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Photo of a young Vicente Bonus, circa 1930s. Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus

He has done movies with FPJ, Dolphy & two National Artists, but you don’t know his name

In our continuing series of stories on Philippine cinema, in celebration of its 100th year, we put the spotlight on this unheralded art director/production designer whose mementos were only recently discovered. Vicente Bonus’ career began in the pre-war era, survived the big studio closures, and even pulled off a classic from the Second Golden Age. So why don’t you know him?
Isidra Reyes | Oct 29 2019

In his eye-opening lecture held at Archivo 1984 last month, film archivist and historian Teddy Co lamented that while we are commemorating 100 Years of Philippine Cinema this year, so many great names who have contributed to it have fallen by the wayside. “We have a very, very poor sense of archiving and also documenting our history, (especially) our Filipino movie history,” he added.

For example, the life and works of his lecture’s subject, Vicente Bonus, art director, production designer, cinematographer, illustrator, portraitist, and educator. These would have been lost to oblivion without the timely discovery of his memorabilia—photos, filmography, documents, and ephemera—in the custody of his son, Lito Bonus. Sadly, only one komiks article has been found written about his career, and no mention of his name has been found in major reference works documenting the history of Philippine Cinema. It would indeed have been a great tragedy and injustice had his name fallen into the wayside of oblivion—in light of a prolific and exemplary career that spanned over fifty years, a body of work comprising over 170 films (from 1933-1984), in the course of which he worked with some of Philippine Cinema’s greatest directors, notably National Artists Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero.

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Production shots at the Manila Talkatone Studios. Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus/ Archivo 1984 

The director’s collaborator

Production designers, or art directors as they were called previously, are among the most unheralded of film workers. Starting with a careful study of the film’s script, they collaborate with the director, cinematographer, and producer in making creative decisions--from set design and construction, choice of locations, costume design, make-up, hairstyle, prosthetics, props, the use of CGI and special effects. The list of tasks even includes working within the budget set by the producer. Yet for all the work they do, their names are hardly known to most moviegoers, rarely appearing in movie ads and hardly ever written about.

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ID cards of Vicente Bonus as Art Director of People’s Pictures, Inc. and as a Charter Member of the Premiere-People’s Social Club. People’s Pictures, Inc. was a sister company of Premiere Productions. Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus/Archivo 1984

During the silent era, movie directors like Jose Nepomuceno, Vicente Salumbides, and Carmen Concha were their own art directors. With the advent of the studio system, professional art directors were hired by the major studios. The Manila Talkatone Studios was perhaps the first to train and hire them during the pre-war era. After the war, there were Benjamin Resella of Sampaguita Pictures; the painter Carlos “Botong” Francisco who often collaborated with Manuel Conde in films produced by LVN Pictures and Manuel Conde’s MC Productions; and Richard Abelardo, who after working in Hollywood as Scenic Artist, became a much sought-after visual effects artist and production designer for X’Otic Films and LVN Pictures, eventually becoming a director himself. And then there was Vicente Bonus of Premiere Productions/People’s Pictures.             


In the company of greatness

Vicente Suzon Bonus was born October 27, 1910 in Pandacan, Manila, one of five children of Jose Santos Bonus, a first cousin of Ladislao Bonus, the renowned “Father of Philippine Opera,” and Enrica A. Suzon. He spent his elementary years at the Jacinto Zamora Elementary School before transferring to V. Mapa High School for his secondary education. In college, he studied at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts (UPSFA), graduating with the Class of 1933 along with future Philippine art greats Simplicia “Nena” L. Saguil and Anita Corpus Magsaysay (later Ho). Other students who were then at the UPSFA, although in different levels, were Vicente Manansala, Galo B. Ocampo, Federico Alcuaz, Cesar Legaspi, and Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco, all of whom would later become National Artists.

Among their mentors at the university were Director Fabian de la Rosa, Fernando C. Amorsolo (Painting), Pablo Amorsolo (Decorative Art), and Guillermo Tolentino (Sculpture).  In the only known article written about his life and career published in Topstar Komiks dated 21 December 1973, Vicente Bonus recounted his student years: “Noong kapanahunan (namin we) were practically bullied by (our ) painting professors to excel, or approximate (their) level sa (aming) canvas.  Meticulous noon ang pagtuturo at serious ang mga estudyante para matuto.”           

Upon graduation with a Certificate in Painting from U.P. in 1933, Bonus had already garnered an Honorable Mention in Drawing from Life I (1931) and an Honorable Mention in Advance Decorative Art (1932). Magsaysay-Ho, who earned Certificates in Painting and Cartooning, Illustration and Commercial Designing, emerged as Salutatorian and garnered a medal in Coloring II. Graduating with them was Saguil, who would later become a renowned modernist painter based in Paris.

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Production shot showing George P. Musser and Vicente Bonus shooting Andres Bonifacio (1934) with lead stars, Eduardo de Castro and Gilda Gales, engaged in a kissing scene. Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus

In 1933, just after graduating from the U.P. SFA, Bonus got his first job as assistant cameraman, and then as set designer for Pulong Walang Diyos (1934), at the Manila Talkatone Studios. The director-producer-actor, George P. Musser, who owned and founded the studio, was a relative of Bonus through Musser’s mother, Hermogena de Jesus. The studio was conveniently located at the Musser Residence at Calle Fraternidad, Pandacan, Manila, just a stone’s throw away from the residences of Bonus’ family and that of his uncle, Ladislao.

Working at the Manila Talkatone gave Bonus the opportunity to work with a team of professionals using then state-of-the-art studio equipment. Among them were the British-born cinematographer, Charles “Chas” W. Miller, who in the 1930s worked as a cameraman in Hollywood for Universal International Pictures and later ran the swank  Chas. W. Miller Studio in Manila; the Fil-American William “Billy” Smith, the first Filipino sound recording engineer, who would have a long career in Philippine Cinema, working with Filippine Films, Parlatone Hispano-Filipino, and Sampaguita Pictures, producing Malakas at Maganda (1947), the first Filipino film in color; and George P. Musser himself, who had then just arrived in Manila after taking a Cinematography course in the U.S. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Bonus’ exposure to these talents and equipment only enhanced his eye, the skill and talent he possessed. In 1934, Bonus would work in at least two more feature films shot at the Manila Talkatone Studios in Pandacan:  Andres Bonifacio, produced by Manila Talkatone Studio, and Brides of Sulu, produced by Exploration Pictures. 


Proof of life

Fortunately, a collection of beautiful still photos from movies shot at the Manila Talkatone Studios plus other movies he worked on were kept for posterity by Bonus’ son, Lito. A production photo from Adapito Conchu’s Pulong Walang Diyos (1934), for example, shows art director Bonus at work on a dungeon scene with Musser who was working not as director but as an actor. He appears moreno in complexion, with strong chiseled features, and a lean frame ready to take on both creative challenges and the dirty work that they entail. There are stills from Musser’s Andres Bonifacio (1934) showing the shoot of a tender kissing scene between lead stars Gilda Gales (a.k.a. Adelina Moreno playing Gregoria de Jesus) and Eduardo de Castro (as Andres Bonifacio) with Musser this time behind the camera. And yet another scene showing De Castro playing the guitar serenading Gales. No copies of the film Andres Bonifacio have been found but the chalk markings on the clapboard seen in the still photo positively identifies the photographs as having been shot on the set of said movie. On the other hand, there were no records of Musser’s Andres Bonifacio having been shown in the Philippines or abroad. It was 1934 and Bonifacio’s bitter foe, former President and General Emilio Aguinaldo, was in the running for President of the Philippine Commonwealth against Manuel Luis Quezon. Any allegation that Aguinaldo could have been involved in Bonifacio’s death would have doomed his candidacy.

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Glamour shot of movie actress, Nela Alvarez, taken at the Manila Talkatone Studios, with dedication to Vicente Bonus. Nela was the mother of actress, Rebecca Rocha, Nino Muhlach’s mother. Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus

Meanhwhile, stills and videos of Brides of Sulu (1934) can be found online, and a DVD release is available in online shops. 

No further movies on record were produced and directed by Musser but as can be seen in still and production photos in the Vicente Bonus Collection, movies continued to be filmed at the Manila Talkatone Studios during the 1930s. There are glamour photos of pre-war opera singer/film actress/socialite Raymunda Guidote shot at the Musser House with dedications to Bonus and another photo showing the filming of a movie at the studio with Raymunda Guidote playing the piano. Another publicity  photo from the Vicente Bonus Collection which appears  to have been shot at the Manila Talkatone Studios was that of actress/athlete Nela Alavarez with the handwritten dedication:  “To Vicente, Nela Alvarez 2/11/38.”      

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Illustrations of movie star portraits created by Vicente Bonus for Liwayway Magazine covers, 1940. Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus/Archivo 1984.

To supplement his film income, Bonus did cover illustrations for Liwayway Magazine featuring glamorous portraits of movie stars. Among the items in the Vicente Bonus Collection are copies of Liwayway dated 1940-1941 which featured cover illustrations signed “Vic Bonus.” Apparently, commercial art, apart from teaching, was a fallback for artists in need of steady income. Even renowned ones like Fernando C. Amorsolo and Cesar Legaspi did commercial art in the form of print ads in their younger years.


And then came the war

When WWII came to Manila, the Manila Talkatone Studios folded up. Some movie workers and actors like Raymunda Guidote joined the guerilla movement while others worked onstage in vod-a-vil shows and took on odd jobs to survive. Among those which gave jobs to artists was Fernando Poe, Sr.’s Associated Artists’ Stage Production which hired Bonus’ fellow U.P. School of Fine Arts alumnus, Galo B. Ocampo as Artistic Director. Others like film director Gerardo de Leon directed stage plays at the Lyric and Capitol Theaters. Recruited by Raymunda Guidote, Bonus joined the guerilla movement during WWII. As recounted by Vicente’s son Lito, one of their former technicians at the Manila Talkatone Studios squealed to Japanese authorities their group’s involvement in the guerilla movement, leading to the capture and imprisonment of their leader, Guidote, at Fort Santiago. When war ended, Bonus had to make do, painting capiz shells with Philippine views and continued to do cover illustrations for Liwayway.

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Sisa (June, 1951). Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus/Archivo 1984.

In 1945, Bonus married a pharmacist named Helen D. Aquino who worked at Farmacia Santiago, manufacturer of Mentholatum Ointment.  Shortly after, when the film industry was starting to pick up, Bonus found a part-time job doing “extra” work as cameraman. In 1950, through his wife’s employer at Farmacia Santiago, he was introduced to Doña Adela Santiago of Premiere Productions who readily employed him as art director, paving the way to a long career as art director/set designer/production designer for several mainstream and independent film companies.The first film he made for Premiere Productions was Gerardo “Gerry” de Leon’s 48 Oras (1950), a thriller which starred Rogelio de la Rosa as an ex-soldier wrongfully jailed for his wife’s murder. This was followed by Consuelo P. Osorio’s film adaptation of the popular radio series, Gulong ng Palad (1950), Eddie Romero’s period costume film, Ang Prinsesa at Pulubi (1950), Ramon A. Estela’s film adaptation of the komiks serial Kenkoy (1950), Gerardo de Leon’s crime thriller, Doble Cara (1950), Eduardo de Castro’s  Ang Kampana Sa San Diego (1950), and Teodorico C. Santos’ horror thriller, Kamay ni Satanas (1950).  

Bonus would work as art director in De Leon’s most significant films for Premiere Productions and its sister company, People’s Pictures: the epic, Diego Silang (1951), with Jose Padilla, Jr. in the title role;  Sisa (1951) and Sawa Sa Lumang Simboryo (1952), both starring the great actress, Anita Linda in her prime; the costume epic Banga ni Zimador (1953); the film adaptation of Mars Ravelo’s mermaid komiks serial Dyesebel (1953) and Francisco V. Coching’s Liwayway Magazine serial, Pedro Penduko (1954), both starring the beautiful Edna Luna. A filmography of Bonus’ works as production designer /art director also includes Gerardo de Leon’s Noli Me Tangere (1961).

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Still photo from Gerardo de Leon’s Ang Sawa Sa Lumang Simborio (1952) with lead actors, Jose Padilla, Jr., Anita Linda, and a young and sensuous Rita Gomez. Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus/ Archivo 1984


The Gerry and Eddie years

An even longer-lasting partnership existed between Bonus and Gerry de Leon, extending beyond the heydays of Premiere Productions and People’s Pictures, the collapse of the studio system, foreign film productions, and the rise of independent film companies founded mostly by big stars and independent producers. Among their latter collaborations were in action films such as Ako Ang Katarungan (1962) and Barilan Sa Pugad Lawin (1963); the biographical films The Arsenio Lacson Story (1964) and President Diosdado Macapagal’s campaign film, Tagumpay ng Mahirap (1965); the Hammer Films-inspired vampire films, Kulay Dugo Ang Gabi/The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Ibulong Mo Sa Hangin/Curse of the Vampires/Blood of the Vampires (1966), both of which starred the beauteous actress-producer, Amalia Fuentes.

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Amelia Fuentes and Eddie Garcia in Curse of Vampires. Photograph courtesy of Video 48.

Another film director-producer-writer who had a long history of film collaborations with Bonus was the late Eddie Romero. They first worked together in Ang Prinsesa at Pulubi (1950), a film adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper, starring Tessie Agana, followed by Barbaro (1952), Ang Asawa Kong Amerikana (1953), and El Indio (1953), all produced by Sampaguita Pictures. Eddie Romero was by then still known by his screen name, Enrique Moreno. They also worked together in Buhay Alamang, Paglukso’y Patay (1952) and May Isang Tsuper ng Taksi (1953), both produced by LEBRAN Productions, and DEEGAR Cinema, Inc.      


The method behind the magic

In an interview with Lito Bonus, he recounts that his father was very much steeped in his craft and had a passion for learning and research. He had a copy of the American Cinematographer’s Manual and subscribed regularly to publications such as the American Cinematographer and Popular Mechanics. When researching for his movie projects, especially period movies and sequences, he would even visit the National Library and the USIS Library to look for reference materials or archival photos for authenticity. Building on his experience working at the Manila Talkatone Studios, he taught himself techniques such as the glass shot, the use of perambulators, the cyclorama, the blue screen, and making and working with miniatures. He not only made miniatures, he likewise fixed the camera angles, such as the scene in Walls of Hell (1964) showing Intramuros on fire. He was also adept in simulating bombing scenes in war pictures.  

While working on the set, he would be so thorough that his co-workers would sometimes mistake his enthusiasm for “pangigialam.” One such instance was when the father-son cinematographers Ricardo and Tommy Marcelino wrote a formal letter-complaint to Doña Adela Santiago of Premiere Productions against Bonus. Feeling dejected, Bonus took a break  from the studio. With the help of Benjamin Resella, a former colleague at the Manila Talkatone Studios, he was able to find work at Sampaguita Pictures, thereafter freelancing as art director.        

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Kamay ni Kain (May 1957). Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus/Archivo 1984


A pamphlet dating back to 1958 reveals that Vicente Bonus went back to the academe by accepting a post as Professorial Lecturer at Araneta University’s Institute of Arts and Malay Culture. The pamphlet further reveals he and his students in his Art Direction class designed the art exhibit held in the university in 1958.  

Bonus’ long career survived the collapse of the studio system in the early 1960s. The man must have had such good rapport with not only his directors but also the stars he worked with, that they readily got Bonus’ services for the movies they themselves produced. Among these production companies were Fernando Poe, Jr.’s FPJ Productions, Joseph Estrada’s EMAR Pictures and J.E. Productions, Amalia Fuentes’ A.M. Productions, Nora Aunor’s N.V. Productions, and and Dolphy’s R.V.Q. Productions.  

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One of the greatest films Vicente Bonus worked on was Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (1976), produced by Nora Aunor’s N.V. Productions. Photograph courtesy of Lito Bonus

Bonus worked with FPJ since the latter’s earlier films with Premiere Productions and People’s Pictures such as Kamay ni Cain (1957) and Bicol Express (1957). His later works for FPJ Productions were, among many, Efren Reyes’ war drama, Pilipinas Kong Mahal (1964) and FPJ-Susan Roces starrers, Ang Daigdig Ko’y Ikaw (1965) and Zamboanga (1966). Joseph Estrada’s EMAR Pictures and J.E. Productions likewise entrusted Bonus with the production design of their films, most notably those directed by Estrada’s favored directors, Cesar Gallardo and Augusto Buenaventura. Among these films were Geron Busabos: Ang Batang Quiapo (1963), Sapang Palay (1965), Joe Nazareno, Ang Taxi Driver (1965), Ito Ang Pilipino (1967), and Yakuza Contract (1978). On the other hand, multi-awarded director and screenwriter, Augusto Buenaventura, megged the following for EMAR Pictures/J.E. Productions:  the action movies, Johnny Brazil (1966), Valiente Brothers (1967); the remake of the musical, Bakya Mo Neneng  (1977)

Bonus did only a few movies with Amalia Fuentes’ A.M. Productions, namely Gerry de Leon’s Ibulong Mo Sa Hangin (1966) and Room 69 (1966) but he also worked with Fuentes in movies produced by other film production companies. There were only two movies on record which Bonus worked on as production designer for N.V. Productions, Nestor U. Torre’s movie musical, As Long As There’s Music (1974), and Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Dios (1981), a war drama set during the Japanese Occupation which is widely regarded as one of the finest Filipino films of all time.  


Working with Dolphy

Among the actors-producers he worked with, Bonus seems to have worked best with Dolphy. He first worked with the actor in D’Lanor Productions’ Captain Barbell (1964) followed by a series of RVQ Productions’ hit movies in the 1960s-1970s, mostly doing set designs for the films’ musical, fantasy, and period sequences. Among these films were Luciano “Chaning” B. Carlos’ Buhay Artista (1967), The Graduation (1969), Tayo’y Mag-Up, Up and Away (1970), Family Planning (1971), Love Pinoy Style (1972); and Armando Garces’ Boyoyoy (1970).  While not on the list, the flower power TV musical sets in Facifica Falayfay (1969) look very similar to the sets of Wow Sikat Pare Bigat (1977), both directed by Luciano B. Carlos, while the French period dance sequence in Tayo’y Mag-Up Up and Away; the Romeo & Juliet dream sequence in Boyoyoy (1970); as well as the period sets and costumes of Cyrano at Roxanne (1973), all appear to be Bonus’ works. While mostly shot abroad--in Honolulu, Las Vegas, New York, London, Paris, and Rome--Tayo’y Mag-Up Up and Away’s French period dance sequence was filmed in a soundstage in Manila designed by Bonus like the interior of an elegant French palace, as recalled by his son, Lito.

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Photo of an elderly Vicente Bonus while working as Art Director for LEA Productions. Published In Topstar Komiks, 21 December 1973. Photograph courtesy of Archivo 1984 

Bonus also worked with two more major production companies in the 1960s-1980s:  Nepomuceno Productions and LEA Productions.  Bonus did two films for Nepomuceno Productions, namely the war film, Manila Open City (1968), and some scenes of Igorota (1969). He first worked as Art Director for LEA Productions for Gerry de Leon’s romantic drama, Tatlong Kasaysayan ng Pag-ibig (1966).


His father’s son

His son, Joselito “Lito” Bonus, followed in his father’s footsteps as art director. A Fine Arts graduate of the University of the East, he first started as his father’s assistant at age 20 and worked in both Filipino and international film projects in various capacities such as art director, set dresser, and animal handler. Among the movies he worked on were Boatman (1983), Fatima Buen Story (1984), and Shake Rattle & Roll V (1994), and international productions such as Brokedown Palace (1999) and Hong Kong ‘97 (1994)).

Looking back at his long career, Vicente Bonus recalled in Topstar Komiks that lack of budget, a perennial problem of Filipino production designers, was never a problem for him. It all the more triggers his creative ingenuity. “Actually, all it takes is improvisation, common sense, at flexibility ng iyong imagination to make something that would look (like) the real thing sa pelikula.”  

It is unfortunate that there are very few films featuring Bonus’ works as Production Designer which survive to date. Nonetheless, viewing the restored version of Mario O’Hara’s WWII opus, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (1976), gives us a glimpse of Vicente Bonus’ painterly style.

Shot in picturesque Majayjay, Laguna, idyllic scenes of rural life reminiscent of those seen in the canvasses of Bonus’ UP School of Fine Arts mentor, Fernando Amorsolo—women washing clothes by the river, women going to market, mother cradling infant, everyday life in rural Filipino homes. They appear in stark contrast to scenes depicting the horrors of war which can also be found in Amorsolo’s works during the country’s dark period: Japanese soldiers invading the sanctity of the home and the church, burning buildings, families fleeing their homes, the widowed, and the orphaned. Bonus knew the magic of a dramatic play of light and shadow, and the importance of attention to detail.  According to Lito Bonus, the closing sequence of Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos featuring a procession of the Resurrected Christ entering the church was his father’s concept.

The Nora Aunor vehicle was filmed during a time when production designers were already being duly recognized for their work, especially by the annual Urian Awards for production design starting in 1976 when Laida Lim Perez and Peque Gallaga won for their work in recreating Turn of the Century Philippines in Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? They were followed in 1977 by Dez Bautista for Robert Ylagan’s Hubad na Bayani, which chronicled a peasant revolt during the American Colonial Era; in 1978 by Mel Chionglo for Ishmael Bernal’s contemporary drama, Ikaw, which surprisingly edged out the period horror movie, Lino Brocka’s Gumising Ka Maruja, also by Chionglo; in 1979 by Fiel Zabat for the nostalgic High School Circa ‘65; in 1980 by Peque Gallaga for Ishmael Bernal’s City After Dark; in 1981 by Cesar Hernando for Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata; in 1982 by Rodell Cruz and Don Escudero for Oro Plata Mata; and in 1983 by Fiel Zabat for Karnal

Since the establishment of the Production Designers Guild of the Philippines and its affiliation with the Film Academy of the Philippines in 1981, various seminars, workshops, and tours have been organized aimed at honing the skills of our production designers. Production design subjects are now likewise being taught in film schools such as the U.P. Film Institute and De La Salle College of Saint Benilde’s Cinemalaya Institute, among others.

While Vicente Bonus won only one award for Production Design from the FAMAS for Lupang Hinirang (1973), he was nominated  several times by the FAMAS for the same award:  for Augusto Buenaventura’s Bakya Mo Neneng (1976); for Efren C. Pinon’s Sabotage II (1980);  and for Augusto Buenaventura’s Kumander Alibasbas (1982). 

Bonus passed away on 7 June 2001 at the age of 90. His swan song in Philippine Cinema was for LEA Productions’ Daang Hari (1984). After being in the movies for decades, he won his only award in 1973, for Best Production Design for the epic Lupang Hinirang (1973). According to that single article published in Topstar Komiks, “Keen movie goers ‘discovered’ Vicente Bonus dahil sa antique props at authentic sets ng pelikulang Lupang Hinirang—sharp and precise in every detail.” For some reason, it took LEA Productions ten years to release the award to Bonus. But by that time, the man was probably used to recognition coming late in the game. It's the story of many more like him who dedicated much of their lives to the movies.