How The True Identity Of The World’s First-Ever Film Star Was Revealed By An Old French Poster

Buster Keaton. The Marx Brothers. Laurel and Hardy. Charlie Chaplin. These are just some of the huge names who lit up cinemas worldwide in the early days of Hollywood. And they are all rightly remembered for the incalculable contributions they made to the movie business. But what if we told you that these revered idols are themselves indebted to the contributions of another mysterious figure? Well, that person was a Frenchman called Max Linder, and thanks to an unexpected discovery, we finally have an insight into his incredible legacy.

It’s actually quite hard to believe that Linder has been overlooked for so long. The talent was, after all, a real heavyweight of the burgeoning movie industry. Linder didn’t just act, either, he was also a writer, director and producer. He was profoundly prolific and had a whopping 500 flicks to his name, according to The New European. Yet only a fifth of these films have survived to the present day. This, in turn, may partly explain why he’s so obscure nowadays.

During his own tragically short lifetime, Linder was known for his comedy movies above all else. Most of us today are aware of Chaplin’s contributions to film, but what’s less known is how much of an inspiration Linder was to the British star. The latter idolized him, and according to The Guardian, he once penned a postcard to the performer, writing, “To Max the Professor, from his disciple, Charlie Chaplin.”

For his movies, Linder developed a well-dressed, bougie alter ego who shared his own first name. The films themselves would generally bear this moniker in the title – such as Max’s First Job, Max Takes A Bath and Max Foils the Police. And it was this character who audiences fell in love with in the earlier days of Linder’s career.

People couldn’t get enough of Linder, and this would ultimately have huge implications for the whole film industry. He even had something of a celebrity fanbase – with individuals as varied as Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and the Russian leader Tsar Nicholas II admiring his films. So, as we’ve seen, Linder was making movie history. But why have so few of us heard of him today?

It might have something to do with the later stages of Linder’s life, when things took a dark turn. With the outbreak of WWI in 1914, the actor dropped everything to serve in the French army. And though he survived the dreadful conflict, he was never the same man again. His experiences of war tormented him back in civilized society, and his creative output sadly suffered as a result.

Linder’s struggles eventually culminated in his untimely death – a tragic end for a man once celebrated for bringing so much joy to the screen. With the Frenchman’s demise, then, his legacy faded into obscurity. And it may well have stayed there were it not for the work of Andrew Shail, who is a senior film lecturer at Newcastle University in England. In 2019 the teacher discovered an old film poster for one of Linder’s movies. Maybe that doesn’t sound too important, but this particular picture has unequivocally laid bare this long-lost star’s impact on the world of film.

To understand Linder’s impact on movies, though, we must first learn more about the man himself. He actually began life as Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle in the French region of Gironde in 1883. His family made their living in the wine industry, but Linder had another calling entirely. By 1901 he’d started to try and make it as a stage actor – before landing his first movie role around four years later.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that it was none other than French film pioneer and producer Charles Pathé who helped launch Linder’s career. The Guardian writes that the latter saw Linder performing and passed on a note which read, “In your eyes lies a fortune. Come and act in front of my cameras, and I will help make it.”

Between 1905 and 1907 Linder was cutting his teeth as an actor with some minor parts in comedic movies. But it wasn’t until a film titled The Legend of Punching came along that Linder landed his first leading role. And from there, the Frenchman’s trip to the stars truly began.

The year 1907 then saw Linder portray his alter ego of Max for the first time. With his ostentatious dress sense and knack for getting into amusing scenarios, it was this persona that ultimately came to stand out. Yes, Max was about to become Linder’s trademark character over a number of different productions.

Besides kickstarting his own incredible career, Linder’s first portrayal of Max is notable for another reason, too. The film was called The Skater’s Debut, and in it Linder did the so-called “windmill routine,” which was a shtick that saw him spin a cane in circles. This move is often associated with Charlie Chaplin, but it was actually Linder’s innovation.

Linder had become an extremely prominent and well-known actor by the end of 1910. And the following year he even turned to directing – establishing himself as a true creative force. Material wealth quickly followed, as he came to earn more than any other actor in France. You could also argue that his extravagant salary set the benchmark for the immense wealth of actors that came later.

Of course, actors owe much more to Linder’s influence than just their generous wages. His performances were hugely inspiring for other upcoming talents like Charlie Chaplin, who later became arguably the most influential movie star ever. For reference, the latter made his own debut in 1914 – several years after Linder.

Linder and Chaplin never actually made a movie together, but they did get to know each other. And the legendary pair are even said to have worked on some jokes. Ultimately, though, it was Chaplin’s legacy that was to endure through the generations – while his mentor was largely forgotten.

It’s hard to overestimate quite how cutting-edge Linder’s work was at this time. Remember: we’re talking about the very first years of cinema here! As a writer, the Frenchman was perfectly willing to incorporate elements of his genuine experiences into scenes. Even the filming methods he employed were novel for the era. For instance, he would often shoot in normal places instead of in a studio.

Though that’s not all: Linder also tested the limitations of the early recording technologies that were available at the time. His movies incorporated clever optical illusions and filming techniques. Plus, some even contained animated scenes! It could be argued, then, that the Frenchman was one of film’s first true auteurs.

Yet Linder’s life and career weren’t to continue on an upward trajectory indefinitely. And as we mentioned earlier, 1914 saw him join the French army as a dispatch driver after WWI broke out. But the horrors of war deeply affected him and he would sadly never really get over it.

While stationed along the Western Front, Linder had been hurt somehow. To this day, nobody’s really sure of the precise details of what happened to him. One theory posits that he caught pneumonia after hiding in the icy waters of a shell hole for hours, while another claims that he was among the first troops to be gassed. But whatever the case may be, Linder came back from the war a different person after being discharged in 1916.

According to The New European, Linder spoke to an unnamed magazine about the conflict. And he laid out his feelings in a remarkably honest way. The Frenchman remarked, “The horror of the battlefield is terrible. It is ghastly. To brood on it drives men mad. Each day is a new life and the man in the trenches lives for that day.”

How did Linder get on after returning from World War I, though? Well, things sadly became a lot more difficult for the talent. In 1916 – the year he was discharged – Linder was recruited by Essanay Film Manufacturing Company president George K. Spoor to star in a dozen short films in the U.S. The Frenchman subsequently moved to America and appeared in a number of films, but these efforts sadly failed to make a dent.

Linder went back to France in 1917, where he tried to recover from his failures in Hollywood. There, he constructed a cinema of his own, plus he made a film that proved to be quite lucrative. Things seemed to be on the up; the Frenchman even went back to Hollywood to make another movie called Seven Years Bad Luck. This time, thankfully, his film did well.

But according to the website Critics Rant, Linder felt that his sense of fun had disappeared. So, he tried his hand at more serious filmmaking – like in 1924’s Au Secours. He then made The King of the Circus and began work on Barkas le Fol. But this latter flick would sadly never see the light of day.

Ever since the war, Linder’s mental health had been on a downward spiral. His horrific experiences in battle had never left him and he’d struggled to readjust back into a normal life. On November 1, 1925, at just 41 years of age, the film legend committed suicide.

Despite all of his astonishing achievements in life, Linder’s legacy sadly faded from view in subsequent years. His movies were scarcely ever shown in cinemas and people never really became aware of how much of an impact he’d had on the movie business. But in his book The Origins of the Film Star System, film historian Andrew Shail has tried to rectify this.

Shail argues that Linder can really be thought of as the first true movie star in history – an honor which had previously been attributed to American actress Florence Lawrence. But who was this latter star? Well, she was a fascinating figure who starred in nearly 300 movies and even run her own studio. But in addition to all that, she was also an inventor! Lawrence actually developed the turn and brake signals that we see on cars today.

But have you ever even heard of Lawrence? Like Linder, it appears that she also isn’t particularly well-known despite all of her immense achievements. Vanity Fair notes that audiences mostly knew her as “the Biograph Girl” even after she’d starred in 50 films. This is because of her association with the Biograph Company and its productions.

According to The Guardian, a publicity campaign which involved Lawrence essentially faking her own death finally led to her being credited in films under her name. This was in 1910, and it’s believed that Lawrence became the first actor to be credited for a performance in a movie! This elaborate PR stunt, meanwhile, helped establish the film celebrity cult which obviously remains to this day.

But Shail actually thinks that Max Linder should be considered the world’s first movie star. Basically, he’s based this assertion on a movie poster for one of the Frenchman’s movies called Le Petit Jeune Homme. Produced by Pathé, the film came out in 1909 and was publicized with a poster that actually included Linder’s entire name.

This is significant, because as far as we know it marks the first time that an actor’s real name was used to advertise a film. Before that, it was a character’s moniker that would be front and center of promotional campaigns. But Linder, it seems, had become so popular that Pathé decided to take advantage of his clout. And it was a practice the company continued thereafter.

In a press release related to his research, Shail laid out the significance of this poster bearing the Frenchman’s name. He said, “This makes Linder – as far as we can tell – the first film star anywhere. He certainly predates the first U.S. film stars.” And that, it seems, includes Florence Lawrence!

Shail went on to explain the consequences of Pathé using Linder’s name on its poster. He wrote, “Pathé Frères’ decision rippled out and changed the way filmmakers marketed their wares. The effects of [that] decision can still be seen on posters and billboards around the world – and in their most concentrated form: deciding to see a certain film just because a certain actor is starring in it.”

Before this point, Shail claimed, production companies were actually reluctant to base their promotion campaigns around specific actors. But why? Well, they worried that it would be handing over a great deal of influence to actors, who were essentially their employees. Though in 1908 the movie business was beginning to change, and companies needed to stand out from their competitors.

Shail explained, “It’s difficult to overemphasize how averse filmmaking companies were to launching a star system. They knew it was a possibility. But they also knew that publicity for an employee puts power in the hands of someone who is supposed to have sold their labor, which is a bit like handing them back some of their wages.”

Yet as the movie business started to become more cutthroat, it was in the best interest of production companies to have their actors stand out. And Linder had become extremely popular by this point. So, it was clearly smart to take advantage of his fame – even if it resulted in him becoming more influential.

Shail went on, “In spite of his anonymity, however, Linder, with his stark facial features and acrobatic performance style, became recognizable amongst cinemagoers. And once Pathé Frères realized this they decided to start using his name and his face on posters to promote their films.”

You may also be shocked to learn that the first ever movie star was French – given the prominence of Hollywood since the beginning of the film era. Shail also alluded to this, saying, “It might seem surprising that this wasn’t something invented in the United States. Before late 1909 in both Europe and the U.S., the filmmaking companies were using fictional characters – not the actors who played them – as their go-to method of film publicity.”

Before long, companies across Europe and the United States were following the example set by Pathé. Shail explained, “In July 1909 none of the film production companies active in Europe and North America were using the identities of the people who routinely performed for their fiction films in their publicity. By early 1912, most of them were.”

So, even though Linder is largely forgotten about today, his influence on the world of film has been immense. Not only was he pivotal in the creation of the star system, but his performances themselves were groundbreaking. And without him, would pivotal figures such as Charlie Chaplin have ever emerged?

Linder’s legacy is far more obscure than what we might expect for a figure of his significance. But with more research and consideration of his life and work, maybe the star will be pulled into focus. Shail’s work, then, might represent a step towards recognizing Linder’s contributions to the world of film.