My DVD treat of the week is the giddy Soviet adventure serial Miss Mend (Flicker Alley). The 1926 epic, directed by Boris Barnet (who also co-stars as the heroic journalist) and Fedor Ozep, runs almost 4 ½ hours over three separate, feature-length chapters following the adventures of Miss Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan), dedicated typist and heroic supporter of the working class labor movement, and her doting admirers turned action heroes. “The whole city seems to be in the grip of some gigantic criminal conspiracy,” observes one of them, a photojournalist tracking the strange doings around the funeral of a millionaire industrialist to The Organization, a capitalist cabal bent on world domination through chemical warfare and political suppression (part of their dastardly plan is, of course, the demonization of the Bolsheviks as international criminals).
Early Soviet cinema wasn’t known for playfulness or escapist adventure (with a few exceptions), but this sprawling serial has both in a rapid-fire thriller that sends our heroes from their unnamed American East Coast city to Leningrad, where The Organization plans to destroy the Soviet Union with a plague. There are chases galore (on foot, in cars, on horseback), a stunning train wreck that leaves a mangled car with a body twisted in the wreckage (the villains coldly swap briefcases with the corpse so the cops will their phony documents on the victim), fistfights, bombs, and plenty of shots of vodka. Though modeled after the Douglas Fairbanks films and cliffhanger serials of Hollywood, the ruthless Dr. Mabuse-like villain and his devious campaign of murder, kidnapping, body-snatching and bribery also recalls Louis Feuillaude’s Fantomas serials and Fritz Lang’s Spies, but with more cheeky humor and quirky characters (what exactly is with all the boxing gear in the shared apartment of our heroic trio?). For the first few chapters, our heroes are consistently constantly outplayed and outsmarted by the devious capitalist conspirators, but you can’t keep a just cause down.
And, of course, there’s a Soviet portrait of thirties America (it all begins at the pointedly-named “Rocfeller and Co.” factory, where a faceless member of the company sabotages a peaceful strike with a gunshot that starts a violent riot) and its social injustice (after one man is shot and killed, the cops remark: “No big deal. He’s black”). True to the film’s proletariat principles, the millionaire’s son who is duped into joining the Organization by the very man who murdered his father ends up being too poisoned by his money and class for redemption; when the truth is revealed and all looks lost, he gives up on heroism or even revenge to have his way with an unwilling Miss Mend. The politics are glaring to us, but at the time the Soviet authorities thought it was a decadent film with questionable ideological consistency. Audiences, however, flocked to it and it was the biggest hit of its day. It’s still a blast, a tongue-in-cheek satire of American corruption and corporate collusion with a driving pace, explosive set pieces, dynamic compositions and busy action, this is as much fun as silent cinema gets.
The restoration, produced by David Shepard and Jeffrey Masino in collaboration with Blackhawk Films, Turner Classic Movies and Eric Lange of Lobster Films in Paris, is superb, with only brief patches of inferior footage in the final chapter. Features the 25-minute documentary “Miss Mend: A Whirlwind Vision of Imagined America,” written and narrated by Soviet culture specialists Ana Oleniva and Maxim Pozdorovkin (who also wrote the English subtitle translation and the essay in the accompanying booklet) and the featurette “Creating the Music of Miss Mend,” a behind-the-scenes look at Robert Israel’s recording sessions in the Czech Republic. Two discs in a standard case with a hinged tray.