The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924)

Director: Lev Kuleshov

Next on the agenda: Flicker Alley’s Landmarks of Early Soviet Film box, half of which I’ve previously seen and half I haven’t… mind you, of the films I have seen, it’s still been several years since I saw any of them, and indeed I first and last saw Mr West back in 1994 when I did that Soviet cinema class at UNSW… Lev Kuleshov is, I suspect, probably better known for his place in film theory history than the films he actually made, and I’ll leave it to people better educated in these things than I am to judge how well his actual films lived up to his theories. This was, in fact, the first film to emerge from the Kuleshov workshop; even though he’d been operating the latter for years, all he could do was theorise since the wherewithal for actually producing films—little things like cameras and film stock, for example—wasn’t exactly plentiful in those years when the nascent USSR was still engaged in civil war and getting over that. And so I did find myself wondering while watching the film again tonight what audiences made of Kuleshov’s theoretical work; I mean, did they actually know anything about what he’d been doing before making this? If they did, how much did they particularly care?

Cos the joy of the film is that the surface of it is so straightforward; it’s basically a satire on how countries perceive each other, as Mr West goes on a trip from America to the Soviet Union, where he falls into the clutches of a gang of crooks posing as counter-revolutionaries in order to rob him blind. And it has fun setting him up with these stereotypes of what Bolsheviks are like according to American magazines—leading to one of the funniest parts of the film when the “Bolsheviks” who “kidnap” him look just like the ones in the magazine—but at the same time it gives us Jeddy, West’s manservant, whose cowboy pose is just much of a stereotype too. However dry Kuleshov’s theoretical work might’ve been, in practice it was nothing but, at least not in this film, which seems to have been a fair popular hit at the time. What did Kuleshov’s belief in the primacy of editing as The Soviet Way Of Doing Things With Film really bring to Mr West, then? I don’t know, to be honest. The film looks more like he’d set out to make an American-style adventure-comedy, with Mr West himself definitely recalling Harold Lloyd (though had the latter’s films actually made it to the USSR by then? Jay Leyda says in Kino the Soviets barely knew who Chaplin was)—even the “hey, the Soviet lifestyle’s better than you were led to believe” ending is much the same as what Lubitsch did from the other side in Ninotchka in 1939—rather than a textbook of showy technique. I’m quite pleased to enjoy it on its rather jolly surface level; I liked it as such in that class back in 1994, and was glad to see it again tonight…

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