Max Linder and his wife quarrel and he is left to his own devices. Alas, keeping house is not nearly as easy as he imagined and chaos ensues in this cute domestic comedy.
Man vs. Kitchen
Max Linder is magical. At a time when movie cameras were still dutifully keeping their distance and comedy could be crude, Linder was a burst of confetti, a sparkling personality that transcended the keep-your-distance cinematography. Linder’s main persona was a man-about-town in a silk hat but he embraced several sub-genres of comedy including slapstick, political satire and, as we see here, domestic.
Linder was a beloved comedy figure in France and his films were regularly exported worldwide, which gives him a decent claim to be one of the first international superstars. Alas, while his name is well known in silent film circles, he doesn’t enjoy the same level of recognition as the silent comedians who followed. (Charlie Chaplin famously called Linder his professor.)
Troubles of a Grass Widower opens with Max sharing a meal with his wife but refusing to look up from his newspaper. His wife soon loses her temper and returns home to mother and Max is elated… at first. However, his attempts to wash the dishes with a garden hose, go shopping without anyone seeing him and cooking a chicken dinner all meet with disaster and he is soon begging his wife to return home. As was often the case in domestic comedies, accepted gender roles win the day but maybe Max will show his wife a bit more respect.
(At the time of this film’s release, a grass widow would have referred to a woman separated from her husband. I haven’t seen the phrase grass widower used in a non-humorous context.)
Silent domestic comedies are sometimes unfavorably compared to sitcoms but I would like to point out that we are four decades away from a television sitcom and these comedies were blazing the trail. Classic television sitcoms like I Love Lucy featured these Battle of the Sexes/Gender Roles Reversed episodes and the trope even made it to the big screen once again in films like Mr. Mom.
Suffice to say, there wouldn’t have been any I Love Lucy without pioneers like Linder so it’s not really fair to dismiss domestic comedy just because the gags were overused over the decades. We don’t say that we dislike Caligari because it reminds us of Tim Burton. (By the same token, I always roll my eyes a bit when people claim Linder isn’t as funny as Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. Guess who weren’t making films in 1908? Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Respect the pioneers, dudes.)
Throughout the film, Linder’s Max continues to optimistically tackle one chore after another, certain that there just isn’t that much to the whole housewife business and that he will succeed brilliantly. What is there to making a stewed chicken besides a bird, some wine and a few veggies, right? Sure, the bird isn’t entirely plucked and there’s a bit of shoe polish in the pot (don’t ask) but it would come out fine in the end, won’t it? (It won’t, it doesn’t.)
Troubles of a Grass Widower showcases Linder’s persona at its best: he’s a snotty fellow who gets himself into a terrible situation and then either is rescued or receives his comeuppance. In short, the kind of comedy he displayed in Max Learns to Skate.
The release date of Troubles of a Grass Widower has been confused with some sources listing 1908 and some listing 1912. As this film perfectly fits a description from a 1908 issue of The Moving Picture World, I am pretty confident that 1908 is indeed the correct date. From what I can tell, the problem seems to stem from a 1912 Linder comedy with a very similar plot entitled Max reprend sa liberté or Max Takes Back His Freedom, which is also called Troubles of a Grasswidower on IMDB. However, there are some significant changes to the plot that, in my opinion, weaken the comedy.
Much of the charm of Troubles of a Grass Widower is derived from Max almost getting things right. He kind of has an idea of how to make a chicken dish, how to make a bed, how to function without his wife but he gets things just wrong enough for disaster and hilarity to ensue. His growing frustration and anger as he realizes that house work is real work is the key to the film’s appeal.
In Max Takes Back His Freedom, much of the runtime is spent with Max chasing his would-be chicken dinner with a pistol. The chicken proves to have more lives than a slasher movie villain and it’s all very slapsticky. Not entirely bad slapstick, mind you, but lacking that sparkle that we expect from our Max.
Further, the husband in Max Takes Back His Freedom is a pretty awful person. Rather than simply having a silly quarrel with his wife, the film opens with Max abusing the maid who serves their meal and then tearing a hairpiece from his wife’s head and dunking it in the soup tureen. I should point out that Linder’s pre-WWI comedy could and did go to some very dark places. For example, his 1906 comedy Attempted Suicide is a bitter satire of French bureaucracy and Max spends much of the runtime hanging by his neck from a noose. Grim viewing, especially for modern viewers who know that Linder killed himself less than two decades later.
Max Takes Back His Freedom is not quite as disturbing but it does have a spitefulness to it and doesn’t really showcase the Max persona attractively. While Troubles of a Grass Widower has an arc for Max and a lesson learned (appreciate your wife!) Max Takes Back His Freedom is just Max being awful, continuing to be awful and no particular forward momentum is included. It seems more primitive, more Sennettesque. In fact, if you had reversed the dates and told me that Max Takes Back His Freedom was made before Troubles of a Grass Widower, I would have believed you.
Troubles of a Grass Widower is an early example of a successful marital comedy poking fun at attempts to escape gender norms of the period. In the end, poor Max is forced to admit that he does indeed need his wife and begs her to return. I’m not sure if she got the good end of the deal considering the mess he has made but that’s for her to decide. At least life will never be boring.
This film is a great showcase for Linder and evidence of his charm and the reason why he appealed to audiences and became one of the first comedy superstars and one of the first film stars of any description. There aren’t many cuter ways to spend ten minutes.
Where can I see it?
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.