Thursdays in Blog Me MAYbe are themed “May I tell you something about someone else?” This week my spotlight is on the largely forgotten silent film clown John Bunny (21 September 1863-26 April 1915), whom I profiled on my old “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site. (When I was writing for my Angelfire site, I was in the habit of using British spellings, a habit I’ve since fallen out of.)
Now just look at John Bunny. Doesn’t he look like a nice, friendly fellow? A fellow shorty, he stood at five-four, and beyond just being an actor, was my favourite type of actor, a comedian. All true clowns, be they comedic actors, pantomimists, circus clowns, or whatever, are angels for how they live to make people happy, forget their troubles, turn tears into laughter and turn frowns into smiles. And come on, how could you not smile when you see that happy, funny face of his?
He was the ninth generation of a family of English sea captains, but the first generation who didn’t follow that career path. He started working as a clerk in a grocery before going off to pursue a career path in entertainment. John was in a small touring minstrel show and then started acting at the theatre, in musical comedies, as well as being a stage manager for a number of stock companies.
At the time he quit the stage to pursue the screen, in 1910, movie acting was still considered very disreputable and not as respectable and refined as stage acting. He also took a big pay cut when he did this, going from $150 to $40 a week. Over the next five years John was in more than 250 comedy shorts and quickly became the best-known face the world over, usually co-starring with Flora Finch, a great physical foil for him. Flora was tall and thin, and John was short and fat.
The shorts they made together were known as “Bunnyfinches,” “Bunnygraphs,” and “Bunnyfinchgraphs.” They were usually credited as Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, although offscreen John was happily married to Clara Scallan, with whom he had four children.
The start of John’s troubles came when he went back on the road with a show called John Bunny in Funnyland, but that effort bombed royally, coupled with how he’d become very tired and sick. John, who was the most popular comedian in the world before even Chaplin came out, was mourned around the world when he died and eulogised by The New York Times with the words, “The name John Bunny will always be linked to the movies.” He was only 51 when he died of Bright’s Disease.
Sadly, today only a handful of his films are known to survive, owing to how many films of the early Teens were neglected and forgotten, and many books on silent comedy or silent film in general completely leave out poor John’s name. Even the theatre that was named after him, New York City’s Bunny Theatre, was later renamed the Nova Theatre, and ended up closing its doors in 2003.
The most easily-available of his few known surviving films are 1912’s A Cure for Pokeritis and 1911’s Her Crowning Glory. (Since I first wrote this piece, A Cure for Pokeritis has been chosen as one of the films in the National Film Library of the Library of Congress.)