A country girl heads to Moscow with a few possessions and a duck. When she is hired by a couple determined not to pay union wages, the stage is set for a mini revolution.
Love and collective bargaining
I like to say sometimes that Soviet rom-coms are the best rom-coms and I’m not kidding. Despite its heavy reputation, both Russian literature and Russian film are capable of featherweight lightness and sparkling merriment. It wasn’t all massacres and runaway baby carriages.
The late 1920s was an interesting period for Soviet film as they were still actively incorporating elements of Hollywood and German cinema while still maintaining the basic Russianness of their stories. This was where filmmaker Boris Barnet honed his directing chops and created two lovely little romantic comedies.
The Girl with the Hat Box is a treasure and I gushed over it a while back but even more famous is Barnet’s follow-up, The House on Trubnaya. Like I said, some viewers automatically write off Russian cinema as dark and heavy but you’re going to have to trust me when I say that this film is a little splash of sunshine.
The House on Trubnaya is an apartment building filled with eccentric characters. There’s Semyon (Vladimir Batalov), a driver from the country; Marisha (Anel Sudakevich), a housemaid with a crush on him; Fenya (Ada Vojtsik), a union organizer; and the Golikovs (Vladimir Fogel and Elena Tyapkina), a bourgeois couple who own a hair salon.
The apartment is a mess with the residents chopping wood on the stairs and generally showing no regard for either the building or their neighbors. Golikov has problems of his own as he is obliged to do all the housework while his wife lies in with her little dog. He wants to hire a maid but he and his wife refuse to engage any woman who is a member of the domestic workers’ union.
Meanwhile, a teenage girl named Paranya (Vera Maretskaya) has arrived in Moscow and immediately lands in a pickle when the duck she was carrying in a basket escapes and is nearly run over by a street car. Semyon sees the crowd around Paranya and when he investigates, he recognizes her from his old village. As she has nowhere to stay, he invites her back to his apartment.
Paranya is, of course, not a member of any union and so is immediately engaged by the Golikovs. It quickly becomes obvious why they were so adamant about no union labor. Golikov has Paranya hopping around with domestic duties while Golikova demands that she be waited on hand and foot.
(Russian women use a feminized surname in many cases, so Mrs. Golikov is properly Golikova just as the daughter of a Mr. Pushkin would have the surname Pushkina and Olga Petrova’s father would have been Mr. Petrov if her real name hadn’t actually been Harding. So, if you run into -sky/-skaya, -ov/ova, -in/ina, etc. that is the reason. I will be referring to Golikova by her proper surname throughout.)
Of course, Fenya the union organizer quickly makes it her business to recruit Paranya and invites her to the union hall where the local chapter is reenacting the storming of the Bastille. Golikov has been persuaded to play a villainous aristocrat in the play and Paranya is in the audience. All goes well until Golikov’s character murders a brave revolutionary. Paranya is so enraged that she leaps onto the stage and beats Golikov with a flagpole. How I Lost My Job: Soviet Edition. However, the audience is enthralled with Paranya’s antics.
The next day is the election and when the results are announced, one of the new members of the city council is… Paranya?
What will she do with her new power? How will her employers react? See The House on Trubnaya to find out!
(Incidentally, when dealing with the titles of Russian films, some variation is inevitable. The Russian language does not have definite or indefinite articles so they must be added in when translating to English. That’s why we have The Man with the Movie Camera, A Man with a Movie Camera, The Man with a Movie Camera and A Man with the Movie Camera, etc. In the case of The House on Trubnaya, there is also a question of whether the title meant Trubnaya Street or Trubnaya Square, so simply following the original title’s lead and calling it Trubnaya seems to be the best solution.)
Domestic workers flexing their newfound influence was one of many labor topics being sorted out in Russia under Lenin’s New Economic Policy. The union demanded eight hour work days, vacation time and some sort of protection from homelessness if the domestic worker lost their job. (90% of domestic workers lived with their employer.) Further, other union members were encouraged to actively recruit new members and to help enforce union policies if employers were found to be in violation.
(You can read more about this in Everyday Life in Early Soviet Russia: Taking the Revolution Inside.)
Of course, all of this works because most of us have worked for people or have had friends who worked for people like the Golikovs. There is something inherently humorous and infuriating about petty dictators and The House on Trubnaya could have scarcely chosen better villains.
Like Ilya in The Girl with the Hat Box, Paranya is defined by her country fashion and particularly her large felt boots and long, full peasant skirts, which give her a compact, child-like appearance. Vera Maretskaya is a delight in the role with her expressive eyes and zippy body language. It’s easy to understand her longstanding popularity with Russian audiences. (Her life was apparently a tragic one behind the scenes, she lost family in Stalin’s purges.)
Vladimir Fogel is probably most famous as the chess-loving fanatic in Chess Fever but he does excellent work as the selfish, obnoxious Golikov. His body language is hilarious as he perches on a stool like a petulant buzzard and tries to figure out this cooking thing. Elena Tyapkina is perfectly punchable as his awful wife.
Ada Vojtsik had been the leading lady of The Forty-First and you may recognize her as the young czar’s mother in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. I rather enjoyed the warm friendship between Fenya and Paranya; for an apples to apples comparison in American film, I recommend looking at the relationship between Clara Bow and Priscilla Bonner in IT. Vladimir Batalov makes a nice love interest but the romance never reaches the madcap levels found in The Girls with the Hat Box.
I hope I am managing to put across what a light and lovely confection this film is. When talking about unionization and contract violations, it may seem that this is a serious, opaque Soviet picture but that is not the case at all. Certainly, there are many references to daily life in NEP-era Russia but the vast majority of the film’s runtime is taken up with human situations and wry observations on same.
You don’t need to be a Russophile to find humor in the pretentiousness of the Golikovs or to giggle as the maids compete at beating dust out of rugs or the way all the residents of the apartment building suddenly know how to clean the stairs when they believe Paranya has become a councilwoman.
The best Russian humor is based on finding the funny is everyday human behavior. For example, this passage from Gogol’s short story The Nose tells us everything we need to know about the personalities of a married couple in a few sure strokes of the pen:
“Today, Praskovya Osipovna, I shall not drink coffee,” said Ivan Yakovlevitch, “but instead I’d like some hot bread and onion.” (That is, Ivan Yakovlevitch would have liked both, but he knew that it was absolutely impossible to demand both things at once, as Praskovya Osipovna did not encourage such fancies).
Barnet’s great talent as a director was his masterful illusion of reality. In many comedy films, the extras and background characters exist entirely at the service of the plot. The pushcart vendor exists because there needs to be something for the fleeing heroes to knock over and smashed fruit is funny. In Boris Barnet’s work, there are no such figures. The pushcart vendor or, in this case, the union workers all feel so real that The House on Trubnaya could have followed them home and shown us their lives without feeling like a detour.
Barnet was well aware that he was constructing an illusion—there were no von Stroheim-like demands for extras to wear monogrammed undergarments—and his use of montage, the latest unchained camera techniques and his overall grasp of the language of silent films creates a world that is at once stylish and homey.
I don’t want to say that clever visual flourishes are gone entirely from cinema but they were employed so beautifully in the silent era. For example, when Semyon discovers Paranya on the streetcar tracks, he bundles her into his car and takes her back to his apartment. Jealous Marisha, carrying a dead duck that she likely intended for an evening meal with Semyon, watches them drive away and then when she returns to Trubnaya, she sees Paranya’s duck happily quacking away in the window of Semyon’s apartment. She returns to her own rooms and tosses down her dead duck.
Earlier in the film, Paranya’s aunt sends her off to Moscow to find her uncle but just as the girl departs, the uncle disembarks from another train—he has come home. The aunt very nearly gets herself run over trying to stop Paranya from leaving. This proves to be a genetic trait as Paranya’s duck escapes and she tries to chase it down, nearly getting herself run over in the process.
Boris Barnet accomplishes more with two women and two ducks, an auntie and a train than many filmmakers can put across with all the banter in the world.
The House on Trubnaya and The Girl with the Hat Box are two of the finest rom-coms made anytime, anywhere. I prefer the latter slightly but both are absolutely delightful. There’s nothing else for it, you’ll just have to see them both for yourself. It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s Landmarks of Early Soviet Film box set. The film is accompanied by a beautiful score from Robert Israel.
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