of three figures), the assembled dignitaries are aghast to see the sleeping Tramp nestled in the marble arms of the central figure (Figure R9.21 [11]). Rudely awakened, he climbs down but catches the seat of his pants on the upraised sword of another figure—a position from which he manages to stand at attention when the band strikes up the national anthem.


              Buster Keaton, The Goat,

 Joseph M. Schenk Productions, USA, 1921

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Intuition and the Gestures of Silent Comedy

  The common theme in the two gags has often been noted, and some commentators have even suggested that Chaplin’s premise was inspired by Linder’s. Interestingly, however, about midway between Linder’s adventure in a suit of armor and Chaplin’s adventure in a statue’s lap, we find Buster Keaton’s variation on the same theme. In The Goat (1921), Buster, running from the cops, comes across a group of distinguished-looking gentlemen and an artist (identifiable by his beret and goatee) who are gathered below what is clearly a draped statue. “Gentlemen,” declares the artist (in a title card), “I have just finished the clay model of my masterpiece.” Spotting a cop, Buster ducks from view, and when the statue is unveiled, we see him, posed with his gaze fixed on the horizon, mounted on the sculpted horse (Figure R9.21 [12]). The ruse fools the cop, but unfortunately, the horse is in fact a clay model, not a finished work in stone: its back bows and its legs buckle until Buster is forced to dismount and start running again.

Walter Kerr doubts that “either Chaplin or Keaton borrowed directly at such long distance” from Linder but adds: “[I]t is clear enough that Linder intuited—in however limited a way—certain of the stranger gestures silent comedy might make.”[13]


     Groucho and Harpo Marx, Duck Soup,

                 Paramount, USA, 1933

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The Mirror-Image Gag

  And, of course, the “intuiting” works both ways. The most famous version on the following theme is the one in the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup (1933), which is illustrated in detail in Figure R9.22.[14]. The mirror gag calls for one partner to mimic the actions of another in order to present himself as the latter’s mirror image even though there is no mirror between them. Chaplin had used it in The Floorwalker in 1916, in which the Tramp is introduced as a customer in a department store. There is also a floorwalker—a department supervisor—who bears an uncanny resemblance to Charlie and who’s preparing to make off with a bagful of the store’s money. At a climactic point, Charlie, who happens to be carrying his familiar cane, enters an office and encounters his lookalike, who has a corresponding satchel full of stolen cash . Each is so confounded at the mutual resemblance that both react as if they’re looking in a mirror. To test this theory, the thief makes a few gestures; Charlie mimics them perfectly, as if he were indeed a mirror image. But when two inverse hands inadvertently touch, the suspicious floorwalker takes Charlie’s head between his hands and scrutinizes it intently. The match ends abruptly when Charlie, mistaking the gesture for a romantic overture, leans forth to respond with a kiss (see Figure R9.23 [15]).


        Max Linder Seven Years Bad Luck,

       Max Linder Productions, USA, 1921

See the excerpt

Chaplin biographer David Robinson calls Chaplin’s version of the gag “a virtuoso performance of an old music hall routine—already done in films by Max Linder.”[16] Actually, Linder delivers his own virtuoso performance of the mirror gag in a film made five years after Chaplin’s. Seven Years Bad Luck was one of three feature films that Linder made under the banner of Max Linder Productions in 1921-1922, during his second sojourn in the United States—a trip that Chaplin may have urged him to make.[17] Max—again drunk—returns home after a party. The next morning, as the hung-over Max tries to rouse himself out of bed, two of his servants—an amorous valet and a frisky maid—break his full-length shaving mirror. While the mirror is being surreptitiously replaced, Max’s cook, who looks remarkably like his boss, dresses in an identical nightgown (and identical head bandage) and stations himself on the other side of the empty mirror frame. As Max shaves on his side of the glassless mirror, the cook mimics his every move with remarkable precision (Figure R9.24 [18]). A short time later, Max discovers the subterfuge and, finally realizing that the mirror is nothing but an empty frame, returns from an untimely phone call to confront the impostor. In the meantime, however, the servants have replaced the glass, and when Max tosses a shoe at what turns out to be the impostor’s reflection, he breaks the mirror (hence the reference to seven years’ bad luck in the title). (Seven Years Bad Luck is discussed in detail in Reading 9.2.)


        Max Linder Seven Years Bad Luck:

          The Imposter and His Reflection

Max Linder’s Peerless Precision  The most remarkable thing about Linder’s rendition of the gag is the extraordinary precision with which he and a fellow actor perform the series of mirror-image gestures. The comic business includes yawning, rubbing eyes, scratching heads, polishing the mirror, tucking in towels, lathering faces, and straight-razor shaving. “Precision,” remarks one critic, “is Linder’s greatest comic gift,”[19] and this scene (which, unlike those in The Floorwalker and Duck Soup, contains some cuts) is executed in such exquisitely timed mime that the illusion is nearly perfect. Certainly, Linder insisted that the final product display a fastidious precision, and some viewers prefer his version of the gag to that of Chaplin before him or the Marx brothers after.

Surprisingly, Linder was known among French filmmakers as a master of the single take—as an actor-director who could rehearse a scene quickly and then execute it before the camera on the first or second try. His method, he reported, was quite simple: “I told my story to the actors. I acted it out. I explained it. We rehearsed it once. Then we shot.”[20] Ironically, it wasn’t until he’d had a chance to see Chaplin at work that Linder came to appreciate the practice of fashioning and honing a scene by rehearsing and shooting it several times: “Until seeing Charlie at work,” wrote Linder in a 1919 magazine article,

I never fully realized how unimportant is the amount of film used and the number of times a scene is shot. In France, we count the number of meters shot as if there were some set relation to the length of the finished film. In reality, there is a relation only to the quality of the film and the care taken by the director. . . . To make a film of 1,800 feet, Chaplin . . . used more than 36,000 feet of negative; that is to say that every scene was shot twenty times. That represents, with trials, alterations, [and] retakes, some fifty rehearsals.[21]

As the mirror gag in Seven Years Bad Luck suggests, the effects of this liberating realization can be seen in the technical polish of Linder’s final three American-made feature films (the other two are Be My Wife [1921] and The Three Must-Get-Theres [1922]—see Biographical Sketch 9.1 and Figures B9.6 and B9.7). Chaplin, Linder told French readers, “has wanted to assure me that it was seeing my films that inspired him to work in the cinema. He calls me his teacher, but I have been the happy one, to take lessons in his school.”[22]

The Future of an Illusion

  Anthony Balducci reports that a comedy team known as the Schwartz Brothers introduced a miming act involving an invisible mirror into a Broadway show in 1913, but he also cites a slightly earlier rendition of the mirror routine in the cinema. In 1912, the American production company Solax, which had been founded by former Gaumont production head Alice Guy-Blaché, released a film entitled His Double: in a very brief scene, a vain villain admires the image in a glassless mirror which is, ironically, his nemesis, the hero, in disguise. Balducci also provides a survey of mirror routines in movies and television shows from the mid-1930s to 2008; several of these are illustrated in Figure R9.25 [23].

[1] Sennett, as told to Cameron Shipp, The King of Comedy (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1975), pp. 64-65.

[2] Joyce Milton, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 54-55. See also Mrs. D.W. Griffith [Linda Arvidson], When the Movies Were Young (1925; rpt. New York: Dover, 1969), pp. 78-79. On the influence of Pathé-Frères comedies in general, and those of Linder in particular, on Sennett’s role in the development of American movie comedy, see Simon Louvish, Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Max Sennett (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), pp. 29-31. On Sennett’s relationship with Griffith at Biograph, especially Sennett’s development of comedies that burlesqued the melodramatic themes and techniques developed by Griffith, see Bob King, The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2009), pp. 52-64.

[3] On Chaplin at Keystone and Figure R9.18, see King, The Fun Factory, pp. 83-96; Louvish, Keystone, Ch. 11; Milton, Tramp, Ch. 3. “Comments on the Films,” Motion Picture World, June 13, 1914, p. 1541; quoted by King, The Fun Factory, p. 109. Manvell, Chaplin, The Library of World Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1974), p. 82. Weber and Fields, “Adventures in Human Nature,” The Associated Sunday Magazines, June 23, 1912; quoted by Jay Martin, “Nathanael West’s Burlesque Comedy,” Studies in American Jewish Literature (1975-1979) 2:1 (Spring 1976), p. 6, at (accessed July 11, 2017). Raoul Sobel and David Francis, Chaplin: Genesis of a Clown (London: Quartet Books, 1977), p. 186.

[4] The King of Comedy, pp. 161-62.

[5] The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood Comedy and the American Image (1969; rpt. New York: Delta, 1972), p. 76.

[6] The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History (1939; rpt. New York: Teachers College Press, 1968), pp. 229-30.

[7] See Sobel and Francis, Chaplin: Genesis of a Clown, p. 207.

[8] For Figure R9.19, see esp. David Robinson, Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 84-85. See also Chaplin Restored: Essanay and Mutual Classics, To Save and Protect: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014), at (accessed July 11, 2017).

[9] The Silent Clowns (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 129.

[10] For Figure R9.20, see the following: On Linder’s Les Débuts d’un patineur, see esp. Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 218-19. On Max Linder’s critique of bourgeois values, see Reading 9.2 and Cullen Gallagher, “Max Linder and the Death of Bourgeois Respectability,” Not Coming to a Theater Near You, July 28, 2008, at (accessed July 11, 2017).

On Chaplin’s The Rink, see esp. David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), pp. 178-79. The most reliable source for the W.C. Fields quote (which has long circulated in numerous variations) is Kenneth Tynan, “Toby Jug and Bottle,” Sight and Sound (February 1951). Chaplin is quoted by Harry Crocker, “Charlie Chaplin: Man and Mime,” a typescript in the Harry Crocker Collection at the Margaret Herrick Library, sec. 6, p. 33; see Milton, Tramp, p. 110. For a detailed synopsis of The Rink, see Michael Grutchfield, “The Rink (1916),” Century Film Project, January 22, 2016, at (accessed July 11, 2017). From a privileged perspective as a member of Chaplin’s stock company of actors, Fred Goodwins published a series of articles on Chaplin’s working methods for the British magazine Red Letter in 1916; for his article on The Rink, see Goodwins, Charlie Chaplin’s Red Letter Days: At Work with the Comic Genius, ed. David James (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), Ch. 36. Christopher Townsend, “‘A New Dictionary of Gestures’: Chaplin’s The Rink and Ricciotto Canudo’s Skating Rink,” Avant-Garde Critical Studies 25 (2010), pp. 153-73, argues that in The Rink, which displays a physicality specifically adapted to the needs of a new art form, Chaplin introduces “bodily gestures that characterize the fragmented subjectivity of urban and industrialized modernity”; as such, The Rink issues “Chaplin’s subversive challenge to bourgeois order.”

On the derivation of The Rink from Sydney Chaplin’s sketch called Skating, which was produced by the Fred Karno Company, see esp. Lisa K. Stein, Syd Chaplin: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2011), pp. 33-35, at (accessed July 9, 2017). See also Sobel and Francis, Chaplin: Genesis of a Clown, pp. 181-82; and Robinson, Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion, p. 30.

As for Chaplin the “ballet dancer,” Japanese director Masayuki Suo (whose fiction film Shall We Dance? was an international hit in 1996) produced a documentary entitled Dancing Chaplin in 2010. The centerpiece is an adaptation of French composer Roland Petit’s 1991 ballet Charlot Danse avec Nous (Charlot, Dance with Us), “Charlot” being the French nickname for Chaplin’s onscreen persona since the 1910s. The ballet was inspired as an homage to both Chaplin’s own dancer-like grace of movement and his ability to choreograph dynamic comic activity. Individual dances reference Chaplin films, and Chaplin’s own music is featured. An excerpt can be seen at (accessed July 11, 2017).

On Chaplin’s shooting ratio, see Milton, Tramp, p. 129; David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art, App. VII; Donald Fairservice, Film Editing: History, Theory, and Practice: Looking at the Invisible (Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 161-62, at (accessed June 10, 2017). In an article entitled “What People Laugh At,” published in the November 1918 issue of American Magazine 86, pp.34, 134-37, at (accessed July 9, 2017), Chaplin admitted that

I am often appalled at the amount of film I have to make in getting a single picture. I have taken as much as 60,000 feet in order to get the 2,000 feet seen by the public. It would take about twenty hours to run off 60,000 feet on the screen! Yet that amount must be taken to present forty minutes of picture.

Rpt. in Focus on Chaplin, ed. Donald W. McCaffrey (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 48-54.

[11] For Figure R9.21 and Chaplin’s City Lights, see Charles J. Maland, Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), esp. pp. 116-19; Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art, pp. 400-01. Chaplin is quoted from My Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), p. 271.

[12] For Figure R9.21 and Keaton’s The Goat, see the following: Gabriella Oldham, Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1996), Ch. 9; Daniel Moews, Keaton: The Silent Features Close Up (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1977), pp. 18-22; Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), esp. pp. 128-32, 138-40; J.-P. Lebel, Buster Keaton, trans. P.D. Stovin (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1967), Ch. 2; David Robinson, Buster Keaton, 3rd ed. (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973), pp. 52-55.

[13] The Silent Clowns, p. 51.

[14] For Figure R9.22 and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, see the following: Martin A. Gardner, The Marx Brothers as Social Critics: Satire and Comic Nihilism in Their Films (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Co., 2009); Paul D. Zimmerman and Burt Goldblatt, The Marx Brothers at the Movies (1968; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1970), Ch. 6; Anthony Balducci, The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012), pp. 164-65; Allen Eyles, The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy (1966; rpt. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1969), Ch. 7. See also Donald W. McCaffrey, The Golden Age of Sound Comedy: Comic Films and Comedians of the Thirties (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1973), Ch. 4; Durgnat, The Crazy Mirror, Ch. 25.

In Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 2015), Ch. 1, Lee Siegel takes issue with Gardner’s assumption that satire and nihilism are compatible, arguing that “satire, which has a moral point of view, and nihilism, which flouts morality, are two opposites that never effectively meet.” In the case of the Marx Brothers, says Siegel, the effort to reconcile satirical intent with an underlying nihilism can’t be entirely successful because the extreme nature of Groucho’s nihilism eliminates anything in which to ground the “moral point of view” required by satire. “Groucho,” he contends, “embodies the spirit of nihilism. . . . He seems to exist in a totally negative space, in which his freedom is synonymous with the fact that he stands for nothing. . . . ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it.’” (pp. 25-26).

[15] For Figure R9.23 and Chaplin’s The Floorwalker, see the following: Milton, Tramp, p. 108; Kerr, The Silent Clowns, pp. 84-85; Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art, pp. 169-70; Balducci, The Funny Parts, p. 162. Keaton is quoted from My Wonderful World of Slapstick (New York: Doubleday, 1960), p. 126. For a detailed synopsis of The Floorwalker, see Grutchfield, “The Floorwalker (1916),” Century Film Project, January 12, 2016, at (accessed July 11, 2017). See also Goodwins, Charlie Chaplin’s Red Letter Days, ed. James, Chs. 7 and 17. According to Dan Kamin, The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion (2008; rpt. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011), Chaplin was originally amused by the number of imitators spawned by his success and, as in the lookalike character of the Floorwalker, was content to mock them. After about a year, however, Chaplin felt the need to draw the line between the reworking of standard gags on the one hand and the outright theft of character and situation on the other. By mid-1917, says Kamin, “the joke [of mocking imitators] had grown thin, for Chaplin was . . . taking imitators to court” (p. 99n18).

[16] Chaplin: His Life and Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), p. 170.

[17] See Robinson, The Mirror of Opinion, p. 85.

[18] For Figure R9.24 and Linder’s Seven Years Bad Luck, see Balducci, The Funny Parts, pp. 162-63; Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies, 2nd ed. (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 38-39, at (accessed July 11, 2017); James Travers, “Max Linder,” Films de France (2013), at (accessed July 8, 2017); Jacek Klinowski and Adam Garbicz, Feature Cinema in the 20th Century: A Comprehensive Guide: Volume One: 1913-1950 [eBook] (UK: Planet RGB Limited, 2012), at (accessed July 11, 2017).

[19] Mast, The Comic Mind, p. 38.

[20] Quoted in L’Homme au chapeau de soie, prod. Films Max Linder, dir. Maud Linder (Éditions Atlas, 1983).

[21] Quoted by Robinson, Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion, p. 85. Linder’s article is also cited in full by Louis Delluc, in Charlie Chaplin (1921), trans. Hamish Miles (1922); see “Max Linder’s and Elsie Codd’s Views on the Working Method,” in Focus on Chaplin, ed. McCaffrey, pp. 55-58.

[22] Quoted by Robinson, Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion, p. 84.

[23] The Funny Parts, Ch. 13.

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