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Sure, the mirror sequence is great, but it's downhill from there
Max Linder was a gifted comic artist who made scores of charming short comedies in France, years ahead of Chaplin, the Keystone gang, and even John Bunny. Linder was a true pioneer, and in his best work he can transcend the passage of time and still move audiences today. Linder attempted to produce films in America on two occasions, first in 1917 and again in 1921-22, but he was never able to achieve the same level of success in the States that he had enjoyed in Europe. During his second production venture in the U.S. he made a feature-length comedy called Be My Wife that, based on the excerpt I've seen, must have been one of the best comedies he made in the U.S. He also produced a feature called Seven Years Bad Luck that's now available on DVD. This film is best remembered for Max's version of the famous "mirror routine," performed by Charlie Chaplin in The Floorwalker in 1916 and Charley Chase in Sittin' Pretty in 1924, but which is most widely known today due to its use by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup. In Linder's version a badly hung-over Max stares through a picture frame, unaware that his mirror has shattered, while a servant on the other side mimics his every move.
The beautifully performed mirror routine is, far and away, the highlight of this movie. Max's facial expressions and movements (and those of the other actor) are exquisitely timed; Linder must have put a lot of effort into rehearsing this scene, and the result is a masterpiece of pantomime. Unfortunately, the mirror bit occurs during the first fifteen minutes of this feature's running time, and the adventures that follow never again rise to the same level of inspiration. Over all, despite a promising opening and a number of good sequences scattered about, I find the film disappointing. I've watched it twice and tried to figure out why, and I believe it comes down to a couple of key factors.
The first problem is that there's no tension in this rambling story. We learn early on that Max is wealthy and has no responsibilities. The basic premise is that, having broken his mirror, Max fears he's in for a rough time, and thus goes to great lengths to avoid anything that might cause him bad luck. Needless to say, his attempts to avoid bad luck only bring him more of it. Okay, it's a promising set-up, but Max has no larger goal aside from wanting to marry his (equally rich) fiancée. He just rambles from one misadventure to the next with nothing to prove and all the time in the world. In classics such as Buster Keaton's Seven Chances or Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy the writers came up with tight, time-sensitive plots that gave the stories suspense, but Linder's story is comparatively slack.
Next, although Max himself is usually a charming and genial leading man, the character he's playing here is strangely clueless and self-centered. In scene after scene he does things that make his character difficult to like: he stuffs a puppy into a flower pot; he speeds his car through a crosswalk, nearly hitting pedestrians; he tears a girl's clothes off (albeit accidentally) getting her in trouble with her father, then abandons her to her fate without a second thought. When tough guys steal his luggage and wallet we think he'll finally have to learn to live by his wits, and to some extent that's what happens, but Max's behavior remains essentially selfish and opportunistic. In a situation where allies are needed, Max simply uses people as long as he needs them, then casts them aside. At a train station a large man helps him get onto a train without a ticket, but then promptly vanishes. Remember when Harold Lloyd befriended the giant in Why Worry? Max never does anything like that here.
It isn't Max's social status as a wealthy playboy that's a turn-off; after all, both Keaton and Lloyd often played spoiled rich boys and still managed to earn audience sympathy. But they both knew that if their characters started out as ninnies they would have to eventually grow up, at least to some degree, and demonstrate that they'd learned something about life and about dealing with other people. At the end of Seven Years Bad Luck, despite all his misadventures, Max appears to be the same guy he was at the beginning, and if he's learned anything or grown as a person it doesn't show.
On the plus side this film features a number of good gags along the way, including a remarkable sequence in a zoo where Max becomes quite friendly with a lion. This bit, like the mirror sequence and other highlights, might very well play better excerpted from the whole. Seven Years Bad Luck isn't a bad movie, but it's a decided disappointment coming from the man Chaplin called his "Professor." For those interested in Max Linder I can recommend an excellent documentary put together by his daughter in the 1980s entitled The Man in the Silk Hat, which features clips from his best work and an outline of his life and career.
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