Today, Russian cinema of the 1920s is best remembered for its epic and revolutionary themes, socialist propaganda, and avant-garde experimentation. Boris Barnet’s The Girl with the Hatbox, however, is a charming example of the era’s popular entertainment. The film is a lighthearted romantic comedy about a naïve country girl (Anna Sten) who marries a student (Ivan Koval-Samborsky), in name only, so that they can circumvent Moscow’s rigid housing laws and share her room. She also fends off the advances of a lovestruck railroad clerk, and the suspicions of her busybody landlords. Films like The Girl with the Hatbox may not have advanced of the art of Russian cinema, but they made the masses laugh.
When the film was released in 1927, the Russian film industry was just beginning to recover from World War I, the 1917 Revolution, and the civil war that followed. Although cinema had been nationalized in 1919, studios were idle, and theaters were shut down. In 1921, Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) attempted to revive the nation’s economy by returning to a limited free market. NEP allowed the reopening of private movie theaters, which in turn boosted the demand for imported entertainment. The majority of imported foreign films were comedies and melodramas and were extremely popular. Even though Communist officials considered the deluge of foreign films “ideologically dangerous,” their distribution generated much needed cash that could be used to revive Russian domestic film production. In addition, Russian leaders were far more concerned with the problems of a country riddled with famine, civil strife, and economic collapse than they were with policing cultural and intellectual matters. This lack of regulation permitted a surprising degree of intellectual freedom and provided a breeding ground for innovative Soviet cinema.
Boris Barnet was one of the young directors attracted by this creative freedom. Born in 1902 into an upper-middle class family of British descent, Barnet attended a private school and, after demonstrating a talent for drawing, entered the Moscow Art Academy. As a result of the 1917 Revolution, his family’s business was confiscated and he had to quit school and go to work. In 1920, Barnet enlisted in the Red Army, in which he served for two years before contracting cholera. After being demobilized, Barnet impulsively entered the Main Military School for the Physical Education of Workers, where he quickly became a good enough boxer to turn professional. In 1923, he caught the eye of film director Lev Kuleshov, who was so impressed with his grace in the ring that he invited the budding athlete to join his groundbreaking acting workshop.
Kuleshov, considered the father of the Soviet fiction film, had been inspired by American films, particularly fast-paced detective thrillers. He studied them, trying to understand why they were so popular with the public. In a seminal essay, “Americanitis,” Kuleshov pointed out the significance of film editing and the creative possibilities it offered, developing the theory of montage that became a trademark of Soviet cinema and influenced filmmakers around the world. Barnet made his film debut as an actor in Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of Bolsheviks, playing a cowboy. Through Kuleshov, Barnet also met fellow student Vladimir Fogelev, who later costarred in The Girl with the Hatbox.
After two frustrating years without work in cinema, Barnet wrote, codirected (with Fedor Ozep), and acted in a three-part adventure serial, Miss Mend. While popular with Russian audiences—more than 1.7 million people saw it in the first six months—it was not popular with critics and ideologues. They attacked it for being an example of “petty bourgeois” cinema, and decried it as devoid of any social consciousness. Undaunted, Barnet went on to direct The Girl with the Hat Box. The film portrays the realities of Soviet life, satirizing the annoyances of living under the New Economic Policy in the context of a romantic comedy. With this film, Barnet begins to develop his personal style, building on what he had learned under Kuleshov.
The female lead, Anna Sten, born Anjuschka Stenski in Kiev in 1908, began her acting career at Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater. After starring in several Russian films, she appeared in a German version of The Brothers Karamazov. Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn saw an advertisement for the film featuring a picture of Sten in a New York newspaper and determined to make Sten into a new Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. He signed her to a contract and launched a massive publicity campaign, promoting her as “the passionate peasant.” Sten starred in three Goldwyn films, none of them successful. After becoming known in Hollywood as “Goldwyn’s Folly,” Sten agreed to cancel her contract and she and her husband moved to London, where she acted in several minor pictures and disappeared from the public eye.
The careers of Sten’s two costars in The Girl with the Hatbox were tragically cut short. Little is known about the gifted Vladimir Fogel. He appeared in more than a dozen films in just four years and committed suicide in 1929. He was only 27 years old. Ivan Koval-Samborsky was tried and sent to a gulag in 1938 during a wave of political repression. However, he did resume his career in the late 1950s.
At the time of The Girl with the Hat Box’s release, ideological tensions were beginning to surface in the Soviet film industry, and the film was vehemently attacked in the press as “in coarse taste,” and “completely neutral” (meaning that it did not promote revolutionary ideology). Only the critics of two major newspapers, Pravda and Izvestia, appreciated the cheerful spirit and acting. The film’s largely negative reception was indicative of a larger political and cultural trend. Within three years, the Cultural Revolution radically changed the fate of Russian cinema, silencing many members of the intelligentsia and forcing others to comply with new policies.
After the unfavorable reception of The Girl with the Hatbox, Barnet directed a film in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Moscow in October (1927), which had the approved political agenda but failed miserably. During production of his next film, the comedy The House on Trubnaya Square (1928), Barnet encountered obstructions and difficulties, and, once the film was released, he again came under critical fire. By 1929, the flow of foreign films had essentially ended and domestic comedies were reduced to works that mocked religion, an easy and politically correct target. Communist Party propaganda began to assert that any “class enemies” who remained unreformed were not simply misguided souls, but inveterate evildoers who were not worthy of being portrayed onscreen. Soviet life could no longer be satirized or critiqued.
Barnet continued to make films well into the sound era. Despite many successes, however, several of his films were banned. In 1940, he directed and acted in one of the earliest Cold War films, s, which was not only awarded the Stalin Prize in 1948 but is popular in Russia to this day. Late in life, Barnet became an alcoholic and committed a suicide in 1965 while working on his last film.
Presented at SFSFF 2006 with live music by Alexander Holodiloff and the Balka Ensemble