(8/10) Miss Mend (1926) is quite possibly the best American action film serial of the silent era. And it was made in the Soviet Union. The tacked-on, state-required propaganda elements throw the plot and pacing off balance, but all-in-all this international spy-fi yarn is a breezy, action-packed, impeccably filmed and fun tour-de-force.
Miss Mend (Мисс Менд). 1926, USSR. Directed by Boris Barnet & Fyodor Otsep. Written by Boris Barnet, Fyodor Otsep & Vasily Sakhnovsky. Based on a novel by Marietta Shaganyan. Starring: Natalya Glan, Igor Ilyinsky, Vladimir Fogel, Boris Barnet, Sergey Komarov, Anna Sten. IMDb score: 7.0 Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
While it’s tempting to view the Soviet Union as all-repressive and stifling of art and culture, this is not necessarily always the case. There was a period between the 1917 revolution and the thirties that corresponds with the Roaring Twenties in the US and the artistically liberal and inventive period in Europe before the rise of Nazi Germany and the buildup to WWII.
In the USSR this period coincided with the New Economic Policy of V.I. Lenin, the so-called NEP period, when a certain amount of economic liberalism and private entrepreneurship was encouraged. Despite the hardships brought on by the wars waged and the difficulties in tearing down one societal and economic reality and replacing it with another, there was a sense of optimism and energy among workers and intellectuals alike, especially in cities like Moscow and the newly renamed Leningrad. The Soviet avantgarde thrived in the arts, and this was the period in which legendary Soviet directors like Sergei Eisenstein, Dzhiga Vertov, Lev Kuleshov and Vsevolod Pudovkin made their masterpieces. And while the film industry was heavily monitored by the powers that be, filmmakers were given relatively free reins within a pre-arranged frame. The Soviet politburo didn’t always like what they saw, and some films were quickly withdrawn from the screens, but the directors weren’t sent to the gulags, and most of them could continue to make films even when their movies weren’t viewed favourably by Stalin & Co. Then Lenin died, Trotsky went into exile and Soviet realism clamped down on the arts in the thirties.
Partly because of this clampdown, we generally tend to associate Soviet silent-era cinema, and indeed the pre-war sound era, with the epic avantgarde realism of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Vertov and Pudovkin. But history has long ignored that there was also another kind of Soviet cinema — often more commercial, lighter in tone, less political, but necessarily of any lesser artistic value. In fact, one could argue that some of the best contemporary comedies of the twenties were made in the USSR, primarily by two directors, Yakov Protazanov of Aelita fame and Boris Barnet, the co-director of Miss Mend.
And during the brief period of artistic “freedom” in the twenties, the Soviet Union put out some of the most interesting science fiction films of the twenties, such as Aelita (1924, review), The Death Ray (1925, review) and this one, Miss Mend, released in 1926. Oddly enough, there was a brief resurrection of sci-fi in the mid-thirties with Aerograd (1935, review), Loss of Sensation (1935, review) and Cosmic Voyage (1936, review).
Lev Kuleshov’s highly experimental action movie The Death Ray is closely related to Miss Mend, in the sense that both use science fiction mainly as a MacGuffin element, and both Kuleshov and directors Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep were more interested in making American-styled, lighthearted action adventures in the vein of the popular Douglas Fairbanks and Pearl White films. One can without hesitation say that Barnet and Otsep were more successful with Miss Mend than Kuleshov was with The Death Ray, at least if audience approval is anything to go on.
Miss Mend, or Мисс Менд, as it is spelled in Cyrillic, is a three-part silent film serial totalling close to five hours of screen time, filmed in St. Petersburg in 1926, also released in English as The Adventure of the Three Reporters. That is actually a misnomer, as only two of the protagonists are reporters. It’s a story about the plucky young American Miss Vivian Mend (Natalia Glan), who becomes radicalised after witnessing the company she works for brutally suppressing a workers’ protest. Her heroic antics as she rugby tackles a police officer catches the attention of her colleague, office clerk Tom Hopkins (comedian Igor Ilyinsky), reporter Barnet (actor-director Boris Barnet) and his photographer partner Fogel (renowned actor Vladimir Fogel).
Here the story gets rather convoluted, as Miss Mend gets rescued from the mob chasing her by a certain Arthur Stern (Ivan Koval-Samborsky), who is in fact the son of her boss, industry mogul Gordon Stern, but who for the most of the film makes her believe that he is simply a rather well-off engineer called Johnson. After their meet-cute, the US is stricken by the news that Gordon Stern (Mikhail Rozen-Sanin) has died. At this time Vivian and Tom have sort of teamed up with the two reporters, and they are able to suss out that Gordon is in fact very much alive, only he has been put in a death-like state by the main villain, the Dr. Mabuse-esque Chiche (Sergei Komarov). Gordon’s wife has eloped with Chiche, who is hoping to inherit the mogul’s wealth, while at the same time blaming his death on the Bolsheviks.
Trying to find out the truth behind Chiche’s plans, the four protagonists break into Chiche’s mansion, where they discover that he has gathered a capitalist cabal, who are planning to deliver a deadly blow to global communism. In a secret lab outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Chiche is perfecting a new kind of deadly chemical weapon, a bacterial gas which spreads a plague that kills in a matter of seconds. The capitalists plan to distribute it in major cities in the US, in some sort of electrical devices. By transmitting a certain frequency, they will shatter the glass ampules that contains the gas simultaneously, causing a plague epidemic of cataclysmic proportions in America, making it look as though the attack was carried out by the Bolsheviks, thereby destroying international support for communism. And between all this, there’s fistfights, car chases, acrobatics, slapstick, romance, a detective plot, the old “hide inside the medieval armour” schtick, an assassination attempt on Miss Mend, a daring rescue by the journalists, and even a guy rising from his coffin, Dracula-style.
And that’s just the first half of the serial.
The second half is a tad less convoluted, but not without its twists and turns. For example, for a long run of the film, we have a situation in which the three male heroes are chasing Mr. Stern Junior as an accomplice of Chiche’s, which he is, while Vivian still doesn’t know that Engineer Johnson is in fact the son of her boss, who it turns out, is also the man who raped and killed her sister, producing the little child whom she now takes care of. In addition, Mr. Stern Junior still believes that the Blosheviks murdered his father, when it was in fact Chiche who – eventually – did so, efter keeping him in a semi-dead state for days (I’m not quite clear on why he didn’t just kill him).
But the rest is more straightforward: Fogel decides to take a trip to St. Petersburg in order to follow up on the whole poison gas situation, while the rest of our heroes stay in Los Angeles to keep tabs on Chiche. However, Chiche takes off in a speed-boat in order to catch up with the boat that Fogel is on, in order to poison the crew and passengers, a sort of test run. So Barnet, Hopkins and Miss Mend go after him in another ship to St. Petersburg. We now get a very exciting speed boat chase, more fistfights and gunfights, as well as a shipful of poisoned stiffs. And finally, we arrive in St. Petersburg, where our heroes track Chiche to a dacha on the outskirts of the city. We get a look at Chiche’s lab and some more action in the snow, all of our heroes have their turn in getting captured, Hopkins is hypnotised, Arthur Stern descends into madness and tries to rape Miss Mend, there’s a wild horse chase, superb acrobatics from Boris Barnet, and a climax where our brave Americans learn that the Soviet authorities had the whole situation quite under control, thank you very much.
1926 was a year that saw the release of three of the most iconic Soviet films of all time: Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Dziga Vertov’s One Sixth of the World and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother. All three are daunting, dark and dramatic epics solemnly exploring the human condition, Russian history, socialism and revolution. They are considered masterpieces of cinema, putting into effect the cinematic theories of Eisenstein, Vertov and Kuleshov, and are now acclaimed by critics all over the world. But none of these films came close to topping the box office in 1926, much to the dismay of the party ideologues. No, with 1,3 million tickets sold the light-hearted, American-styled, whimsical action comedy serial Miss Mend set a new record in Soviet cinema turnout. People loved it. Except the critics. The critics hated it, at least the most ideologically motivated ones.
In the case of Lev Kuleshov’s very problematic The Death Ray the Soviet critics were probably right to bash the film, as did the audience. But Miss Mend is a very different beast. Kuleshov tried to combine the breeziness of the American popcorn serial with artistically ambitious experiments and musings on the art of cinema, and the result was a confusing mess. But Barnet and Otsep weren’t interested in making high art or statements. They basically wanted to make an American action adventure serial for a Soviet audience, straight up, no frills, fun, exciting, fast-paced entertainment. And so they did. And boy, did they. In fact, Miss Mend is one of the very best, if not THE best American action serial of the silent era, and it wasn’t even made in the US.
The film was based on the 1924 novel Mess-Mend: Yankees in Petrograd (Месс Менд, или Янки в Петрограде) written by Armenian-Soviet author Marietta Shaginyan. A university-educated, intelligent and versatile writer, Shaginyan worked as a journalist, war correspondent, poet, essayist, historian and novelist. She belonged to a clique of artists and authors in the early days of the Soviet Union that believed that the proletariat needed escapist entertainment as much as they needed ideological and educational art, and that escapism in itself, if consumed on a balanced diet, was not detrimental to the socialist cause, and that the opposite was in fact the case. Furthermore this clique argued that the public’s craving for lighthearted entertainment was so strong that they would find it anyway, and if Soviet artists didn’t create socialist entertainment, then the Soviet workers would turn to capitalist, bourgeois entertainment. This was already happening.
I have written at some length about the so-called “Red Pinkertons” in my review of The Death Ray, so head over there if you’re interested in knowing more about the phenomenon. But in short: detective fiction was sweeping the West in the early 20th century, following the astounding success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books about Sherlock Holmes. Nat Pinkerton, although barely known in the US, was one of the most popular fictional detectives in Europe, with dozens if not hundreds of mostly anonymously written books published primarily in Germany, Denmark, France and Italy. Many were also translated into Russian, and were hugely popular in pre-revolutionary Russia, and naturally remained so even after the 1917 revolution. Nat Pinkerton was an American, hard-boiled detective who solved crimes, hunted murderers and thieves and had exciting adventures. But for the Soviet authorities Nat Pinkerton’s popularity was problematic, as it propagated a positive image of the US, the West and capitalism, while often vilifying the East and communism. Authors like Shaginyan and Aleksei Tolstoy felt that the solution was not to ban these books altogether, but instead for the Soviet Union to start producing the same kind of books, written with a socialist agenda. One solution was to simply start writing Soviet Nat Pinkerton novels, maintaining the American protagonist, but giving him a socialist slant. These books, and others in their vein, were dubbed “Red Pinkertons”. Miss Mend was a prime example of a Red Pinkerton.
But Otsep and Barnet were likewise inspired by both American film serials and German Expressionism. While it wasn’t quite the first one, the starting point of the US film serial craze is often pinpointed to the 1914 serial The Perils of Pauline, which was followed up the next year with the even more successful The Exploits of Elaine (review). Both starred actress Pearl White in the lead, cementing the practice of having a plucky young woman in the lead. White, who had an athletic background, was not afraid of putting her body on the line, and frequently did her own stunts and action scenes. Ultimately, of course, she would always be reduced to a damsel in distress in need of rescue. Natalia Glan as Miss Mend is a worthy Soviet counterpart to Pearl White. In nylon stockings and a black pencil skirt, she is a fierce dark mirror image of the platinum blonde White. She doesn’t quite have the same athletic panache as her US sister, but her acting relies heavily on physicality nonetheless, and what she lacks in pure athleticism she makes up for in expressive and precise acting with a broader range than White.
Glan’s facial plasticism and broad emotional range and volume came not from theatre but from her dancing background. Glan was a celebrated dancer and choreographer and was seen as one of the pioneers of modern dance in the Soviet Union. Her style was influenced by that of Ukrainian choreographer Nikolai Foregger, who himself created a form of “choreopantomime”, which combined mask theatre and pantomime in order to bring to life ordinary people from the streets of Moscow on stage. Glan’s style was describes as “an acute grotesque pattern of movements combined with everyday gestures”, a style which lent itself naturally to Expressionist silent cinema. Her film career was brief, as she only acted in two films directed by her would-be husband Boris Barnet.
Boris Barnet takes on himself not only writing and directing, but also plays the male lead in the film, the Hollywood hero part. Barnet was a former boxer turned actor and director, Miss Mend was in fact his directorial debut. He certainly has the looks for the part, and naturally we do get a chance to see his flexing his muscles with no shirt on before the film is to an end. Dave Kehr at the New York Times writes that Barnet is “far too good looking to be either a journalist or a director”. Barnet is the straight man of the trio of heroes, and comes off as the least interesting, but instead he shows his worth in the last half of the third episode, when his athleticism is at full display, leaping from three-story buildings and trudging shirtless through the knee-deep snows of St. Petersburg.
The stunts of the movie are extremely impressive, and the athletic background of many of the actors are apparent. However, they are not nearly as well choreographed as those of their US counterparts, like the stuff that Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd were up to. It’s mainly the basic stuff: jumping from heights, traversing telephone lines, climbing walls, etc. But it does nonetheless give the film a great energy boost each time the obviously real stunts are showcased.
The origins for Boris Barnet’s love for American film is not hard to pinpoint: he was a film student under Lev Kuleshov, the grand ambassador of US movies to the Soviet Union. To Kuleshov, the visuals of film were inherently American, while the Soviet Union was still caught in all the outwardly trappings of a feudal and rural Czarist Russia. The modern streets of American cities, with their cars and trams and contsant hustle and bustle were the essence of film, in Kuleshov’s mind, and it’s no surprise that this notion would rub off on his students. The state wouldn’t allow the film students to waste precious film reels on student films, and young filmmakers couldn’t just walk up to a shop and buy film reels. So Kuleshov and his collective of film students instead did what they could: they watched films. In a movie theatre on Malaya Dmitrovka street in the centre of Moscow they would sit for months on end watching everything the theatre’s director showed. And much of that was American, as well as German: this was the period in time when Weimar cinema was sweeping the world, giving us the horror film, the psychological thriller and expressionist cinema. As this was still the time before the rise of fascism, German films were readily available in the Soviet Union, and very popular at that.
In 1926 cinema had firmly established itself as a medium for the masses, and it had enough of a history to have established a canon. And while we might view the self-referential nods to film history in the vein of the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino as a modern trope, it’s actually a lot older. Miss Mend may in fact be the very first “serious” film to make obvious and knowing homages to earlier films without intended parody. And it’s not only the serials of Pearl White or comedy films with Buster Keaton that are referenced. The film’s villain Chiche is very much modelled on the larger-than-life villains of Weimar cinema, from Homunculus (1916, review) to Dr. Caligari (1920) to Robert Herne of Algol (1920, review), and not least Dr. Mabuse (from Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922). Gordon Thomas writes in Bright Lights Film Journal: “The shadow of Mabuse falls over the 1926 Soviet adventure serial Miss Mend”. In one scene Komarov puts on what seems to be the same motorist’s cap and goggles used by Vsevolod Pudovkin as he plays the villain in Kuleshov’s The Death Ray, nodding in his teacher’s direction. And there are numerous other small references strewn in across the serial: Miss Mend tied up like Pauline at the railroad tracks, the horrorstruck facial close-ups of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Mr. Stern Sr. rising from his coffin like Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922).
A modern viewer might on the one hand be put off by the serial’s blatant anti-capitalist propaganda, someone might call it anti-American. Of course, one reason we are so quick to write off Soviet-era films as propaganda films was that the movie industry was heavily censored during the communist era, but contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the party ideologues who wrote the film scripts. In fact, many filmmakers were allowed to continue making movies despite the fact that their movies took the occasional stab at official policy and ideology. This was the case even after the NEP years: Stalin may have been a paranoid tyrant who made both his enemies and his friends disappear quietly into some Siberian kulak, if they were lucky, but he was also a film buff. And he knew quality when he saw it. Stalin was extremely weary of Sergei Eisenstein’s politics, for example, but recognised that the man was a genius. And as long as Eisenstein’s films were enough within the party line as not to contradict official policy, and as long as Stalin himself could make “suggestions” about script changes (which he did, frequently), Eisenstein and other politically dubious filmmakers were given some leeway – as long as they churned out good films.
Another reason that Western viewers are always quick to dismiss old Soviet films as propaganda vehicles is that we/they are so unaccustomed to seeing the finger of ideology pointed at themselves, in an era that has been dominated by Hollywood films for nearly a hundred years. Sure, there have been films that have had harsh criticism of US policy, the military-industrial complex, capitalist greed, surveillance society, and so forth. But the gist of it is almost always that the system has become corrupted, not that the system itself is the problem.
In fact, when it comes to ideological critique, the Soviet films were often a lot more intelligent — and indeed inclusive — in their tone than Hollywood films. They seldom pointed their attacks at the US or Western Europe as such, whereas Hollywood films would often demonise anything vaguely Eastern European, or in later years Asian or German. In fact, oftentimes films made by the Kuleshov collective had American protagonists and were set in the US. The critique was pointed at capitalism, not the US or its citizens. And despite official political rhetoric of US being “the great satan”, these films seldom had to exaggerate when painting their pictures of the problems withing US society. When Miss Mend shows workers’ peaceful protests being brutally beaten down by the police or when the authorities turn a blind eye to a murder because the victim is black, it doesn’t need to invent anything. But of course, the same honesty in portraying problems on the home front was not allowed in these films.
Furthermore, many of the Soviet filmmakers were genuinely uninterested in making any political statements, just like many Hollywood filmmakers. And in fact Miss Mend has about the same political poignancy as your average James Bond film. The only difference is that the villains are American and the heroes are socialists. Otsep and Barnet originally hadn’t even intended to include the capitalist cabal in the movie — they wanted to have Chiche being the lone villain, like Mabuse. But the censors thought the script wasn’t political enough: the villain needed to be capitalism itself, not just some crazy loner. That’s probably why the whole subplot concerning the infiltration of the capitalist cabal’s mansion feels oddly out of place.
If there’s one point that the censors probably laboured on, then it’s the ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but the setup is, as explained above, that a capitalist villain has manufactured poison gas in the USSR for export to the US, where he intends to kill millions of people and lay the blame on the communists. All this has been taking place in the Soviet Union, under the very noses of the socialist authorities. The only ones who have been able to foil Chiche are our four American heroes, who in fact travel all the way to Russia to save the day. Now, from the point of view of the Soviet censors this is naturally unacceptable. The Americans can as communist as they like, but what does it say about the Soviet police if a a bunch of reporters and office clerks need to come over all the way from the US in order to inform them that a capitalist conspiracy is taking place in their very own socialist utopia? Well, the resulting compromise makes for a bit of a lame ending, but it really dosen’t matter all that much, as the preceding twenty minutes of film is a kinetic fireworks display. And the movie’s still punctuated by one last twist, and a rather gruesome one at that.
One interesting detail: in one scene (see pic above) that takes place in Los Angeles, Chiche and one of his aides read a newspaper, and the directors let the camera linger on the paper — it is clearly meant to be scrutinised. The interesting detail is that it’s not an American paper, but a Swedish one. My first thought was that perhaps the filmmakers had a hard time finding an American paper in St. Petersburg, but that would hardly have been the case. However, there’s no mention anywhere in the film of Chiche being Swedish, nor any other nationality either. We just know that he’s a capitalist living in the US. So there’s really no obvious reason for Chiche to read a Swedish paper. Furthermore, the filmmakers probably didn’t count on the average Russian movie-goer to distinguish between Swedish, Danish, German or Dutch, for example, in a brief shot. So why the Swedish paper? There isn’t anything of consequence as far as the contents of the paper goes in the pages shown to the audience — even in Swedish. But what occurred to me after staring at the paused image of the paper for an embarrassingly long time is that the two prominent headlines “Föreningarnas mötestider” (Meeting schedules for the clubs) and “Droskförare” (Cab drivers) contain a lot of diaereses and don’t have any words that could be mistaken for English, but hint at a Northern European origin. So the idea is probably to hint at the fact that Chiche is from Northern Europe, with a vaguely Germanic slant, tying in with the Mabuse/Caligari connection, but perhaps the filmmakers couldn’t find a suitably non-descript page with the right sort of headlines in a German paper, so settled for a Swedish one.
In Miss Mend Fyodor Otsep and Boris Barnet have created a surprisingly fresh and daring serial film about international crime, with all the trappings of the best American action serials, but with the added bonus of quality filmmaking. The difference between US and USSR action serial productions (the latter wasn’t hugely prolific, granted) was that in the US serials were were cheap vehicles for getting the audience to return to the movie theatre, whereas when serials were made in the USSR, the producers were actually concerned with quality. Eisenstein this is not, and it’s clear that at 250 minutes there’s some padding, and not all the cinematography is inspired. The production value is rather cheap, but this is countered with a lot of on-location footage, which means a lot of outdoor scenes in the streets of St. Petersburg, at the docks and in the countryside outside the city. There’s also footage on-board a ship, at a dacha and in knee-deep snow.
For the most part, the cinematography isn’t all that spectacular: there’s a lot of reliance on natural light and indoors the light is mostly rather flat, even if there are a few nods toward the expressionistic interplay between light and shade. However, as the always awesome Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently points out:
“American serials were not what you would call the most technically advanced films. Their style was a staid camera, bright lighting and direct angles. Miss Mend is made in the Soviet style: dramatic angles, bold cuts, an agile camera (for the period) and interesting lighting. There is no doubt about it. Miss Mend is a very well-directed film from a technical standpoint. It seems very modern, especially when compared to some of the stagier American films of the period.”
Where Barnet, Otsep and cinematographer Yevgeni Alekseyev excel are the action sequences, especially if there’s a moving vehicle involved. There’s a lot of work with moving cameras and POV-shots, the most impressive perhaps when Chiche takes up the chase with a cruiser on-board a fast-moving military boat.
The stuntwork in the film is daring. Though not as well choreographed or as intricate as some of the work done in the past by the acrobatic Italian film stars, or contemporaries like Buster Keaton, the athleticism on display is stunning, not least from lead actor, former boxer Boris Barnet, or indeed dancer Natalya Glan. However, most of it consists of leaps from very high altitudes or climbing to very high altitudes, and after a while you do long for some variation.
There’s no weak link in the acting department, all the players are top-notch. Barnet is a bit bland in his dramatic scenes, but more than makes up for it in the action segments, and when he gets his shirt off in the end, there’s no stopping him. He even has a Hulk moment. Barnet carried on mainly as a director, and as Dave Kehr puts it “survived Stalin’s crackdowns by flying under the radar”. In 1927 he scored another hit with the comedy The Lady With the Hat Box, starring Swedish-Ukrainian film star Anna Sten, in her first starring role — before she became an international sensation thanks to her German films, and then did a highly-publicised nose-dive in Hollywood. One of her very first screen appearances came in Miss Mend, as a matter of fact. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, you can spot Anna Sten as a typist. Sten, born Annel Stenskaya Sudakevich, and co-director Fyodor Otsep were an item, and they got married in 1927.
Barnet continued making films, primarily comedies and most notably The Girl with the Hat Box (1927), which has been called “the perfect comedy”. But later he also developed a nuanced lyricism and subdued poetry which is perhaps best on display in what is widely considered to be his masterpiece, the early sound film Outskirts (1933). Considered an actors’ director, Barnet brought together actors from several theatres and film experiences to create an ensemble portraying life in a remote Russian village during WWI. Far removed from the heroic battles portrayed by Dovzhenko and Eisenstein, the inhabitants follow the proceedings of the war from a distance, and the war in seen through the minimalism of their everyday lives. A deeply human film that doesn’t shy away from the humour in tragedy nor the poetry in ugliness. Barnet didn’t make political films, and when he was forced to, he did them badly. He wasn’t one for grandstanding and epic heroism. In fact, his next film By the Bluest of the Seas has been called by film scholar Giuliano Vivaldi at Bright Lights Film Journal “an exercise in lyrical impressionism based on an ’emotional scenario’ and, arguably, one of the greatest tributes to nonchalance during the height of the Stalinist period of mobilisation and terror.” Filmed at a fishing kolkhoz in Azerbaijan, it was a small, personal film, following two friends falling in love with the same woman, their ultimate friendship and respect for the woman and each other.
Outskirts was an internationally acclaimed film, and received some very good press even in the USSR, even if some critics were very harsh, as were they against By the Bluest of the Seas. While his nonchalant attitude toward the official edicts of how Soviet films were supposed to be made, did make it harder for him to find work after his two lyrical masterpieces, he was able to continue working within the country, as opposed to Otsep, who emigrated. Several of Barnet’s films made during WWII were pulled by the authorities, not for being political, but perhaps rather for being non-political. The quality of his post-war films have been debated, with some arguing he had perhaps lost his fire and used his best ideas, while others are finding new ways to interpret some of his comedies, for example. Whatever the case, Barnet continued making films almost up to his death in 1965.
Some, like Vivaldi, argue that Barnet was in fact second only to Eisenstein among early Soviet directors: “Barnet’s universe without logic; his art without mannerisms; his films without structures, rhetoric, or ideology; his ability to “reanimate the most petrified forms” mean that Soviet cinema had to offer a uniquely different kind of master — a Soviet Renoir.”
Co-director Fyodor Otsep (sometimes as Fedor Ozep) was an interesting character, and although fairly unknown and forgotten today, was actually a name to be reckoned with in his day. Otsep was one of the very first film theorists in Russia, before Kuleshov and Eisenstein, one who was never as interested in creating films that followed the ideologically driven models later set up by these auteurs, and others. We know he was active as early as 1913, and is credited with screenplays for many of the most important films in late Tsarist and early communist Russia, such as the Pushkin adaptation The Queen of Spades, the Tolstoy adaptation Polikushka (1916), Aelita (1924, review) and The Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom (1928).
Miss Mend was Otsep’s directorial debut, and he made two more films, psychological dramas, in the Soviet Union. These films, The Yellow Ticket (1928, with Anna Sten again) and The Living Corpse (1929), are held in some regard by film scholars today, but in the Soviet Union Otsep was vilified for not adhering to the set schematic of Soviet cinema. Finding it increasingly difficult to work under the Soviet system, Otsep defected to Germany, where he made a highly innovative, and if you believe certain film buffs, quite influential, take on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff, 1931), starring previously mentioned Anna Sten and Fritz Kortner. This was an early sound film that tried to mesh visuals with atonal, modern music, creating an audiovisual experience, rather than having the music and sound simply complementing the visuals — something later picked up by experimental filmmakers in the fifties, not least people like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. There are those who claim that Otsep was a big influence on Orson Welles — screenwriter Victor Trivas worked with Otsep before he worked with Welles and might well have introduced the former to the latter. Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff is still considered, to this day, to be the best adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel ever brought to screen.
The Brothers Karamazov was an international hit, even if it did more for Anna Sten’s career than Fyodor Otsep’s. One thing it did was end a marriage — Sten left Otsep for the film’s producer Eugene Frenke, to whom she remained married until his death in 1984. Sten was immediately hired to work with some of the biggest talent in Germany, including superstars Emil Jannings and Hans Albers, as well as director Robert Siodmak, with whom she made the internationally distributed Storms of Passion (1932). Independent Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn saw a picture of Sten in the US ads for the film, and after seeing the picture itself immediately got in touch with her agent in Germany, and shipped her over to Hollywood, hoping to make her the next Greta Garbo. However, it wasn’t until she arrived in Los Angeles that he realised that this Russian Garbo didn’t speak a word of English. Goldwyn didn’t let that deter him, but marketed her relentlessly to the press, while he put her on a two-year intensive class in English, all while feeding the press gossip about “wardrobe and makeup tests” and “finding the right vehicle” for her, and so on.
For her first vehicle, Goldwyn ultimately chose an adaptation of Émile Zola’s scandalous novel Nana, but the film Nana (1934) turned out to be a box office bomb. So were Sten’s next two films, We Live Again (1934) and The Wedding Night (1935), despite involving talent like Rouben Mamoulian, King Vidor, Fredric March and Gary Gooper. After three flops in a row, Goldwyn was forced to let his protege go, after having spent over five million dollars on trying to make her a star. “Goldwyn’s folly” she was nicknamed, and has since become the case in point when discussing highly publicised but disastrous career launches in Hollywood instigated by over-zealous producers looking for the next big star. All three films were troubled and perhaps ill-advised productions (Nana was completely reshot with a different director), and Goldwyn had a reputation for interfering greatly with the screenwriting and direction. Most film scholars agree that Sten’s brutal fall from grace wasn’t so much her fault as much as it was the fault of Goldwyn’s relentless marketing campaign, touting Sten as the actress who would out-Garbo Garbo. As Dave Shipman writes in his obituary in The Independent: “it wasn’t that Sten wasn’t any good, but that she wasn’t very good”.
For one reason or the other, Otsep’s career in Europe didn’t quite take off in the way that he (and his later fans) would have hoped. One reason, of course, was this pesky little thing called Nazism. Seeing which way the Hitler was blowing, Otsep relocated to France in 1933, where he lived for eight years, making a handful of films there and in Italy, before emigrating to the US in 1941. Partly because of his lack of English skills, he had a hard time getting his career back on the rails in Hollywood. He tried to launch an adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a brash proposition during the raging WWII, but the only film he was able to make was a romantic propaganda comedy called Three Russian Sisters (1943), an Americanised remake of the Soviet film The Girl from Leningrad (1941). And lo and behold, who played the lead, if not Otsep’s ex-wife Anna Sten, whose career had been momentarily rekindled during WWII by the American interest in the Russian war effort. After the war, Sten tried to keep her acting career alive by taking acting lessons at the Actors Studio, and did a few film and TV appearances in the fifties and sixties, partly thanks to her husband, producer Frenke. While she never became the Hollywood star she was touted as, she did find better luck as a painter. She passed away in 1993. And while her Hollywood output may be forgettable, the films she made with Otsep and Barnet still hold up today.
As he was more proficient in French than in English, Otsep again relocated, this time to Canada where he made his two last films (disregarding an odd Portuguese interlude), Le père Chopin (1945), and Whispering City (1947), which also got a French version called La Forteresse. These last films have led to the fact that Canada is one of the few countries in which Otsep has been taken seriously as a major Soviet-era director. Le père Chopin (Father Chopin) was Canada’s first French-language feature film, and one of the first feature films produced in Quebec, set in Quebec, telling the story of ordinary French-speaking people in Quebec. The small, idealistic production company made a lot of noise over the fact that they were able to hire an important director from the golden era of Soviet cinema to produce French-speaking Canada’s first “own” film, turning Otsep into a minor national hero for the Quebecois. The film was met with rave reviews in the press, but like most of Otsep’s movies from the thirties and forties, it is either lost or not available for public consumption.
One of Otsep’s staunchest defenders, food and film writer Mike Gebert writes about the director at his site NitrateVille:
“A peripatetic life that went from the USSR to Tinseltown with most of the countries in between at some point is not one that makes it easy to be remembered and championed. Within the Soviet Union he had artistic rivals eager to dismiss his work, once outside there was a conspiracy of silence to downplay the acclaim he had once enjoyed and to denigrate his work for failing to live up to dogma he had never agreed with in the first place. The result is a filmmaker with no one to champion him and plenty who had reason to ignore him.
Yet Ozep [sic] seems — from what we can see of him — to have been an intelligent, capable and artistically curious filmmaker with a consistent focus on individual psychology. His best characters and his loose, impressionistic mise-en-scene remain captivating when more dogmatic films seem hard to love; he’s a consistent breath of fresh air for those stifled by the familiar Soviet classics.”
Of the actors we have mentioned Boris Barnet and Natalya Glan, but it would be a crime to neglect Vladimir Fogel, playing the journalist Fogel, the brainy nerd of our group of heroes. For a brief period in the late twenties, Vladimir Fogel was considered by many to be the greatest film actor of the Soviet Union. A tremendously athletic performer, he excelled in acrobatics, fencing, boxing, and other physical tasks, often doubling other actors in stunts. But he was also a superb dramatic actor with a charisma and a gift of channelling his emotions in his work. He was what would later be called a method actor who took his work very seriously. Like so many other great artists, he was as troubled as he was exuberant, and he took his own life in 1928, after appearing in only 13 films. Seeing Fogel on the screen does remind me very much of another tragic death, that of Heath Ledger. In a way the two were very similar in their approach to acting, the openness they transmitted to the audience, making them immediately loved by film-goers. Like the death of Ledger, Fogel’s early demise feels unusually tragic for the art of film, because we get a feeling that he had only just given us a glimpse of what he was capable of.
Fogel also had a prominent role in Lev Kuleshov’s sci-fi yarn The Death Ray. Other films to watch him in are Kuleshov’s Jack London adaptation Down by Law (1926) and Abram Room’s amazing social drama Bed and Sofa (1927), where he appears alongside Aelita star Nikolay Balatov.
Another actor worthy of mention is Igor Ilyinsky, playing the comic sidekick in Miss Mend. Ilyinsky was a noted stage actor specialising in comedic roles, and had been prominently featured in leading roles in a number of films directed by Yakov Protazanov. He was the annoying wannabe-detective in Aelita, and appeared in The Cigarette Girl From Mosselprom, The Taylor from Trozhtok (1925), and Three Thieves (1926).
1938 was a defining year for Ilyinsky, as it was the year that he became attached to the Maly Theatre in Moscow, where he would continue to work for nearly fifty years, becoming its number one star, as well as writer and director. It was also the year that saw the release of the musical comedy Volga – Volga, which was allegedly Yosif Stalin’s favourite film, and a worldwide success. In it, Ilyinsky played a rather slow-witted bureaucrat who likes to have things done by the book. His straight-faced portrayal of the misguided but ultimately well-meaning red-tapist became a phenomenon. Trying to avoid type-casting, Ilyinsky almost completely dropped out of film acting after this, to instead focus on his stage work. He did return to the screen in the fifties, however, and in 1956 had another smash hit on his hands, this time with Carnival in Moscow, another musical comedy, where he more or less reprised his role from Volga – Volga. He continued to do film and TV work until the late seventies, even though he was mostly preoccupied with stage work, playing tragic figures from the pages of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Toward the end of his career he became almost completely blind, but carried on with his work on the radio. In 1981 the minor planet 3622 Ilinsky in orbit between Earth and Venus was named in his honour.
Ilyinsky’s acting in Miss Mend is very different from the style he developed for Volga – Volga, and was subsequently stuck with. Here, still only 25 years young, the slightly stodgy actor is still surprisingly athletic, and is not to be outdone by Barnet and Vogel, although his character does more falling than jumping. He also embraces a slightly effeminate style, reminiscent of Stan Laurel. In fact, with his smiling, optimistic portrayal of the office clerk, he very much evokes the image of a slightly overweight Stan Laurel.
Sergei Komarov is brilliant, as always, as the sinister Chiche. Komarov was another of the Kuleshov adepts, and entered the film world in 1921. Never as great a star as his co-actors in Miss Mend, he was nevertheless a respected character actor for many decades, and for a long time taught acting at Kuleshov’s film school. Komarov could perhaps be called the first science fiction star of the Soviet Union, as he appeared in a total of three sci-fi films. He played the male lead as the workers’ leader in The Death Ray, Chiche in Miss Mend, and later returned as the heroic captain of a moon rocket in Space Flight (1935).
I must admit I am very partial to Miss Mend. I can see the point made by the latter-day film scholars who are trying to restore the reputation of Soviet directors like Barnet, Otsep and others who have been neglected as both Western and Eastern academics have restricted the silent Soviet canon to the ideologically driven, self-referential, “experimental” style of montage theorists like Eisenstein, Vertov or Pudovkin. Great though their films are, there was also another Soviet cinema around: optimistic, urban, modern, breezy — FUN! If we can celebrate the great films by Chaplin and Keaton, the light-hearted romantic comedies of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, the musical comedies of Kelly and Astaire, or the plethora of Sherlock Holmes adaptations made in Hollywood, then why frown upon the Soviet counterparts? Is Miss Mend Great Cinema Art? Certainly not. But neither is His Girl Friday. Is it a great movie? Sure!
As mentioned, the plot is uneven, and the serial would have benefited from being turned into a single feature film. Plot holes and errors also abound, even laughably obvious ones. I’ll give the floor to Ms. Kramer of Movies Silently again:
“For all its attempts to emulate American films, Miss Mend fails with basic geography. While the American city where the action takes place is pretty generic, signs and scenery mark it as being in the vicinity of Los Angeles (a club called Valencia, a Pasadena jazz band, etc.). However, characters easily hop a ship sailing directly to Leningrad. Unless the characters round a little thing called the Horn of Africa, cut through the Suez Canal or cross the Bering Strait and then hike across the eastern half of the country, I think that perhaps just sending a warning letter to Russia would save time. Leningrad would certainly not be the target of choice for a west coast criminal mastermind.
Nitpicking. Sorry. California girl complaining here.”
If you’re looking for a full-blown science fiction film, then you should probably give Miss Mend a pass. But if you’re looking to broaden your idea of silent Soviet cinema, Soviet culture in general, or see how a film serial was made when it was very well made, then I highly recommend Miss Mend. And if you don’t have the patience to sit through 250 minutes of socialist spy comedy action thriller, but want to acquaint yourself with the “other” Soviet cinema, then please try and find Boris Barnet’s wonderful comedy The Girl with the Hat Box. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Shoutout to Mike Gebert for his excellent posting on Fyodor Otsep!
Miss Mend (Мисс Менд). 1926, USSR. Directed by Boris Barnet & Fyodor Otsep. Written by Boris Barnet, Fyodor Otsep & Vasily Sakhnovsky. Based on a novel by Marietta Shaganyan. Starring: Natalya Glan, Igor Ilyinsky, Vladimir Fogel, Boris Barnet, Sergey Komarov, Ivan Koval-Samborsky, Natalya Rozenel, Michail Rozen-Sanin, Anna Sten. Cinematography: Yevgeni Alekseyev. Art directin: Vladimir Yegorov. Produced for Mezhrapbom-Rus.