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.