The Sunday Intertitle: Bunnyball
HEARTS AND DIAMONDS is a tale of romance and baseball and a very fat man from 1914. It’s a late film for John Bunny, one of the earliest star comedians whose name was known to the movie-going public. I suppose in a way his death made way for Chaplin.
But while Chaplin’s early work was crude, as a performer he always showed signs of sophistication, and he performed even the tawdriest bits of knockabout with physical grace and agility. John Bunny didn’t have any of that. When Roscoe Arbuckle or Oliver Hardy moved, it was a hippopotamus-in-the-water miracle to see so much flesh transport itself so gracefully. When John Bunny moves, you fear for the floorboards and his heart, in that order. He’s not only less nimble, he’s a lot less appealing as a screen personality. Fat has not only accumulated on his body, it’s wrought mischief with his face and colouring. I suspect booze is involved, for the Bunny nose is a bulbous thing, and the blotchyness of his visage suggests a purpleness that seems to melt through the b&w celluloid and glow at you. You could get a tan from his nose.
Even his intertitles are chunky.
The character he plays here is pretty surly, too, though he comes out alright in the end, rescuing a comedy widow from a demented baseball player (hit on the head with a ball, he’s played for comedy rapey menace thereafter. A miracle cure, maybe resulting from a follow-up blow delivered by Bunny, would have been nice, but the movie doesn’t care that much. I’m reminded of Cameron Diaz shooting Stanley Tucci in the head in scene one of A LIFE LESS ORDINARY, transforming him into a psycho. We’re supposed to like her and not like him, thereafter, but how is that supposed to work?)
Move along. Nothing to see here.
Bunny is actually a pretty good actor. He’s just, you know, kind of hard to look at. Audiences were tougher in them days. He waddles gamely about, buttocks like bulging suitcases, face like a skelped arse, eyes rolling in Robert Newton glee, death impending. After his heroic climax, he spends a minute clasping his heaving moobs as if the old ticker had finally clapped out, but this was one of twenty-nine films he made the same year, so for all I know he had some mileage left in him yet.
The New York Times obit said, “The name John Bunny will always be linked to the movies.” Yet his plunge into obscurity was instantaneous: as if Chaplin’s rising star erased everything that preceded it.