One of the nice things about seeing the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) and the Pordenone (Italy) Silent Film Festival in is that I’ve seen some very funny and interesting Soviet films. The Pordenone festival showed a funny Anna Sten film from 1927 called “The Girl With a Hatbox,” in 2012. “Cosmic Voyage” screened at this year’s SFSFF festival along with “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks,” a 1924 film that satirizes the incompatibility of American values and attitudes to the ideas of a new socialist state.
Porfiri Podobed, looking a lot like Harold Lloyd (and wearing his glasses), plays John West, an American businessman and President of the YMCA who arrives in Moscow with his faithful bodyguard Jeddie (Boris Barnet). Jeddie, a no-nonsense cowboy, immediately becomes flummoxed by the curious form of travel (horse-drawn sleigh) through the Moscow streets. A series of mishaps occurs that separates the two Americans, and Mr. West becomes entangled by a group of con men who are clearly not Bolsheviks. The con men, pretending to be Soviet officials, give Mr. West the worst possible impression of the Soviet capital, as they try to take his money and entangle him in other illegal schemes.
One ruse used by the gang features actress Aleksandra Khokhlova as a countess with seduction on her mind. Naturally, these con games don’t work because of Mr. West’s naiveity. The gang seems intent only on embarrassing Mr. West, but the broad slapstick emphasizes a threat of violence. Director Lev Kuleshov, who pioneered Soviet montage cinema, uses quick editing techniques to keep the audience off-balance. The film moves so swiftly that I was thankful the filmmakers used some funny sight gags early to remind us of the theme. Kuleshov wanted to show that American’s do not understand Russia, and he emphasizes that with some funny pictures in one of Mr. West’s American magazines. In these images, the Soviets look like fur-wearing savages.
The climax of the film comes down to whether the real Bolsheviks can rescue Mr. West from the con men, and whether Mr. West will find Jeddie. Despite it being an American style comedy with a lot of slapstick, the filmmakers take time in the end to give us propaganda about the Soviet Union. The real Bolsheviks are so clearly more gracious and accommodating to Mr. West that they take him on a tour of Moscow that includes includes views of the university, the Bolshoi Ballet and a workers’ parade. This tour so inspires the gullible Mr. West that he plans to hang a picture of Mr. Lenin on his office wall back home. There’s no telling what effect that will have back at the YMCA.