Thursday, May 19, 2016

The NFR Project #27: 'A Cure for Pokeritis'

Flora Finch and John Bunny -- film's first unhappily married couple.
A Cure for Pokeritis
Dir: Laurence Trimble
The first American film comedy star was not the balletic Chaplin. John Bunny was from Brooklyn, and would have been hard to pick of a crowd as a likely leading man. He was short, and round as a billiard ball. His large nose glowed red with a rosacea that most mistook for a hard-drinking life. (He neither drank nor smoked.) A vaudeville veteran, he saw the future, walked into the Vitagraph Studios in New York, made some pictures, and found himself internationally famous. Between 1909 and his death in 1915, he was as celebrated as the first rue film comic, Frenchman Max Linder.

Bunny wouldn’t have made such as impact without his partner, Flora Finch. As thin as he was stout, she played the waspish wife to his wayward husband. The archetype of the childish husband and the nagging, maternal wife, was something everyone connected with in a culture that seemed to apologize for male privilege by casting the man as haplessly ensnared into a penis-less existence by the castrating hausfrau.

This popular comic trope, which resurfaces regularly like a pulse in the American comic dialogue combined with the classic fat/thin contrast dynamic, worked. Their 160 films, made between 1910 and 1915, were called “Bunnygraphs,” “Bunnyfinches,” or “Bunnyfinchgraphs,” they were so well-known. (James Cagney, a Vitagraph neighbor as a child, used to climb over the fence and watch them make some of this series.)

These were akin to modern, more modular entertainments – much more like TV shows than films. These simple one-reelers, involving one simple setup, comic hook, and payoff, were also essential baby steps – working out one effective gag sequence could lead to two, then three, then more complex comic films. Back then, anything went and everything was tried; the field was wide open and everyone learned as they went.

In this outing, Bunny plays poker, comes home late, swears not to transgress again, but then comes up with some lying pretext for getting away. His annoyed wife calls in her cousin Freddie, who hatches a scheme to frighten Bunny and his truant companions. Disguised as police, Freddie and his bible class (?) raid the joint where the game is taking place. Terrified and repentant, the men give up – and then the wives stream in, and all is forgiven.

The screen work is unexciting – filmed straight on, just like a stage show. Bunny lights a match to check the time on his watch, but we are shooting in obvious daylight. In one case, cousin Freddie pops up behind an oblivious Bunny after he exits the house, a move impossible for film watchers to buy today.

A second later, though, a nice bit of business is executed. We look in through an upper window at the poker game. Cousin Freddie’s head rises slowly into the frame, eclipsing the sight of the players. Then, it slowly sinks down again. And Bunny turns slowly towards the window, just missing Freddie’s head at the window. There’s a well-timed nugget of visual humor that could only work that well on screen. People are learning how to use the medium, building a vocabulary and grammar of filmmaking.

Comedy as social corrective comes into play here, as transgressors are brought back inside society’s norms as determined by its arbiters, the “ladies.” Oddly, cousin Freddie is clearly possessed of effeminate traits himself – handkerchief in his sleeve, rolling eyes, extravagant gestures, probably one of the first gay characters in film. Stereotypically, he is the wife’s confidante, and when he costumes his fake policemen he parades them before the wives like a fashion designer showing off his fall line. In the culture of the time, the gay character can be a magical, two-dimensional helper, but that’s about all. For – what self-respecting heterosexual man would help break up a card game?

Bunny died at the age of 52, a year after Chaplin started making movies. What other work might be have done if he had 20 years more?

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘From the Manger to the Cross.’

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