Early & Silent Film

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The Girl with the Hatbox / Devushka S Korobkoi, USSR 1927.

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2014

Grandfather and Natasha.

Grandfather and Natasha.

This film was screened at the 2011 Il Cinema Ritrovato as part of a programme devoted to the work of Boris Barnet: this was an early feature. It re-appeared at the 2012 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto as part of a tribute to the star, Anna Sten. Both Festivals used a print from the Österreichisches Filmmuseum. The screenings ran at 20 fps giving a running time of 80 minutes. However, the available DVD version from KinoAcademia looks like it has been transferred at a faster frame rate [24 fps for a sound print] and only runs for 65 minutes, but it is also about 300 metres shorter.

Boris Barnet was for long time rather overlooked among the early Soviet film directors. However, he is a director of real talent and had a particular flair for comedy and dramas of the everyday. He used montage rather less than many colleagues in the 1920s, but his mise en scène is often richly expressive. It is worth remembering that Eisenstein included aspects of mise en scène in his conceptions of montage. Barnet worked well with actors and his films usually offer fairly rounded protagonists.

Anna Sten was a popular and talented star in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s. She had a photogenic face and a character that came across from the screen. In the late 1920s he married the director Fyodor Otsep and accompanied him to Germany. She was later recruited to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn. [The Girl with the Hatbox was distributed in the USA as When Moscow Laughs]. He commented:

`This is some star`. She had everything. She had looks and style and sex and class. She had tremendous life and could act like a son of a bitch. [Quoted in the Ritrovato Catalogue].

But the movie capital made much less effective us of her than the Soviet filmmakers with whom she started her career.

Anna plays Natasha, the girl with the hatbox. She lives with her grandfather outside Moscow and they support themselves by hat making. In this small hamlet her admirer is Fogeleth (Vladimir Fogel], who is the telegraph operator and runs the ticket office at the railway station. Every day Natasha travels by train into Moscow to the hat shop of Madame Irene and her husband Nikolai. As well as employing her Madame Irene has Natasha listed as a tenant, but for a room which is actually used by her husband. There were strict rules about accommodation in the 1920s, supervised by local Housing Committees. A comedy around accommodation is also the plot mechanism of the later Bed and Sofa (Tretya Meschanaskaia, 1927). And conflicts and arrangements over rooming in big cities are a common story across cinemas.

One morning, travelling into Moscow, Natasha meets Ilia (Ivan Kobal-Samborskii), coming to Moscow to study. Whilst their initial meeting is hardly propitious, when Natasha meets Ilia again and finds that he is homeless she takes pity on him. She arranges a marriage of convenience so he can take up residence in ‘her room’ at Madame Irene’s. The film then follows the development of the conflict this arrangement produces with Madame Irene and Nikolai and also the developing relationship between Natasha and Ilia.

The plot is complicated further when Nikolai gives Natasha a Golden Premium Bond ticket instead of wages. The Premium Bonds were part of the State loan raising system, not that different from such lotteries in capitalist societies. The prizes could run into thousands of roubles. In fact, the film was a commission to the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio for a film to publicise the State Loan system. Apparently the script by Valentin Turkin and Vadim Shershenevich was a slim affair. And Barnet developed the project considerably in production. This enabled him to develop the central characters, who are both psychologically believable and attractive subjects. This also downplayed the function of the State Loan System to a degree, though the prize draw is important in the resolution of the film.

As in the better known The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928) the film features an innocent arriving in the big city, though here it is a man rather than a young girl. So Natasha is the experienced and worldly-wise citizen. Also as in Trubnaya Square the point of conflict resolves round the petty bourgeoisie. As in that film Madame Irene and Nikolai seem to be NEP-people – entrepreneurs who took advantage of the New Economic Policy introduced following the ravages of the Civil War. Madame Irene and her husband indulge themselves in a similar fashion to the NEP-people in Trubnaya Square: both films feature indulgent and extravagant dinner parties. And both sets of employers exploit ordinary working people – the gold standard of Soviet citizenry.

Barnet already shows himself adept at comedy, including visual humour and gags. In Natasha’s village there is a narrow bridge over a frozen stream on the way to the station: several mishaps occur here. There are some delightful scenes revolving round the furniture or lack of it in the disputed room. And the shy courtship of Natasha and Ilia has delightful moments and presents a strong and autonomous heroine. The mise en scène is sued to great effect. One set is the kitchen in the shop cum household, usually filed with drying laundry. There are several scenes where the white sheets are used to great comic effect: these same props also feature in The House in Trubnaya Square.

But Barnet is also adept at montage, in the sense of fast editing. The sequence where we view the announcements of Premium Bond winners has excellent fast cutting and also very effective use of superimpositions. Barnet and his cinematographer, Boris Frantsisson, also have notable shots, long takes and sequence shots. Both Ana and Fogel are seen early on in mirrors or through frozen windows. There is a fine chase through the streets, which recalls the momentum found in the much-admired Hollywood films of the period.

This is a delightful comedy and offers a rather different representation of Soviet urban life from some of the other film classics of the period. It does, however, lack the effective political comment that adds so much to The House on Trubnaya Square. The use of the Premium Bond system seems little different from the function of such systems in bourgeois cinema. Apparently the script had a resolution that at least partially addressed this issue, but it did not make it into the finished film. Even so this is an impressive film from a rich career.


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