Be My Wife (1921) A Silent Film Review

Max Linder’s penultimate American film is a romantic comedy revolving around a guy who just want to get married already. The first two reels have been available as a standalone short for years but the full feature has remained obscure.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

The Sum of its Parts

In the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers were desperate to market their new invention and famous names from Broadway and vaudeville graced the screen. As the years passed and movies became big business, studios ran in the opposite direction and obscured the identities of film actors. The movie moguls hoped (fruitless, as it turned out) that anonymous actors would not demand higher salaries.

Max, usually the man with the silk hat but there were exceptions.

Florence Lawrence is the usual answer when the topic of the world’s first movie star comes up. Previously known as “The Biograph Girl,” her identity was famously unveiled in March of 1910 when she jumped ship from Biograph and signed with IMP. However, other actors enjoyed name recognition before Lawrence. Martha Russell was mentioned by name in a January 1910 issue of Film Index and Pilar Morin was identified in an October 1909 issue of Moving Picture World, just to name two examples.

However, Max Linder beats them all with an advertisement for a film released in September of 1909. The poster for Le Petit Jeune Homme features Linder’s name both under the title and at the bottom as part of a cast list. Further, the artwork is a very good caricature of Linder.

Max charms again.

Linder’s fussy antics and innovative gags charmed audiences around the world and while many of his early film compatriots fell by the wayside, Linder remained a popular name. His career was interrupted by the First World War and he made an attempt to conquer America with the Essanay film company but his most famous American films were his three productions from the early 1920s, Seven Years Bad Luck, Be My Wife and The Three Must-Get-Theres.

Be My Wife is in the curious position of being fairly famous and simultaneously unseen. You see, a fifteen-minute excerpt of the film has been circulating for years. In these scenes, Linder tries to get rid of a romantic rival by faking a burglary and pretending to fight off the intruder by himself. Linder wears shoes on his hands so that the people on the other side of the curtain will think he is toe-to-toe with the criminal. A horrific fight ensues, only to be prematurely ended when an enthusiastic dog named Pal gets in on the act.

Max’s one-man fight.

Seeing as how this sequence has a beginning, middle and ends in a clutch and considering how such a fight would be the set piece of any comedy (they certainly were when they were incorporated into Charley Chase’s iconic Mighty Like a Moose), it comes as a surprise that these scenes were not a condensation or the finale of Be My Wife. In fact, they were taken from the beginning of the picture.

After the burglar sequence, the film shows Max’s wedding to Mary (Alta Allen) but his rival, Archie (Lincoln Steadman), has not given up and tries to ruin the event by slipping mice into Max’s pants. Mary’s aunt (Caroline Rankin) also opposes the match and tries to undermine the couple’s trust where she can.

Linder lies in wait.

The longest sequence in the film involves a fashion house that doubles as a speakeasy and a kind of Prohibition era Ashley Madison venue with adulterous couples imbibing in secret rooms. Mary ventures there innocently to purchase a dress, Max goes there for booze and neither is aware of the building’s status as a love nest.

Through a series of mistakes and misunderstandings, both Max and Mary become convinced that the other is cheating and both formulate plans to catch one another in the act. Will their marriage survive or will wedding bells ring for Archie?

There are a lot of individual things that I liked about this picture. I really enjoyed the opening scenes with the famous one-man fight sequence. Max Linder always worked well with animals (this is displayed even better in Seven Years Bad Luck) and his interactions with Archie’s pup, Pal, and the wedding day pants mice are extremely amusing. Unfortunately, Be My Wife has some problems with its screenplay.

Stepping back to Linder’s previous release, my issue with Seven Years Bad Luck was that, while many of the gags landed, it never felt like a cohesive feature-length picture. Rather, it seemed like a collection of one and two-reel shorts cemented together until the correct number of reels was achieved. While there’s a lot to like about that picture, the lack of focus was distracting. These same issues are on display in Be My Wife and the shift from light slapstick romance to “everyone hide in the cupboard” farce feels particularly unglued.

Max’s mouse problem.

And I want to emphasize that I have zero issues with comedic tangents. I love every minute of The Strong Man and Harry Langdon spends half the picture dithering about but the continuous thread of “searching for his lost pen pal” holds it together, however loosely. Similarly, the Laurel and Hardy feature, A Chump at Oxford, opens with the boys trying to land jobs at an agency with the usual chaos ensuing. While this isn’t incorporated with their eventual move to the university as neatly as it could have been, it still sets up their desire to obtain an education and improve their lot.

While Be My Wife does have the underlying quest for marital bliss, the different sequences feel choppy and disjointed. Further, we are dropped right into the action with Max already courting his love and Auntie hating him for… reasons. This would have been just fine in a short but this is a feature and the better the beginning groundwork is, the bigger the payoff later in the picture. Compare, say, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush or Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy, which allow the love story time to build without sacrificing laughs.

Max meets Pal.

Linder’s screenplay problem leads us to consider something that was a common issue for comedians in the silent and classic eras: could they jump from shorts to features and why did that matter so much?

A number of top comedians made the jump from shorts to features in the 1920s and their careers seem to have been taken as the model for success. Unfortunately, there’s all the difference in the world between being funny for fifteen minutes and being funny for an hour. Working better in a short format is not a bad thing, just a difference in style.

Wedding bells at last.

So, if a comedian’s work doesn’t stretch to feature length, what’s a studio to do? Why not add a love story? You kill two birds with one stone by introducing something soft for the romantics in the audience and you stretch out the runtime. Plus, pathos.

The problem is that many classic comedians found themselves playing second fiddle in their own films as they helped a pair of B actors find true love. Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert focuses squarely on the boys and their equally funny co-stars, Dorothy Christy, Mae Busch and Charley Chase. Its no coincidence that it is widely considered to be their best film. But then you have what can be politely described as lesser features like Swiss Miss, which kind of assumed that the audience was there for Walter Woolf King and Della Lind. (Spoiler: We weren’t.) Don’t even get me started on the Three Stooges features.

A victorious Max wins the day.

Linder avoided this pitfall by virtue of his dapper appearance—it was easy to see him winning the girl in a comedy scenario— but because he was the film’s sole draw, he was left with the question of what to do for five reels. I wish he had never been asked that question at all. It’s a sad thing that comedians were expected to abandon short films once their fame was sufficient. Working in miniature has never been an easy thing and deserves more respect. (I would argue that the 1910s shift from shorts to features was just as disruptive to the film industry as the talkie revolution of the mid-1920s.)

The first one-to-two reels of Be My Wife and Seven Years Bad Luck are comedy classics and could and should have been released as standalone productions. It doesn’t pay to be too invested in “what if” but I do wonder if Linder would have enjoyed more success by starting with shorts during his second American outing.

Too much Max?

(Linder had released shorts during his stint at Essanay but the creative atmosphere at that studio was hardly conducive to success. Charlie Chaplin’s exit had been marred by legal tangles and Essanay seizing the final cut of Burlesque on Carmen.)

I have to admit that there is another issue with Be My Wife and it relates to the elephant that is always present in the room when Linder is discussed. The field of psychology was primitive and combat PTSD was barely understood—frankly, it still isn’t— but it is generally agreed that Linder was never the same after the First World War. In 1925, Linder and his young wife, Hélène Peters, were found dead in what has been described as either a suicide pact or a murder-suicide, possibly driven by jealousy and possessiveness on Linder’s part. Their daughter, Maud, was not yet two when her parents died and later became instrumental in reviving her father’s career and legacy.

Linder dances.

I have been able to compartmentalize Linder’s pre-WWI work and even his later, lighter comedy in Seven Years Bad Luck. But Be My Wife’s later scenes are full of violent fits of jealousy and they are harder to stomach, especially considering that the film was released just four years before Linder’s death and that it was one of his last film appearances, period. (He made another picture in America and two in France before his death.)

Linder’s comedy always had a dark flavor—he spent almost the entirety of 1906’s Attempted Suicide dangling from a noose—but Be My Wife is the first time I felt real life invade the world of Max to such a degree. I do not normally like to incorporate real-life personal tragedy or gossip into reviews and I also feel that a deep examination of Linder’s mental health is well outside my field of expertise but this has been impossible to ignore.

Tragedy in the comedy.

In the end, while it was interesting to see the complete version of Be My Wife, it turns out that Linder was done a favor by having all but the opening scenes sliced away. They are the strongest part of the picture and they showcase Linder’s wit and creativity to perfection. The full version is still worth seeing but it was an uncomfortable experience for me.

Where can I see it?

The full version of Be My Wife was released on DVD by Kino. The shortened version has been widely available in comedy collections, including The Slapstick Encyclopedia.

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7 Comments

  1. Gene Zonarich

    So many important points are touched on here, aside from the film itself:

    ~~ Linder and the PTSD that may have caused or contributed to his horrible, tragic end;

    ~~ the fallacy of film “firsts”. Flo Lawrence was the beneficiary of what may have been the first studio publicity stunt, but as you point out, not the first to be named or advertised. And while Lawrence was definitely a movie “star” as we understand and use the term today, up to the early 1910s, a “star” was by definition either a celestial body or a popular stage performer, and had been used in connection with the theater since the mid 19th century (and likely much earlier);

    ~~ the transition from the single reel short to the multi-reel feature film is absolutely comparable to the adoption of sound, and i would argue that it was at least as disruptive and transforming. It turned upside down every aspect of the film industry — production, distribution, exhibition, and promotion.

    Rarely mentioned is the profound impact of the feature film on film acting. The limitations of the single reel that required actors (and their directors) to rely heavily on standardized gestures and pantomime to develop characters and tell a story in 15 minutes or less were gone, allowing for more natural performances in real time — “slow acting” as the actors (notably Ms. Lawrence herself) sometimes called it.

    1. Movies Silently

      Oh, most definitely. Plus, on a smaller canvas, there are more opportunities to be mad and dramatic in ways that would wear thin at feature length. I think the shorts-to-features transition is not covered enough, likely because shorts didn’t die out, they just moved to the back row as either lesser productions or starter projects for future greats.

  2. Steven R.

    The two professions that folks usually mention when they mention mental health issues are actors and politicians. I’ll admit that I never had the need to check the professional literature to see if any actual study was made of these two groups. Non-professional literature however is full of stories about actors and their believed need for approval and acceptance as well as narcissism etc. As for Linder himself, one can not diagnose historic cases or those that one hasn’t interviewed, although plenty try. If I went back in my time machine, I’d first look at his behavior before and after his head injuries. Those injuries sometimes amplifies other problems as well as create new ones.

    1. Movies Silently

      All true but I do think there has been a tendency in past coverage of the tragedy to write off his teen wife as collateral damage. It’s such a difficult balance to strike: acknowledging Linder’s mental health woes and PTSD while also acknowledging that she would likely have lived a full life if she had never met him.

  3. popegrutch

    When I wrote my review (about a month ago), I debated quite a while over whether to get into the PTSD question. I ultimately pulled all references, because I just couldn’t feel certain how much of it was me back-reading into the movie because of what came later, and how much was for real. There is something off about Max’s performance here – I described him as seeming world-weary and frustrated, lacking the exuberance from earlier movies that made his comedic downfalls so poignant. I still enjoyed seeing a good remaster of a Max Linder movie, and like you I found certain parts worked by themselves even if the whole thing never jelled.

    1. Movies Silently

      I definitely hesitated to bring Linder’s death into the review but after reading more about the circumstances (he claimed he would kill his wife so nobody would have her after he died), it seemed like the correct decision. If a modern actor made a film portraying violent jealousy and then killed his wife five years later, it would certainly be brought up in conversation. It’s a bit of a tough call but the more I learn about the situation, the more I feel justified. But, of course, every reviewer must make their own decisions regarding this.

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