Alas, poor Bunny

John Bunny

A few years ago, I was sent a catalogue by the photographic agency, Corbis. Among its many images denoting emotions, there was one of a portly, middle-aged man with bright beaming face, categorised under something like ‘surprise’ or ‘happiness’. The person had no further identification. The photograph was of John Bunny, once arguably the most popular and recognised person worldwide, now reduced to complete anonymity.

I can’t find the photograph now on the Corbis web site (which does have one picture of Bunny identified as him). So maybe someone discovered the injustice. I hope so. For John Bunny really was the most popular of silent stars in his day, and the way in which his popularity has so dramatically faded ought to be a lesson to anyone whose head gets turned by the notion of celebrity.

John Bunny (1863?-1915) was the son of a British naval officer who settled in New York, where his son ran away from home to join a minstrel show and then became a stage actor and director. In 1910 he turned to the movies, joining the Vitagraph Company, and almost instantly became a star. He portrayed a rotund, merry, earthy figure, whose genial manner and aptitude for comic characterisation, sometimes touched with pathos, endeared him to millions. He appeared in over 200 shorts between 1910-1914, with such titles as Bunny Buys a Harem, And His Wife Came Back and Bunny’s Honeymoon. He was often teamed with the comically angular Flora Finch. He made some films in Britain in 1913, including Pickwick Papers (he was a natural Mr Pickwick), scenes from which were filmed just around the corner from where I am typing this now. His death in 1915 made headlines around the world.

Why mention Bunny now? Simply because of yesterday’s post with the Vachel Lindsay poems, for there is one last poem by Lindsay on the film stars of the early cinema period which I haven’t given you as yet. It’s the second part of a two-part sequence, the first of which commememorates the actor Edwin Booth, renowned for his performance as Hamlet. For the second part, Lindsay laments the death of John Bunny as if he were Yorick, Hamlet’s fool:

John Bunny, Motion Picture Comedian

In which he is remembered in similitude, by reference to Yorick, the king’s jester, who died when Hamlet and Ophelia were children

Yorick is dead. Boy Hamlet walks forlorn
Beneath the battlements of Elsinore.
Where are those oddities and capers now
That used to “set the table on a roar”?

And do his bauble-bells beyond the clouds
Ring out, and shake with mirth the planets bright?
No doubt he brings the blessed dead good cheer,
But silence broods on Elsinore tonight.

That little elf, Ophelia, eight years old,
Upon her battered doll’s staunch bosom weeps.
(“O best of men, that wove glad fairy-tales.”)
With tear-burned face, at last the darling sleeps.

Hamlet himself could not give cheer or help,
Though firm and brave, with his boy-face controlled.
For every game they started out to play
Yorick invented, in the days of old.

The times are out of joint! O cursed spite!
The noble jester Yorick comes no more.
And Hamlet hides his tears in boyish pride
By some lone turret-stair of Elsinore.

Bunny died of liver failure on 26 April 1915. Today, only a handful of his films survive: A Cure for Pokeritis, Bunny at the Derby, The Pickwick Papers, Bunny all at Sea, Her Crowning Glory, The Wooing of Winifred, and a few more. In truth, his real comic appeal died with him, and it is worth seeing Bunny at Sea for its scenes taken on board a ship where real life passengers laugh delightedly at Bunny’s antics, giving us some indications of the roots of his popular appeal.

Vachel Lindsay wrote evocatively of the first Bunny picture that he saw:

It is a story of high life below stairs. The hero is the butler at a governor’s reception. John Bunny’s work as this man is a delightful piece of acting. The servants are growing tipsier downstairs, but the more afraid of the chief functionary every time he appears, frozen into sobriety by his glance. At the last moment this god of the basement catches them at their worst and gives them a condescending but forgiving smile. The lid comes off completely. He himself has been imbibing. His surviving dignity in waiting on the governor’s guests is worthy of Goldsmith and Sheridan. The film should be reissued in time as a Bunny memoiral.

Whichever title it might be, it’s a lost film now…

Clonic Mutations

Just time to let you know about Clonic Mutations, another silent film event taking place at Tate Modern as part of its Dali & Film strand, on Friday 20 July. Here’s the blurb:

Clonic Mutations features the world premiere of live new music scores created for a range of experimental films made between 1904 and 1952 with strong ties to surrealism. Composed for twelve musicians and clockwork toys by Sergio López Figueroa, a Spanish composer and specialist in silent film, the scores examine new contextual relationships between music, historical experimental film and art. The screening will feature the newly restored version of Un Chien andalou by Filmoteca Española.

Programme duration approx 60′

The Strength and Agility of Insects, F. Percy Smith, 1911, 3’58, DVD

A Phantasy, Norman McLaren, 1952, 7’15, 16mm

El Hotel eléctrico, Segundo de Chomón, 1904, 4′, digiBeta

Tusalava, Len Lye, 1929, 9′, 35mm

L’Étoile de mer, Man Ray, 1928, 18′, 35mm

Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, 1929, 17′, 35mm

Full details from the Tate Modern site.

Visiting the Volta

Volta then and now

I’m back from few days in Dublin, and naturally I paid a visit to 45 Mary Street. Why so? Because it was here in December 1909 that Dublin’s, indeed Ireland’s, first cinema was situated, manager one James Joyce. The author of Ulysses‘s contribution to literature is rather more considerable than his contribution to cinema history, but it is nevertheless a diverting tale.

Joyce was living in Trieste, Italy, and ever on the look-out for money-making schemes, when he fell in with a group of businessmen who ran a group of cinemas in Trieste and Bucharest, and teasingly told them that he knew of a city of half a million inhabitants without a single cinema. This was Dublin, of course, which had had plenty of film exhibitions before 1909, but no dedicated venue for film up to that date. A contract was signed between them in October 1909, and Joyce was sent over to Dublin to prepare things. He found a suitable venue at 45 Mary Street, off Sackville Street, and spent the next two months preparing what was named the Volta Cinematograph. He hired the staff, oversaw the fitting out of the venue, and heavily promoted the coming attraction with sandwich board men, press notices and the like.

The Volta opened on 20 December 1909, with this programme (correct original language titles and credits in brackets):

  • The Bewitched Castle (possibly Le Chateau Hanté, Pathé 1909)
  • The First Paris Orphanage (possibly La Première Pierre d’un Asile pour Orphelins, Pathé 1908)
  • Beatrice Cenci (probably Beatrice Cenci, Cines 1909)
  • Devilled Crab (possibly Cretinetti ha ingoiato un gambero, Itala 1909)
  • La Pouponnière (Une Pouponnière à Paris, Éclair 1909)

The Volta seated about 600-700 (200 kitchen chairs were at the front for those paying the top prices). It was a simple shop conversion i.e. no racking, and only the plainest of comforts. Doors opened at 5.00 pm and there were continuous 35 to 40-minute programmes every hour up to 10.00 pm. One extraordinary feature was that the titles of the films were all in Italian – Joyce received the films direct from the Trieste source rather than through English film exchanges, and so handbills were given out with English translations. Music was supplied by a small string orchestra, led by Reginald Morgan. Tickets were 2d, 4d and 6d, children half price.

Joyce did not stick around for long, leaving the cinema in the hands of one Francesco Novak, while he went back to Trieste on 2 January 1910. So his involvement in the actual running, and programming, of the cinema was minimal, though he did remain in touch with the business for a few months as it staggered along, hampered by poor presentation, competing attractions, and undoubtedly a paucity of American films. The business was sold at a loss to the British company Pronvincial Cinema Theatres in June 1910, and continued as a cinema (known for a while as the Lyceum, before it became the Volta once more) until 1948.

There has been quite a bit of interest among some academics in Joyce’s association with the Volta, as reported in an earlier post. This centres on the degree to which Joyce’s “choice” of films might be reflected in his writings (unlikely – he had little to do with the selection of films, which were simply the titles generally available at the time) and how much the idea of cinema itself can be found in his art (a stronger line of enquiry – he was always an enthusiastic filmgoer). As you will see from the photographs, the Volta has not fared as well as some of Dublin buildings associated with Joyce. The site is now part of Penney’s department store, and is not recognisable as having once been a cinema with a unique literary association.

There is a new book, An A to Zed of All Old Dublin Cinemas, collated and self-published by George Kearns and Patrick Maguire. It is mostly a collection of contemporay clippings and photographs, and has useful information on the Volta, including two photographs that I’ve not seen before, both from the 1940s, as is the left-hand image above. Sadly, no photograph of the Volta from the time when Joyce was there is known to survive.

But why not go along for yourself this June? Bloomsday (16th June, the day on which Ulysses is set) is always celebrated with a range of events, and this year these include a tour of Dublin cinema sites, including the Volta, led by Marc Zimmerman, author of another (forthcoming) book on Dublin cinemas. Here the blurb from the James Joyce Centre site:

JOYCE’S VOLTA CINEMA & BEYOND – A GUIDED WALKING TOUR

Start: James Joyce Centre, 35 North Great George’s Street
Duration: ca. 90 minutes
Finish: Irish Film Institute/Cinema, 6 Eustace Street

Tour: This tour visits James Joyce’s Volta cinema (opened 1909 as Ireland’s very first dedicated picture house) as well as a further 15 historic cinemas in Dublin’s city centre ranging from early conversions of Georgian buildings to lavish Art Deco venues, giving a detailed account of their cultural history, architecture and significance. The tour will be illustrated with numerous historic and interior photographs.

Guide: Marc Zimmermann is a building conservation engineer and the author of The History of Dublin Cinemas (book out in May and avail. during the tour). He founded the Cinema Heritage Group in 2006 and issues a free e-newsletter, The Cinematograph [subscribe from: NOSPAMheritage_events@yahoo.com]

Date: 14th June 2007 & 17th June 2007
Time: 7.00pm (14/6) & 2.00pm (17/6)
Venue: James Joyce Centre, 35 North Great George’s Street
Tickets: €10 / €8conc.
Advanced booking advised

There are other Joycean film-related events taking place.

The camera as historian

More on Louis Stanley Jast and the proto-film archive at Croydon Public Library (see yesterday’s post). I dug out a copy of The Camera as Historian, by H.D. Gower, L. Stanley Jast and W.W. Topley (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co. Ltd., 1916) in the British Library. The book is predominantly about the use of photography as a civic and social record, but it makes some comments about cinematography which reinforce what Jast told The Bioscope in 1914. There is further detail on the system for viewing films without projection, designed by Thomas H. Windibank, manager of the London Electric Hall cinema in Croydon, with diagrams and photographs. The text is most concerned with practical matters of taking, storing and making accessible photographic collections, but it has some fascinating general arguments. It asserts that photography’s power to record actuality “implies a corresponding responsibility” i.e. that local authorities had a duty to form photographic collections, by which the authors mean cinematographic records as well. The opening quotation boldly asserts the importance of the image for the study of history:

The means whereby the past, particularly in its elation to human activities and their results, may be reconstructed and visualized, can be roughly grouped under the four headings of material objects, oral tradition, written record, and lastly, graphic record, whether pictorial or sculptural. It is no part of our purpose to belittle the value of any of the first-named tools of the historian or scientist; but it will probably be conceded that in many respects the last named has a value greatly outweighing the others. It is obvious, moreover, that the lure of the graphic as of all other record rests entirely upon its accuracy. Now, not only is absolute fidelity to the original beyond attainment in the case of the artist, but the work even of the most painstaking draughtsman is often coloured by his individuality to such an extent that the detailed characteristics of the original he is reproducing assume in his work aspects quite foreign to their real nature.

Then comes the insistence that local authorities should be collecting film:

Hitherto little or no attention appears to have been paid to the enormous value of preserving, in such a way as to ensure their availability for the public of the future, the splendid photographic records of our national life contained in the cinematographic films daily taken for exhibition at “moving picture” theatres. This subject will be treated in a later chapter; but its importance warrants a reference to it here. Here the municipality – or whatever be the local governing body – surely has some interest, nay, the authors would urge, has a clear duty.

Jast does appear to suggest in this next extract that the value of film is as a series of photographs (though he does note elsewhere the importance of seeing films either as still images or in motion), but he explains how easy it should be to start up such a collection:

We have left to the last reference to what is perhaps the most valuable source of photographic records, at all events among those illustrating past events. We refer to the kinematograph films taken for display at the many “Picture Palaces” which have sprung up in such profusion amongst us during the last few years. Many of the noteworthy local happenings (at all events in towns of any size) are recorded in this manner. A few days after exhibition their commercial value has sunk to nothing, and they represent to the picture showman merely so many feet of waste celluloid. The value of a film containing over 4000 technically excellent photographic transparencies would, in this form, be about 3d.! It has been found that requests, by a suitable body (e.g. a Public Library) for the gift of these records are usually met by a most courteous acquiescence; while if a strictly commercial view of the matter be taken, the cost of acquiring the records – by way of purchase – need be so slight as to be negligible in comparison with their real value … That this source of material has been hitherto almost unrecognized is unfortunate. It would be deplorable if, henceforward, through apathy or lack of foresight, any opportunity should be missed of securing such invaluable records.

Jast would have been pleased to know about the regional film archive movement in Britain, but dismayed to learn that it was not instituted until the 1970s. How much local film was lost in the interim? I will now try and find out what happened to the Croydon film collection.