The Invention of Modern Comedy

Max LinderYou know this is quite a day for birthdays when Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born on this day in 1770, doesn’t win the day! But it gets even more bizarre, so read on. Nonetheless, I’m not a huge Beethoven fan. He was great, I don’t question that. But really: Mozart’s my man. For one thing, Beethoven is a bit overwrought for me. And he only wrote one opera and it is hardly great. What’s most important about the man is that he really expanded what classical music could do. Unfortunately, I don’t think it fully pays off for about 50 years after his death. Until then, we have to listen to a lot of Schumann wannabes. Oh my!

So you are probably wondering, “What’s he gonna force us to listen to?” It’s really hard with the great man. I do think that first movement of the Symphony No 5 is great, but the rest is kind of boring. And, of course, the Symphony No 9 is just flat out great, but do we really have to listen to that again? But you can say that about just about everything he ever wrote. So I give you something you will recognize, Fur Elise. I’m kidding! Even I am not so cruel as that. I offer you something you will nonetheless recognize, the Piano Concerto No 5, better know as the Emperor Concerto. I found what I think is the best YouTube performance of it. It is the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Leonard Bernstein with the great Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman. Yes, it is 40 minutes long. But do you have anything better to do? No. No you don’t.

You really know it is quite a day for birthdays when Jane Austen, who was born on this day in 1775, doesn’t win the day! Since you probably just skipped right past the Beethoven concerto, I’m sure you won’t be running out to read Pride and Prejudice, which I think is the best of her work. You know, Persuasion had real potential, but my understanding is that she rushed through it because she knew she was dying. She only lived to be 41. I don’t think she is necessarily that great a writer from a technical standpoint. George Eliot is undoubtedly better in that regard. But who really wants to read that stuff? But she puts the Brontes to shame. Am I being sexist? Well, she isn’t technically as good as Thomas Hardy either. But all of these writers are from the generations after Austen. And reading Austen is still fun. What’s more, you know all that modern breezy writing, not just “chick lit” but also people like David Foster Wallace? Where did they come from if not Austen? She is just absolutely great and in a fundamental sense the best English language writer of the 19th century. But we can’t leave without a little something from the great lady. So here is one of her poems, “Ode to Pity”:


Ever musing I delight to tread
The Paths of honour and the Myrtle Grove
Whilst the pale Moon her beams doth shed
On disappointed Love.
While Philomel on airy hawthorn Bush
Sings sweet and Melancholy, And the thrush
Converses with the Dove.


Gently brawling down the turnpike road,
Sweetly noisy falls the Silent Stream—
The Moon emerges from behind a Cloud
And darts upon the Myrtle Grove her beam.
Ah! then what Lovely Scenes appear,
The hut, the Cot, the Grot, and Chapel queer,
And eke the Abbey too a mouldering heap,
Cnceal’d by aged pines her head doth rear
And quite invisible doth take a peep.

I love that! She mentions Philomel! There was much darkness in the lady. I’m sure we would have seen that had she lived longer. As it is, Sense and Sensibility is a very dark novel if you read it correctly. And she savages the Romantics. It is delicious fun. And no one gets her tongue cut out!

You really, really know it is quite a day for birthdays when Philip K Dick, who was born on this day in 1928, doesn’t win the day. He is the kind of guy I wanted to be when I was young and now I can think of little worse. He was brilliant and pretty much single-handedly changed science fiction from something boring to something profoundly interesting. He was also a nut who suffered from paranoia. I’ll take a more mundane talent along with an easier life. As for his work, there is a tendency to focus too much on his ideas. Although he did have some very interesting ideas, most of them were not thought through very deeply. Check out my article on his short story, “The Minority Report.” But the main thing is that Dick was a great storyteller. Take everything else away and he is still a lot of fun to read. He really understands what ought to be in a story and what is just padding. There is no padding in his work.

Other birthdays: one of the Bluestockings, Elizabeth Carter (1717); physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776); playwright Mary Russell Mitford (1787); the great economist Leon Walras (1834); the great artist Antonio de La Gandara (1861); if only I had more time I would tell you all about the great painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866); the (Great?) Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly (1882); what kind of day is it when Noel Coward (1899) is tossed into “other birthdays”?; anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901); the “great” action screenwriter Shane Black (52); the great comedian Bill Hicks (1961); film director James Mangold (50); and one of my favorite stand-up comedians Todd Glass (49). I can’t help it, I have to break format:

The day, however, belongs to a man you have probably never heard of, Max Linder, who was born on this day in 1883. If you like comedic movies, then you should really care about Max Linder. Before him, silent film comedy was of the style of Mack Sennett and the Keystone Cops kind of humor—outrageous pratfalls and general silliness. What they didn’t have where actual characters who the audience cared about. That’s what Max Linder brought to the movies. He created the character of “Max,” rich man-about-town who got into adventures. The films stand today as satire of the well to do buffoon. His later films are better, but below is an early one (1907!), The Skater’s Debut where you can see what will become of screen comedy and not really change, right through the Marx Brothers and on to Jim Carrey. Note also, Charlie Chaplin was a huge fan and eventually a friend of Linder. On Linder’s death, Chaplin dedicated a film to him, “For the unique Max, the great master —his disciple Charles Chaplin.”

I suppose I should tell you something else about Linder: he suffered greatly from depression and anxiety. He and his young wife made a suicide pact, and the two killed themselves (their second attempt), leaving behind an infant daughter who went on to package Linder’s work for later generations. It’s very sad.

Nonetheless, happy birthday Max Linder!

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