The Dialectics of Humor: Russian Silent Comedy

Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t renowned for its sense of humor. And that’s a shame.

Most of us were introduced to the silent era of Russian film through the dialectic exercises of Sergei Eisenstein, who combined the intellectual and the visceral in such films as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the dazzling montage symphony that is Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). They are thrilling works with serious themes and a rigorous aesthetic and intellectual approach. But for all their celebration of the proletariat as the collective hero of the great Soviet experiment, the working men and women of the Soviet Union really just wanted to have fun at the movies and the most popular Russian films were indeed light entertainment and energetic comedies. They’ve merely been harder to find than the rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories, films elevated as standard bearers of the era of Soviet Formalism and the editing revolution, at least until recently. In fact, for a long time, the only widely seen example of Soviet comedy was Chess Fever (1925), a comic short spoofing the real-life chess obsession that swept Russia during the 1925 chess tournament in Moscow.

‘Chess Fever’

Co-director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of Soviet cinema’s intellectual heavyweights, a theorist who apprenticed under filmmaking pioneer Lev Kuleshov and helped develop the theories of montage that guided formalist filmmaking in the twenties. He actually applies some of those ideas to this funny and clever short comedy about a chess addict who risks losing his fiancée in his chess obsession. Pudovkin went on to make such serious features as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) but Chess Fever is all lighthearted fun, a lark rather than a lesson. And it showed that Pudovkin’s brand of montage was also effective when it came to humor: the perfect cut was just as effective in delivering a punchline as pounding home a political point.

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DVD of the Week: The Magnificent Miss Mend

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).

Gas masks on for a deadly experiment
Gas masks on for a deadly experiment

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.

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