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  • 1912

Picture Personalities: Mr. John Bunny

Caricature by “Peter” from the supplement to The Bioscope (20 June 1912).

John Bunny (1863–1915) was one of the first film stars. He achieved worldwide fame and popularity in his work for the Vitagraph company, and appeared before the cameras in at least 170 films during his brief film career, which lasted only for about five years due to his untimely death. In 1912 he came to England to feature in a number of films, including as Pickwick in a version of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, this being one of many Dickens adaptations filmed in various countries in the silent era (Vitagraph itself had made A Tale of Two Cities the previous year). Curiously, Bunny’s presence in England was hardly noticed by British newspapers at the time according to my online newspaper searches, though the cinema trade press gave him and his visit some coverage, most prominently in this caricature – drawn by the Bioscope’s regular cartoonist, the talented “Peter”, whose real identity I have not managed to discover.

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Poem by J.M. Symns from Punch (19 June 1912): 476.

This poem articulates a hostile reaction to cinema by someone who was most likely quite new to the medium. The author, John Montfort Symns, was based in Burma for many years, and while he might have seen the odd film projected there, it was probably only during his periodic furloughs to Britain that he could have visited a modern cinema. The visual confusion that he complains about, due to seeing a mixed programme of different films, was experienced by others who visited cinemas in the early years and saw a variety of short projected scenes; their reactions upon experiencing such a jumble or visual “zeugma” were sometimes reflected in literary sources – in Russia, for example, as Yuri Tsivian has documented.74 Symns was a regular contributor to Punch, presumably mailing his witty creations into the magazine for publication from Burma. I can find little further information about him – no birth or death data, for example. His poems were collected in two volumes, and one can see hints in those verses to suggest that he missed the variety and culture of London, though he evidently did not miss film shows!75 Incidentally, the reference to “bottle in my bed” presumably means hot water bottle.

‘Twas a nightmare; to begin, it Was a scene of rival crews, Rowing seventy strokes a minute In the battle of the Blues; Then they took us (allegretto) To a carnival in Spain, Through the squalor of the Ghetto To a vineyard in Lorraine.

Geysers, selvas, tundras, gorges Passed before us as we sat; Next, a scene of Bacchic orgies In a paralytic flat, With the tenants all a-reeling Through the windows or the walls, And a catastrophic coiling That inevitably falls.

Tulip, hyacinth and crocus Bloomed in clumps of quivering sheen; Steeds oblivious of focus Galloped wildly off the screen: Was it these or “Peeps of Norway,” Taken far, oh! far too quick, That constrained me to the doorway Feeling imminently sick?

There’s a twinge about my liver, There’s a grinding in my head, As I clutch the rugs and shiver With a bottle in my bed, While the doctor comes to sound me With an animated smile And the bedroom swirls around me In the bioscopic style.

I have suffered from neuritis And the sicknesses of note, Such as “flu,” appendicitis And a diphtheritic throat, But of all the ills that plague you With their bitterness and gall ‘Tis the cinematic ague That’s the vilest of them all. [End Page 473]

The Sunday Theatre

Cartoon by Bert Young from London Opinion (7 September 1912): 845.

One of the most heated debates to take place during the early cinema era in Britain was about the opening of cinemas on Sundays, which was part of a wider discussion about the religious ethics of making any form of entertainment available on that day. This dispute rumbled on for many years, pitting cinema exhibitors against organizations including The Lord’s Day Observance Society.76...


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