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...