In 1924, confined to his bed and quarantined from political contact, Vladimir Lenin lies in full paralysis with doubts about the increasing bureaucratic structure of the new Soviet state. In March 1923, he warns: “We must reduce our state apparatus to the utmost degree of economy. We must banish from it all traces of extravagance, of which so much has been left over from tsarist Russia, from its bureaucratic capitalist state machine” (“Better Fewer, But Better”).
Elsewhere he asserts that one must always be ready “to go back to the beginning” and rebuild what has perhaps led to failure. The country was changing, but it was also constantly haunted by a past that inextricably wove its ways into present practices: the White guard, capitalism, Tsarist rule, religion, and so on. At any time these residual forces could threaten to subtly overthrow efforts at envisioning a new Soviet society.
Cinema was no different. Lev Kuleshov, founder of montage theory and teacher of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, wrote about American cinema’s dominant influence upon present-day Soviet cinema-going: “Both superficial people and deep-thinking officials get equally frightened by ‘Americanitis’... in the cinema and explain the success of particular [American] films by the extraordinary decadence and poor ‘tastes’ of the youth and the public of the third balcony” (“Americanitis” 127). Yet rather than simply dismissing the power of American films upon the populace, Kuleshov recognized their ability “to show more plot in a film of limited length and strive to attain the greatest number of scenes and the greatest impression with the least expenditure of film stock.” Although often superficial, the Americans knew how to most efficiently utilize editing and emphasize the kinetic elements of the medium through chases and comedy.
Although cinema history emphasizes the avant-garde Soviet directors of the 1920s—Pudvokin, Eisenstein, Vertov, Room, Kuleshov, and Dovzhenko, the truly popular films of the period emulated the American ones by fusing comedy and/or melodrama with touches of proletarian consciousness. As historian Denise Youngblood notes, “The unvarnished truth is that Soviet audiences in the twenties did not like the pictures that made film history, finding them dull and difficult to understand” (Movies for the Masses 5).
Only recently have these popular Soviet films started to become available on DVD. Flicker Alley released the three-part serial, Miss Mend, in 2009. Now Kino Lorber has distributed The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom, a film that at the time of its release was dismissed by Soviet critics as overly sentimental and lacking class-consciousness. But aside from being an entertaining film concerning the rise and fall of Zina (Yuliya Solntseva) from cigarette girl to actress and the hapless pursuits of her three misguided suitors, the film marks the ways in which popular Soviet cinema incorporated some aspects of the avant-garde within it. As a result, The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom offers a more complicated testimony to the ways in which avant-garde and popular Soviet cinema intertwined.
The allegorical image of capitalism: bloated, useless, and exploitative
The film’s opening sequence reveals a not-so-subtle critique of American capitalism. Similar to Sergei Eisenstein’s notion of typage where stereotypical attributes are matched with the social type being presented, we are introduced to Oliver MacBright (M. Tsybulsky), an American businessman.
As is to be expected, MacBright is an obese, pipe-smoking character, representative of the indolence and privilege of the capitalist class. As he attempts to descend from his plane, a groundsman must direct MacBright’s feet to the ladder rungs as if this simple task is beyond his capabilities. When MacBright approaches his surrey, he overloads the carriage and Asian driver with so many suitcases that it collapses immediately. Within a few quick scenes, the film already exposes the capitalist class as useless and exploitative of those who it depends upon like the surrey driver whose vision becomes blocked by the amount of suitcases before him.
This is not unlike the critique found within Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Strike. Within it, we similarly watch bloated capitalists gorge on food and drink as they dismiss workers’ concerns. They remain immobile, permanently planted in their chairs, unable to even perform the simple task of retrieving an orange peel they drop upon the floor. Instead, a servant must act as their arms and legs for anything beyond their immediate sweaty reach.
The obese, hypocritical, cigar-smoking, gluttonous, useless, ossified image of the capitalist permeates ‘20s Soviet print and film culture. He becomes a major trope that avant-garde and commercial cinema easily absorbed to quickly allegorize the parasitical aspects of capitalism through the individual presented on screen.
More surprisingly, the film anticipates some of the meta-filmic aspects found in Dziga Vertov’s 1929 materpiece The Man with a Movie Camera. Similar to Vertov’s film, The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom conflates and problematizes the relationship between the screen-world and that of the audience’s world. Both films end with the film audience watching the beginning of the very film we have just seen, therefore implying that we, the viewers, also belong to that audience within the film.
This conflation between the two worlds, however, becomes more a novelty for The Cigarette Girl than an explicit political stance as in Vertov’s film. Typical of the promotional hype of the commercial film industry, The Cigarette Girl asserts that Zina was found on the street and made a star. This implies that the viewer can likewise find him/herself suddenly launched within stardom. Zina’s accidental discovery—she is merely selling cigarettes on a corner when a film director suddenly decides to include her as an extra within the scene—emphasizes the supposedly egalitarian impulse behind stardom: one doesn’t even have to be an actor or desire to become a movie star. The film repeatedly emphasizes Zina’s lack of talent through the director’s periodic berating of her skills. Once again, this allows one to believe that the only difference between stardom and anonymity is mere dumb luck. Talent has nothing to do with it.
Vertov’s film, on the other hand, conflates screen and “real” world to emphasize how artistic practice is nothing other than another form of labor. The film demystifies the notion of art in order to reveal the “artistic” potentiality that lies within everyone. If one can lug bags for the wealthy, one can similarly do the same with a camera. The rise of industrial technology has transformed proletarian labor and art into one-and-the-same process.
Industrialization not only makes artist and worker the same, but simultaneously problematizes gendered-spheres of work. Vertov’s film intently focuses upon the labor of its female film editor, showing her searching through countless reels of film and cementing them together to form the film’s narrative line. Likewise, The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom focuses upon the female editor of its own film. But even more pointedly than Man with a Movie Camera, it reveals how sometimes gender roles have been equalized and sometimes reversed in the industrial age.
In one scene Latugin (Nikolai Tsereteli), a love-smitten cameraman for Zina, interrupts the female editor’s work. He offers multiple suggestions, but as soon as Zina arrives, he leaves with her. The female editor complains, “He jumbles the footage and then leaves. Typical.” The film emphasizes how gendered-attributes here have been reversed: Latugin loses all professional perspective when Zina is around. He has become love-sick and a victim of his emotions. The female editor, on the other hand, remains the paradigm of professionalism. Yet the scene also reveals the reinforcement of a traditional gendered- hierarchy since she cannot complain directly to Latugin or his boss but only behind his back to fellow co-workers.
Furthermore, the female editor’s response, “Typical,” offers an interesting ambiguity. We cannot tell if this refers to Latugin’s actions or more generally to the way in which men often come in, make a mess of things, and then leave. This later scenario becomes more likely as we watch the frantic and seemingly random antics of the film’s director who has very little control over himself and those before him.
This conflation between the two worlds is also utilized for the film’s comedy. One of Zina’s suitors, Mityushin (Igor Ilyinsky), constantly mistakes a mannequin for Zina. In one scene, Miyushin dives into the water after he thinks Zina has thrown herself off of a bridge. He struggles to swim through the water, clearly jeopardizing his own safety. As he approaches her, he discovers instead a mannequin’s body. The film then flashbacks to the top of the bridge revealing Zina only pretending to commit suicide for a scene within the film. We then watch a prop man replace her position on the outside of the bridge with that of a dummy, which he then casts off. By the time Mityushin discovers this, however, he is out-of-breath, barely treading water until having to be rescued himself.
This is an interesting section of the film that holds its own melodrama at arm’s length. We, like Mityushin, mistake Zina’s actions for the real thing, only to discover afterwards that we were set-up. This makes us take caution at all later scenes within the film, wondering when we are observing “the real thing” or simply the film-within-the-film. This self-consciousness on the film’s part, of course, is not some politically radical move. But it shows a degree of reflexivity that pervades Soviet commercial cinema that we normally often associate mainly with its avant-garde.
As a result, it not only reveals rather banal ways in which cinematic reflexivity can be employed, but it also suggests a certain savvy of commercial films and its viewership. The films didn’t naively assert a melodramatic framework, but were rather aware of the artificiality of such a framework and constantly had to invent new ways to keep viewers who were well aware of these conventions interested. This paid off in spades for The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom. It became a hit of 1924.
As more ‘20s Soviet commercial cinema becomes available, we can see how the compromises that plague the political regime of Lenin and Trotsky, similarly infested the cultural level. What aspects of bourgeois culture could be utilized within a Soviet cinema without overall compromising its agit-prop goals? Where did commercial and avant-garde cinema converge? What do they mutually have to offer each other? The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom offers some introductory ways in which avant-garde and commercial cinemas complimented one another during the ‘20s. As the New Economic Policy attempted to infuse a dose of capitalism within a faltering Soviet economy, American cinema and Soviet avant-garde techniques and content merged within commercial Soviet cinema in its mixed attempts to fashion a truly utopian cinematic world: one that is both popular and political.