A 1918 double bill: pathos and perfect slapstick followed by a mind-expanding account of the Russian revolution

Mabel Normand and Vladimir Lenin, together at last

I’m watching every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913. You can get these chronological reviews in your inbox over here.


Two photos joined together - in the bottom photo actress Mabel Normand in her 1918 film Mickey. She's dressed for a party, with flowers in her her. Her head rests wistfully in her hand. In the top photo Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin stands in an open space, looking to the right of the frame, hands in pockets, He's wearing his distinctive cap

So, in the second and fifth of the films I’ve reviewed here, from 1914 and 1917, we met the first America’s Sweetheart (for there have been several), Mary Pickford. Now we’ll meet the greatest female comic of the early cinema and a kind of tragic mirror to Pickford – Mabel Normand.

We’ll also meet a genius from another tradition all together, perhaps as far removed from Normand’s generous comedic charm as it’s possible to get in the cinema – Dziga Vertov, the genius who brought us Man with a Movie Camera.

All the (probably fairly unreliable) lists I’m relying on for this journey through the top-grossing films of all time list Mabel Normand’s ‘Mickey’, directed by F. Richard Jones, as the top film of 1918 but one has another, with an implausible gross of $9,685, in the top spot: ‘Anniversary of the Revolution’ (????????? ?????????) by Soviet era genius Dziga Vertov. I can’t explain what this Soviet propaganda film is doing on the list – was it the biggest movie of the year in the communist world?

Anyway, it’s clear that ‘Mickey’ was the real commercial hit here, but I’m very happy to introduce the first film from outside the emerging Hollywood system to our top-grossing list. First, though, the genuine blockbuster.

Mickey – a prequel for Greta Gerwig’s whole acting career

I’m just going to say it. I love this film. Normand, born Amabel Ethelreid Normand in 1893, is a rubber-faced, double-jointed physical comedy genius who can act (she’d also been a director for years and produced this film). In Mickey, a grown-up, 93-minute feature, there’s pathos that never tips over into mawkishness and all the standard devices of the melodramas of the period are deployed cleverly and with irony. There’s a sophisticated awareness of the form – I’m prepared to swear on a bible that Normand winks directly into the lens at least once, throwing the whole artifice of the thing in the air spellinbindingly.

Jones gives us gentle slapstick, with stunts performed by Normand herself (she’s school of Mack Sennett). She hangs from a roof, falls from a window, leaps onto a horse, shins up drainpipes and trees with abandon. The cast – including well-known native American comic actor Minnie Devereux (credited here, with the casual racism of the day, as Minnie Ha-Ha) as a resourceful housekeeper and the man who would later become Mabel’s husband Lew Cody as cad Reggie Drake – is universally brilliant. Acting is breezy, always self-conscious and slyly comic, even in dramatic scenes.

Mickey’s story is the fairytale Cinderella transposed to the folklore United States of worked-out gold mines and snooty East coast plutocrats. There’s a scene where Mickey, recently shipped in from the mine to the Long Island mansion of her aunt’s family, is set to work sweeping the hall of the great house. She gives us pure joy and mischief with the insouciance and the absolute formal discipline of Buster Keaton (others have spotted the Greta Gerwig of Frances Ha here, too). That she is Keaton’s equal, even Chaplin’s, quickly becomes obvious. That she is not as well known is a tragedy (but there’s plenty of actual tragedy to blame for that too).

Anniversary of the Revolution – a prequel for the Soviet Union

I’m going to say it here too. I love this film. It comes from another world, of course. Dziga Vertov (born David Abelevich Kaufman in 1896), who was still eight or nine years from principle photography on his masterpiece Man With a Movie Camera, was 23. He’d been a year younger at the time of the October Revolution. This whirlwind montage of newsreel footage from the period between the February revolution and the beginning of the civil war was his first feature.

Thirty prints of the film were made in 1918 and they were worn to shreds doing daily business on the agit-trains – the hypermodern steam-powered travelling propaganda machines that toured the country during the civil war. It seems unlikely anyone was paying to see it so how you’d calculate a gross for this one is a mystery to me – but I’d love to know if it had a cinematic life in the West. Were people paying a nickel or sixpence to see this movie in New York or London?

The film was considered lost for a century, anyway, so no one saw it in full after about 1919. It’s a documentary that’s almost two hours long, assembled from 3,000 metres of newsreel – a lot of it was probably shot and edited by Vertov on its first outing too – he’d been a newsreel monkey for the Moscow Film Committee for the whole period. It’s been called the first feature-length documentary. That seems plausible – it was worn out and forgotten by the time Nanook of the North came out. I’m sure it’s the first feature film assembled in this self-conscious way using many others as source material.

Vertov’s big edit is a vivid prequel for the Soviet Union. In his film we’re in a country still boiling with revolutionary fervour, about to fight for its survival – against multiple foes, still years from the decades-long retrenchment and retreat from its ideals, ten years before the routine brutality of the Stalin years began and 20 years before the terror.

These are the men and women who brought into being by the force of their will – and against the greatest odds imaginable – capitalism’s only ever viable opponent. They stand around blinking in the sunshine, smoking, getting in and out of ramshackle cars, shouting from improvised platforms. They’re awkward, probably exhilerated and frightened. Improvising a new nation in real time, with excitement and without the knowledge that it would collapse into pain and grief only a few years later.

So the material, by definition, is breathtaking – every figure of any importance from the whole revolutionary period is here, all the people you’ve heard of – Lenin, Trotsky, Kerensky, Kamenev, Lunacharsky, Kollontai – plus dozens of others, many soon forgotten. They’re usually entering or leaving a building – presumably for another interminable committee meeting or a workers’ assembly – or smoking in a courtyard.

But we also see the marches and protests, the vast gatherings on Moscow and Petersburg streets, the milling and circulating proletariat – the revolutionary subject coming into being in squares, on bridges, in railway yards. And some extraordinary, heartstopping events. On the Field of Mars, the dead of the October revolution are interred in a vast mass grave, one coffin after another stacked in a neat pattern while men with clipboards record names and locations. There are riverboats, cars, trucks, armoured cars – we’re conscious of the sweep of the territory, of the pace of events. Trotsky addresses a crowd from a train on his way to the front in the civil war. He stands on the bridge of a river boat, posing like a matinee idol (what exactly is he wearing here? A leather sailor suit?).

Men wave their hats, stand around, staring at the newsreel camera, open-mouthed. Kids run around with school holiday abandon. Soldiers and policemen stride around trying to assert their authority. Horses and dogs are everywhere. What’s the name for the shiver of awe that watching these extraordinary scenes causes? For the uncanny collision of intimacy and unbridgeable distance that these smiling, frowning, laughing, shouting faces produces? There honestly isn’t a second of this film that’s not astonishing or surprising.

Right before your eyes

Vertov, our 22 year-old, in assembling material from hundreds of individual newsreels (aspect ratios vary throughout, it’s chaotic), was innnovating in real time. There’s obviously no consistency as to shot angle or composition. Sometimes framing is wildly off, sometimes the operator swings back and forth across a scene, as if to make sure they didn’t miss anything on the first pass. Scenes begin and end ragged, unresolved.

One of the mind-expanding joys of the thing is the way Vertov cuts the footage of these important figures (many men with big beards and/or big hats) – usually captured on the stairs up to a building, against the gloom of an entrance. He resists the obvious edit – the one that any naive human would grasp at – to top-and-tail the scenes neatly, to remove the comings and goings, the quick departures, the rushing off into the gloom. So in these scenes we have something more open-ended, provisional (something quite YouTube about the way these shots trail off, in fact).

In these cuts Vertov somehow captures the indeterminate nature of the wild Soviet experiment (feel like I ought to make my own edit of all these little endings) and in so doing invents a new form. Every self-conscious film with an ironic take on the material – every doc that makes the process visible, that involves the creator, allows its making to bleed into the narrative – has its origin in these decisions, in Vertov’s willingness to leave the end of the shot in the edit.

Reverse redistribution

During the pandemic, innovators and opportunists improvised bold new ways to move money from the state into private hands – it was like the seizure of assets in a socialist state – only backwards.

Black and white photo of James Beck waring a wide-brimmed hat and a nice overcoat in the role of Private Walker the spiv in Dad's Army
A comedy profiteer

We know that in emergencies governments turn to compulsion to get things done. In wartime manufacturing capacity will be requisitioned, farmers told what to grow, broadcasters switched to propaganda. We expect this – and we’re ready to accept sometimes drastic variations in the rules to speed things up, to save lives, (or to crush counter-revolution).

In the pandemic, governments everywhere activated laws – some of which had been passed years before for this purpose – obliging the private sector to support the state’s response to the outbreak. In the USA, the Defense Production Act was invoked, directing businesses to switch capacity to ventilators and PPE equipment – essentially a wartime response to the crisis, not unlike the epic programme that provided thousands of warplanes and tanks to the allies in WW2. This Truman-era law has been used by several Presidents since and it was Donald Trump who did so as the pandemic took hold in 2020, even as he was busy endorsing bleach and necking hydroxychloroquine (Biden has subsequently used the Act to push vaccine production and energy independence).

In Brazil the pandemic income support scheme was the biggest in transfer of funds in the country’s history. In China essentially the whole economy was sustained through two years of deep-freeze lockdown at almost incalculable cost.

Being a socialist state obviously gave you no magic advantage in the plague years but in Cuba the country’s highly effective natural disaster response system quickly switched to managing the pandemic and, as a result, the country has done better than most – including, obviously, its near neighbour across the Straits of Florida – in limiting deaths and economic damage. The response of the country’s excellent medical system, and in particular its DIY vaccine programme, was so successful that American scientists want access to it. Expect a lot of new Fidelist national resilience plans.

In Britain it was different. To be clear, the looting of the British Covid PPE programme wasn’t unique. No crisis, war or catastrophe ever goes unexploited anywhere in the world. Pandemic profiteering was universal. In Ukraine the torrent of money and resources from Western nations since the Russian invasion has produced the inevitable explosion of corruption – some people are getting very rich. Ukrainians aren’t bad people, this is just what happens in wartime.

But the British pandemic response seems to have been a particularly entrepreneurial project and deeply integrated with the state. When the book is written it’ll be like something from Bulgakov or Vonnegut—a surreal and quite dark montage of titled spivs, lingerie millionaires, legislators on the make, dodgy pub landlords, nervous-looking civil servants…

This baroque clusterfuck of chancers and pin-striped conmen and their credulous Parliamentary enablers worked like a kind of decadent, mirror-Communism. Collectivism run in reverse. Like when revolutionary governments nationalise land and manufacturing without compensation or when Third World nations seize copper mines and oil wells. Only it was all the other way around.

An effective machine was quickly built, by a coalition that’s familiar to us now. This is the coalition that brings together the more entrepreneurial Parliamentarians – the thrusting, post-2010 crowd, not the old gits with dinner on their ties – and the younger generation of business opportunists they socialise with. Not the titled Plc crowd of the 20th Century but the risk-taking, leveraged, post-crash types. Millennial gangsters – the Britannia Unchained generation.

And they built an ad-hoc but highly efficient money funnel – in a matter of days. It was a slick, fast-track mechanism, Paypal for shysters. The Government called it the ‘exceptional procurement exercise’ (this long official apologia for the scheme is quite a read – and includes a list of the firms involved and who proposed them). It came with full state authority and an explicit exemption from examination and it moved cash from the state into the bank accounts and off-shore trusts of business owners and their families, with no questions asked.

The stated logic of the operation was that the only way to move fast enough, to meet the unprecedented needs of the NHS while every other national health system was competing for goods in the same market, was to harness the energy and entrepreneurialism of the connected class, the old boys and old girls, the highly-tuned supply chain of dinner parties and text messages and Parliamentary drinks receptions (and all those incandescent emails, of course).

And the whole regime was very very 21st Century. Agile, ‘open source’, low-friction – a kind of hyper-modern reverse expropriation. Just-in-time enrichment for connected chancers. Contracts were awarded fast, before businesses existed to fulfil them quite often. In all, 430 contracts were awarded via the ‘high priority mailbox’. Prices were ruinous, margins enormous (something here of the $400 hammer). We’ve learnt that a simple forwarded email could trigger a transfer of hundreds of millions of pounds. Epic paydays for wise-guys from every corner of capitalism. The same firms, of course, often became eligible for Covid furlough payments and loans and claimed again – a spectacular double or triple payday.

And, let’s face it, this is before you even get to the much bigger transfer of wealth – via the vast Bank of England debt-purchase scheme and the government’s direct support for business – to asset owners. These multi-million pound PPE paydays are going to look really silly next to the really big payday.