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Bunny to buster: beyond just bookends to silent film comedy.

THE ROTUND, 260-pound John Bunny (1863-1915) was America's first international cinema comedy star. A prominent stage performer, he entered the fledgling film industry when it largely was based in New York. Working for Brooklyn's pioneering Vitagraph Studio, he quickly became an icon of the silver screen, before his death from Bright's disease.

Beloved around the globe, his 1915 London Times obituary stated: "[He] enjoyed remarkable popularity during the last four years, and it is said that the people of five continents have laughed at his face." In fact, the previous year, London's Saturday Review observed, "Not to know Mr. Bunny argues oneself unknown.... Mr. Bunny is a universal friend, and the most famous man in the world."

Bunny's persona could be called a template for the later screen character of W.C. Fields, since both entertainers had a gift for playing the henpecked husband, such as the latter's inspired "It's a Gift" (1934) and "The Bank Dick" (1940, a film in which Fields' title character even claims to have known Bunny). A comparable Bunny marital dilemma would be a "Cure for Pokeritus" (1912), in which he attempts a secret boys night out of smoking, drinking, and playing poker, only to run afoul of his dominatingly Olive Oyl-thin wife Flora Finch. Their frequent teaming as a visually funny fat-skinny duo came to be known as a "Bunnyfincher," as well as establishing a screen tradition of physically mismatched comedy twosomes. Also, the popularity of Finch's controlling wife anticipated George McManus' classic period newspaper comic strip "Bringing Up Father," which first appeared in 1913 and was later known as "Jiggs and Maggie," with the latter figure often wielding a rolling pin.

While Bunny helped inaugurate the silent screen clown, Buster Keaton (1895-1966) later became the only real artistic rival to Charlie Chaplin's alter ego Tramp. However, by that time, the coming of sound became a contributing factor (with the loss of Keaton's creative control) to ending his short silent feature film heyday (1923-29). Nevertheless, Keaton's signature "Great Stone Face" had eyes which registered every nonsensical detail under that pancake porkpie hat. Consequently, his silent films remain timely by way of a "Waiting for Godot" (1953) absurdity, arguably best represented by "Sherlock Jr." (1924). In this movie, the comedian manages to enter a film within a film, solve a mystery, and then return to what Albert Camus' existentialist The Stranger (1943) would call "the gentle indifference of the world."

"Sherlock Jr." has remained such a touchstone movie in cinema history that it was the inspiration for Woody Allen's acclaimed "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985), in which Keaton and Chaplin's greatest total auteur successor (writer, director, actor) reverses the screen magic by having a character step out of the movie within the movie. Only in this postmodernism period, his extraordinary action cannot produce a "Sherlock Jr." superficial happy ending. Regardless, the exalted nature of "Cairo" might best be measured by an Allen admission in a recent Rolling Stone inter view, maintaining that one could erase most of his nearly 50-movie filmography, save for a handful of pictures, starting with "Cairo."

Be that as it may, how are Bunny and Buster more than bookends to a time when movies did not talk? One might begin with some lesser parallels before embracing a genuine cinema discovery. First, while poor Bunny, who now might be called 'Tat, funny, and forgotten," was much praised for having the 1910 foresight to see a better future in switching from the stage to the screen. In a composite interview from Motion Picture Magazine (1913) and a 1914 Pictures and the Picture goer essay, the journal Cinema in 1915 recycled Bunny's first thoughts on the subject: "I wanted to be with the "shooters" [filmmakers] ... so I cancelled my 30-week contract with the Shuberts [a major vaudeville theater chain] and frankly told them I wanted to work in pictures. I offered to work in my first picture for nothing.... It seemed to me that the cinema--in America at least--was to be a great thing of the future."

Today, Keaton also receives kudos for refusing a well-paying 1917 part in a Broadway musical in order to embrace a low-paying film opportunity. It was a wise choice, but hardly as groundbreaking as Bunny's decision seven years earlier. Keep in mind that, in the early 1910s, many Americans still felt viewing movies was an unrefined activity. For instance, in groundbreaking critic James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), he describes how Chaplin's 1915 Tramp "flicked hold of the straight end of his cane, and with the crooked end, hooked up [a woman's skirt] in exactly the way that disgusted Mama."

Another parallel was that Keaton's film mentor was a new comedy darling of the masses who, with Chaplin, now was surpassing Bunny--Fatty Arbuckle. Anyone teamed with this larger version of Bunny, as the diminutive-sized Keaton immediately was, found himself in another fat-skinny comedy contrast. However, while the older Bunny largely was sedimentary in his laughable contrasts with Finch, rather like she was posing with a beached whale, the giant Arbuckle was an amusing study in almost dainty motion. Though Keaton only would elevate himself to greatness after Arbuckle moved on, this comic contradiction was his introduction to film.

While 1917 Hollywood fast was becoming the world's motion picture capital, numerous movie productions remained in New York. Thus, while Bunny had been in Brooklyn, Arbuckle and Keaton were toiling away at the fancy sounding Colony Studio, which merely was a former Manhattan warehouse on East 48th Street. However, Colony soon would move uptown to a Bronx studio on 176th Street.

Maybe because New York had three major league teams, or simply because baseball still was the "national game," it was very important to Bunny and Keaton (and his guru Arbuckle). Moreover, Colony Studio's new location put it in close proximity to the city's dominant New York Giants' famed Polo Grounds, which also doubled as the home field of the New York Yankees from 1913-22. (The Yankees, formerly known as the Highlanders, previously had played at the nearby Hilltop Park.) Besides these 1913 Yankee name and location changes, the year also was memorable for the Brooklyn Dodgers. After playing in several different parks, the team moved to the now-celebrated Ebbets Field.

Bunny was a fan of both the Giants and Dodgers--even though the two clubs were bitter rivals--and at least one of his movies, "Hearts and Diamonds" (1914), featured several period stars. The most prominent player caught on film was the amazing Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson--"The Gentleman Hurler," posthumously elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 as one of its five inaugural members.

Having Bunny get away from Finch for a baseball game was a perfect scenario for his antiheroic screen relationship, and undoubtedly other such "Bunnyfinches" once existed. However, the comedian's filmography is incomplete, with many missing titles and movies. (Besides the passage of time, early nitrate films often were recycled to save on costs.) Moreover, Bunny also enjoyed the adulation he received as a celebrity at the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field. For instance, during a 1914 Giants game against the Boston Braves: "at which fully 20,000 people attended, where dozens of men famous in political, civic, [and] literary affairs inspired but passing comment as they entered the grand stand, thousands of people rose and cheered when Bunny made his appearance," according the the Indianapolis Star.

[As a sidenote for those readers who do double duty as film buffs and baseball fans, the "Miracle" Braves vaulted from last place on July 4,1914, to win the pennant in the then-eight team National League before sweeping the mighty Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Owner/manager Connie Mack's A's--boasting the famed "$100,000 infield"--had won the World Series in 1910-11 and 1913. Mack was so disgusted with the result that he sold off his star players and the now-woebegone Philadelphians resided in the lower reaches of the American League standings for the next decade and a half.]

Keaton, meanwhile, was a shy Yankee fan--and one of his most memorable movie sequences occurs when he impeccably pantomimes being a pitcher, and then a hitter, in the empty Yankee Stadium of "The Cameraman" (1928). Baseball was so important to Keaton that a major factor in working for him were baseball skills. That is, whenever he was stuck for a ! comic idea during a film shoot, everything stopped and the company played baseball until the boss had an inspiration. Though he was a gifted player, Keaton is exceptionally funny failing to make the baseball team in "College" (1927), as well as several other sports. Plus, he did not have to be the best player on his production teams. For example, former Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Byron Houck was a cameraman on "Sherlock, Jr." and, a few years later, one of Keaton's prop men was St. Louis Cardinal slugger Ernie Oisatti.

Beyond these random if ever noted parallels between Bunny and Buster comes the piece de resistance link. A 1914-15 theatrical roadshow by the former comedian, "Bunny in Funnyland," seems to have been the inspiration for Keaton's much-honored entry into the screen within the screen during "Sherlock Jr." Without taking anything away from the extended nuances Keaton later brought to the phenomenal sequence, credit for this comic revelation always has rested upon the younger comedian. Of course, as Paul Murray Kendall notes in his Art of the Biography (1965): "The biographer can only answer that biographical truth is not and can never be absolute truth What he engages to tell is the best truth he can find, to the best of his abilities."

Yet, "Bunny in Funnyland" seems to provide the "best truth" possible. As the French would say, here is a concours de constances-a confluence of circumstances. "Bunny in Funnyland" was a hit multimedia stage production at a time when Keaton still was appearing in vaudeville. It would have been most improbable for the young comedian, a real student of all stage acts, not to be aware of Bunny's touring three-hour epic--seemingly a precursor cross between the zany disjointed Olsen & Johnson's "Hellzapoppin'" (1941) and television's "Rowan & Martin's LaughIn" (1968-73).

For example, when Bunny's show made its first Indianapolis appearance, the Indianapolis Star reported that it "played to the biggest three days' business of any similar attraction that has ever appeared [here, and] hundreds were turned away at every performance."

The Star went on to observe, "the opening of the performance shows the famous comedian in moving pictures. This gives way and the comedian himself steps out of the frame [screen] and then the fun begins." The sketches that follow include a reproduction of Bunny's Vitograph studio and, presumably, more movie/magic chicanery, although period newspaper accounts are sketchy, such as the Oct. 11, 1914, Chicago Tribune praising Bunny's participation as an "actor, singer, dancer, raconteur, mimic, and celebrity." Some accounts, however, suggest a close which has Bunny doing a final film flimflam either by entering or exiting a movie screen.

Keaton often borrowed screen shenanigans from his stage career, and the comedian's description--in David Robinson's Buster Keaton (1969)--of how the "Sherlock Jr." film to film hoax was conceived would have been a bit of comic trickery known to a theatrical veteran like Bunny: "We built a stage into that frame, but lit it in such a way that it looked like a motion picture being projected on a screen.... The lighting gave us the [movie] illusion, so I could go out of semi-darkness into that well-lit screen."

Again, Keaton did so much more than Bunny with his screen shell game. Yet, history is made not only by major players, but by those who time seems to have forgotten. Moreover, if film scholars do not peer into shadowy corners, a sense of historical continuity is lost, and one puts art into an intellectual coma.

Another potential link between the crafty screen stratagem of "Bunny's Funnyland" being known to Keaton involves his sister-in-law --1920s silent film star Norma Talmadge. Her first modest contract part came in Bunny's "Neighboring Kingdom" (1911). While the comedian's filmography is incomplete, the one compiled by historian Sam Gill (Silent Picture, Summer 1972) has Talmadge surfacing in at least two other Bunny pictures: "The Troublesome Stepdaughters" and "Lovesick Maidens of Cuddleton" (both 1912). This is not exactly a smoking gun but, paired with the proceeding factors, one at least has an added reason to reexamine or at least just remember the faded film pioneer John Bunny.

One might draw an analogy from Chaplin and Arbuckle. Probably Chaplin's most charming sketch is "Oceana Roll" in "The Gold Rush" (1925), when those fanciful dinner rolls suddenly become the delightful dancing feet of a foreshortened Tramp. Yet, Arbuckle had done the routine in "The Rough House" (1918). Still, Chaplin essentially owns the sketch, because his version simply is inspired, topped off with pathos. Yet, Arbuckle deserves some recognition, both for continuity's sake, and creative recognition.

Bunny largely has been forgotten, while Arbuckle now is remembered for a scandal of which he was innocent. History, like art, is where we constantly should attempt to get things right.

Wes D. Gehring, Associate Media Editor of USA Today, is Distinguished Professor of Telecommunications at Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., and the author of several books on cinema, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Yankee Stadium: Baseball Films in the Capra Tradition.
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Title Annotation:Entertainment; John Bunny
Author:Gehring, Wes D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2016
Words:2236
Previous Article:Going up.
Next Article:Historical histrionics.
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