Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Max Linder’s absurdification… The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922)

The man Charlie called The Professor
Max Linder stands tall in the land of daft with a range of ridiculous that stands the test of silly even after all these D'Artanians…  After this film, the normally sober New York Times – was it you Mordaunt? – was reaching for its thesaurus for new ways to describe this “whole-hearted mockery”, this “travesty” of Doug Fairbanks version of the Dumas tale which, it claimed, worked by the method of “absurdification“.

The film features the famous three swordsmen, Porpoise, Octopus and Walrus, not to mention the flashing blade called Dart-In-Again and runs ridiculous parallel to the Fairbank’s film’s romanticism. The Three Musketeers is outlandish enough and perhaps only a Frenchman could lampoon it as well as this – respectful tongue firmly in both cheeks.

Crossing the Channel
It’s the kind of intense humour you’d later expect of the Marx Brothers and whilst it has the physicality of Keaton and Chaplin it seems more overtly literate and literal in a surreal way. Donkeys love cows and our hero spends three months riding backwards on his humble steed whilst the Queen’s chamber quintet play jazz and the action counts down with the plucking of the remaining four hairs on a monk’s head.

Max is Dart-In-Again also known as Knockout and he leaves his father’s farm, to find fame in Paris. He travels by donkey (Jazbo the Horse!) much to the chagrin of beast’s Friesian friend: the tracks of the cow’s tears mark the depths of her loss.

"...ravishing yet love-starved..."
We cut to the court of King Louis Xiii where we find his Queen, Anne (Caroline Rankin) “…the ravishing yet love-starved wife…” who, it turns out is hardly the first but definitely the latter. She’s been entertained by her band of merry maiden musicians who raise their sax and trombones in a clear display of jazz… the first of many delightful anachronisms – there’s even a handsome cab that’s actually a cab.

The scarcely regal King (Frank Cooke) returns, nonplussed from his travels and the scheming Li'l Cardinal Richie-Loo (Bull Montana) watches on with his pet monk (Bynunsky Hyman) – half man-half pet… a bizarre sight.

Bull Montana and Bynunsky Hyman
The Queen’s paramour, Lord Duke Poussy Bunkumin (Harry Mann) walks on tenterhooks like Felix the Cat with her lady in waiting, Constance Bonne-aux-Fieux (Jobyna Ralston) to rendezvous with his sweetheart and, as he takes her prized jewellery as a memento, the Cardinal, perched, precariously on a stack of chairs spots the moment!

Meanwhile… Max makes his way to Paris where he mistakenly rescues a poor man from harassment at the hands of the the cheesy villain, Roquefort (Jean de Limur). He’s mistaken, the pair were merely sharing a joke, and is duly knocked unconscious, tied backward on his mule and sent off… “Three months later…” runs the title card as he wakes up many miles away.

Jobyna Ralston
Arriving in Paris, Dart fails to impress a local maiden and decides that he needs to trade in his four-legged friend for some new clothes. Suitably attired he bumps into Constance and creates an immediate impression.

Now, I hear you ask, what about the three other guys? Dart heads to the musketeers recruiting office where he presents a letter from hid daddy to the diminutive “Goliath” in charge of proceedings – a very un-PC sight gag that plays upon preconceptions of size and its relative importance.
The three elite musketeers enter: Porpoise (Clarence Wertz),   Octopus (Charles Mezzetti) and Walrus (John J. Richardson), only to be chided for killing just 99 of the Duke’s guards, thereby missing the cremation discount on a hundred dead.

Porpoise, Octopus and Walrus... possibly not in that order.
Worry not, pledges Dart tomorrow we can kill the extra one and a hundred more: the crazed merchandising of death. One by one Dart arranges to see the three the next day “one o’clock by the cemetery wall…” and he greets them by leaping from what looks at least a fifteen foot wall – Linder is every inch a match for Fairbanks in his stunt work and his swordplay is not only adept but so well timed he manages to maintain the incessant beat of tricks and gags.

The musketeers are ambushed at their rendezvous and team up with their new fourth member to defeat the Duke’s assassins – no worries about that discount today. There’s more daring do as the team celebrates as Constance, looking on, sighs “Oh Knockout, Knockout, the Samson of my dreamless nights!” what is keeping her awake?!

His regal majesty
But trouble’s ahead as the King, prompted by his stinky-cheese advisor, asks the Queen to wear her jewels for the ball. She’s bound to get found out unless, unless… Knockout Dart can get to London and retrieve them from her lover…

The films accelerates to its conclusion with a bewildering pace as telephones inform a guard on a motorcycles of the musketeers’ rescue plan and our hero sets sail for England on his horse. It’s great fun and the invention never slackens as Dart is surrounded by dozens of swords pointing at his head only to simply duck, leaving a platoon of the Duke’s guards pinned by their own swords…

A tight spot?
Linder struggled to find the level of success in Hollywood that he had enjoyed, pre-war, in Europe – he was making films in the 1900s - and he began to doubt himself after this film became another relative failure “…I sense that I'm no longer funny; I have so many preoccupations that I can no longer concentrate on my film character ... The public is mildly amused by my situations, but this evening where were the explosions of laughter that we hear when Charlie's on the screen?...Make people laugh, it’s easy to say make people laugh, but I don't feel funny anymore."

Jobyna and Max
His comedy is as sophisticated as anyone else from the period and is still genuinely beguiling. Linder’s mental health had been fragile after his war experience and seemingly he would never fully recover and yet, on this evidence he was still funny – very, very funny – and transcendentally so.

The Three Must-Get-Theres is available on the Kino DVD set and is among the most essential of all silent comedy.

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