In the age of endless Netflix production and the Marvel Universe, it's easy to forget the humble roots of cinema. Title cards and black-and-white shots of Chaplin and Keaton might spring to mind, but before even then, the biggest names in silent film were John Bunny and Flora Finch.
John Bunny was born 1863 in New York City. Raised in Brooklyn, he attended high school and worked as a grocery clerk in his home city before joining a small minstrel show touring the East Coast. He then worked as a stage manager for various stock companies and performed in vaudeville before being drawn to the motion picture business sometime in the 1890s - an industry at its very beginning, and one which would revolutionize entertainment. Bunny would find himself at the centre of that revolution, becoming the first and most popular comic star of the era.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, four years after Bunny was born, Flora Finch came into the world. At a young age she joined her family in performing vaudeville and theatre throughout England, working the circuit right up until her thirties. Initially she pursued a stage career with the Shakespearean production company, Ben Greet Players, until 1907, after which she moved to America to pursue a career in the fast-developing film industry. It didn't take her long to find success, acting with the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company alongside stars like Fatty Arbuckle and Mark Sennett. Finch moved to Vitagraph Film Studios in 1909, where she would eventually perform in over 200 films. Bunny also joined Vitagraph around this time. The two of them met and, shortly thereafter, skyrocketed into global celebrity together, becoming international stars of silent film comedy.
It's not hard to see why the two were so popular. Like Laurel and Hardy, they were known for their distinct figures - Bunny's short and fat physique contrasting Finch's tall and thin profile. Bunny was jolly and boisterous in his acting, whilst Finch portrayed a sterner and impatient character in the popular shorts that the pair performed for Vitagraph. These domestic comedies, known as "Bunnyfinches", connected strongly with early nickelodeon audiences because they relied not on dry wit or sophisticated humour but on the slapstick and outrageousness of vaudeville. Some of their most popular films included The New Stenographer (1910), The Subduing of Mrs Nag (1911) and A Cure for Pokeritis (1912); the stories and themes of which reflected social attitudes of the era. Between 1910 and 1915 Bunny and Finch performed in 160 films, an impressive feat - but not just for its sheer number...
According to Studio Chief Albert E. Smith, the two comedy stars "cordially hated each other".
Finch wasn't alone in her alleged dislike of Bunny. Interviews by historian Anthony Slide reveal that many other actors and personnel at Vitagraph found Bunny to be bad-tempered and difficult to work with - an image that was entirely at odds with his genial onscreen persona. Rumour has it Bunch was also somewhat self-obsessed - why else would a man insure his own face for $100,000? In spite of this, Bunny was a much-loved actor and one of the top stars of his time, billed as "the man who makes more than the president". Early film critic Vachel Lindsay considered him to be the greatest of the early screen comedians, and his rise to fame was nothing short of meteoric when you consider that he was only acting for five years.
Bunny died suddenly of Bright's disease on April 26th 1915 at his home in New Rochelle. Silent film had no language barrier; and his death made headlines not just in America but in countries all across Europe and even New Zealand. Speedy advances in film technology and stunt tricks meant Bunny was quickly forgotten by Hollywood audiences whilst new rotund comedians such as Roscoe Arbuckle and Oliver Hardy stepped into the limelight. The industry would always remember him, however, and have honoured him for his contribution to motion picture history with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Finch continued to act, starting The Flora Finch Film Corporation shortly after Bunny's death. Sadly, she was never as successful as in her time of collaborating with Bunny. Audience interest in comedy shorts was waning, and by 1918 her company had ceased producing them. Finch returned to the vaudeville stage in an attempt to revive her career but failed here as well. From that point onward she appeared mostly in supporting or cameo roles such as in The Cat and the Canary (1927) and Quality Street (1927). She also played a part in the emerging sound era, most notably in The Scarlet Letter (1934) and Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West (1937). Finch starred in over 300 films, most of which are now lost. She continued acting until the very end of her life, collecting a wage from the studio for bit roles until her death on 4th January 1940.
Although largely forgotten, the impact of Bunny and Finch's legacy upon the film industry should not be understated. James Cagney revealed he used to climb the studio fence in order to watch John Bunny act, and Mabel Normand cited Finch as a major influence in her own comedy stylings. Bunny and Finch played a pivotal role in the early days of film, with their artistic contributions having a lasting effect upon 20th century cinema.
Copyright 2016 by Jennifer Gale. All rights reserved.
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