The entire Miss Mend series is available from Flicker Alley on a beautifully scored and rendered 2-disc DVD remastered from a 35 mm print.
Miss Mend (1926)
The thing I did not expect over the course of four-ish hours of excellent thrill-packed, sci-fi, proletarian action (with acrobatic slapstick on the side), was a quick refresher on German Expressionism interspersed with loving nods to the Soviet montage. Miss Mend is a three-part adventure serial set in an American "everytown" featuring an intrepid labor-activist and her three plucky admirers, all of whom get into 100 kinds of international, life-threatening mishegas.
Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan) works as a typist at a typical American cork factory, this one run by Rocfeller (sic) & Co. She is mooned over by an affable, chubby coworker called Tom Hopkins played by Igor Ilyinsky, a sweet-faced and charming comic actor. On the day of the big strike, the local paper sends its ace reporter, Barnet (Boris Barnet, also the series director and future husband of Miss Glan), to cover the story along with his photographer friend Vogel (Vladimir Fogel). They arrive just in time to see an incensed Miss Mend fling herself out of an office window to beat up a police officer who had just shot down one of the protesters. It's love at first sight for both of them, and the two join Tom as Miss Mend's moonstruck adventure posse for the duration.
What starts out as a straightforward story of honest working people overcoming excessive capitalist greed (a narrative, I might add, completely intelligible to American audiences of the day) quickly turns into a criminal conspiracy picture, complete with cadaverous evil genius with dreams of global domination. That's where the Murnau creeps in. The connection between these two themes is made in a moment of slapstick choreography when Miss Mend, on the run from the coppers, jumps into the speeding car of handsome young Arthur Stern (Ivan Koval-Samborsky), who happens to be the son of the factory owner, a fact he does not reveal for some time. Arthur is no fool.
Said factory owner, Gordon Stern, has just been murdered (or HAS he?) by the aforementioned cadaverous genius, Chiche (Sergey Komarov), who pins the blame for the elder Stern's death publicly on the Bolsheviks, claiming those treacherous communists were unhappy about a financial negotiation and just moidered him dead, those godless bastards. Young Arthur vows to take his revenge.
Which brings me to fascinating, pretty spot-on American stereotype number one: How anti-communists talk about communists -- godless, scheming, conspiratorial, root of all discontent. There's another earlier trope about how the rules for rich people are different for the poor, but everyone knows that.
Stern's widow, Arthur's stepmother, is in on the racket. She is tediously in love with the unsmiling, corpse-like Chiche, and conspires with him to have her husband's fortune diverted to funding "The Organization," a sort of International Banking operation run by gentiles. This is achieved through some wonderful chase sequences and document switcheroos, which includes one of the best train vs. car crashes I've ever seen in my life. The contesting of Stern's will leads to another plot offshoot, in which Miss Mend (remember her?) reveals that her sister was raped by Gordon Stern, the result of which is the little five-year-old nephew for whom she's been caring.
While that's going on, we learn that Chiche has enlisted a team of evil scientists -- one of whom is a woman, thank you -- to develop a biological weapon that looks like your average electrical insulator, but instead delivers a massive dose of Plague. Chiche wants to sell this weapon to the highest bidder (the birth of a pretty well-established Russian stereotype: international supervillain?), but first will demonstrate its power on the unsuspecting Soviet people. Two birds; one plague.
At this juncture, the entire series moves to Russia. It's always been there, of course, but now the production team can relax a bit from trying to make Soviet towns look like American towns. Thus far, they've achieved it by putting up signs in English, filling the streets with automobile traffic and fast-moving pedestrians, and adding a couple of black people. Incidentally, one of those black people serves as a shocking plot prop during a confrontation between armed thugs and a bunch of workers and sailors in a bar. The guy appears out of nowhere only to be killed by one of the thugs (a disguised Chiche who was trying to recover a letter from Tom, but never mind). When the police come, an officer looks at the man and says "No big deal, he's black" and leaves.
Did I mention this is 1926? I don't believe I've ever seen a throwaway line illustrating institutional racism in an American film ever. At least not in a movie that wasn't about or satirizing racism. Just saying.
The final episode depicts the gang thwarting Chiche's evil scheme and mostly ties up the looser plot threads. Along the way there are some grand boat sequences, one of which includes a plague ship; a couple of bare-knuckle bouts of fisticuffs; about two too many enema gags; an attempted rape; a blossoming romance (not the same guy*); some spectacular car chases; a little jazz music; industrious Soviet street urchins; more trains; horse chase; snow fight; stair fight; fist fight; race against time; and a very satisfying denouement.
There is a lot to appreciate in Miss Mend, not the least of which is its humor. The film's depiction of America's vices and virtues is also instructive and fascinating, but to me, the most endearing feature of the series is its obvious affection for the cinema of its time, both as popular entertainment and as an art form.
In other words: Plot schmot; this is a winner.
This post is another entry for the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and sponsored by Flicker Alley, which kindly provided a screener for this review.
Please take a moment to look at everyone's entries, arranged, as usual, in an entertaining index.
* I'm talking to YOU, General Hospital.
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