September 21, 1863|
New York, New York, U.S.
|Died||April 26, 1915
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Clara Scallen (m. 1893)|
|Relatives||George Bunny (brother)|
John Bunny (September 21, 1863 - April 26, 1915) was an American actor who has been described as "the first internationally recognized film comedian." Between 1909 and his death in 1915, Bunny was one of the top stars of early silent film, as well as an early example of celebrity. At one time, he was billed as "the man who makes more than the president". His face was insured for $100,000 and his unexpected death made headlines around the world. Although quickly forgotten, Bunny paved the way for future overweight comedians such as Roscoe Arbuckle and Jackie Gleason.
Bunny was born in New York City and raised in Brooklyn. The son of English immigrants, he initially worked as a clerk in a general store before joining a small minstrel show at the age of twenty. In a stage career spanning over thirty years, Bunny worked for a number of touring and stock theater companies, with stints in Portland, Seattle, and various cities on the east coast. Bunny eventually worked his way into Broadway, where he was in productions such as Aunt Hannah (1900), Easy Dawson (1905), and the Astor Theatre's inaugural production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1906), where his performance as "Bottom" garnered acclaim.
In a 1915 interview, Bunny recounted how he decided to enter the film industry after determining that "it was the 'movies' that were the main cause of the lean times on stage." Bunny offered his services to Vitagraph Studios, but was refused a job because the studio manager believed he could not offer Bunny a high enough salary. Bunny, however, insisted on taking the lower pay and began working at Vitagraph Studios in 1910, where he went on to star in over 150 films.
Regarding a career as a film actor, Bunny said,
There's nothing like it. No other work gives an actor or would-be actor the same advantages. In the pictures, a player gets fifty-two weeks in the year. Where is the theatrical manager who can offer that? Not even vaudeville stars can get such bookings. At best, thirty weeks is about all an actor can expect on the stage. He may get summer stock work, but even so it is of uncertain duration. Stage work is a gamble. Even when you have been engaged for a production, rehearsed from three to six weeks without pay, and no doubt bought your own costumes for the piece, you have no guarantee that it will be a success. If the public does not set its stamp of approval, your job is all over perhaps after but one performance, and you can only repeat the procedure by trying again with someone else, charging the other to your loss account, with a credit notation probably on the page marked 'experience.'
Bunny had been acting in films for only five years when he died from Bright's disease at his home in Brooklyn on April 26, 1915. He was survived by his wife and two sons and interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.
Bunny was quite well known during his life time. A New York Times editorial published after Bunny's death noted that thousands recognized him as "the living symbol of wholesome merriment", and declared, "Wherever movies are exhibited, and that is everywhere, Bunny had his public. It is perfectly safe to say that no other camera actor was as popular in this country." Another article published in The Daily News recounted the enthusiastic reception Bunny received while visiting England in 1911 and how his fame was such that a heavy-set member of King George V's entourage was mistaken for the actor while the King was visiting Scotland. The actress Frances Agnew wrote in 1913 that "Mr. Bunny's name is a household word, not only from coast to coast in America, but also in every city and town in the world at all acquainted with the 'movies,' ..."
Bunny's skills as an actor were renowned by his contemporaries. The poet and writer Joyce Kilmer wrote glowingly of Bunny's acting ability, and claimed that Bunny was responsible for reviving the art of pantomime. The poet and early film critic Vachel Lindsay said Bunny occupied an "important place" in his memory, and called the acting in one of Bunny's films "delightful". A critic for the Saturday Review described the power Bunny had over his audiences: "When Mr. Bunny laughs, people from San Francisco to Stepney Green laugh with him. When Mr. Bunny frowns, every kingdom of the earth is contracted in one brow of woe."
A 1916 Washington Times article claimed, "To John Bunny ... must be given the credit of presenting the first bits of refined comedy in photoplay. Previous to his advent into screenland film comedies were either "chases" or grotesque trick photography. He rescued screen humor from the chamber of horrors and placed it in the hall of fame". In the words of his contemporary Henry Lanier, Bunny demonstrated "that a real actor can make an incredible success before [a film] audience without any of the vulgarity or horseplay which used to be considered essential." This assessment is echoed by the modern film scholar Wes Gehring, who writes that "Bunny helped elevate at the time what was still often considered a second-class medium to a level of artistic significance".
According to Frank Scheide, Bunny's films might have been taken more seriously because "Bunny's humor was based more on comedy of manners than slapstick", a "polite" and "respectable" form of situational comedy in contrast to the "decidedly lowbrow, crass, and often violent" humor of slapstick films. According to Gehring, Bunny was "the first in a long line of American personality screen comedians", whose approach is marked by a "subordination of story to character". The personality focus of Bunny's films was also noted by the actress Catherine Carr, who wrote in 1914: "In most big companies at the present day there are maintained actors around whose personality comedies are being written; i.e., John Bunny, Flora Finch, etc. These actors take the mere germ of a comedy and develop it through their clever acting into a screen production that brings laughter wherever it is shown." Modern viewers may not find Bunny's films as funny as Carr described, however. The film scholar Anthony Slide, for instance, writes that Bunny's "characterizations contain nothing creative, and he uses no knockabout or slapstick comedy. His comedy is all very middle class and very polite. Often so dull is the storyline that the comedy is difficult to uncover. Time and again one wonders if audiences ever did laugh at his work, and, if so, why?"
Bunny was strongly disliked by most of his fellow actors at Vitagraph, including Finch. Interviews of former Vitagraph personnel conducted by Slide in the 1960s and 1970s revealed that his co-workers found him arrogant, bad-tempered, and difficult to work with, an image very much at odds with his genial on-screen persona.
Following Bunny's passing, new comedic stars came to the fore in silent film and Bunny was relegated to the status of an almost completely forgotten actor. However, he was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 for his contributions to the film industry with a motion pictures star located at 1715 Vine Street in Hollywood.
|1909||Cohen's Dream||Cohen||Alternative title: Cohen's Dream of Coney Island|
|Cohen at Coney Island||Cohen|
|1910||Davy Jones and Captain Bragg||Captain Bragg|
|Captain Barnacle's Chaperone||Captain Barnacle|
|1911||A Queen for a Day||Bridget McSweeney|
|Teaching McFadden to Waltz||McFadden|
|Her Crowning Glory||Mortimer|
|Little Nemo||Animated short created by Winsor McCay|
|1912||Captain Jenks' Dilemma||Captain Jenks|
|A Cure for Pokeritis||George Brown|
|Michael McShane, Matchmaker||Michael McShane|
|Flaming Hearts||Jonathan Whippletree|
|The Pickwick Papers||Mr Pickwick|
|Bunny Dips Into Society||Bunny|
|Bunny as a Reporter||Bunny|
|1914||Love's Old Dream||Professor Simon Sweet|
|Setting the Style||Mr. Finnegan|
|Hearts and Diamonds||Widower Tupper|
|1915||The Jarrs Visit Arcadia|
Largely forgotten today, actor John Bunny merits significant historical importance as the American film industry's earliest comic superstar