Thursday, December 21, 2017

Born Today December 21: J. Gunnis Davis

Still from the Bride Of Frankenstein (his scenes were cut in final product)

1873-1937

Actor and director J. Gunnis Davis was actually born Joseph Gunnis Davis on this day in Sunderland Tyne-and-Wear, England, despite his stage name being James Gunnis Davis for most of his film career.  He was a well known British stage actor who had been schooled in London.  The vast majority of his career was spent in the UK on the stage as both an actor and a director.  He came to the U.S. with his wife, who was also an actor, under his birth name after the turn of the century.  They both apparently continued to act on the stage--he certainly did and gained acclaim for some of his performances.  He got into the film industry as an actor in The Lucky Loser in 1912 under his stage name.  The film was an Eclair production.  Davis was then contracted to Eclair, and stayed with them through 1913.  At the very end of 1913, he began working for Kalem, who would give him the opportunity to direct.  He made his directorial debut in 1914 in what has come down to us as an important early surviving serial in The Hazards Of Helen; he was one of 6 directors that included Robert Vignola.  It was the beginning of a very prolific directing career that would last through 1917.  Almost all of the films that he directed were shorts and were for Kalem.  Actress Helen Gibson was the star of most, if not all of them.  Davis was given formal credit for writing just one scenario for one of the films that he directed, Saving The Fast Mail (1917), but doubtless he had written all or part of other shorts under his direction as well (many of them lack a writing credit altogether).  In the meantime, he had continued to act from time to time, though his work in front of the camera slowed.  Also during this time, he appeared on the stage as well; he had a role in a 1915 production of Alice In Wonderland that was well regarded.  One of his more prominent roles came as second bill in The Pit in 1914, based on the Frank Norris novel of the same name and directed by Maurice Tourneur.  The film was made for World Film; this brought Davis into the orbit of the cabal of characters that had founded that company (the film was directly produced by William A. Brady's company).  The last film that Davis directed was The Deserted Engine in 1917--the film was also the last in Kalem's A Daughter Of The Daring series--an eleven part serial of one-reelers.  After this point, he devoted himself solely to acting.  With his directing career behind him, he appeared in films mostly for World Film; this led him, by the early 1920's, into the Selznick production world.  He had a part in A Certain Rich Man, one of the first films produced under David O. Selznick's new Selznick Pictures Corp., which would become Selznick International Pictures.  Additionally, he appeared in films made at Vitagraph in the 1920's.  Most of the roles that he had in that decade were small and some went uncredited. In 1928 he had a role in the partial silent Lilac Time, a film that starred Gary Cooper and Colleen Moore; it was his first "sound film."  He did not appear in another film until 1930; (by this time, of course, all major motion pictures were full sound affairs) the film was Headin' North, a small western featuring saloon vaudeville.  Having been a stage actor for all of his adult life, there was little chance that he would be a target for cutting during the sound era. He was given roles in the films where a British accent would clearly help the story in bit parts and if those parts were deemed superfluous to the story, they were cut in post-production--this is what happened to his appearance in The Bride of Frankenstein.  One exception to this is Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) [it so unfortunate that this is a lost film, not least because of his speaking role].  After his appearance in One More River in 1934, all of his roles went uncredited, whether they made it into the film or not.  His last film credit came in 1937 in yet another Gary Cooper film Souls at Sea.  This is because he died suddenly on the 23rd of March of that year in Los Angeles at the age of 63. He is reportedly buried in a cemetery in Los Angeles--either Hollywood Forever or the Hollywood Hills location of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, but I can find zero information from either location to back this up.

Poster for A Forest Romance (1913) in which Davis had a large role with Mona Darkfeather.

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