Happy Birthday, John Bunny

(Pictured above: John Bunny. Source: YouTube screenshot)

Who was America’s first superstar film comedian? Buster Keaton? Fatty Arbuckle? British import Charlie Chaplin?

It was John Bunny, says filmmaker Tony Susnick.

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.

In recent years, however, there has been a renewed appreciation for Bunny’s work. And to commemorate Bunny’s 157th birthday (he was born September 21, 1863, in New York City, ninth in a line of English sea captains), the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is streaming Susnick’s 43-minute 2016 documentary, John Bunny: Film’s First King of Comedy through October 19 on its website. You can also watch it on YouTube or right here:

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 documentary is also available on DVD, which you can purchase from Amazon for $19.99. The DVD includes four Bunny shorts.

Speaking of Massa and Model, since March, the two have hosted Sunday episodes of Silent Comedy Watch Party, featuring screenings of classic silent comedies to Model’s piano accompaniment. The September 20 program featured, among other titles, the 1913 short, Bunny’s Dilemma, which you can also watch on YouTube or right here:

In 2011 the Library of Congress named Bunny’s 1912 short, A Cure for Pokeritis, to the National Film Registry, stating “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 [that] 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.”

“The more I studied film, the more I realized not only how great an impact he had but how much he had been forgotten by even film historians. 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.”

(Editor’s note: The above is an updated version of a previously published article.)

About Larry Greenberg

A former local beat reporter and film critic, co-founder Lawrence Greenberg has more than 25 years’ experience as a writer and public relations executive.

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