The Huge Appeal of John Bunny
By Jack Lodge
‘When Mr. Bunny laughs, people from San Francisco to Stepney Green laugh with him. When he frowns, every kingdom of the earth is contracted in one brow of woe. His despair is incredible. His grief is unendurable. His wrath is apoplectic. His terror is the panic of a whole army’
The Saturday Review, London, c.1913
When John Bunny died in April 1915, the writer of his obituary in the English trade paper The Bioscope ended by saying:
‘He has left behind him a magnificent record of his work. The cinema actor has one great advantage over the stage player, for one reputation is not of that ephemeral nature which is only kept alive, after his work is ended, by memory and tradition. Our grandchildren may still find delight in John Bunny’s genial humour, and we need have no fear that this appreciation will ever be tinged with doubt as to the critical sagacity of their grandfathers.’
It was natural to think, in 1915, that film was an imperishable memorial. Time has proved otherwise. Of John Bunny’s one-hundred-and-fifty-odd movies (none of them longer than three reels) only a handful survives – and not the most celebrated at that. Yet for much of his four years in films, this man was the most famous comedian of the American screen, since Chaplin’s flowering at Essanay began at just the time when Bunny died.
His fame was world-wide, his films were shown everywhere, and he had his fans as far field as Russia, where they knew him as ‘Poxon’. It is impossible now to judge fairly Bunny’s quality, but for the nature of his comedy there is evidence enough.
He was born in Brooklyn on September 21, 1863, the son of an English naval officer from Penzance who had settled in America. One version has it that the young Bunny sold shoelaces and groceries in the New York markets; another, more prosaic, that he first worked for the New York Central Railroad. But by the age of 20 he was on the stage – in minstrel shows, stock companies, vaudeville, comic opera – and there he stayed until 1910. Though his character depended in the first place on his enormous fatness (by the end, 300 lbs or 136 kg), he handled his huge frame with a delicacy and a kind of grace, and had a consummate grasp of facial expression. He had a desire not to be merely a funny fat man, and a desire not to be merely a funny fat man, and claimed to have had an audience in tears during one of his operatic performances.
Accounts of how he came to the cinema vary but according to Vitagraph chief Albert E. Smith, Bunny arrived one day in 1910 at the Vitagraph studio in Flatbush, and without giving any details of his achievements, asked for and accepted work at the standard Vitagraph rate of $40 a week. In the theatre he had made $150, but just now he wanted to try out the new idea. Vitagraph soon established his identity, Bunny proved an immediate hit, and by 1912 he was making $1000 a week. He worked hard for it helping – like all Vitagraph actors – to make and paint sets. But in one respect he was lucky: as Vitagraph was first company to name individual actors. Bunny became known by name to his audiences. He guarded the privilege jealously. When the studio engaged another fat comedian, the ex-undertaker Hughie Mack, Bunny insisted that Mack’s name should no appear in any publicity. Vitagraph then announced that no more fat men need apply for acting jobs, and was at once accused of unfair discrimination.
The character Bunny portrayed had much in common with that of W.C. Fields. It was of an invincibly selfish middle-aged gent much put upon by women. Like Fields, Bunny hankered for the saloon, the pool-room, the race-track. Like Fields, he was proud of his appearance, doing his best work in ‘immaculate morning coat and faultlessly ironed silk hat’. Like Fields, he could be malevolent when he chose. Yet Fields – in his great comedies of the Twenties and Thirties – was consciously presenting a period character. Bunny belonged to that period himself, or perhaps to a little before, for his style had none of the slapstick that developed from burlesque. From his stage years he brought much more of a Dickensian comedy of character and manners.
Bunny’s usual foil was the angular and shrewish Flora Finch. Her years with Bunny were the years of her fame (the comedies were sometimes known as ‘Bunnyfinches’), but she lives on in another role – the comic relief in the classic The Cat and the Canary (1927).
Bunny and Finch normally played husband and wife. Cure for Pokeritis (1912) has a typical story-line: Bunny absents himself from the house on the pretext of attending nightly lodge meetings, whereas he is really playing poker. Finch assembles her bible-class, dresses them up as cops, and bursts in on the delinquents. This was the usual pattern, but there were variations. In Stenographers Wanted (1912), Bunny and his business colleagues are interviewing a number of attractive typists when their wives break in and insist that the least prepossessing applicant be hired. This time Finch does not play Bunny’s wife – she is the plain-Jane typist.
Another interesting shift came in The Feudists (1913), where Bunny appeared with Vitagraph’s other celebrated comedian, Sidney Drew. Drew practiced a more elegant and quieter style of domestic comedy, and the clash of method must have been fascinating. Bunny also took part in Vitagtaph’s prestige production of 1911 – Vanity Fair – with Helen Gardner as Becky and Bunny as Jos Sedley. Moving Picture World found the film ‘nearer to being a flawless adaptation than anything that has appeared in moving pictures.’ And praised Bunny for’ an exquisite bit of comic character work for the short time it lasted.’
John Bunny was a natural for Mr. Pickwick, and in 1913 he played the part. Vitagraph had seen a chance to increase the already great popularity of Bunny in England by sending him to film there, accompanied by his usual director, Larry Trimble. The voyage across provided a film – Bunny All at Sea (1912) – in which Bunny was the only professional, other parts being taken by passengers. Vitagraph emerged with a useful comedy – Bunny posing as the Captain…Bunny being arrested and set to degrading menial work – and also saved a lot of money.
A Winning Streak
The same technique was used in Bunny at the Derby (1912). Bunny was filmed making a resplendent, horse-drawn progress to Epsom through Sutton and Ewell; the Derby was shot as well, with Bunny getting into scrapes on the Downs and spending money wildly, and another Vitagraph was wrapped up in a couple of days. But Pickwick Papers (1913) was more elaborate. Stills show several attractive locations, and studio work was carried out at Walton-on-Thames in space rented from the British film-maker Cecil Hepworth. The film consisted really of three separate episodes, each of one reel, sometimes released in successive weeks. Further episodes were promised but never appeared. The English, however, made Bunny a lavish offer to remain, at which Vitagraph promptly tripled his salary to ensure that he did not.
With occasional returns to the stage, John Bunny continued working at Flatbush until the winter of 1914. Early in 1915 he went on an eight-week tour with Bunny in Funnyland, a musical comedy with a finale in which Bunny played Teddy Roosevelt. He had planned to take a holiday and return to Vitagraph in October, but he fell ill, and died on April 26, 1915, from Bright’s disease. He was only 51, and despite all he had earned in his four years of glory, he left a mere $8000. However, he had previously insured his face for $100,000, and as Albert Smith said, you could have bought the whole Vitagraph studio for that.