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In the early days of Soviet film there was a great art film boom, led by a large variety of directors. Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Dziga Vertov, and many others released film after film that were each wonderful examples of the medium. Unfortunately, a lot of these fantastic films (as well as other great films from around the world) were and remain underappreciated, something that I aim to change. One such film was Lev Kuleshov’s first comedy, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, in which Pudovkin wrote, acted, and provided art direction. It was released in 1924, and at only 94 minutes, was a relatively short silent film.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks challenged American stereotypes about the Soviet Union, as demonstrated by “Mr. West” and his wife reading an American magazine with pictures of Russians dressed in heavy furs with large beards and moustaches, and described as the barbarous Bolsheviks. Because of this idea of the Soviets, Mr. West and his cowboy bodyguard get separated, and Mr. West is tricked by a group of thieves, all of whom seem to be from the former bourgeoise, who claim to want to protect him from the Bolsheviks. By the end of the film Mr. West is saved from the thieves by the real Soviet police, who are as friendly as they are strong and brave. The Soviets then show the truth of the USSR to Mr. West, convincing him to write his wife and instruct her to hang a picture of Lenin in his study.
The film is a genuinely funny examination of Western stereotypes of the Soviet Union, using physical and situational comedy to great effect, although the film criticizes American stereotypes of the Soviets while also engaging in stereotypes of Americans. While seemingly contradictory, this may have been intentional, a level of irony that enhances the comedy and further drives the point home. They clearly wanted the West to see the Soviet people the same way they saw themselves, while also having fun at the expense of those ridiculous stereotypes. The performances in the film are typically exaggerated for the silent era, but this was actually a bit unusual for the Soviet art scene, and the over-the-top attitude again serves to add to the comedy. Particularly noticeable is the performance of Aleksandra Khokhlova as Countess von Saks, who gives a gleefully evil performance that keeps the laughs rolling in. The ending is a little uncomfortable considering its unambiguous support for the Soviet regime. A film like this could only be made by someone who supported the Soviets, and this film proves that both Kuleshov and Pudovkin had a lot of love for the revolution, but the undemocratic nature of the Soviet Union makes their support a little worrisome. Fortunately, for a modern audience, the ending is so emphatic in its support of the Soviet Union that it becomes farcical, keeping an enjoyable watch even for those who are merely watching for the comedy, rather than the artistry or history.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks quickly became one of my favorite comedies after I discovered it last year. The absurdity of the cowboy car chase, the antics of the bourgeois thieves with Mr. West, and the over-the-top ending all come together to make a classic of comedy that unfortunately has not gotten the attention that it deserves. This is despite the fact that the film is a parody of Western news media, a predecessor to The Daily Show in a way. I encourage fans of comedy to seek this film out, and since it is in the public domain, it’s easy to find for free just about anywhere.