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John Bunny - Film's First King of Comedy

Other // Unrated // November 1, 2017
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted November 22, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:



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 DVD:





Audio:



The audio is clean and clear for the documentary, and the short come
with a nice score composed and performed by Ben Model.



Video:



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.



Extras:



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.



Final Thoughts:



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.        

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