Antosha (Antoni Fertner) takes his wife’s absence as an opportunity to throw a wild party. How wild is it? Well, at the end, one of the guests leaves behind her corset. The rest of the short concerns Antosha’s attempts to rid himself of the incriminating undergarment before his wife comes home.
When the cat’s away…
The great advantage of silent cinema was that it granted actors great mobility. Unfettered by language barriers, a star could make films anywhere contracts were offered. There was no need to worry about accents or even a total inability to speak the language; that’s what title cards were for.
We’re used to thinking of Hollywood as the great importer of foreign talent but other nations engaged in talent swiping as well. Torn by war and divided for decades, it’s no surprise that Poland’s biggest stars departed for the larger studios and budgets of Russia and Germany. We all know that Pola Negri did a stint in Russia, ended up in Germany and then departed for Hollywood but she was not the only one.
Meet Antoni Fertner. Born in Częstochowa in 1874, he was a talented stage actor who became a popular comedian in the emerging Polish film industry. In 1915 (possibly due to the raging World War) he signed on with the Russian Lucifer Company and began making the Antosha series.
Fertner didn’t look like a movie star and his comedy had little in common with the slapstick that is often associated with silent film. Antosha (the Russian equivalent of “Tony”) was an ordinary man who did not defy the laws of physics, perform death-defying stunts or mug for the camera. Instead, he was a crumb from the upper crust whose lack of self-control would lead to his eventual comeuppance. Antosha can be best compared to France’s Max Linder and America’s Sidney Drew.
In all, Fertner made two dozen Antosha films before the Bolshevik takeover sent him fleeing back to Poland. His Polish fans forgave his defection to the Russians and welcomed him with open arms. He divided his time between stage, screen and his beloved hobby of bicycling.
Like most pre-revolution Russian cinema, many of the Antosha films are gone forever. This is a particular loss as Antosha Ruined by a Corset gives us a taste of how charming the whole series must have been.
Antosha (Antoni Fertner) is in the midst of throwing a wild party. His wife is out of town, you see, and he means to make the most of it. Antosha and his friends eat, drink, dance and generally whoop it up. In the midst of the mad whirl, one of Antosha’s guests complains that her corset is pinching her. She slips behind a screen and unlaces it. Once she is more comfortable, the party resumes in earnest.
But then a message arrives. Antosha’s wife will be home any minute! The guests flee and Antosha carefully cleans the parlor. Everything is spic and span. There’s nothing to incriminate… Oh good lord, she left her corset.
In a panic, Antosha throws the corset out the window. A kindly street sweeper returns it. Then he tries to throw it in the fireplace. The chimney sweep recovers it and gives it back. Antosha tries to drop it in the street but it is returned by helpful passersby. Will he ever be rid of this accursed undergarment?
Fertner keeps the jokes fresh by finding ways to add insult to Antosha’s injury. When the workers return the corset, they also expect a tip. Antosha pays with increasing irritation but finally loses his temper and kicks one of these do-gooders in the pants.
Fertner’s acting is refreshingly subtle and his comedic gestures show great imagination. For example, the second time the corset is returned, Antosha throws it to the ground and stomps on it. That reaction is common enough but it is the way Fertner does it that makes it so amusing. Rather than jumping up and down, he shuffles around in a tiny circle while looking up in frustration. He’s trying to maintain self-control but this stupid, horrible corset… ARRRGH! Again, it’s very impressive that Fertner doesn’t give in to the temptation to mug or broaden his gestures. Unlike many of his stage brethren, he understood that simpler and smaller were to be preferred before the movie camera.
The story tension builds as Antosha becomes more and more desperate to rid himself of the corset. It seems that the entire city is conspiring against him and that he will never be free of the horrible things. With this desperation, Fertner’s gestures become tighter and more abrupt. And when the corset is suddenly removed from his possession, the tightness evaporates. He returns home with a spring in his step.
The punchline of the film (spoiler for this paragraph) contains a splendid bit of meta humor. Antosha has managed to unload the corset by allowing a pickpocket to take it. His wife is home and it seems that all is well. Then the corset comes special delivery with a note. “Mr. Fertner, I admire your films but hang yourself with your corset!” Antoni Fertner’s fame as a movie star is shared by Antosha and it brings about his final downfall. The rascal has been caught in the act and must now be punished by his wife, who is less than amused to discover the alien corset.
Antosha Ruined by a Corset is a good-natured comedy that is held together thanks to Fertner’s charming performance as the selfish title character. It’s saucy but quite subtle considering the time, place and subject matter. If you want to take a look at what made Central and Eastern European audiences guffaw during the First World War, this is the film for you. It’s an utter delight.
Movies Silently’s Score:★★★½
Where can I see it?
Antosha Ruined by a Corset was released on DVD by Milestone on volume 9 of their Early Russian Cinema series. The print is in so-so shape but it is accompanied by a sprightly piano score courtesy of Neil Brand. The disc also includes Evgeni Bauer’s 1916 film A Life for a Life. You can get the entire Early Russian Cinema set (nine discs!) should you feel so inclined. It’s definitely worth it.