The first solo effort by Boris Barnet, Devushka s korobkoy (The Girl with the Hatbox) opened during a pinnacle year for silent cinema. Called “annus mirabilis” by Kevin Brownlow (1), 1927 saw the premieres of Metropolis (Fritz Lang), Napoléon (Abel Gance), 7th Heaven (Frank Borzage), and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau), not to mention widely popular American fare like It (Clarence Badger), Wings (William Wellman), and Love (Edmund Goulding). In the Soviet Union, Russian cinema welcomed its share of landmark films, when, according to scholar Denise J. Youngblood, the industry “flowered as art and entertainment” (2). Sergei Komarov’s Potseluy Meri Pikford (A Kiss from Mary Pickford), Abram Room’s Tretya meshchanskaya (Bed and Sofa), and Esfir Shub’s compilation film Padenie dinastii Romanovykh (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty) were all released in 1927. A slate of films also had been planned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik victory. The St Petersburg collective FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) came out with S.V.D. about the Decembrist Revolt; pieces of Sergei Eisenstein’s Oktyabr (October) premiered; and, just in the nick of time with a December release, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Konets Sankt-Peterburga (The End of St. Petersburg). (Dziga Vertov’s jubilee film came out in 1928, the appropriately titled Odinnadtsatyy [The Eleventh Year].)

Soviet audiences had first encountered Barnet picking off glass bottles with a six-shooter as the bodyguard Cowboy Jeddy in Lev Kuleshov’s first feature, Neobychainye priklyucheniya mistera Vesta v strane bolshevikov (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, 1924), which emulated American-style stunts and slapstick, with a low dose of edification thrown in. A set designer in pre-Revolutionary Russia, Kuleshov turned film theorist and aspiring director, testing his filmmaking hypotheses among members of his Moscow-based collective. Deprived of celluloid and other resources in the wake of civil war, the collective could only stage “etudes” in support of Kuleshov’s assertions that the juxtaposition of shots created meaning in films and actors perform with their entire bodies, not just their faces.

According to Youngblood’s biographical sketch of Barnet in Movies for the Masses (3), Kuleshov and his wife, actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, were impressed by Barnet’s grace when they saw him box in early 1923, and they invited him to join the collective. Barnet had been a student of architecture, then of painting at the Moscow Arts Academy, when, at 15, the Revolution changed the fortunes of his middle-class family and he found himself looking for work. A set painter for the First Studio of the Moscow Arts Theater, he eyed the legitimate boards from a close distance, as a lisp kept him from becoming a stage performer. In 1920, he joined the Red Army to defend the Revolution, caring for typhus patients at the front. Eventually he got sick himself, with cholera, and, in 1922, he was sent home where he became a professional boxer and instructor, teaching the pugilist arts at Moscow’s Main Military School for the Physical Education of Workers (or, Glavvosh, where he met Vadim Shershenevich, who later co-wrote The Girl with the Hatbox.)

Barnet’s time with Kuleshov was short-lived. A tightrope stunt accident during the production of Mr. West caused Barnet to break with Kuleshov over his treatment by the director, whom he says left him hanging precariously for 30 minutes seven stories up, yelling at him the whole time (4). Despite the rift, Barnet continued to work with other members of the collective, directing them in addition to appearing in their films. Barnet himself had a small part in Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky’s short comedy Shakhmatnaya goryachka (Chess Fever, 1925), and played a pipe-smoking Englishman in the 1928 feature Potomok Chingis-Khana (Storm Over Asia). Sergei Komarov, who was also featured in Mr. West, appeared in Miss Mend (1926), a three-part serial about an ass-kicking union secretary (made with Fyodor Otsep), Dom na Trubnoy (House on Trubnaya Street, 1928), Okraina (Outskirts, 1933), and U samogo sinego moray (By the Bluest of Seas, 1936). Another actor from Mr. West, Vladimir Fogel, starred in all of Barnet’s silent work and the two appeared as half the capitalist-fighting quartet in Miss Mend.

Both Mr. West and Miss Mend were smash hits, attesting to Kuleshov’s observation that “the success of American films lies in […] the maximum amount of movement, in primitive heroism, in an organic link with contemporary life” (5). Thirty-two prints of Mr. West were made to fill distribution demands, unusual at the time considering the shortage of film stock in the Soviet Union (6), and Miss Mend was seen by 1.7 million people in its first six months and had an unprecedented two-month run at one of Moscow’s Art Theatres (7).

In making The Girl with the Hatbox, about the complications that ensue when a young country milliner pretends to marry a drifter so he can stay in her city apartment, Barnet continued his embrace of Amerikanshchina, with its mix of visual gags and pathos, incorporating references to both Chaplin and Kuleshov. In one of the first scenes, Fogel, as Fogelev, clumsily pursues Anna Sten, as Natasha, across a frozen river to the train station. The sure-footed Natasha is long gone as Fogelev pratfalls his way across a bridge and into one of the film’s most memorable moments. Arriving at the horizon where a blazing expanse of white snow meets a cloud-frosted sky, Fogelev stumbles in the distance. This stark, graphic composition recalls a scene in Kuleshov’s Po zakonu (By the Law, 1926), in which a similar horizon provides a backdrop for the tormented trio beneath their hanging tree. All are hapless actors, tiny, on an immense stage, whether playing for laughs or more consequential emotions. Taking the train to the city to deliver her hat, Sten meets Ilya (Ivan Koval-Samborsky), whose movements are a clear homage to the Little Tramp, with a close-up on Ilya’s duck-footed stance and, later, captured in a Chaplinesque half-twirl, familiar and effete.

Audiences (of what size we do not know) were driven to the picture by a clever advertising campaign that asked: “How can there be disagreement? We’ll put the question in two parts: (1) To be late seeing The Girl with the Hatbox is a disgrace! (2)  Not to see it at all is misery.” (8) While, according to Youngblood, some critics praised the film’s “cheeriness” and cinematography, others were less kind. The editor of Soviet Screen thought not missing the film was misery, writing, it was “so bad [it] made Bed and Sofa look good” (9). Even the advertisement elicited accusations of commercialism.

As is the case with any pinnacle there comes an inevitable descent. In October of annus mirabilis, Al Jolson belted out silent cinema’s doom in The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland). 1927 is also the last year in which the Soviet regime tolerated much in the way of experimentation or corrupting influence of American or other foreign cultures. In early 1928, the increasingly totalitarian government held the first Party Conference on Cinema, a forum for publicly beating down cinema’s finest artists, and, in the words of Youngblood, “the worst outcome imaginable became reality over the course of the next four years as a diverse and flourishing film industry became one of many casualties of the ‘Stalin Revolution’” (10).

But for now, revel in 1927 and enjoy the delights of The Girl with the Hatbox. A satire on the housing shortage and the bureaucrats managing it, Hatbox gently mocks the bourgeoisie and the NEP-men – New Economic Policy men – who owed their power to Lenin’s mixed economy. The heroine of The Girl with the Hatbox is a strong, free-spirited woman; able to make her own living and take good care of herself and those she loves. She is no damsel in distress; she doesn’t need a male arm to guide her down the icy path and, when men foolishly engage in fisticuffs, she doesn’t stand by in awe, with useless hands to her gaping mouth. She instead gets herself and her hatbox out of the way and takes a well-earned, comical rest. (If Samuel Goldwyn had seen her in this rather than Fyodor Otsep and Erich Engels’ Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff (The Brothers Karamazov, 1931), Sten might have gotten more suitable roles in Hollywood.) Her “husband” is unsure of his place in the world but good-humoured about it, comfortable relying on the kindness of fellow travellers. He is free. When the love triangle is finally resolved, the rejected suitor remains a welcome part of the picture, the bourgeois notion of marriage turned playfully on its head. Through the 1927 eyes of Barnet, it looked as if the Reds were onto something good. If only The Girl with the Hatbox and others like her could have had their way for longer.

Endnotes

  1. Kevin Brownlow, “Annus Mirabilis: The Film in 1927”, Film History vol. 17, no. 2/3, 2005, p. 168
  2. Denise J. Youngblood, “The Fate of Soviet Popular Cinema During the Stalin Revolution”, Russian Review vol. 50, no. 2, April 1991, p. 149.
  3. Biographical details on Barnet come from Youngblood, Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 125-131.
  4. Youngblood, p. 128.
  5. Lev Kuleshov, “Americanism”, The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, ed. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p. 73. (Originally published in Kino-Fot, no. 1, 25-31 August 1922, pp. 14-15.)
  6. Birgit Beumers, “Introduction”, Cinema in Russia and the Former Soviet Union, Wallflower Press, London, 2007, p. 26.
  7. Youngblood, p. 130.
  8. Youngblood, p. 132.
  9. Denise J. Youngblood, Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era 1918-1935, Texas Film Studies Series, Austin, 1985, p. 153.
  10. Youngblood, “The Fate of Soviet Popular Cinema during the Stalin Revolution”, p. 148.

Devushka s korobkoy/The Girl with the Hatbox (1927 USSR 68 mins)

Prod Co: Mezhrabpom-Rus Dir: Boris Barnet Scr: Valentin Turkin, Vadim Shershenevich Phot: Boris Francisson, Boris Filshin Prod Des: Sergei Kozlovsky

Cast: Anna Sten, Vladimir Mikhailov, Vladimir Fogel, Ivan Koval-Samborsky, Serafima Birman, Pavel Pol, Eva Miljutina