The Girl with the Hat Box Review
During the early thirties Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn was on the lookout for a foreign actress to match the success of Greta Garbo. He settled on the Ukrainian-born Anna Sten, star of Soviet silents and German talkies. Soon enough she had signed on the dotted line, relocated to the United States and was taking English lessons. Her first Hollywood role came in 1934, an adaptation of Emile Zola’s Nana in which she took the title. Unfortunately this proved to be massive flop, whilst its immediate follow-ups also met with a similar lack of success, in part - it is often said - due to her heavy accent. Sten (and Goldwyn’s schooling of her) soon became the subject of ridicule, most famously in a verse from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, and found herself out of contract. She stuck around in Hollywood until her death in 1993, occasionally finding small roles on both the big- and small-screen before retiring as she approached her sixties. She never matched her European fame.
Watching The Girl with the Hat Box - Sten’s first starring role - it’s hard to fathom how her stardom never translated to US audiences. Certainly, that accent must have been quite the stumbling block, but her presence is undeniable. Sten was still a teenager when she made this film, with a bit of stage experience behind her (she had been discovered by Stanislavski aged just fifteen whilst acting in an amateur production in her native Kiev) and just the one feature: an uncredited appearance in the three-part adventure serial Miss Mend. Nevertheless she throws herself into the role completely turning in a wonderfully feisty performance but also possessing superb comic timing. Add to this her striking looks and it’s easy to see why Sten won over audiences during her pre-Hollywood days and, indeed, why Goldwyn came calling in the first place.
The titular girl with the hat box is Natasha, who lives with her grandpa on the outskirts of Moscow. Together they make hats which she then sells in the city through her employer, the uppity Madame Irene. The upstairs of the milliner is also Madame Irene’s home and, as we are introduced to the characters, it transpires that she is claiming Natasha as one of her tenants so as to secure extra space. Thanks to The Girl with the Hat Box being a comedy, events are soon complicated by a winning lottery ticket, a homeless student, a pretend marriage and a buffoonish admirer, though not necessarily in that order. Amazingly, this is all unfolds in a little over an hour - whereas many a modern romantic comedy would labour just one of these developments to death, The Girl with the Hat Box refuses to get bogged down. It’s too sprightly for that, too energetic.
Equally amazing are the origins: the film was commissioned by the USSR People’s Commissariat for Finance. Its ultimate aim was as a piece of propaganda, the subject of its promotion being the state loan. That should suggest something dry, something staid, something dull - and yet The Girl with the Hat Box is none of these things. It’s too cute, too charming and, quite simply, just too funny to ever fit any of those labels. Sten contributes a great deal, of course, but special mention should also be made for director Boris Barnet. He brings the frenetic pace, the wonderful visual invention (one quick-fire montage across different planes of focus is really quite remarkable) and the frame-perfect sight gags. At its best The Girl with the Hat Box is a genuine contender to Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd in this respect - and that’s not a statement to be made lightly.
Furthermore, many of the qualities - the wit, the immense charm, the immediately winning nature of it all - are of the kind that audiences have been responding to in Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. The Girl with the Hat Box differs in one key way, however, and that is - of course - that it’s the genuine article. In which case it may very well be the ideal means with which to lure fans of The Artist into the real deal. This film is as fresh as it was back in 1927, perfect entertainment for both the silent cinema neophyte and the seasoned pro.
The Girl with the Hat Box has been released by Ruscico as part of its two-disc Hyperkino collection. Both discs contain the same film, albeit with slightly different approaches. One has the film with a selection of subtitle options to accompany the intertitles (see list below), the other offers up an interactive annotated edition complete with essays, film clips and various facsimiles (official documents, script pages, and so forth). The presentation quality is of a high standard with the print used in good shape and containing original Russian intertitles. The image does look a little boosted at times, but never to any great distraction. Detail and clarity are both fine and the accompanying score - a sprightly affair befitting the overall pace and mood - similarly without any major issue. As for the annotations and essays, these are up to the usual Hyperkino standard. Among the subjects up for discussion are the performance styles, the cinematic trends of the time, the script changes, contemporary critical reaction and a wealth of historical detail. Plus a whole host of contextualising film clips too.
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