Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Friday, December 30, 2011

A Cure for Pokeritis

Directed by Laurence Trimble
1912
The United States of America


I apologize if these pictures are blurry. The only copy of this film that I could find was on youtube, so these were taken as screenshots on my MacBookPro.

He wears a poor fitting suit and vest and sports a smashed, battered old black hat. His face looks like somebody shoved a bicycle pump up his nose and used it until his cheeks, jowls, and nose became permanently inflated and disjointed from his skull. His wife isn’t much better off, either. Her head looks like somebody from the Amazon tried to shrink it but forgot to remove the skull first. Her nose juts forward with such force that it could probably be used as an icepick. Though they might seem unfamiliar to modern day audiences, these two faces were amongst the most recognizable by many of the earliest film audiences. For they were John Bunny and Flora Finch. Together, they starred in over one hundred short comedies for Vitagraph Studios. They were affectionately referred to by the public as “Bunnyfinches.” These films would comprise one of the earliest bodies of work by a silent comedian. Before Buster Keaton, before Charlie Chaplin, before the silent clowns that would be remembered and loved by generations of audiences and filmmakers, there was John Bunny. Widely considered to be the first comic star in the United States, with the aid of Flora Finch, John Bunny became one of the first pioneers of silent comedy.


If one would look for an example of Bunny’s work, they couldn’t do better than A Cure for Pokeritis. The film was a pristine summation of the John Bunny shtick. It starred Bunny as a husband hopelessly addicted to poker.


His affliction is so severe that he even tricks his wife, played by Finch, into believing that he is a member of a special society that would charge him $10 for each missed weekly meeting. But, alas, Bunny is a restless sleeper. One night, he confesses in his sleep to his grand deception. This was, of course, after he had sworn to stop playing poker. So his wife hires their Cousin Freddie to investigate Bunny’s “meetings.” Upon Freddie’s confirmation of Bunny’s illicit deeds, she convinces her Bible group to dress up like policemen and pretend to raid their game. So the Bible group dons fake uniforms and storms the game parlor.


After a few brief moments of putting the fear of God into their hearts, their wives come into the room and reveal the deception. Husbands and wives embrace and make up, Finch gently pets Bunny’s head, and all is right in the world.


Though the film only clocks in at about twelve minutes, it might seem difficult for modern audiences to sit through, especially ones expecting the polished humor of, say, Keaton or Chaplin. But that is because A Cure for Pokeritis wasn’t funny in the way that we expect silent comedies to be. The film contains no over-the-top slapstick, visual gags, or witty turns of phrase in the dialogue. Instead, audiences from the 1910s would have found humor simply in the situation. At the turn of the 20th century, fat comedians were seen as cute and cuddly. As a result, audiences would have found great amusement at watching a hapless John Bunny try and thwart his wife in the same way that we would laugh at a cat play with a particularly arrogant piece of string.


Films like A Cure for Pokeritis demonstrate the birthing pains of silent comedy. But it also serves as a prime example of early cinematic innovation. Take, for instance, the poker game raid scene. When the “police” arrive to “raid” the poker game, we see the inside of the parlor where the players are positioned in the foreground.

Establishing shot with the gamblers in the foreground and the servant in the background at the upper left.

Suddenly, their black servant enters from the left side of the background. Having spotted the police, he sneaks behind the players, alerts another patron, and exits to the right.

The servant escapes in the background while the players in the foreground remain oblivious.

A “policeman” sneaks up behind the oblivious gamblers using a coat-rack to hide himself.

The first policeman sneaks in while hiding behind a coat-rack.

He signals the rest of the “officers” into the room. Two other “policeman” sneak behind the unsuspecting victims before the rest of them come in and break up the game.

The "policemen" position themselves before they attack.

This might seem like a trivial, commonplace scene to modern viewers. But consider that in 1912, most films were still operating under the tyranny of theatrical staging, blocking, and acting. As a result, most of these early films operated within one depth of field with their characters occupying the foreground. This scene is an early example of a filmmaker simultaneously carrying out a scene in two different depths of field. Even more interesting is how it is used to create a comedic situation. So, this scene demonstrates an early, primordial comedic language that existed explicitly within the realm of cinema.

I understand that this might be a little difficult to understand for people unversed in cinematic language, so allow me to elaborate. If such a scene was blocked and choreographed on-stage, it would have to be done in a way so that every audience member, regardless of whether they are up front or in the balconies, could see all of the action. Therefore, simply having the characters walk behind each other for comedic effect wouldn’t be prudent, considering that audience members in the front of the theater would have their view blocked by the characters in the foreground. But the cinema creates a flat spatial plane wherein every single audience member, regardless of their position in the theater, can get the exact same view of the action. As a result, there is no need to compensate for people who are closer to the screen. This frees the filmmaker to create multiple depths of field within the frame that can act independently of each other. Such a division would be nearly impossible to reconstruct on a traditional flat stage. So this scene in A Cure for Pokeritis uses the limitations of a fixed view to its advantage in order to create a comedic scene that is inherently cinematic.

While A Cure for Pokeritis may seem boring and contrived today, it remains a crucial piece of cinematic history. It represented early efforts to utilize the silver screen as a transmitter of comedy instead of just historical dramas, newsreels, and stage reproductions. Through such films, John Bunny helped make the movies funny. All silent comedians and their modern-day counterparts owe a great deal of debt to him. It is our duty as film lovers to preserve and commemorate such an important talent and his films...even if they don’t seem funny anymore.

Part One



Part Two

5 comments:

  1. Nate, although I had never heard of John Bunny and Flora Finch, I found your review of A CASE OF POKERITIS to be well worth seeing from a historical standpoint! I admire the work you went through to capture the footage from YouTube to post on FCoY, too. While it's true that seminal silent comedies like these may not seem as hilarious to 21st-century movie audiences, it's like I explain to my younger relatives when they see a film like, say, THE MALTESE FALCON when they say they've seen lots of films in such-and-such genre: "Yes, but this film was one of the first films to tell this kind of story this way." I was intrigued by your discussion of the multiple depths of field in the film, too. Thanks for sharing this interesting piece of cinema history, with us, Nate, and have a very Happy New Year!

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  2. You're very welcome, Dorian! I think that many silent comedies and film noir suffer from what is colloquially known as the "Seinfeld Effect." The "Seinfeld Effect" is when somebody watches something important and influential but doesn't enjoy it because its innovations are so commonplace that they seem cliched. Glad to have you back!

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  3. I had actually heard of John Bunny before even though he is virtually unknown today. We still have plump comedians in film nowadays so he was a pioneer whose influence survives today in several ways!
    I agree about the "Seinfield effect," glad there is a term for that now!

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  4. Yup...the "Seinfield Effect" is a creation of tvtropes.org if I'm not mistaken...

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  5. There is a chance you're qualified to get a $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.

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