Max Linder plays an amiable eccentric who is paralyzed with superstition when he breaks a mirror. His strange behavior causes his fiancée to dismiss him and he spends the rest of the film trying to leave town to forget. But does he have seven whole years of misfortune ahead of him?
No such luck
In addition to being a pioneering comedy star, Max Linder is also notable for his longevity. There simply weren’t that many stars who had debuted in 1905 and were still headlining their own films in the 1920s. Of course, all was not well with Linder and he was quite possibly battling post-traumatic stress from the First World War, as well as bouts of depression. His eventual suicide remains shocking and has overshadowed his brilliant career.
I have reviewed some of Linder’s French films from the 1900s and 1910s (Max Learns to Skate and Max Sets the Style) but now we will see how he adapted his Max character to feature films and the demands of the American movie industry. The jump from shorts to features had been challenging for everyone in the movies but comedians seemed to have a particularly difficult time stretching their routines from two reels to five. Some thrived in features (like Linder fan Charlie Chaplin), while others were at their best in short subjects (Charley Chase). Would Linder, whose career began when dedicated movie theaters were a new innovation, be a success or failure with more time on the screen?
(Linder had starred in a hit comedy feature in 1919 called The Little Café but it had been directed and co-written by Raymond Bernard. Seven Years Bad Luck was Linder’s first feature outing as director, writer and star.)
The story opens with Max (Max Linder), a rich swell, enjoying a bachelor party and returning home soused. The next morning, his maid and butler are canoodling in his dressing room when they accidentally break a full-length mirror. In order to cover their mistake, they recruit the cook (Harry Mann) to pretend to be Max’s reflection until a replacement mirror is delivered.
Max wakes up and cannot figure out why he looks so different in the mirror. After an amusing bit of business with his “reflection”, Max realizes what is going on but is called to the phone before he can do anything about it. The call is from Betty (Alta Allen), his fiancée, who asks him to go to a party with her later in the day. Max agrees and then goes out to teach the mirror a lesson. What he does not know is that the servants have installed the new glass and so when Max hurls a shoe, he breaks the new mirror.
A superstitious man, Max is beset with panic. Seven years of bad luck? Woe is he! He imagines all the horrible ways his life could go wrong just traveling the short distance to Betty’s house. When he arrives there, he asks her maid (Lola Gonzales) to read his palm. She predicts that a dog will threaten his happiness and the only dog present is little Frizotto, Betty’s tiny toy pup. As a precaution, Max stuffs Frizotto into a flower vase.
Betty arrives and soon discovers what Max has done. She is furious and throws him out. (I would have done the same, frankly. Mess my pet and you’re toast.) Max is crestfallen but his friend (F.B. Crayne) is thrilled. Now he can pursue Betty himself!
Will Betty and Frizotto forgive Max? Will he see through his false friend? Watch Seven Years Bad Luck to find out!
The rest of the film is taken up with Max’s attempts to leave the area by train after his wallet and luggage are stolen and his subsequent run from the police, as well as a stint in jail. Not all of the gags land but enough of them do to make for an entertaining little picture. I will say that I do wish the train and jail scenes were tied a bit more directly into the main plot of superstition but this is a minor quibble.
A Decade and a Half of Max
Max Linder’s comedy persona aged unusually well. He was always a more subtle figure than many of the mustachioed comedy figures that were so popular in American slapstick and he also played things with a lighter hand than, say, fellow French comedian Ernest Bourbon, whose Onésime films are both violent and surreal. (Nothing against Bourbon or Onésime, they’re amazing. I am just noting the contrast.) With his silk hat, celluloid collar and high-heeled formal shoes, Linder comes across as an elegant and almost dainty figure who always manages to get himself in trouble with his overenthusiasm, his skirt-chasing ways and just by being a weirdness magnet.
Linder was not the only person performing subtler comedy but he did it unusually well. In addition to his elegant duds, Linder was helped by his extreme gracefulness (a must for any silent performer not playing a lumbering, hulkish villain or Greta Garbo) and a charming sense of quirkiness. Linder had to change very little in order to carry a feature, some backstory was all that he needed.
(I should also take this opportunity to state that people who whine about Linder’s early comedies not having the same polish as Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd are kindly invited to go chase themselves. Linder was in the movies for years before any of these men and he blazed the trail. Chaplin even called him his professor. Show some respect.)
For all his whimsy and elegance, Linder had a stroke of brooding gloom that would manifest itself occasionally in his films. For example, at one point in Seven Years Bad Luck, Max gets tired of the police chasing him and locks himself in a lion cage. Now, the audience would expect Max to panic once he realizes what he has done but Linder subverts our expectations. Max doesn’t care! He casually makes friends with a lioness and sits with her while the police try to find a way to drag him out. Are these lions just really tame? Um, no. One policeman has the bright idea of entering while wearing a suit of armor but we are later shown a shot of the empty armor. Oh dear…
The mirror routine in Duck Soup is one of the most famous comedy bits of all time but Seven Years Bad Luck is the film that is often credited with the creation of the gag. Does this claim stand up to research? Nope.
In his book The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags, author Anthony Balducci traces the gag back to a 1912 Alice Guy film in which a vain count admires his “reflection” in a mirror that, unbeknownst to him, has been broken and removed. The Schwartz Brothers used the gag in their 1913 Broadway show and Charlie Chaplin reacted to a doppelganger in The Floorwalker (1916). (It’s worth noting that Chaplin did not use a broken mirror to frame his routine.) In 1919, Chaplin imitator Billy West put his own spin on the gag and Harold Lloyd took the routine even further that same year in The Marathon.
So, we can see, the mirror gag was almost a decade old when Seven Years Bad Luck was released and could very well have been far, far older. Once mirror-making technology had progressed sufficiently to mass produce full-length mirrors of proper clarity, the comedic potential would have been immediately obvious.
I should emphasize that I feel the obsession with calling firsties makes for poor film criticism. It doesn’t really matter if Max Linder or the Marx Brothers were first, fifth or five hundredth; both put their unique spin on the joke and made it their own. In keeping with his Man in a Silk Hat persona, Linder’s mirror routine is graceful, almost a surreal ballet and it is strongly integrated into the film’s plot. The Marx Brothers are, unsurprisingly, more anarchic and the gag is woven into the story by the flimsiest of threads; Groucho, Harpo and Chico are just there for the chaos.
Linder may not have invented the mirror gag but his version is one of the finest ever put to film. I must also say that I am happy that it occurs early in the picture as it’s the part everyone is waiting for.
Seven Years Bad Luck is a droll comedy but at times, it feels a bit too much like three shorts stitched together. Linder is a charming and effusive screen presence and, for the most part, makes up for these shortcomings through sheer force of personality. There isn’t much slapstick to be found (thank goodness!) and this film has more in common with the features of Reginald Denny and Bebe Daniels. Max Linder proved that he was ready for the features and would make two more in America (alas, they were not as popular as they should have been) before returning to France.
Where can I see it?
Seven Years Bad Luck is available on DVD in Image’s out of print Laugh with Max Linder DVD (with a score by Robert Israel) and as part of Kino’s The Max Linder Collection (with a score by Maude Nelissen). Linder fans will want both discs as they have some overlap but enough different material to be worth the double purchase. I haven’t done a formal side-by-side comparison but I believe Seven Years Bad Luck has slightly different material in both DVD releases.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.