Who knew that Moscow had a room shortage in 1927? That’s when Boris Barnet made “The Girl With the Hatbox,” a Soviet silent film that features Anna Sten as Natasha, a milliner who travels to Moscow to sell her hats. She meets and falls in love with Ilya, a man who sleeps at the train station. To help him find a room, she marries him and rents a room at a Madame Irene’s, a Moscow hat shop. The screwball comedy erupts into slapstick as Irene’s crooked and lazy husband gives Natasha a lottery ticket in lieu of salary. The ticket wins, and then he wants it back.
The film, shown at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival this month, included detailed notes in the festival program that said the Soviet government encouraged promotional films for the state lottery, and that the studio that made The Girl With the Hatbox, Mezhrabpom-Rus, made more than a dozen lottery pictures in the mid-1920s. I wonder if the others turned out to be as funny and interesting as this one.
The comedy, so broad and understandable, with plenty of slapstick, brings a lot of comparisons to American silent comedy. It’s interesting to see that in the context of real Moscow street scenes, with the obvious benefit of featuring the riveting Anna Sten as the title character. The distributors released the film in America under the name, “When Moscow Laughs,” an equally apt title to The Girl With the Hatbox. Life in that big city seems absurd, and that in itself is fun to watch.