The Hollywood Couple Who Starred In A Soviet Movie (And Didn’t Know It)

“In Russia we only had two TV channels. Channel One was propaganda. Channel Two consisted of a KGB officer telling you: Turn back at once to Channel One.” —Yakov Smirnoff

In A Nutshell

Hollywood couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks appeared in a 1927 movie made and set in Stalin-era USSR. That isn’t odd. What is odd is that Pickford never knew they were in the film until many years later. If you’re thinking their roles were confined to an inconsequential cameo appearance, you’d be wrong. Mary Pickford’s part is central to the entire plot. Her final scene, in which she embraces and kisses the Soviet leading man, actually lends the movie its title: A Kiss From Mary Pickford.

The Whole Bushel

The 1920s was the decade of the New Economic Policy in the USSR, when a relaxation of state control of some industries gave people a taste of mini-capitalism within the Communist economy. Privately owned movie theaters prospered, and with them, the entire Soviet film industry. But Russians were more attracted to American movies than Soviet productions like the classic Battleship Potemkin. They idolized Hollywood stars, particularly the glamorous couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, known respectively as “Everybody’s Hero” and “America’s Sweetheart.” The swashbuckling Fairbanks was a sex symbol, and Pickford helped popularize the modern star system. Hints of scandal surrounding their relationship made them even more popular. They were married in 1920.

Fairbanks and Pickford, who both admired Battleship Potemkin, toured the Soviet Union in 1926 while on vacation. A director named Sergei Komarov appeared with a newsreel crew and followed the couple around, recording the trip on film. Fans mobbed the superstars wherever they went. At Mezhrapom Film Studios, Pickford embraced and planted a kiss on actor Igor Ilyinski as part of a photo op. Komarov captured it all on camera. And then he decided to build a full-length feature around this shot.

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Komarov’s comedy, Potselui Meri Pikford (“A Kiss From Mary Pickford”), starred Igor Ilyinski as Goga Palkin, a movie theater usher hopelessly smitten by a girl named Dusya. But Dusya is much more attracted to Hollywood leading men like Douglas Fairbanks rather than nondescript dudes like Goga. The love-drunk Goga decides to be an actor like Fairbanks to get Dusya’s attention. Instead he winds up as a stuntman. Then, Fairbanks himself arrives in the USSR with his wife, Mary. Here, Komarov ingeniously spliced the footage he shot of the Hollywood couple and incorporated it into the film. Fairbanks and Pickford arrive at the studio where Goga works. Pickford is attracted to Goga’s charisma and asks him if he could work with her. In the culminating moment, Pickford embraces Goga and kisses him. It is like an endorsement from the Almighty. Overnight, Goga shoots to fame and is swooned over by women. Eventually, he is able to earn Dusya’s love.

Komarov actually intended A Kiss From Mary Pickford as a critique of Soviet moviegoers’ hysterical adulation of Hollywood stars. It was called “Americanitis” by Komarov’s mentor, Lev Kuleshov, who ironically was an admirer of director D.W. Griffiths and Charlie Chaplin. Potselui Meri Pikford was itself influenced by the racy pace of American slapstick comedies. With the presence of Fairbanks and Pickford, it inadvertently glorified “Americanitis” even more. As such, it reflects the ambivalent Soviet attitude toward Hollywood—a mixture of admiration and repugnance. When Joseph Stalin became dictator, the relative freedom the Soviet film industry enjoyed was taken away. From that point forward, only films that satisfied “the basic demands of the proletarian collective farm mass viewer” would be made. Propaganda, not frivolities like slapstick, was the order of the day.

Douglas Fairbanks died without ever knowing he starred in a Soviet movie. Mary Pickford was reportedly informed about it in the late 1940s. Her reaction to her involuntary guest appearance is not recorded.

Show Me The Proof

Obskura: Soviet and American cinemas in dialogue
San Francisco Silent Film Festival: A Kiss From Mary Pickford
A Kiss From Mary Pickford

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