(Pictured above: John Bunny. Source: YouTube screenshot)
Who was America’s first superstar film comedian? Buster Keaton? Fatty Arbuckle? British import Charlie Chaplin?
The name John Bunny probably doesn’t ring a bell for most people. When Bunny died of Bright’s disease in 1915 in Brooklyn at age 51, The New York Times eulogized, with unintended irony, “The name John Bunny will always be linked to the movies.” Yet, he was forgotten by subsequent generations and rarely mentioned in scholarship about the silent film era.
That is, until relatively recently.
The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) included Bunny in a retrospective last January; and in 2011 the Library of Congress named Bunny’s 1912 short, A Cure for Pokeritis, to the National Film Registry, stating “actor John Bunny merits significant historical importance as the American film industry’s earliest comic superstar.” At the time of Pokeritis’ selection, film writer and author Daniel Eagen wrote, “Bunny and his frequent foil Flora Finch were probably the most accomplished and funniest of the early film comedians in the United States.”
Susnick concurs, stating Bunny was one of the most famous faces in the world and one of the first film stars to be known by name. In a four-year period, Bunny made more than 150 comedy shorts. He became a sensation, the first movie celebrity to have a doll made after him.
“I’ve been fascinated with silent films since I saw my first Charlie Chaplin movie when I was seven or eight,” Susnick told The Savvy Screener. “I was so fascinated my mom (a film lover herself) started buying me books about silent movies. In one of those books I noticed a Santa Claus, gnome-like, jolly man with an even funnier name – John Bunny (his real name). As I grew I always kept my eye out for him but his films were rare to see.”
To commemorate Bunny’s 154th birthday (he was born September 21, 1863, in New York City, ninth in a line of English sea captains), Susnick will stream his 43-minute documentary, John Bunny: Film’s First King of Comedy, for free on Facebook from Thursday, September 21 through Sunday, September 24. You can also purchase the documentary on a DVD that includes four Bunny films scored by MOMA’s Ben Model – Kitty and the Cowboys (1911), The Feudists (1913), Bunny’s Dilemma (1913) and Hearts and Diamonds (1914).
Here’sclips from the shorts available on the DVD:
First King of Comedy is narrated by Mark “Big Poppa” Stampley, with Mark Sawyer Dailey as the voice of John Bunny. The documentary also includes interviews with historians Sam Gill, Steve Massa and Ben Model.
“The more I studied film, the more I realized not only how great of impact he had but how much he had been forgotten by even film historians,” said Susnick. “I love to make films about huge events that have been lost in time, and Bunny is definitely one of those stories. Bunny’s story is basically the story of film and the ‘star system.’ Stars were not known or listed in the credits when Bunny started.”
Added Susnick: “Sadly, Bunny died young and early in the birth of the movies, so we would never see his full potential.”
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