Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars: John Bunny and Flora Finch
As a followup of sorts to my Vitagraph Studios piece, here’s a look at two of the company’s most popular stars, now considered icons of early 1910s screen comedy!
It can be tempting to regard the silent era as a very well-defined unit of time, where all the films feature the cloche-hats-and-jazz era and where the existence of, say, a “nickelodeon era” is somewhat fuzzy and ill-defined. Just about everyone knows that the silent era was when Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were the huge comedy stars, and they might also have heard of vague names like Rudolph Valentino and Louise Brooks.
But like any art form, silent film went through different stages, from primitive roots of little, one-shot films to the cinematographic perfection of the late 1920s. And the various genres within the “silent era” label evolved too, with various stars coming and going as the years went on. In fact, years before Chaplin started appearing in films, audiences were fans of other comedy stars–such as Vitagraph’s John Bunny and Flora Finch.
The cheery, rotund Bunny, with a face that looked like it was fished out of a puddle, and the rail-thin, pointy-nosed Finch, were the sort of characters that made for a naturally funny-looking screen pairing. Vitagraph first teamed them up in 1910, and they would go on to appear in dozens of one-reel comedies together–about one a week over the course of five years.
Bunny was born in Brooklyn in 1863 and had English and Irish heritage. He began his busy stage career in the 1880s. After 25 years of appearing in everything from humble traveling shows to Shakespeare plays on Broadway, he began to notice how motion pictures were capturing audiences’ attention. More perceptive than many of his colleagues, he felt certain that cinema was going to be the next big thing and would likely cause “lean times” on the stage. Thus, in 1910 he decided to get into the motion picture game himself.
Initially he found it difficult to join a studio, thanks to his theatrical pedigree–the ramshackle studios of the time thought they couldn’t afford to pay him what he was worth. He was finally hired by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton of the Vitagraph company, although they also had concerns since most Vitagraph actors made $5 a day. Much to their surprise, Bunny agreed on a $40 a week salary, about a fifth of what he was making on the stage.
Flora Finch, born in 1867 in Surrey, England, also had a career on the stage. Her whole family worked in music halls and other forms of theater, and Finch herself eventually joined the Ben Greet Players, who specialized in traveling Shakespeare shows. She immigrated to the U.S. around 1908, the same year of her first film credit in the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company film The Helping Hand. She was in several Biograph shorts for the next year or so, including the short comedy Those Awful Hats (1909). Intended as a humorous way to tell ladies to remove their hats at the movie theater, Finch’s character insists on wearing a comically large hat and gets removed from the theater with a crane.
In 1910 Finch left Biograph and started working for Vitagraph, where she stood out with her bony, cartoonish look and ability to do both broad slapstick and sweeter, more emotional scenes. Her first pairing with Bunny was in The New Stenographer (1911), where she played the “very capable, but extremely homely” stenographer.
Bunny and Finch quickly made an impression on audiences and their one-reel films were soon in high demand. Exhibitors started referring to their films as “Bunnyfinches” and “Bunnygraphs.” While broad slapstick was becoming a trend in comedies thanks to busy companies like Keystone, Vitagraph specialized in genteel humor that usually revolved around domestic worries and marital disharmony. The acting style tended to be more natural, more adapted to the subtleties picked up by the camera.
Bunny and Finch’s films often had them playing husband and wife, with Bunny usually getting himself into mischief that he tries to conceal from his slightly uptight but not unloving spouse. Many of the films had simple, comical premises. In Bunny’s Birthday Surprise (1913), Finch wants to throw a surprise dinner party for her husband’s birthday. Unbeknownst to her, Bunny arrives home exhausted from his workday and puts on pajamas and heads to bed. When the guests arrive, she calls him to come downstairs and “he is seen in that garb by the scandalized guests when he turns on the electric lights.”
Other films were a bit more elaborate. In the two-reel Father’s Flirtation (1914), for example, the couple visit their daughter at college and Bunny meets a pretty widow who owns a boarding house. While he tries to call on her, his wife and daughter show up at the boarding house and he hides under a bed. He then steals a dress to disguise himself and ends up in a big chase. A Cure for Pokeritis (1912), where “Mrs. Sharpe” tries to end her husband’s poker addiction by staging a fake police raid, is probably the most well-known Bunnyfinch today–one of the small number that has survived.
Unfortunately, Bunny and Finch’s prolific partnership would only last a few years. Bunny’s health declined and he would pass away from Bright’s disease in 1915. Finch would continue acting in a series of “Flora films” by her own company, but they weren’t as successful, and she would mainly focus on doing smaller roles in feature films. Audiences were still fond of her, however, and when she was cast in the Valentino vehicle Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) director Sidney Olcott had to assure everyone that she had a weekly contract and wasn’t just an extra. Finch would pass away in 1940 at the age of 70 from blood poisoning, not long after making a brief appearance in the MGM feature The Women (1939).
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.