Abel Gance isn't usually associated with slapstick comedy, and Max Linder isn't usually associated with anything else, and yet here they are in 1925, at the end of Linder's significant career and near the end of Gance's golden age (Napoleon was just around the corner: his career would run on to 1972). Gance's real masterworks, like La roue and Napoleon and J'accuse!, don't tend to feature humor as a big element, and they do depend on a real epic sweep to their long-form narratives, so one could be forgiven for approaching Au secours! (1924), which clocks in at under half an hour, as at best a minor divertissement. But I'd argue that, on its own quirky terms, without making any claim of importance or significance, it's an utterly amazing piece of cinema.
Linder could be plausibly credited with introducing the concept of elegance into screen comedy, thus paving the way for Chaplin (who added a layer of irony by applying that elegance to the character of a tramp) and he rocked the gap-toothed look long before Terry-Thomas or, er, Madonna. His French comedies of the teens made him a megastar, and was followed by a successful Hollywood career and a nervous breakdown. Au Secours!, whose title gets more tragically ironic the more one learns about it, was part of an unsuccessful comeback attempt. Subsequently, Linder relapsed and ended his life along with his wife's in a scenario often portrayed as a suicide pact but very possibly a murder-suicide. In fairness, he clearly wasn't in his right mind.
Are we laughing yet? But, in spite of Linder's fragile psychological health and Gance's normally sombre demeanor, their short collaboration is very funny: much more so if you see it with an audience than if you watch it on DVD (it's an extra on the disc of Lucrece Borgia) or YouTube. Admittedly, the comedy tends to the grotesque and very dark, but that just adds to the shocking modernity, which is a major recognized virtue of Gance's silents: as I believe Kubrick said, Gance tried things which still get called innovations whenever anybody has the courage to imitate them today.
The plot is sheer guff: courageous man-about-town Max accepts a bet to spend the night in a putatively haunted house. We approach by tracking shot, an ominous arcing creep picked up by James Whale for his Old Dark House. Inside, the Méliès trick film gets reinvigorated with carnival monster figures, zoo animals (clearly photographed at the Paris zoo and bunged into the edit with magnificent abandon), warped mirror funhouse distortions, reverse motion, subliminal flash-frames, and every other kind of crazy nightmare. Max maintains a measure of sang-froid even as reality itself seems to fray around him: the overload of surreal grotesquerie seems set to tear the film itself apart. And then Max gets a phone call from his wife, apparently menaced by a disfigured intruder with beastly designs on her diaphanously draped person...
What follows is bizarrely funny precisely because it's so inappropriate: Linder's performance of authentic-seeming terror and distress goes far beyond what we have any right to expect in a short comedy. It could be some kind of chilling nightmare rehearsal for his own last moments, which makes it harder to enjoy. But seen as a bold leap into mock melodrama, it impresses because it's so devoid of comic artifice.
The final Scooby Doo wrap-up, in which all the ghosts are unmasked and we're told it was all a good-natured prank, likewise succeeds in an unexpected way, by being so preposterously unconvincing. This allows laughter, but also leaves an uneasy feeling behind: the ghosts were make-believe, sure, but the terror seemed real enough...
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.