The Dialectics of Humor: Russian Silent Comedy

Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t renowned for its sense of humor. And that’s a shame.

Most of us were introduced to the silent era of Russian film through the dialectic exercises of Sergei Eisenstein, who combined the intellectual and the visceral in such films as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the dazzling montage symphony that is Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). They are thrilling works with serious themes and a rigorous aesthetic and intellectual approach. But for all their celebration of the proletariat as the collective hero of the great Soviet experiment, the working men and women of the Soviet Union really just wanted to have fun at the movies and the most popular Russian films were indeed light entertainment and energetic comedies. They’ve merely been harder to find than the rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories, films elevated as standard bearers of the era of Soviet Formalism and the editing revolution, at least until recently. In fact, for a long time, the only widely seen example of Soviet comedy was Chess Fever (1925), a comic short spoofing the real-life chess obsession that swept Russia during the 1925 chess tournament in Moscow.

‘Chess Fever’

Co-director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of Soviet cinema’s intellectual heavyweights, a theorist who apprenticed under filmmaking pioneer Lev Kuleshov and helped develop the theories of montage that guided formalist filmmaking in the twenties. He actually applies some of those ideas to this funny and clever short comedy about a chess addict who risks losing his fiancée in his chess obsession. Pudovkin went on to make such serious features as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) but Chess Fever is all lighthearted fun, a lark rather than a lesson. And it showed that Pudovkin’s brand of montage was also effective when it came to humor: the perfect cut was just as effective in delivering a punchline as pounding home a political point.

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DVD: “The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom”

Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t known for its sense of humor. Which is not say that it’s completely unknown; the 1925 comedy short Chess Fever is an often cartoonishly inventive parody of the chess madness that swept Russia in its day and the cheeky humor and tongue-in-satire of the 1926 adventure serial Miss Mend is a delight by anyone’s standards. But silent Russian comedies are harder to find than, say, rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories.

Yuliya Solntseva as the Cigarette Girl

For that reason alone, the 1924 The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom stands out, a lightweight, fun-loving romantic comedy set on the bustling streets of Moscow where three suitors vie for the attentions of lovely Zina, the cigarette girl of the title (played but Yuliya Solntseva, most famous for playing Aelita in the 1924 science fiction lark Aelita: Queen of Mars). The accountant Mutyushin (Igor Ilyinsky, also from Aelita), looking very much the nervous scholar in his trim mustache and cluttered office, buys a pack from her everyday in Mosselprom Square, even though he doesn’t smoke (his collection is a shrine to his love for her). Movie cameraman Latugin (Nikolai Tsereteli), young and handsome and charming, is immediately smitten when he spots her while scouting locations and invites her to audition for a new movie. American Oliver MacBride (M. Tsybulsky), a fat cat capitalist on a business trip in Moscow, falls for her while visiting the set. The story meanders through a somewhat arbitrary plot that sends Zina bouncing between the suitors while Mutyushin provides most of the comic relief as he weaves between his infatuation with Zina and his halfhearted romance with a fellow accountant, who assumes that the elaborate love letters he leaves half-written on his desk are destined for her.

Along with the romantic confusion and slapstick comedy (some of it quite accomplished, some of it merely energetically executed) is a snapshot of the urban bustle and modern life of contemporary Moscow, circa 1924. Director Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, who began as a cinematographer and continued to shoot his own films (no wonder he favors the cameraman in this romantic quadrangle), takes the camera to the streets, just as the company within the film does. And he has fun with the moviemaking story that runs through the film, from simple scenes of his characters shooting a film on the streets of Moscow, keeping crowds back and the curious from wandering into their shots while Latugin’s infatuation distracts him from the work at hand, to watching the raw footage of the American-backed travelogue “Everyday Life in Moscow” which the lovesick cameraman has transformed into a moving photo album of Zina, whose presence obscures the landmarks he’s supposed to be shooting.

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