A movie theater usher named Goga (Igor Ilyinsky) loves Dusya (Anel Sudakevich) but she only has eyes for Douglas Fairbanks and refuses to give Goga the time of day until he becomes a celebrity. Goga vows to become famous if it kills him. It probably will.
The Lipstick of Doom
If ever there was a film that was overwhelmed by its making-of story, this is it. You see, A Kiss from Mary Pickford features a real kiss from the real, genuine, original Mary Pickford. The famous star toured Russia with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks and this movie incorporates newsreel footage as well as a short sequence containing the kiss.
However, the colorful tale of Mary’s kiss (which, it seems, gets better with every telling) sometimes overwhelms the fact that this is an incredibly funny film with charismatic Russian leads. Yes, the east and west mashup is amusing (certainly more so than The Blue Bird) but even if Doug and Mary had never set foot in Russia, this would still be a grand little picture.
The hero of the tale is Goga (Igor Ilyinsky), a theater usher who adores his girlfriend, Dusya (Anel Sudakevich) but she is not so friendly to him. Dusya is madly in love with Douglas Fairbanks and after a viewing of The Mark of Zorro, she informs Goga that she will not date him unless he becomes a celebrity.
Goga has absolutely no remarkable qualities to make him famous but he gamely tries to become a Russian Douglas Fairbanks. When that fails, he enrolls in an academy that promises to give him the tools he needs for fame and fortune. Certificate of accomplishment in hand, he heads to the nearest movie studio to become a star.
After several mishaps as a would be stuntman, Goga gets the opportunity he has been waiting for. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford are touring Russia and Mary has taken a shine to Goga’s antics. She asks to shoot a scene with him in the garden. And before the eyes of dozens of Mary fans, Goga receives the kiss.
The transformation is immediate. Dusya adores him! His new fans rip his clothes hoping for a souvenir! To preserve the precious lipstick kiss on his cheek, Goga applies a protective bandage. Now he has everything he wants and, more importantly, everything Dusya wants. But the life of a celebrity is not so easy, as he soon finds out…
While both director Sergei Komarov and his teacher, Lev Kuleshov, are painted as attacking American cinema and the “Americanitis” that resulted, I find that both their films that tackle the subject are more of an affectionate ribbing than a dour condemnation. Both A Kiss from Mary Pickford and The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks were made by people who had seen a lot of American movies and had been paying attention. These are happy films.
(I should also mention that German cinema was also wildly popular with Russian audiences. In fact, for much of the film, Ilyinsky’s character is referred to as “the Russian Harry Piel.” Piel was a popular German action-adventure star but, alas, I have not seen any of his silent films on home media. An enthusiastic Nazi, many of his films were destroyed in an Allied air raid.)
Komarov had a longer career as an actor than as a director and he appeared in both Mr. West and Miss Mend, a serial designed to mimic the action packed American imports. In short, he knew Americanitis from the inside out. (Though Miss Mend also sports a strong German accent.)
Perhaps Komarov’s insights as an actor helped him direct Igor Ilyinsky and Anel Sudakevich so winningly. Ilyinsky is an inescapable figure for anyone who ventures out of Soviet art films and into the waters of popular entertainment. Chubby, amiable and determined, Ilyinsky’s signature character is one of the happier aspects of Soviet cinema. Sudakevich is not as well known but matches her co-star in appeal as she slowly begins to realize that celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I suppose I should like the bratty Dusya less than I did but I couldn’t resist her antics and, anyway, who am I to condemn a fellow Doug fan? Later in the film, Dusya comes to Goga’s defense by attaching a live wire to him and using him to electrocute fans who get out of line. What’s not to love?
The only other silent roles I have seen Ilyinsky play have been second leads and the comedy relief who doesn’t win the object of his affection. I rather liked him as a rom-com lead and wish that more of his work was available. Goga is just a sweet, confused guy who wants to please Dusya so she will let him hold her hand. Awww. This leads him down some very weird paths indeed. (I wonder if the eccentric acting school Goga attends is a sendup of Kuleshov’s collective. He was known for demanding physical perfection from his performers.)
Of course, that pesky Americanitis is at play!
Let’s get into a bit of international context. By the 1920s, Hollywood was firmly established as the most popular flavor of movies and as a result, the film industries of other nations sometimes had difficulties winning fans in their own countries. Nations that hoped to protect their film industries resorted to the power of laws to protect their homegrown films and the result was quotas (a certain number of local films had to be screened or certain days were set aside for them), duties on foreign pictures and outright bans.
The point of all this is that the concerns displayed in A Kiss from Mary Pickford were not unique to Russia. These were matters that concerned every nation with a film industry of its own and they continue to be much-discussed to this day. How far should a nation go to build up its film industry? Should the people just be given what they want?
It is significant, then, that both Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the human embodiments of Hollywood’s power and appeal, are both showcased in a favorable light. Of course, it would be difficult to portray them any other way given that this was a good will tour and both were experienced stars who knew how to pour on the charm to delight their fans. However, anything is possible in editing and yet the Hollywood power couple remain just as beloved at the end of the film as they were at the beginning—with the exception, perhaps, of Dusya losing her Doug crush in favor of a Goga crush.
The film’s sharpest barbs are reserved for the Russian superfans, the goofs who pay money for a chance to peek at the dinner rituals of a man who was kissed by Mary Pickford once. As with Chess Fever (Komarov had a small acting role), which dealt with Russia’s all-consuming chess addiction, real behavior is exaggerated just enough to create comedy. However, the film never really feels like a lecture because this behavior is somewhat universal.
Long story short, the concerns raised in this film are sometimes treated as uniquely Soviet but they were actually pretty normal for the time and for any nation not housing Hollywood. The policies established in the 1930s, ceasing the importation of films and reorganizing the central body to oversee production in the USSR, were still a few years away and a few years are an eternity in Russian politics.
But now let’s move on to the question of the kiss. Director Sergei Komarov certainly made the most of his resources. Newsreel footage of Fairbanks and Pickford dominates the second half of the film with a fit and tanned Doug leaping about and Mary graciously blowing kisses that, through the power of editing, fall on the eager Goga.
However, the kiss scene is not like the others. While the rest of the film uses editing so that Dusya and Goga can interact with and react to the celebrity couple (and I am pretty sure there was a Mary double in a few shots), the kiss sequence has Mary Pickford sharing the screen with Igor Ilyinsky and planting the peck on his cheek. This was no editing trickery.
The story of how the kiss was filmed is now something of a legend, at least in its present internet and text form. Komarov was shooting newsreel footage of the celebrity couple during their tour of Moscow and persuaded Mary to pose with Ilyinsky for the purpose. Since she kissed her temporary co-star, Komarov built an entire film around the shot… the one we’ve been discussing.
I was very suspicious and here are my impressions based on my first viewing of the film some time ago and reinforced by my rewatch for this review.
In the first case, Ilyinsky is not dressed in his usual outfit. (Seen above from Miss Mend.) While he did don other costumes, he generally kept his hair short, his face clean-shaven and wore a straw boater. (The latter is eschewed for a cloth cap in this film.) For the kiss scene, he sported a long wig and a false beard and is not immediately recognizable. I mean, it’s possible that he wore a different costume for the photoshoot but it seems like an extremely odd decision given his status as a popular comedy star. Like Harold Lloyd meeting someone as his Glass character with a pince-nez and fake whiskers and a stocking cap.
Second, the story relies on Mary Pickford being an utter rube. I find it highly unlikely that Pickford would not understand that the footage could or would be used to for a fiction film. In other newsreels, she blows kisses to the crowd, she kisses flowers, she kisses her husband, she meets the local celebrities and officials with smiles but nothing comparable to the scene here.
(Well, except for the shot of Douglas Fairbanks in a tree and then a cut to him landing on the ground. But I don’t think Douglas Fairbanks and the Russian Tree has quite the same ring as A Kiss from Mary Pickford, do you?)
I mean, if you think Pickford went around kissing random Russians while cameras took the scene from multiple angles, I have to disagree. Further, Pickford and Ilyinsky are “on” during the kiss sequence. They interact and banter a bit while the cameras roll; she is actively participating in a way not seen in the obvious newsreel sequences.
(And, by the way, some articles and even scholarly publications fudge the plot of the film so badly that it is abundantly clear that the authors have never seen it.)
This isn’t a grand expose, I know, just my belief that the whole story is a bit more complicated than HOLLYWOOD COUPLE TRICKED INTO STARRING IN SOVIET PICTURE or some other breathless headline. My suspicions were confirmed when I read Eileen Whitfield’s take on the situation in her excellent biography, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood.
“Mary participated in the scene as a gesture toward the struggling Russian movie industry.”
Now THAT is the Mary Pickford I know. A willing cameo to be used as needed by the Russians as a gesture of friendship. The description of her as “an involuntary guest” in the film is most distasteful. Allegedly, Pickford was informed of the film’s existence in the 1940s and knew nothing about it. It’s entirely possible that she forgot filming the scene, even understandable considering her whirlwind schedule. Further, popular films like A Kiss from Mary Pickford were not the sort of cinema that was exported during its initial release. (Battleship Potemkin was exported during the silent era. The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall thought the water was pretty.)
Long story short: calm down, everyone. Pickford had the situation under control.
This film has been described as a biting satire and a good-natured spoof. Put me in the good-natured camp. While the reactions of their fans are ludicrous, Pickford and Fairbanks are consistently shown to be good sports who, perhaps, do not entirely understand the effects of their fame but wear it well. (In fact, they understood all too well. One has to only look at newsreels and photos of the crushing crowds during their honeymoon.)
(Spoiler) Poor little Goga, being a mere mortal, cannot stand the strain but he soon realizes that he doesn’t want to. After all, he got what he wanted: Dusya loves him. And Dusya got that fame she so desired, just enough of a dose to make her realize that she did not really want it. Few people are so fortunate.
I would also like to state again that this film, thanks to Ilyinsky and Sudakevich in particular, is so charming that the Doug and Mary footage was not actually needed. It would have still been amusing and delightful without it.
A Kiss from Mary Pickford attracts attention because of the unusual event of a Hollywood star making a cameo in a Soviet film. However, that should not take away from the fact that it is a cute rom-com/showbiz farce in its own right. Ilyinsky and Sudakevich are splendid leads and this is easily one of the most amusing Russian romances not directed by Boris Barnet. Here’s hoping it receives a proper home media release soon.
Where can I see it?
A Kiss from Mary Pickford has not been released on home media so I have no qualms about linking to the version on the Internet Archive. It has no English subtitles. (I have an incredibly crude and disorganized English translations cobbled together with help from Yandex and some much better translations provided by kind Russian speakers. Let me know if you want it.)
There IS a very pricey DVD listed for sale but I have purchased from the company before and this release is almost certain derived from the VHS transfer that is available on the Internet Archive. Save your money.
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