John Bunny
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John Bunny
John Bunny
John Bunny.jpg
Born (1863-09-21)September 21, 1863
New York, New York, U.S.
Died April 26, 1915(1915-04-26) (aged 51)
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actor
Years active 1909-1915
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."[1] 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.[2] 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.

Life and career

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5][6]

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.[7] 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.

John Bunny in The Pickwick Papers (1913)
Scene still from the 1911 Vitagraph production Treasure Trove. Left to right are Mary Maurice, John Bunny, Julia Swayne Gordon, and Helen Gardner.

Regarding a career as a film actor, Bunny said,[8]

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.'

At Vitagraph, Bunny was often paired with the comedian Flora Finch, with whom he made over one hundred popular comedies that came to be known as "Bunnygraphs" or "Bunnyfinches".[9]

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.[10] He was survived by his wife and two sons and interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.[11]

Reception and legacy

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."[12] 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.[13] 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,' ..."[14]

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.[15] 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".[16] 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."[17]

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".[18] 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."[19] 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".[20]

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.[21] 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".[22] 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."[23] 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?"[24]

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.[25]

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.[26]

Selected filmography

Year Film Role Notes
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
1913 Seeing Double Binks
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

Notes and references

Notes

  1. ^ Slide 2010, p. 59.
  2. ^ "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates" (Press release). News from the Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. ISSN 0731-3527. Archived from the original on November 14, 2017. Largely forgotten today, actor John Bunny merits significant historical importance as the American film industry's earliest comic superstar 
  3. ^ "John Bunny's Face Known in Every Corner of Earth Where Films are Seen". The Washington Times. April 16, 1915. p. 13.  Bunny's obituary in The Oregonian says his first stage role was at nineteen. See "John Bunny Succumbs". The Morning Oregonian. April 27, 1915. p. 3. 
  4. ^ Eric L. Flom (2009). Silent Film Stars on the Stages of Seattle: A History of Performances by Hollywood Notables. McFarland. p. 105. ISBN 9780786439089. 
  5. ^ Frank Cullen; Florence Hackman; Donald McNeilly (2007). Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performances in America. New York: Routledge. p. 157. ISBN 9780415938532. 
  6. ^ For a review of Bunny's performance at the Astor, see "Astor Theatre Opens with Lovely Spectacle". The New York Times. September 22, 1906. p. 7. 
  7. ^ Lanier 1915, pp. 567-574. For another interview in which Bunny describes his entrance into the film industry see Agnew 1913, pp. 98-100.
  8. ^ Agnew 1913, p. 96.
  9. ^ Donald W. McCaffrey; Christopher P. Jacobs (1999). Guide to the Silent Years of American Cinema. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 121. ISBN 0-313-30345-2. 
  10. ^ "John Bunny Dies; Movie Funmaker: Fat, Big, Round-Faced Actor Who Made Millions Laugh Succumbs at 52". The New York Times. April 27, 1915. p. 13. 
  11. ^ "Throng at Bunny Funeral: Film and Legitimate Stage Actors Attend Services at Elks' Club". The New York Times. April 29, 1915. p. 14. 
  12. ^ "The Loss of Bunny". The New York Times. April 27, 1915. p. 12. 
  13. ^ The article was sent in a special cable to The New York Times and quoted in "Loved Bunny in Britain: Movie Funny Man Once Wept Over Dockers' Ovation". The New York Times. April 29, 1915. p. 14. 
  14. ^ Agnew 1913, p. 95.
  15. ^ Joyce Kilmer (May 2, 1915). "Pantomime Revived by John Bunny: Art of Silent Comedy, After a Lapse of Centuries, Appears in Moving Pictures of Famous Actor Who Died Last Week". The New York Times. p. SM15. 
  16. ^ Vachel Lindsay (1916). The Art of the Moving Picture. New York: Macmillan. pp. 22-23. 
  17. ^ John Palmer (April 11, 1914). "Mr. Bunny". The Saturday Review. p. 466. 
  18. ^ "Another John Bunny in Film". The Washington Times. April 7, 1916. p. 6. 
  19. ^ Lanier 1915, p. 577.
  20. ^ Gehring 1995, p. 122.
  21. ^ Andrew Horton; Joanna E. Rapf, eds. (2012). A Companion to Film Comedy. Wiley. pp. 29, 44. ISBN 9781118327821. 
  22. ^ Gehring 1995, p. 121.
  23. ^ *Catherine Carr (1914). The Art of Photoplay Writing. New York: Hannis Jordan Company. p. 27. 
  24. ^ Slide 2010, p. 59.
  25. ^ Anthony Slide; Alan Gevinson (1987). The Big V: A History of the Vitagraph Company, revised edition. The Scarecrow Press. p. 44. ISBN 9780810820302. 
  26. ^ "John Bunny | Hollywood Walk of Fame". Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on February 23, 2018. 

References

  • Agnew, Frances (1913). Motion Picture Acting. New York: Reliance Newspaper Syndicate. 
  • Gehring, Wes D. (1995). "John Bunny: America's First Important Film Comedian". Literature Film Quarterly. 23 (2): 120-124. 
  • Lanier, Henry Wysham (March 1915). "The Coquelin Of The Movies". The World's Work. Vol. 29 no. 5. pp. 567-577. 
  • Slide, Anthony (2010). Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 9780813137452. 

Further reading

  • Collier, Kevin S. Funny Bunny: Film Comedian John Bunny. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017. ISBN 197653870X.
  • Hayes, Helen. On Reflection. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1968.
  • Pratt, George C. Spellbound in the Darkness. New York: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1966.
  • Ramsaye, Terry. A Million and One Nights. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926.
  • Slide, Anthony. John Bunny. The Silent Picture. New York: Arno Press, 1977.
  • Smith, Albert E. Two Reels and a Crank. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1952.
  • Talmadge, Margaret L. The Talmadge Sisters. Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1924.
  • Talmadge, Norma. "Close-Ups". Saturday Evening Post, March 12, 1926.
  • "The John Bunny Show". Variety, March 19, 1915.

External links


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