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The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

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.

‘Chess Fever’

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.

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: ‘Landmarks of Early Soviet Film’

The title of Flicker Alley’s box set Landmarks of Early Soviet Film: A Four-Disc DVD Collection Of 8 Groundbreaking Films may sound like dry lesson plan in film history on the surface. There are a lot of viewers, even lovers of movie classics, who consider watching any silent film not by Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton as the film history equivalent of eating your vegetables — good for you but hardly fun — and place the often stridently propagandistic features of early Soviet cinema high on that list. Perhaps the most valuable revelation of this collection is the diversity of filmmaking, from dynamic dramas to witty comedies to striking documentaries, even among those committed to the aesthetic of montage. The concept that meaning comes not simply from the shot but in the way shots are juxtaposed was more than a guiding for many of the filmmakers, it was the filmmaking equivalent of revolutionary credentials, but the application and purpose was different for each filmmaker.

The set features work by the three most famous Soviet proponents of montage: Sergei Eisenstein, who essays on principles of editing were reflected in such films as Battleship Potemkin and October; Dziga Vertov, who apprenticed in political newsreels before graduating to features and soaring to Man With a Movie Camera; and Lev Kuleshov, who coined the term ‘montage’ and first explored the possibilities in experiments and early films his student workshop. These three directors popularized primacy of editing in both practice and theory. Just as illuminating, however, is the inclusion of filmmakers with different ideas and approaches to montage and to filmmaking in general. Montage is not just one thing, as these films illustrate. It encompasses ideas and arguments, emotions and excitement, suspense and tension, dramatic effect, revelation and humor: the perfect cut as punchline delivery. It was also a short-lived aesthetic in Soviet cinema. “Formalism” was condemned as a bourgeois concept and montage directors fell out of favor. This collection celebrates a brief period of cinematic experimentation.

Porfiriy Podobed as the flag-waving Mr. West

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), the debut feature from Lev Kuleshov, is a political cartoon of a Soviet satire that knowingly spoofs American stereotypes of “Bolshevik revolutionaries” through the comically surreal odyssey of the gullible Mr. West (Porfiri Podobed, dressed to evoke a middle-aged Harold Lloyd), an American politician on a fact-finding mission to the Soviet Union. Arriving with star-spangled socks and a head full of the most sinister stereotypes of the barbarous state of the communist peoples, he’s kidnapped by a gang of con artists who deliver his worst Bolshevik nightmare, complete with a staged “trial” the plays out likes a piece of anti-Bolshevik theater by way of a German Expressionist horror, as a preamble to prying him from his money. While Kuleshov and crew (including future filmmaker V.I. Pudovkin, who collaborated on the script) present the communist caricatures with a knowing wink to its Soviet audience, its equally absurd American clichés — such as West’s cowboy sidekick (played by future director Boris Barnet) arriving in Moscow in chaps and cowboy hat, shooting up the streets like a drunken cowhand and lassoing a car like it was a runaway horse — are played for culture clash comedy: the crazy hayseed in the big city. By the end, of course, our wide-eyed Mr. West is introduced to the true face of communism and the glories of the Soviet ideal, but along the way Kuleshov creates a breakneck mix of chase film, cliffhanger adventure and slapstick comedy with cartoonish twists. It’s American popular entertainment refracted through a Soviet lens. It’s also very funny, highly inventive and quite knowing in its appropriation of cinema clichés.

More on By the Law, The House on Trubnaya Square, Old and New, Salt for Svanetia and others at Turner Classic Movies.