December 29, 2009
Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): *****
If you've ever watched Battleship Potemkin (1925), you might wonder what the original audiences for the film might have been like. Sure, there were a lot of art-aware Americans who saw it on these shores, but what did the Russians think of it? Were they offended? Cheering in the aisles? It turns out that the seats were rather empty. Instead, citizens shelled out their hard-earned rubles to see another film, Miss Mend, directed by Fedor Ozep and Boris Barnet. Critics and the cultural elite sneered at the film, not only because it was a pure entertainment with no redeeming social value, but because it was a deliberate copy of a Hollywood entertainment, and influenced by evil "Western" culture. (It was based on a novel by a writer called "Jim Dollar," actually a Russian woman.) But, as seems still the case today, no amount of critical bashing can keep away enthusiastic audiences, and the film was a massive hit.
Miss Mend is hugely entertaining, though it reminded me not so much of American films, but rather equally lengthy silent fare like Fritz Lang's German adventures The Spiders (1919), Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924) and Louis Feuillade's French serials Les Vampires (1915) and Judex (1916). It appears to have been released in three feature-film sized chunks of roughly 90 minutes apiece (complete with cliffhangers at the end of each) totaling 4-1/2 hours of running time. Into this large canvas, Miss Mend packs chases and escapes, slapstick humor, disguises, secret hideouts, secret messages, a cranky newspaper editor and a train wreck (a real one, not a figurative one).
The title character, Miss Mend (Natalia Glan), is a single, working girl raising her nephew by herself. She's the kind of spunky gal who will dash into the middle of a fray to do the right thing. Even so, she (sadly) ends up spending most of the film waiting for her male counterparts to show up. They are: a reporter, Barnet (played by co-director Barnet), a photographer, Vogel (Vladimir Fogel) and a portly, comical office clerk, Tom Hopkins (Igor Ilyinsky). Together these three reckless, fearless stooges race to save the world from criminal mastermind Chiche (Sergei Komarov), who wishes to unleash a handmade black plague. Chiche's right-hand man, Arthur Stern (Ivan Koval-Samborsky), is secretly posing as "Engineer Johnson" and trying to woo Miss Mend. But, unfortunately for the bad guys, Stern actually does have a crush on the heroine.
Co-directors Fedor Ozep and Boris Barnet balance a huge palate of moods, including several very striking, quasi-Expressionist shots, some Fatty Arbuckle-type humor, some heartbreaking incidents, and some exciting -- bordering on ludicrous -- chases. It's all very nicely sustained for such a long movie, and it never breaks pace or gets dull; it never slows down, even if it does take some properly earned rest breaks.
There are a few touches that will shock modern audiences, however, including some blatant racial prejudice and a subplot about Miss Mend's nephew that is better not mentioned. But as much fun as it is, Miss Mend is perhaps most useful as co-feature with Battleship Potemkin. Taken together, they provide a much fuller picture of a country at a specific time, and they beg us to reconsider just what we mean by the word "masterpiece."
Flicker Alley has released Miss Mend on a two-disc DVD set, and their work is exemplary as usual. The film has been restored from a camera negative, and looks spectacular, but even more amazing is Robert Israel's awe-inspiring score, which bounces and whistles happily alongside the entire 4-1/2 hour film without ever taking a break of its own. (This is a complete orchestral score, not just one of those rinky-dink piano scores.) The disc includes two featurettes, one about Israel and the making of the music and another one on the film itself and its perception of Americanism. There's also a helpful liner notes booklet.
Posted by cphillips at December 29, 2009 12:46 PM