Ivan Mosjoukine plays a dashing officer who wants to make time with his girlfriend. Her strict mother will not hear of it and so the young lovers come up with a plan. Mosjoukine shaves his mustache, slips into a dress and gets hired as the family’s new cook. A delightfully zany farce based on a poem by Pushkin.
There has to be an easier way to get a date.
Before we get into this amusing comedy, let me provide a little bit of background on its source material. Alexander Pushkin is considered to be one of the finest Russian authors. His influence on the language can be compared to Shakespeare and his romantic, swashbuckling reputation to Lord Byron. He was killed in a duel (what else?) when he was only thirty-seven but his body of work continued to grow in popularity.
By the time the Russian film industry had launched, the cult of Pushkin was in full swing. Movie after movie adapted his most famous works and filmmakers also began to dig into Pushkin’s more obscure titles. And this is where we are introduced to his 1833 farcical poem The House in Kolomna. (You can read a translation of the poem as well as notes by Peter Cochran here. Only in PDF format, I’m afraid.)
The story is set in Kolomna, a lovely provincial city located about sixty miles south of Moscow. Parasha (Sofya Goslavskaya) is the only daughter of a widowed mother (Praskovya Maksimova). She is a dutiful and accomplished young lady but she does have one weakness. The parlor window overlooks the street, you see, and every day the officers from the local barracks ride by. Parasha cannot resist a man in uniform and she has fallen for the most debonair gent of the lot, played by Ivan Mosjoukine. Good choice, Parasha!
(The young officer is nameless in both the original source material and this film but he was given the name “Vasily” in Igor Stravinsky’s 1922 one-act opera, Mavra, which was adapted from the Pushkin poem. For the sake of a smooth narrative, I will call the character by that name as well.)
Unfortunately, Parasha’s mother is old-fashioned and strict. No men in the house! How can these two lovebirds see one another? Mother provides the answer herself. They need a new cook and so Parasha is sent out to find one who will work on the cheap. Of course, she makes a beeline for the barracks and tells all to her beau. Suppose, just suppose he were to…
Parasha returns home with the most gawky, awkward woman in tow. She says that her name is Mavrusha and she will work for a pittance. This is music to penny-pinching Mother’s ears and the new cook is engaged. But Mavrusha cannot cook, cannot sew, she drops the crockery and randomly stands at attention and salutes. What gives?
Ivan Mosjoukine has a grand time with his dual role, interpreting each part so energetically that he shakes with excitement. However, even if he is played by the vigorous Mr. Mosjoukine, Vasily soon grows tired of his charade. He can’t smoke or manspread or shave under the watchful eye of Mother and it is this last activity that proves to be his downfall. Mother catches Mavrusha mid-chin scrape. The deception is over.
And so, gentle readers, Pushkin explains that there are two morals to the story. First, hiring a cheap cook is a recipe for disaster. Second, a man dressing as a woman in order to live in his girlfriend’s house is bound to fail as he has to shave sometime. Some incredibly specific advice from 1830s Russia, fellas, and you would do well to follow it.
Of course the concept of donning women’s clothing in order to gain entry to some forbidden area was a fairly common device in silent comedy but the interesting twist in this film is that, to quote Cochran, the plot involves “smuggling a man disguised as a woman into a woman-dominated establishment, to satisfy a woman’s desire.”
As far as the romance is concerned, Parasha is firmly in the driver’s seat. It is she who approaches Vasily with her plan to sneak him into the house. She watches him struggle with his domestic duties with mischievous glee, only to rescue him at the last minute. (Keep in mind how strictly gender roles would have been enforced in Europe circa 1830.)
That’s not to say that Vasily is an unwilling participant. Quite the opposite, he is an enthusiastic co-conspirator. He simply accepts that Parasha is in charge of pretty much everything. When an awkward situation comes up (being asked to sew lace, being told to scrub Mother’s back) he panics and depends on Parasha to save him.
All of this is emphasized by the complete absence of male authority figures. We see the barracks but all of the officers are either Vasily’s peers or his subordinates. This leaves Mother as the undisputed top dog in this fictional world. She may be silly and she may be cheap but no one is particularly eager to cross her, not even the lively Parasha. Vasily makes faces at her behind her back to actually confront her? No, thank you!
The direction of the film by Pyotr Chardynin is reasonably staid for the period, though there are some nice pans courtesy of Ladislas Starevich, who was cameraman for this endeavor. The interiors have an artificial feel to them but it actually works within the context of the story. This is a farce and everyone is dressed accordingly. The dresses, bonnets, uniforms and coats are all appropriate to their time period but tweaked ever so slightly to exaggerate and create a grotesque atmosphere. At least one minor character employs a putty nose for the same purpose.
The cast is small but the performances are all excellent. I was particularly impressed with Sofya Goslavskaya’s Parasha. She feigns just the right level of innocence without simpering and her scenes in which she is coaching Vasily on how to be a woman are particularly charming. This girl has brains and beauty and she knows it.
Of course, most of us are here for the leading man of the picture.
I’ve said it before but here we go again. Ivan Mosjoukine, if he is mentioned at all, is often described as steely, cruel or icy. While he did have some roles that could be labeled that way (The White Devil, for example) he was far more versatile than these adjectives indicate. For one thing, he had a wacky sense of humor and wasn’t afraid to unleash it on the screen. For another, he seemed to bore easily and rarely played the same type of role twice in a row.
Mosjoukine had just turned twenty-four when The House in Kolomna was released and energy is practically bursting out of him. While he plays his parts a bit more broadly than he would have later, his performance meshes well with the farcical tone of the picture. All in all, he is having so much fun in the film that his enthusiasm is infectious and we start to have fun right along with him.
Sofya Goslavskaya later recalled that Mosjoukine was absolutely over the moon about his dual role. This should come as no surprise to his fans as Mosjoukine was noted for his love of costumes and makeup, the more extravagant the better. By this time a popular leading man in Russian cinema, Mosjoukine caused something of a stir when passersby saw him dressed as a woman, grandly following his female co-stars to a bathhouse. (The final film has just Parasha and her mother in this scene; Russia was apparently not ready for Mosjoukine’s antics.)
Apparently, there was some amount of worry about the film crossing the boundaries of good taste (Russian censors were even more inconsistent than their American counterparts). Mosjoukine and director Pyotr Chardynin had to work to create a compromise between farce and censor-proof entertainment. Of particular concern was the scene in which “Mavrusha” helps Parasha get undressed for bed.
There were obviously some cuts made but the film has a good flow of action and they are not noticeable. What is clear is the gusto that the cast and crew bring to the film.
The House in Kolomna is a joyous delight from beginning to end. Ivan Mosjoukine fans will enjoy seeing such an early role but even casual fans of silent film should find much to love. It’s an ideal farce, as saucy as it is zany.
Movies Silently’s Score:★★★★
Where can I see it?
The House in Kolomna was released on DVD by Milestone as volume 5 of their Early Russian Cinema collection. You can also get the entire nine-volume set. It’s spendy but so worth it, so if you ever find yourself heir to a fortune or winner of a lottery…