We’re feeling very lucky after a successful 2023 Picture Show, so we are turning the focus onto films that involve luck and fortune both good and bad for the month of June.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Max Linder stars as Max Linder in the 1921 five-reel comedy, Seven Years Bad Luck. As we meet him, he is returning home from his bachelor party, completely soused. Through an elaborate chain of events, Max breaks a mirror, which he believes has bestowed seven years bad luck onto him. Circumstances do seem to prove this to be correct, as his engagement is broken (by his best friend no less), his wallet is stolen, and Max winds up on the run from the police in what can only be described as a (very) loosely connected series of gags.
Well, as you can expect and is usually the case with silent comedies, this is not a film that you watch for the plot. The film basically takes on the structure of three two-reelers, barely strung together, as the plot about Max’s bad luck is abandoned pretty quickly for a series of loosely connected gags that are brilliantly pulled off, so you don’t really mind the lack of plot here.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: The Exhibitor's Herald wrote, "The comedy is a subtle blend of slapstick and the parlor type... One of its charms is that it seems more like a two-reeler than a five, because of the snappiness of the action." The film took five months to make, partly because the first cameraman lost a significant amount of footage, in Universal City and it was distributed by Robertson-Cole, which became FBO a year later. Dissatisfied with their services, Linder released his next film Be My Wife, which took a full year to make, with Goldwyn.
I always love a spontaneous dance sequence in a comedy, and "Kamawee" delivers a fun one that builds slowly and becomes more raucous as it progresses. Motion Picture News was most impressed with the use of animals. J. S. Dickerson wrote, "Linder wrastles [sic] with an honest-to-goodness lioness as a child would with a pet collie and if the sequence contains any double photography it is so good that no living person will be able to spot it."
RB: Of course, if the film is remembered at all today, it’s for the use of the mirror gag that was later made famous by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (and even later in a memorable episode of I Love Lucy). Some have claimed that this is the first appearance of this gag, but as Steve Massa points out in his book Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, The Bad and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy, this is not the case. The gag actually dates back to stage plays in the seventeenth century. Alice Guy Blanche used a similar sequence in 1912, Harold Lloyd previously filmed the gag in The Marathon (1919) and Charley Chase used it a couple of years later in Sittin’ Pretty (1924). Max’s version is generally regarded as the best translation of the gag though each of these performers put their own stamp on it.
SG: There are lots of familiar scenarios for comedy in this movie, from drunkenness to glue to incompetent cops, but it is all done with a high level of skill. This movie also features the strangest use of blackface I've ever seen.
RB: Seven Years Bad Luck represents the first film of Linder’s second ill-fated attempt at success in the US. The film is generally regarded as only fairly successful, but nearly every review I’ve found is glowing and exemplary. “A roar from start to finish. The best feature length comedy I ever played” raved H. Jenson of the Photoplay Theater in Clay City, Indiana. “Max Linder gave us one that made even the sour ones laugh,” proclaimed H. J. Longaker of the Howard Theatre in Alexandria, Minnesota.
SG: Linder has a strong body awareness. In the scenes where he is standing still, he seems to be posing; his inate elegance is similar to Chaplin's. Alternately, in comedy sequences he manipulates himself into broad gestures to milk the laughs. He proves himself a master of disguise, donning at least three personas in this movie.
Mae Tinee of the Chicago Tribune called Linder, "the most polished of the comedians." He certainly had ample time to hone the craft. By 1921, he had been starring in films for more than a decade, albeit emanating from France. Rob Reel of the Chicago Evening American called Linder, "clever, versatile and altogether delightful," and added, "An American title writer has infused a vast amount of native pep into the picture." (It was Arthur G. Hopkins.) Example: After Linder gives a woman all the tickets at the train station for free, she says, "I'd also like to send this box for the same price."
RB: Still, after completing two more films in the US, Linder returned to his native France dejected at his lack of support. Suffering from physical and mental issues exacerbated by his service during World War I and a growing opium dependence, Linder and his young wife died in late October 1925. There are still questions about if the deaths were part of a suicide pact or if Linder had killed his teenage bride and then completed suicide himself. He was reported to have been a fiercely jealous and mentally abusive husband, so either scenario is sadly possible. What we do know is that their death left a one-year-old daughter, that was unaware of her lineage until around 1950 when she discovered a screening of this very film. She devoted the rest of her life to preserving her father’s artistic reputation and her efforts are the very reason why so much of Linder’s work has been preserved for viewing today.
SG: Thelma Percy plays the stationmaster's daughter; she was the younger sister of Eileen Percy, who we saw in Down to Earth at the Picture Show last weekend.
The elaborate pressbook suggested underage patrons bring a horseshoe to the theater in exchange for free taxes on their ticket which exhibitors could display as a sign of popularity of the film. One article advised theater owners to then sell the horseshoes to the junkman for a profit.
RB: Seeing Linder work was a joyous discovery to me, and I’d happily give this film four stars. Seeing the first big star of comedy working at peak levels is at times awe inspiring, and the influence that he had on both Charlie Chaplin and Charley Chase is evident. Highly recommended for all that enjoy silent comedy.
SG: Yes, Linder is often neglected in the realm of silent comedy, but his influence and talent are undeniable. Four stars.