Before there was a “big three” (or four, or five) comedians, before Keystone Studios, before almost anyone (except Ben Turpin), there was John Bunny, the best-known film comedian of his day. Bunny was a large man with a red face and a larger-than-life style of acting. His frequent co-star, Flora Finch, was thin, pinched-faced, and demure. Together, they made a series recalled as the “bunnyfinch” shorts. We’ll be looking at one of those today.
John stars as an apparently wealthy widower with a small daughter. His daughter is becoming spoiled, as John’s instinct is to indulge her and let her get away with whatever she wants. A “friend” who looks like a typical D.W. Griffith-style bluenosed busybody comes over and tells him the child needs discipline. She recommends a governess of her acquaintance, emphasizing that she is a “strict disciplinarian.” The governess is, of course, Flora Finch. Although when she arrives her long hair is tied up, Bunny shows considerable attraction to it – despite the fact that Finch has been made up to look even uglier than usual. John’s daughter does not take to Flora, however, sticking her with a pin and otherwise being bratty. The relationship proceeds along these lines, with John being fascinated by Flora’s hair, and the child being as contrary as possible, until Bunny proposes to Finch. She happily says yes, and the maid now decides she needs to take action. That night, she gives the little girl a pair of scissors while Flora is combing her hair before bed. Exhausted (probably from running after the child all day!), Flora falls asleep in her chair and the child gives her a haircut while she snoozes. John wakes her with a kiss, but when he sees what has happened, he calls off the wedding, and Flora leaves in shame. John and the child go back to playing as before, and there is an indication that John has noticed how attractive the maid is for the first time.
John Bunny was not known as a slapstick comedian; his movies are “situational” in their humor. This one seems fairly average, based on the few I’ve seen. It’s a little funny, in terms of the situation, but doesn’t really get me laughing very hard. The most interesting part of the movie is the child, played by Helene Costello (who would become an adult star in the twenties), whose willfulness and dislike of snooty adults is compelling. Silent movie children are often much more natural than their sound-era counterparts, confirming the old adage that “children should be seen but not heard.” Helene does look at the camera once or twice, and does seem to follow instructions from off-screen as she spies on her daddy with the governess. The contrast between Finch and Bunny is played up here – it helps to sell us on the idea that Finch is not the right woman for him, he is simply distracted by her head of hair. The movie is shot in a conventional manner for 1911 (few edits, long shots, stationary camera), but does include an important close-up on the hair as it is cut.
Director: Lawrence Trimble
Starring: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Helene Costello, Kate Price
Run Time: 14 Min
You can watch it for free: here.