This is an edited, revamped version of a post I wrote in 2012, which in turn was based off an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, around 2005–07. At the time, I was still finding my blogging voice.
John Bunny (21 September 1863–26 April 1915) was born to an Irish mother and English father in Brooklyn. He was the ninth generation of a family of English sea captains, but the first generation who didn’t follow that career path. He was a grocery clerk in his teens, and joined a small touring minstrel show at twenty.
After getting his foot in the door, John acted for many touring and stock theatre companies, some of whose shows were musical comedies. He was also a stage manager for a number of stock companies. This new career brought him to Seattle, Portland, and a number of locales on the East Coast. By 1900, he was acting on Broadway.
John went from strength to strength as a stage actor, with one successful show after another. His 1906 performance as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Astor Theatre’s inaugural show, garnered excellent reviews.
In spite of his great stage success, John felt film represented the future of acting, and that movies were drawing people away from stage shows. Most people in 1910, however, considered movie acting very disreputable, not as respectable and refined as stage acting.
J. Stuart Blackton, manager of Vitagraph Studios, initially refused to hire him, feeling unable to offer him the salary he deserved. Ever a good sport, John insisted on this lower salary, 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. He usually co-starred with Flora Finch, a great physical foil. Flora was tall and thin, and John was short and fat.
They excelled at comedies of manners, which greatly helped popularity. In comparison to the public’s poor image of slapstick, comedies of manners were considered polite, respectable, genteel.
Their films 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. He and Flora “cordially hated each other” offscreen, according to Vitagraph’s co-founder Albert E. Smith.
Troubles began when he went back on the road with the show John Bunny in Funnyland, which bombed royally and coincided with how he’d become very tired and sick. Sadly, he died of Bright’s Disease at age 51.
John, the most popular comedian in this pre-Chaplin world, was mourned around the world and eulogised by The New York Times with the words, “The name John Bunny will always be linked to the movies.”
Sadly, only a handful of his films are known to survive, and many books on silent film completely leave out his name. Even the theatre that was named after him, New York City’s Bunny Theatre, was later renamed the Nova Theatre, and closed 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. In 2011, A Cure for Pokeritis was chosen for preservation in the National Film Library of the Library of Congress.