When people think of silent comedians, Charlie Chaplin, or possibly Buster Keaton, leap to mind. Before either of those star became famous however, John Bunny was drawing in audiences with the one-reelers he was making at Vitagraph. Now largely forgotten, even among silent film fans, this important actor from the early days of cinema gets some attention in John Bunny: Film's First King of Comedy. This short (41 minutes) documentary looks at the comedian who was billed as "the man who makes more than the president" and made over 150 films during his five-year career.
John Bunny came from a sea-faring family. His father and grandfather were both mariners and his mother advised him not to go to sea... until he was 21 years old. But breaking with tradition Bunny went to the theater. Based in New York, John played the circuit as part of a minstrel show and took smaller roles in play until he decided one day to try the movies. Going to the Vitagraph studios he offered to make a movie for free, but instead they paid him $5 for his first film and he just kept making more and more from there.
The short, rotund, jovial Bunny was often teamed up with an actress by the name of Flora Finch, a tall sharp-featured woman who was his physical opposite. Like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, they were an amusing couple just to look at, generating amusement even before they started the gags.
The documentary relates what is known about Bunny's life, and that isn't a lot. His biographical information isn't rare because he was reclusive or private, but because he was popular so long ago, and for such a short time, that there just wasn't a lot of information written about him. The film does a good job filling in the story of his life though. Recounting his rapid rise to fame once he started in the pictures, it relates how he was popular enough to get his name in the titles of his movies, something the studio heads rarely did at the time. From there he manages to get Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers made into a three-reel film (each reel was apparently released as a stand-alone short) in 1913, and he was able to film it in England to boot. After that however he took a break from the movies and launched a traveling play, "John Bunny in Funnyland." It was not a success and when his backers pulled their support he used his own money to keep the show going, but it never paid off.
After his live show, Bunny returned to the movies, but he was terribly sick. Suffering from a kidney disease he only made a few more films before he became too ill to work. He died on April 26, 1915 at the age of 51 and people around the world mourned.
Unfortunately there isn't a lot of information on John Bunny... everyone who ever knew him is dead, and his biography has to be pieced together from the interviews he did during his brief turn in the spotlight. It ultimately raises a lot of questions about the actor that likely will never be answered. This documentary does go a long way towards bringing his name back into the public eye and that's a very good thing.
The audio is clean and clear for the documentary, and the short come with a nice score composed and performed by Ben Model.
Being a recent movie, the main feature comes with a nice looking picture that suits it well. The short on the disc are all watchable and generally very easy on the eyes, but they are very old films. They're generally a bit soft, there are scratches and dirt, and some decomposition is present in some spots. Even with these defects the short are well worth watching and don't look too bad at all.
Included on the disc are four rarely seen John Bunny shorts, a very supplement to the main feature. They are:
Bunny's Dilemma (1913): When John Bunny receives a letter that his aunt is coming to visit he's happy, until he reads that she's bringing one of her spinster friends. Afraid that his relative is going to try to play matchmaker, Bunny does what any self-respecting bachelor would do: he dresses up as a female cook and gets one of his buddies to entertain the aunt and old maid. When the aunt's companion turns out to be attractive though, things get complicated.
Hearts and Diamonds (1914): One of the last films he made, John Bunny tries to woo a rich widow, Flora Finch. When he discovers that she loves baseball he comes up with a plan: he'll come up with a team and play the Yankees in an exhibition game! What could go wrong?
Kitty and the Cowboys (1911): Bunny is a cowboy, and though it's a little unclear exactly why (there may be a scene missing at the beginning), he decides to get revenge on his fellow ranch hands by dressing up as his own twin sister and taking a job as their cook.
The Feudists (1913): Bunny and Finch in this short and like to cultivate rare plants in their yard, while their friends and next door neighbors raise exotic chickens. When the chickens get out of their pen and eat Bunny's beloved plants, the relationship in no longer friendly a feud begins.
In addition to these four shorts, there is the full interview with film historian Sam Gill who talks about discovering John Bunny and his research into the forgotten comedian. It runs a little over half an hour and is an interesting chat.
This documentary on the first comedian to make a really big splash in motion pictures is interesting viewing. Though there is not a lot of information about the comic actor what is known is related in a breezy and entertaining manner and the four John Bunny shorts that are included on the disc really add a lot to the package. This gets a strong recommendation.