Almost unknown in the West, even today, though luckily actually available on DVD, Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters is a really wild Russian film that mixes equal parts action serial, Dr. Mabuse crime film, and political satire in a film that breaks tradition with all other Soviet film of the silent era.
Made in 1926, the film chronicles the attempts of “three reporters and an office girl trying to stop a bacteriological strike by some powerful western business leaders against the USSR,” and while the whole film is typically outrageous Soviet propaganda, it’s filled with an energy and kinetic power akin to the work of Sergei Eisenstein crossed with a dash of Fritz Lang, and succeeds almost through sheer outrageousness alone.
As film critic Bret Wood notes of the film, “when one thinks of the Soviet cinema of the 1920s, the images that come to mind are those of state-sponsored propaganda, rendered in a dynamic visual style, orchestrated with the rhythm of hammer blows, engineered to deliver the maximum emotional and intellectual impact. But not every Russian film at the time was cut from the cloth of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin. There was a whole other movement that embraced the conventions of American and European film as a means of imparting its sociopolitical messages.
Films such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (1924) and even the sci-fi romance Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) proved that some Red Russians served up their agitprop with joie de vivre. The most prominent purveyor of this breed of film was the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio. In her book Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s, Denise J. Youngblood writes that ‘the studio was a flourishing concern, its commercial style already well established. Despite its dependence on leftist, German capital, it turned out unabashedly bourgeois films — films with the dash and glamour which had characterized the pre-revolutionary cinema.’
One of Mezhrabpom’s most ambitious films was Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep’s Miss Mend (1926), which tapped into the adventure serial genre that had proven popular in the U.S. (The Perils of Pauline ), Germany (Fritz Lang’s The Spiders [1919-20]), and France (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires ). Broken into three feature-length installments and clocking a total of more than four hours, Miss Mend is a hyperkinetic comedy thriller that achieves the near-impossible challenge of maintaining audience interest over the course of a plot that expansive without being exhausting.
The labyrinthine plot follows the exploits of a muck-raking reporter, Barnet (Barnet), a photographer named Vogel (Vladimir Fogel), Hopkins the clerk (Igor Ilyinsky), and a typist named Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan), who stumble upon a conspiracy to murder American industrialist Gordon Stern and lay the blame on the Bolsheviks. Through a falsified will, Stern’s empire will go to the vampish second wife Elizabeth (Natalya Rozenel), who hands it over to a ‘gigantic criminal conspiracy’ known as the Organization, led by an assassin named Chiche (Sergei Komarov).
In part two, the nefarious Chiche reveals a plot to sell plague-inducing biological weapons to a cabal of wealthy industrialists. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the germs, he sends an ampule to be discharged in Soviet Russia (where it will eliminate thousands of labor activists). A motorboat chase ensues and the ampule is intercepted by Vogel, but is accidentally smashed, and the passengers and crew on the S.S. Preussen begin dropping like flies.
In the concluding section, the plague is contained and pursuit of Chiche reaches a fever pitch. Hopkins falls under Chiche’s hypnotic spell (a reference perhaps to Fritz Lang’s arch-villain Dr. Mabuse, who was a master of mind control) but it is unclear just how deeply entranced he may be. As the Organization begins to unravel, its mastermind makes a last-ditch effort to release the plague-bearing bacterium upon the world, but he hasn’t accounted for the presence of the Soviet Police, who have the chance to be the heroes of the climactic third act.
According to Youngblood, ‘Miss Mend was one of the most-seen [Soviet] films of the twenties, with a recorded audience of more than 1.7 million in the first six months. It played at least two months at the deluxe Ars theatre in Moscow.’ But Youngblood reveals that the critics were not as enthusiastic as the ticket-buyers. ‘Miss Mend was one of the most criticized movies of the twenties . . . The reviews ranged from the dismissive (“naive and stupid” and “varnished barbarism”) to the denunciatory (accusations that the film’s cheerful antics promoted “hooliganism”).’ Not exactly an intellectual exercise, the film was nonetheless laced with bits of social commentary, often aimed at various forms of Western decadence (including corrupt cops and red hot jazz).”