Cast: Max Linder (Max Linder), Alta Allen (Betty, his fiancée), F.B. Crayne (Max's best friend), Thelma Percy (the station agent's daughter), Betty Peterson (the maid), Harry Mann (the cook), Chance Ward (the conductor), Ralph McCullough (Max's valet), Hugh Saxon (the station agent)
Max breaks his full-length mirror and fears that he may be in for seven years of bad luck. It appears that this is exactly what has happened. First of all, he gets in trouble with his fiancée when he puts her dog in a large vase full of water. When he is allowed to come back and get things right, he is caught dancing with the maid and butler and sent away again. He sends his best friend to "smooth things over," but the best friend lies and tells Betty that Max said he would rather marry one of his old girlfriends. He convinces her to agree to marry him to "get even" with Max. Max decides to go away for awhile, but his bag and wallet are stolen at the train station. Since he has no money, he has to sneak his way on a train, but is soon discovered. The conductor gives chase, and Max has to disguise himself as a black porter and then a stationmaster to elude capture. Later, as he is disembarking from the train, the police give chase, and he has to take refuge in a lions' cage, only to be nabbed later by a monkey in a policeman's cap. Finally, thanks to the monkey, he ends up in jail. How will Max stop his fiancée from marrying his best friend?
The gags come right on the heels of one another, and they're good! It's not much of a story -- the gags being loosely hung on the premise that Max is having a string of bad luck because he broke a mirror -- but if entertainment's your main concern, "Seven Years Bad Luck" (1921) is for you.
Viewing this film is like taking a journey; that is, going through a variety of experiences in a variety of locales, and then finally returning home. In the beginning, Max's life is just fine. He's had his big bachelor party before getting married, has returned home drunk, but wakes up to a perfect morning (minus the hangover) that holds promise for a great life with a great girl ahead of him, that is, until he breaks the mirror. This gag sequence is only one of several great ones throughout the film, but it is certainly the most imitated one. It was used by comedians several times over the ensuing years, probably the most famous being an episode of "I Love Lucy" in the 1950's with Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx as the mirrored duo. While fooling around, the maid and valet bump into the full-length mirror, and it falls onto a table breaking into a hundred pieces. The valet immediately phones for a replacement mirror. But, in the meantime, what to do? To buy some time, he grabs the cook and puts him on the other side of the mirror frame. The two of them hold a large cloth face-high, palm to palm, and begin rotating around as if the valet is cleaning the mirror. The ruse is very convincing even to the viewer. Max now demands to use the mirror so he can shave. When he leaves the room, the valet must think quickly. Suddenly, he notices the resemblance of the cook and their master. He puts the cook in a pair of pajamas exactly like the ones Max has on, and when Max comes in the room, the cook does his stuff. The "mirrored" reactions of the cook are perfect as Max mugs to his "reflection" and tests the cook with every motion imaginable. Then it comes time to lather his face. Both men put the brush in their shaving mugs, but there is no shaving cream in the cook's! As Max brushes cream on his face, he sees none on the face of his "reflection." He turns and shouts to the valet that he needs a "decent shaving cream," giving the cook an opportunity to dip his brush in Max's mug. When Max turns to lather his face once more, the "reflection" now begins to lather up, as well.
How the breaking of the mirror comes about is sheer genius. Max turns from the mirror and bends over to pick something up. When he turns back to the mirror, he finds his face up close with the cook's posterior! The ruse is discovered! When the two straighten back up again, Max laughs knowingly and picks up a shoe. Just as he leans backs to throw it through the imaginary mirror, the phone rings. He goes in his bedroom and talks to his fiancée for a few minutes. Then, grinning, he opens the bedroom door, and there is the cook in the mirror frame. Max picks up his shoe, winds up, and throws it hard -- breaking the mirror into a hundred pieces! He stands in the doorway wide-eyed and stunned! Is he losing his mind? We now know that what we saw in the mirror was a real reflection of the cook, and after the mirror is broken, we see the cook in the background running out the door. The replacement mirror had been installed while Max was on the telephone, and what makes the gag so great is that we, the viewers, were fooled, too!
Max Linder seemed to be the personification of the best of the top comedians of the silent era, and it's most likely that the best borrowed from him, although Chaplin was the only one to really acknowledge any indebtedness to Linder. When he dances with the maid and then wildly bangs on the piano with legs and feet jumping, all with such abandon that he is oblivious to the activity around him, we are reminded of some of Reginald Denny's antics of a few years later, particularly from "Skinner's Dress Suit" (1927). The way Linder walks in tandem with a large man so that he can sneak on the train undetected and his subsequent chase with the conductor and then a flock of policemen is very reminiscent of what we have seen in Keaton's films. Many believe Chaplin got the idea for his entrapment in a lion's cage in "The Circus" (1928) from Linder's sequence in "Seven Years Bad Luck" when he takes refuge in one to elude capture by the police. However, Linder came up with a bit of genius for the denouement that is worth describing.
During all of the tumbling and falling down a la Keystone Cops, a monkey in a cage gets one of the policemen's caps and puts it on. Throughout this sequence, the policemen have tried in vain to figure out a way to get by the ferocious lions and nab Max. Suddenly, one of the cops gets a bright idea and dresses in knight's armor (who knows where he found it). As he approaches, the other policemen turn their backs on the cage to applaud their creative comrade. As they do, Max slips out and appears to be home free until the monkey in the policeman's cap reaches through the bars and nabs the escaping culprit holding him captive until the policemen arrive. Ironically, the monkey accomplished what the combined intelligence of the group of policemen was unable to accomplish. Mack Sennett would have been (and probably was) proud!
Just as has been noted with the mirror sequence and the lions' cage sequence, Max Linder has a knack for adding on a little additional flavor that took the gags to a higher level. This happens in the segment at a small train station.
The old station agent tells his daughter he must go into town for awhile. Later, Max runs into the station to elude the pursuing conductor. Finding a set of the station agent's clothes, Max puts them on, stuffs two walnuts in his cheeks to puff them out, puts on a hat and a small pair of reading glasses, and rounds off the disguise with a pipe. Linder deserves credit here, too, because the disguise is so good that it's believable it could fool someone. The conductor comes in and asks the girl for the station agent. When she tells him her father has gone into town, the conductor vows the old man will be fired for leaving his post. Now this is where Linder's gags have that special twist. The conductor goes into the next room to look for the elusive Max and finds him there -- but, because of the disguise, he thinks Max is the station agent. Not only is Max's identity safe, he has saved the old man's job for him, adding a touching human element to this comedic sequence!
This episode in the train station is not over yet, though. The best gags are yet to come when Max has a tender moment with the girl. He puts his hand on the girl's shoulder, but he has glue on it and can't pull it away. The more he pulls, the more he tears the girl's dress. At that moment, the station agent (the girl's father) returns. Max greets him outside the door while his hand reaches inside the next room where the girl is hiding with Max's hand still stuck to her half ripped dress. Not knowing who Max is, the old man pulls a gun. Max continues to tug to free his hand from the dress and suddenly we see the whole dress come through the doorway in his hand. The girl, in her slip, is discovered by the father, and, to complicate matters, the conductor returns. Max is on the run once again!
The least satisfying part of the film is its ending. Of course, Max gets his fiancée back, but it is unclear how things were resolved -- it's almost like we are missing an explanatory title or two here. The film has few weak moments, but there are no slow moments. As noted, the story line is basically a reason to tie all of the gag sequences together, but the gags are so good we really don't care.
It is frustrating to the present-day film buff/historian that, for some unknown reason, neither Variety nor The New York Times reviewed this film. However, Harrison's Reports of March 26, 1921, did give it a good review noting it was "a clean and enjoyable comedy, produced in America, with an American supporting cast. The situation showing the hero, while in the vermin-infested jail, scratching the back of a tough, is not refined; but it will get by on account of the other good qualities. Mr. Linder's acting is refined. The title is "catchy", and it should attract picture-patrons."
What's also amazing is the absence of any mention of "Seven Years Bad Luck" in most of the outstanding books on silent movie history, including Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By. Actually the only mention of Linder at all in Brownlow's book is in the chapter on Abel Gance when he references the collaboration of the two men on the comedy "Au Secours!" (1924). Two books do tend to make up for the others' shortcomings, though, with just due given to the comedian -- Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975) and Jack Spears' Hollywood: The Golden Era (Castle Books, 1971). Both men attempt to assess Linder's failure to make the grade during his feature film period in America (1921-22). Kerr said, "The very polish of his image -- its unmistakable boulevard-bourgeois character -- binds him to a kind of comedy that will from this time on, in silent film, always be second best. Only one man, Raymond Griffith, ever found a way to take his top hat and opera cape into the eerie outer space of invention rampant . . ." Spears quotes director Louis Delluc who said, "Max is French; his sense of humor was not understood in America," to which Spears added, "While this is not entirely true, many critics felt tht Linder lacked the skill to deeply touch the human emotions, as most great comedians are able to do."
In an August, 1921, Motion Picture Magazine article on Linder, author Willis Goldbeck said, "I think it is not to be questioned that the man has his spark of genius. I watched him at work after lunch, and what he did he did with the confidence, the skill and ease of a master. I have never seen a face or a pair of hands more expressive, more mobile. Why his comedy 'Seven Years Bad Luck' was no more than fairly successful is a little puzzling. But he seems not to have caught the note that appeals to Yankee humor. Strange as it may seem, I believe that much of it may be laid to the naiveté evident in his productions. The American film public, unlike the French, is thoroly (sic) worldly, terrifyingly so at times."
Whether Kerr's or Spears' or Goldbeck's assessments are on target or not, the fact is that Linder left America the next year after making "The Three Must-Get-Theres" and returned to France, disappointed at his failure to conquer the American public. He made a couple more insignificant films in Europe, then declared that he wasn't funny anymore and entered into a suicide pact with his young wife in 1925 leaving an infant child. Actually, Linder had been experiencing depression for years and physical problems from his service during the war which no doubt contributed to his suicide
In Clown Princes and Court Jesters (A.S. Barnes, 1970) authors Kalton C. Lahue and Samuel Gill tell us that Linder's daughter, Maud, grew up unaware of her father's stature in films until sometime around 1950 when she accidentally came across his name on a film society poster in Versailles. She went inside, and, for the first time, saw her father on the screen. From that day forward, she decided to restore his name among the greats of the silent screen. She located many of his films and was responsible for the compilation "En Compagnie de Max Linder" (1963) which highlighted his three American features. It is only fitting that he be remembered as one of the greats of the silent screen.
This movie has been restored and provided on DVD (entitled "Laugh With Max Linder") by David Shepard and Film Preservation Associates from the Blackhawk Collection. Transferred from a 35mm print, it has gorgeous print quality and a superb small orchestra score by Robert Israel. The DVD also includes a condensed version of Linder's other 1921 feature, "Be My Wife," as well as three Max Linder shorts. There is also some behind the scenes footage of Linder and Maurice Tourneur.
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