A Kiss From Mary Pickford (Potseluy Meri Pikford)

Russia (1927) Dir. Sergei Komarov

When one thinks of Russian cinema, especially from the silent era, the bleak, heavy but seminal dramas of Sergei Eisenstein usually spring to mind and with much validity. Comedy on the other hand would seem like an alien concept amidst this catalogue of sociological polemics but amazingly, the Soviets were often up for a laugh.

During the period when the Russian media condemned the Americanisation of cinema and bemoaned how its own films were largely ignored, popular actor turned director Sergei Komarov saw the chance for a satire on this when the world’s most famous couple of the time, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, arrived in Russia for a visit in 1926.

Komarov and his crew, posing as a newsreel team, filmed the visit with permission from the couple, even managing to have Pickford agree to a typical publicity shot kissing popular actor Igor Ilyinsky. However, Komarov never revealed his true motive for this footage to the couple – Fairbanks never knew of this film’s existence while Pickford reportedly received a print only a few years before her death in 1979.

Aside from an early example of audacious guerrilla filmmaking the film itself is a rather nifty piece of American influenced slapstick with many obvious nods to the comedy stylings of the era (Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are the most apparent on the physical and mannerisms front) while managing to stand out on its own merits as a credible entry into the genre.

The flimsy story carries with it a cynical undercurrent which reveals itself early on. Igor Ilyinsky plays Goga Palkin, a cinema usher who is in love with Dusya Galkina (Anel Sudakevich), an aspiring actress with a huge ego and an even bigger crush on Douglas Fairbanks. Every time Goga tries to get near Dusya she rebuffs him, claiming he’d have to be famous before she notices him.

Determined to win Dusya’s heart, Goga tries to break into acting eventually becoming a stuntman. On the day that Doug and Mary arrive in Moscow, Goga miraculously survives a huge fall during a stunt set up, causing the studio head (noted Russian director Abram Room) to make Goga “the Russian Fairbanks”. The aforementioned kiss scene later happens and suddenly Goga is hot property much to the chagrin of Dusya.

For the most part this film is straight up slapstick with Dusya’s inflated ego being the first sign of its satirical edge, painting her as a deluded wannabe with ideas above her station which does little to deter the poor sap Goga. The first visual representation comes when Goga takes out his frustration of being ignored on a Fairbanks poster complaining “We’re really stuck with you wise guys!”.

Of course when Dusya makes her demands known, Goga begins to emulate Fairbanks in order to win her over, with disastrous results for him but some amusing satire for the audience to enjoy. It is also the first chance Igor Ilyinsky has in this film to demonstrate what a gifted physical comedian he was in his own right, despite his obvious lampooning of the Hollywood comic hero in his movements and appearance.

Without the burden of overt political rhetoric and trenchant social commentary Komarov  is forced to rely on the comedy sets ups to drive this film and while not always hilarious, there are some fun moments to be found here, even if the inspiration to mock the perceived flimsiness of US comedy. Yet it doesn’t feel mean spirited or savage and comes cross more of a homage, which it may secretly have been.

The pivotal kiss doesn’t occur until much later in the film and the scepticism begins in earnest when Goga is suddenly mobbed at his every turn, with people even paying to spy on him eating at a restaurant. Today we pour scorn over the cult of celebrity especially when it involves people who have done nothing to earn it, and while the Russians may have abhorred the immense adoration shown towards the likes of Pickford and Fairbanks they did at least earn it.

In towing the party line so to speak, Komarov enjoys showing this celebrity mania from both sides of the fence, exposing the fickleness and triteness of the public hysteria over something so small, and the tiring effect it has on the beloved star. Komarov plays the former beautifully with some great moments, the meaning of which no doubt went over some people’s heads but the execution is acutely funny.

A quick bit of research suggests this film was originally 79 minutes long while the version this review is based on is only 56 minutes. Numerous jump cuts and abrupt scene changes would corroborate the notion that this version is incomplete but nothing too drastic is lost to ruin the narrative and flow of the film.   

Komarov successfully replicates the US style of editing and shot composition, while the lampooning the slapstick style is amazingly accurate yet with a whiff of Russian flavour to it. One noticeable niggle is in the cinema where Fairbanks’s The Mark Of Zorro is screening which clearly has been superimposed as every shot of the screen has the same situation of a woman taking her seat at the front, even when the film is shown ending!

The footage of Doug and Mary is blatantly from another source and often awkwardly inserted into the main film but I’m sure filmgoers 90 years ago didn’t care and were more enamoured in seeing their idols on Russian soil and in such candid situations. The actual kiss scene is a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment but it happened and  Komarov gets plenty of mileage out of it.

A Kiss From Mary Pickford stands as an important historical cinematic document for a number of reasons, from its bold cheekiness in essentially bootlegging the world’s biggest film stars of the time, to proving that not all Russian silent cinema was so grim and intense.

A buried treasure definitely worth excavating.