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Kino classics has been releasing plenty of vintage Russian cinema, mostly noted classics like Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Strike. Their latest release is the resolutely non- agit-prop The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom, a romantic comedy from 1924 that plays out on the streets of Moscow. Populated by likeable, charming Muscovites carried away by their amorous aspirations, Cigarette Girl also functions as a time-machine travelogue. Key scenes take place on broad boulevards filled with traffic, on the banks of the river and in Red Square. The most political moment in the film comes when the handsome, earnest hero asks a clerk, "Comrade, can you tell me where to find the Marriage License bureau?"
Director Yuri Zhelabuzhsky is also the film's cinematographer, a fact of special interest because the film's leading man is a movie cameraman who becomes a director as well. We'll have to backdate the 'trendy' concept of a film-within-a-film to 1924, for at the end of the show the hero and heroine sit down to watch their latest production -- the film we've been watching all along.
The story is a good-natured tale of love among several denizens of the Soviet capitol. Clownish clerk Nikodim Mityushin (Igor Ilyinsky) doesn't mind the affections of his work-mate Maria Ivanovna (Anna Dmokhovskaya), but he's hopelessly in love with cigarette vendor Zina Vesenina (Yuliya Solntseva), who works outside the Mosselprom Trade Center / Department Store. 1 Even though he doesn't smoke, Nikodim buys a package a day just to see Zina's smile. When Maria intercepts one of his love notes, Nikodim finds himself engaged to the wrong woman. Also getting an eyeful of Zina is Oliver MacBride (M. Tsybulsky), an American businessman come to buy Soviet fashions (!) and invest in movie production. Through an underling interpreter Oliver is soon telling Zina that a girl as pretty as she needn't work to do well in life, hint hint. A passing film crew sees Zina and puts her in a street scene. The director Barsov (Leonid Baratov) becomes furious when his cameraman Latugin (Nikolai Tsereteli) is so smitten by Zina that he forgets to operate the camera.
The farce continues as Zina tries out to become a movie star. She's a definite disruptive influence. Crestfallen when he can no longer find Zina selling cigarettes, Nikodim thinks he sees her jumping off a bridge. It is of course a dummy being used in a movie scene, but Nicodim's soggy rescue attempt is genuine. He later thinks that the haughty MacBride has murdered Zina and put her body in a wicker trunk, but the corpse turns out to be a dress mannequin. Do the "false Zinas" perhaps represent the illusions men fall for in place of real women? Cigarette Girl doesn't take up issues like that, at least not directly.
Hired as an interpreter by MacBride, Nikodim purposely sabotages the American's marriage proposal. Cameraman Latugin loses his job when he makes a Moscow travelogue in which every shot is dominated by his new love, Zina. She's happiest with the sweet Latugin, but when unemployed considers selling her self-respect to MacBride. For a time she becomes the rich man's consort. Will the young Soviet lovers find true happiness?
The Mezhrabpom-Rus Company filmed much of The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom on the streets of Moscow, breaking completely with the expressionist visuals of their previous production, the science fiction classic Aelita, Queen of Mars. Both films feature the same three main actors. Ms. Solntseva's broad smile and light complexion remind us of Jean Seberg 35 years later, selling newspapers on the streets of Paris in Godard's Breathless. It's obvious that the cute, gentle Latugin is the boy for Zina, but Nikodim is the one who risks his life when he thinks she's in danger. Nikodim's acting style features mannered pantomime gags and he wears a funny pinched coat to appear more clownish; if Peter Ustinov was mugging in a silent movie, he'd look something like this. Otherwise the acting is fairly naturalistic. We see some amusing scenes of the film crew at work, with the megaphone-wielding director acting as fickle and imperious as any Hollywood stereotype.
The rich capitalist MacBride is clearly a villain but Cigarette Girl does not condemn him as a corrupt capitalist. The Soviet film company is clearly in need of his money and the clothing business appears to operate under standard non-collective principles. Although Latugin gets in trouble for jumping out of a trolley car window, the police become nice guys as soon as they see that Zina and her man are sweethearts. Moscow in 1924 seems a swell city of opportunity and high hopes, where everybody loves a lover.
Director Zhelyabuzhsky spells out his gags, dutifully flashing back to an earlier scene whenever a character needs to remember something. When Nikodim is afraid to open his door, the director superimposes the image of an attacker right onto his head, just to make his thoughts perfectly clear. This seems a direct graphic influence from the comic strips. The joke is on the audience in the final scene, where the premiere of Latugin's new movie "The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom" is revealed to be the movie we've all just seen. Now married to Maria, Nikodim leaps to his feet at the sight of Zina on the screen, and proclaims his love!
Kino Classics' DVD of The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom is a pleasing transfer of a restoration by the Toulouse Cinematheque, in conjunction with two Italian film companies. Fleshed out to its full length, it has also been transferred at an appropriate film speed, perhaps 18 or 20 frames per second.
Although some letters and notes in the film are translated with English subtitles, all of the main inter-titles have been replaced with English cards. The new music accompaniment for the film is a modest but effective series of catchy melodies, some performed on a guitar.
Ms. Solntseva reached Soviet stardom in her role as the Queen of Mars yet made only four features as an actress. Turning to film production, she assisted on several Dovzhenko pictures before becoming a film director in 1939 and continuing to work for forty years. She passed away in October 1989, apparently just a few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Empire.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The store's motto was "Nowhere but in Mosselprom!", which alluded to the fact that Muscovites went there to find merchandise unavailable elsewhere in the city.
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T'was Ever Thus.