Marina L. Levitina / Visual Culture

The Films of Douglas Fairbanks SR in Early Soviet Russia

In the 1920s, stars of silent American cinema, including Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Mary Pickford, and Pearl White offered the Soviet viewers alternative models of new femininity and masculinity.

Igor Ilyinsky, The Kiss of Mary Pickford, Film, 'Russian Americans' in Soviet Film: Cinematic Dialogues Between the US and the USSR, Marina L. Levitina, Russian, American

In the early twentieth century, there existed a certain perception in the Russian popular imagination of a new, modern set of qualities, which included some of the same human traits that earlier impressed the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville in Americans. Among these traits were efficiency, physical fitness, optimism, and the frontiersman’s adventurous, pioneering spirit. After 1917, these traits were praised as new exemplary qualities that citizens of the young Soviet state needed to acquire. In the Soviet press of the 1920s, a widely used trope ‘Russian Americans’ signified Soviet citizens of a new kind. People described in this way were usually the efficient and technologically skilful workers, [1] the 1920s’ prototype of the ‘extraordinary men and women’ of the Stalinist Thirties.

The general image of a positive American set of qualities was reinforced among the wider Russian population in the 1910s and 1920s by imported American films. Between 1922 and 1928, American imports comprised 43.7% of all films shown on Soviet screens. [2] Russian viewers soon fell in love with Pearl White, Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, William S. Hart, and a number of other American stars. The characters created by these stars were energetic, optimistic, and often successful within the rags-to-riches narratives of many popular films.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr was one of early Soviet Russia’s favourite foreign film stars. Several of Fairbanks’ early features were shown in Moscow prior to 1925,[3] but it was largely thanks to his four hits imported since 1925, The Thief of Bagdad [USA 1924], The Mark of Zorro [USA 1920], Robin Hood [USA 1922], and Don Q, Son of Zorro [USA 1925] that Fairbanks enjoyed such an enthusiastic reception in Russia. By 1928, when asked by journalists what they liked about foreign films, Soviet children most often mentioned Douglas Fairbanks, whose courage they wanted to emulate. [4] A 1929 children’s survey showed that Fairbanks’ films The Thief of Bagdad and The Mark of Zorro were their top two favourites, followed by the Soviet adventure film Little Red Devils [Krasnye diavoliata, 1923]. [5]

The footage shot of Fairbanks and Pickford during their arrival to Moscow in 1926 was used by Lev Kuleshov’s student, Sergei Komarov, in a popular comedy called The Kiss of Mary Pickford [Potselui Meri Pikford, 1927]. The plot revolves around a Chaplinesque movie theatre usher Goga Palkin (Igor Ilyinsky), whose sweetheart Dusya (Anel Sudakevich) is an admirer of Fairbanks and rejects Goga after watching The Mark of Zorro. Throughout the film, Goga goes through a number of identity changes, trying to look and act like Fairbanks (practicing his smile and his leaps), and submitting himself to a number of uncanny tests so as to become a famous ‘stuntman.’

By the end of the film and following a kiss from Mary Pickford, Goga becomes a local celebrity and wins Dusya’s love. Goga’s willingness to undergo an identity change, so as to resemble Fairbanks both physically and in his celebrity status, parodies (and thus proves the existence of) similar tendencies on behalf of male viewers in Soviet Russia of the 1920s. Fairbanks’ star image became an ideal of physical attractiveness, as well as of positive modes of behaviour.

One of Fairbanks’ outstanding qualities was his physical fitness: throughout all of his films shown in Russia, he personally performed numerous stunts and athletic feats. In The Thief of Bagdad, Fairbanks’ character Ahmed climbs high walls, steels food that is being cooked on a balcony two floors high, and easily leaps over the heads of numerous men in prayer. Fairbanks created an image of exemplary male physicality, sporting strong muscles, which were a prominent visual attribute.

Even prior to the appearance of Fairbanks’ films in Russia, Soviet film journals praised American cinema for its focus on ‘sportsmen’ heroes and its plot construction often centering on courage, dexterity, and resourcefulness. An article in a 1923 issue of Kino magazine juxtaposed the ‘sportsman’ of American cinema to the ‘usual European actor-intellectual with weak muscles.’ The author of the article, Veronin, called for the new Soviet cinema to be based on the work of new actors, inspired by American cinema. [6] With the appearance of the fit and muscular Fairbanks on Soviet screens, it was natural for his star image to become a model for new Soviet film heroes, considering that critics were adamantly calling for the creation of film heroes with similar traits. In 1925, another Soviet critic, Ter-Oganesov, suggested that Fairbanks was an example of a new ‘sportsman’ hero, a daredevil who ‘does everything that a hero of his type should do, and does it amazingly.’ [7] Another critic, Abramov, praised Fairbanks as the ideal hero of American cinema and pointed out the lack of such an ideal hero in Soviet cinema so far. [8]

In addition to physical fitness, Fairbanks’ Ahmed, as well as his Zorro and Robin Hood, all share another set of qualities, namely optimism, joyfulness, and a good sense of humour. Contemporary Soviet descriptions of Fairbanks emphasize his ability to make the viewers laugh: ‘Humour is an ever-present part of his pictures. Laughter, healthy and good laughter, traverses all his films as a kind of a central line,’ writes Ter-Oganesov in Kino-zhurnal ARK. [9]

Optimism and joyfulness were character traits that, in the 1930s, came to be officially encouraged in filmic portrayals of the New Soviet Person. Such human traits were best highlighted in the genre of comedy. Comedy was one of the genres most favoured by Boris Shumyatsky, the head of Soiuzkino (the main organization overseeing cinema affairs in the 1930s) for the new Soviet ‘cinema for the millions.’ [10] Soviet cinema of the 1930s saw a rise in the number of new heroes that were athletic, optimistic, and efficient. Films and stars that had left a strong impression, continued to have an effect on future filmic hero representation.

'Russian Americans' in Soviet Film: Cinematic Dialogues Between the US and the USSR, Marina L. Levitina, Book, I.B.Tauris, Visual Culture, Film

 

Marina L. Levitina teaches Russian cinema at Trinity College Dublin. She is the author of the new book ‘Russian Americans’ in Soviet Film: Cinematic Dialogues between the US and the USSR, out at the end of March.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Jeffrey Brooks, ‘The Press and Its Message: Images of America in the 1920s and 1930s,’ in Sheila Fitzpatrick and others (eds.), Russia in the Era of NEP: Explorations in Soviet Society and Culture (Bloomington 1991), 241, 247
[2] Based on Vance Kepley Jr and Betty Kepley, ‘Foreign Films on Soviet Screens, 1922–1931,’ Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 4/4 (Fall 1979): 431
[3] K. Ter-Oganesov, ‘Duglas Ferbenks,’ in Kinozhurnal ARK, 1 (January 1925): 33
[4] Brooks, ‘The Press and Its Message,’ 237
[5] Denise Youngblood, Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s (Cambridge 1992), 52
[6] Veronin, ‘Kriticheskie zametki. Po povodu tekushchego repertuara [Critical Notes. On the Current Repertoir],’ in Kino, 1/5 (January 1923): 11
[7] Ter-Oganesov, ‘Duglas Ferbenks,’ 33
[8] Al. Abramov, Duglas Ferbenks (Moscow 1926), 5
[9] Ter-Oganesov, ‘Duglas Ferbenks,’ 33
[10] Richard Taylor, ‘Ideology as Mass Entertainment: Boris Shumyatsky and Soviet Cinema in the 1930s,’ in Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (eds.), Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema (Oxon 1994), 208

Image: Igor Ilyinsky in The Kiss of Mary Pickford, 1927

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