January 01, 1999

East Meets West on the Silver Screen

Ralph Porter is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Alla Nazimova or Sergei Eisenstein. But not too many years ago, Porter, a soft-core porn director in New York City, was practically as good as it got when it came to film links between the United States and the then-Soviet Union. Or, as he was wont to cry out to cronies who visited his gimcrack sets for the shooting of a striptease scene: “Pay attention to how I do this! Exactly like I learned from Pudovkin!”

Blame World War II alliances for Ralph Porter’s encounters with Vsevolod Pudovkin in a military propaganda unit. But, too, blame 70 years of Red Scare, Cold War, and rival Superpowerdom for the fact that, as recently as 10 years ago, Porter was an almost idiosyncratic case of an American with some direct experience of Russian film making. Indeed, his only competition was a few actors and technicians surviving from a disastrous 1976 coproduction The Blue Bird. As symbols of cooperation went, The Blue Bird was a model harbinger of unhappiness, off the screen as much as on it. There were daily bulletins from St Petersburg about Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and Ava Gardner getting sick on Russian food or throwing tantrums over the work habits of Russian crews. 

While probably the worst, The Blue Bird was not the only instance of American-Soviet film relations. In the late 1920s, for example, just around the time that the world was dipping into the Great Depression and Joseph Stalin was preparing to plunge the USSR into an even greater one, another note altogether was sounded with the release of the Soviet production of The Kiss of Mary Pickford. The only purely Russian film to have prominent Americans in its cast, Kiss was a comedy inspired by the enormous popularity of Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks in Europe – an acclaim that prompted mob scenes whenever the couple toured the continent. The picture tells the story of a ticket taker (Igor Ilinsky) in a Moscow moviehouse who, when he isn’t admitting people to see Fairbanks’s The Mark of Zorro, is competing with the Hollywood star’s swashbuckling image for his girl’s affections. When he learns about a visit to Moscow by Pickford and Fairbanks, the ticket taker decides to see what his rival is made of in person and, through a succession of misadventures, ends up with the actress, receives a kiss on the cheek from her, and is almost trampled to death by a crowd of autograph seekers. His reaction? “How can a man kissed by Mary Pickford not be okay?” The kiss elevates the hero in the eyes of his girl, and the pair live happily ever after.

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