Well Flicker Alley has done it once again. For their latest release they've joined forces with Blackhawk Films, the French company Lobster, and TCM to present a very rare silent gem: Miss Mend. This unusual film is a three part serial, with each chapter running about an hour and a half. What's more interesting is that it was made in communist Russia by a pair of directors who were trying to emulate western adventure films. The result is a very good flick that will have viewers entranced for the entire five-hours that it takes to watch the show.
Set in the United States (something that's not clear at the beginning and had me scratching my head in a few spots) this action starts at a cork factory (??) where the workers are striking and demanding a living wage. The evil Organization has a member on the cork company's board and he sends the police in to beat and arrest the men.
Boris is sent to cover the strike for his pro-company newspaper along with a photographer Vogel, and a clerk for the company, Tom. When they arrive the police have just gotten to the scene and the captain is about to attack the union leader, only to be stopped by a plucky typist for the cork company, Vivian Mend. The three men are taken with her bravery and help her to escape from the resulting riot.
In order to escape, Miss Mend jumps into a passing car and meets a man who introduces himself as "Engineer Johnson". He too is attracted to the rather homely Miss Mend and not only drops her at her home (where he discovers that she's raising her dead sister's child all by herself) but also prevents the police from arresting her when they arrive. That's because he's really Arthur Stern, the son of the cork factory's owner.
Now this wouldn't be a serial if there wasn't a convoluted plot and that fact wasn't missed by the soviets. It turns out that Stern Sr. was murdered by the Organization since he wouldn't support their capitalist cause. They framed a Bolsheviks group and forged a will that they forced him to sign. This will gave all of his property to The Organization to fight the evil communists, something Arthur is more than happy with since it will avenge his father's death.
Meanwhile Miss Mend's nephew is really Arthur's half brother. It turns out his father raped the Vivian's sister while she was a maid in his house, and she killed herself her son was born not being able to bear the shame. When the Organization finds out, they kidnap the tot, since he's Stern's heir too.
If that's not all, The Organization is heavily involved in developing new horrific weapons. They've invented deadly compounds to wage chemical and bacteriological warfare. The effectiveness of these is not known however, so they decide to conduct a large scale test: by releasing them in Russia. This will not only give them the data they need, but also wipe out the plague of communism!
So it's up to the three reporters and Miss Mend to find Stern's missing son, stop the murder of countless Russians, and take down the organization.
This was a fun series that has a lot of action and chase scenes as well as an interesting and twisting plot. It's easy to tell that they were really trying to mimic Western movies and that this was a conscience departure from the more well known Russian films from that period such as the work of Eisenstein. They do a good job overall though it's not quite up to the standards set by the best action films Hollywood was putting out at the time.
Even so, there's plenty of action. One chase scene features a car trying to drive through a field followed by the three reporters on horses that they stole from the police, who are being chased by a motorcycle and finally the three horse-less cops on foot. The directors really tried to insert a sense of fun and comedy into the adventure, and for the most part it worked. The serial does have its serious side though, and people are killed on screen to point out the gravity of the situation.
It's easy to tell from the synopsis that this serial is filled with propaganda, but the message is never too overt and it's not as bad as many US movies (especially B films released during WWII). The Organization is a typical evil group trying to take over the world and while they're targeting communists they are not any more over-the-top than your typical serial villains.
One curious aspect of this adventure is that the focus of much of the serial is actually on the three reporters more than Miss Mend. I actually had a hard time buying the film's premise that every man who sees her falls in love instantly, because she's really not that attractive. Of course she's plucky, and that undoubtedly adds to her appeal. She's raising her young nephew all by herself, and doesn't hesitate to lose her job coming to the defense of a workers being oppressed by the police. All that is nice, but the actress doesn't have much screen presence and never seemed all that interesting as a person. It's a minor complaint, I'll admit, and doesn't distract from the excitement of the movie.
This three-episode serial runs 4 hours and 45 minutes. It arrives on a pair of DVDs in a clear single width keepcase with a double sided-cover.
The orchestral score composed and conducted by Robert Israel is excellent. Recorded in the Czech Republic, the score accents the action and comedy on the screen while never being too obtrusive or overbearing. I really enjoy orchestral scores though they are usually too costly for any but the most important releases and I'm very happy Flicker Alley went to the added expense. It makes this presentation very enjoyable.
The full frame image is simply amazing. I was surprised at how clean and clear this serial is, especially giving its age and origin. The level of detail is very good, with fine lines being evident in the backgrounds and shadows. The contrast is excellent, and there's only occasional blooming in some white areas, but this is minimal. The print does have some damage, scratches and spots, but these are not that prevalent and never become a distraction. The film is also includes tinted scenes, which is a nice bonus. The team involved with this set has done a magnificent job!
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were some video extras included with this set. First off is a very good 20-minute documentary Miss Mend: A Whirlwind Vision of an Imagined America that talks about the idea behind the serial, to make a western-style action flick, and the soviet perception of the US. It was quite interesting. Next is a look at the score: The Music Behind Miss Mend: The Invisible Orchestra. This 12-minute featurette includes footage of the recording sessions and an interview with Robert Israel.
There is also a 16-page booklet included with the discs that has an essay about the film, advertising posters, and production images. It's a nice addition to the DVDs.
This is a fun film in its own right, but Miss Mend is also an interesting historical footnote which makes it even more enjoyable to watch. Flicker Alley and their associates have done another magnificent job with this release. The picture looks much, much, better than it has any right to, the orchestral score is very good, and the extras are interesting. This is another Flicker Alley release that comes Highly Recommended.