Flora Finch, like many actresses from the period, tried to capitalize on her fame by starting her own self-titled film production company. Although Flora Finch’s name, as well as her thin, angular face and body, is commonly linked with that of comedian John Bunny, she enjoyed a long and distinguished acting career in her own right, one that went beyond her “skinny” role in the “fatty and skinny” film comedy team of Bunny-and-Finch.
Flora Finch. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Born in Surrey, England, Finch initially pursued a stage career with the Sir Philip Ben Greet Shakespearean Players until 1907. Newspaper reports claim she immigrated to the United States in 1908, working first with the Biograph Company before moving to the Vitagraph Company in 1909. However, Finch’s obituaries suggest a confusion of dates, stating that Finch began her screen career in 1910. An article Finch wrote for Movie Weekly adds to the confusion, for here she says that “it was in 1910, to the best of my knowledge, that I peeped into a motion picture studio for the first time… which was the old Biograph studio on East 14th Street” (10). In fact, she appeared on screen in at least seven Griffith Biograph shorts before 1910, including Those Awful Hats (1909), where she plays a film spectator who is lifted out of her seat by a crane-like device in order to prevent her enormous hat from blocking the screen—a not-so-subtle way of warning female spectators to remove their hats during film showings. While in her Movie Weekly article Finch claims that her earliest on-screen appearance was in a “Jones Family” film that required she “discuss with poker-spined primness the question of prohibition,” Finch receives her first official credit for the 1908 Griffith film, The Helping Hand (10).
After leaving Biograph in 1909, Finch began work at the Vitagraph studios in Brooklyn, New York, where she made The New Stenographer (1911), her first motion picture with John Bunny. Finch’s work in that film resulted in a five-year contract with Vitagraph, during which she starred with Bunny in a series of extremely popular marital situation farces (Finch 11). Finch claims that while at Vitagraph, she and Bunny “turned out a one-reel picture a week” and “produced close on to three hundred comedies” (11). Described as the screen’s “original Ugly Duckling,” Finch’s harsh, bony features and rail-thin frame delighted audiences in more than two hundred and sixty films, and her style of slapstick, with its frequent incorporation of unique stunts, became a prototype that later comediennes would emulate. For example, Mabel Normand claimed that Finch was instrumental in the development of Normand’s own intricate comedic style, claiming that “every fiber in my body responded to Flora Finch’s celebrated comedies; and though I was quite unconscious of it, I can see now that I was always wondering how I would do the funny little stunts she did in her pictures” (qtd. in Sherman 327). When John Bunny succumbed to Bright’s disease on April 26, 1915, Finch’s career also seemed to come to a premature end, and so rare were her screen appearances around 1915 that most newspapers claimed that Finch had retired.
Flora Finch. Private Collection.
In fact, by 1916 Finch was struggling to establish her own venture, the Flora Finch Comedy Company, under which she produced a series of slapstick shorts based on famous photodramas and plays, a development covered in both the Los Angeles Times and Moving Picture World. Contemporary reviews in the New York and Los Angeles Times describe these films as burlesques of popular films currently in release that often appeared on double-bills with feature-length dramas such as The Highway of Hope (1917) and Heart’s Desire (1917). Although it is unclear how long the production company lasted or how many films were released under the Finch banner, there are press references to a series of “Flora Films” released in 1917, including Flora the Life-Saver and Flora in the Movies. The Los Angeles Times in May 1917 described Guess What?, released by Finch in 1917, as a send-up of The Common Law, a film released by Lewis J. Selznick in 1916 (II3). Another noted release of Finch’s production company was the two-reel burlesque War Prides (1917), a travesty on War Brides, in which Finch plays the part of what Moving Picture World described as “a patriotic, biscuit-baking Joan, who cheerfully rejects the hand and crown of the widower king of the empire to remain at the dough-pile and do her ‘bit’ for the boys at war” (629). Although the press makes no mention of the Flora Finch Film Company’s dissolution, by the end of the year, it seems to have ceased producing these short films, suggesting that there was waning public interest in the type of burlesques that Finch envisioned as the company’s primary output.
In 1918, Finch returned to the vaudeville stage, though further references to her stage and screen appearances were rare until in 1920 Moving Picture World announced that Finch would star in a series of two-reel comedies produced under the Film Frolics Pictures Corporation banner (719). The company, incorporated in July 1920, was “especially organized to provide suitable vehicles for Flora Finch,” and Finch was signed to a three-year contract to star in “no less than six two-reel comedies yearly” (1792). Despite this attempt to revive her career, by the 1920s, Finch was playing mostly minor roles in feature films such as The Scarlet Letter (1934) and Show Boat (1936). As Douglas Churchill explains, once the heyday of slapstick in the 1910s came to an end, comedy actors like Finch often struggled to find steady work: “The great Flora Finch…should be regarded as one of the screen’s immortals because she attracted the first stable clientele the cinema knew, had one of Metro’s bit contracts, but she has been dropped in the current economy wave” (153). In 1924, when Finch was cast in the Rudolph Valentino vehicle directed by Sidney Olcott, Monsieur Beaucaire (1924), Olcott even had to defend Finch against claims that she was simply an “extra” earning “but fifteen dollars a week.” Olcott, quoted in Moving Picture World, reassured the public that Finch, “as good in motion pictures today as when she was a starring player,” was under a weekly contract to play the important role of the Duchess (632).
Flora Finch died in Los Angeles, California, on January 4, 1940, at the age of 70, from a streptococcus infection. According to her New York Times obituary, Finch was still on contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the time of her death, “drawing a regular salary for bit, extra and atmosphere roles” (23). While the remarkable images associated with Finch’s slapstick acting often receive the most attention, her innovative and daring approaches to film production also deserve recognition.
Jones and the Lady Book Agent. Dir.: D.W. Griffith (American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. US 1909) cas.: John R. Cumpson, Florence Lawrence, Mack Sennett, Flora Finch, si, b&w. Archive: Library of Congress [USW]
Schneider’s Anti-Noise Crusade. Dir.: D.W. Griffith (American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. US 1909) cas.: John R. Cumpson, Florence Lawrence, Anita Hendrie, Arthur V. Johnson, Flora Finch, si, b&w. Archive: Museum of Modern Art [USM].
The Ventriloquist’s Trunk. Dir.: Frederick A. Thomson (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1911) cas.: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Ralph W. Ince, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
The Unusual Honeymoon/ The Unexpected Honeymoon. Dir.: James Young (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1912) cas.: Flora Finch, Charles Edwards, si, b&w, 8mm. Archive: Private Collection.
The Wooing of Winifred. Dir.: Van Dyke Brooke (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1911) cas.: Helen Gardner, Van Dyke Brooke, John Bunny, Maurice Costello, Leah Baird, Flora Finch, si, b&w. Archive: BFI National Archive [GBB].
The Pickpocket. Dir.: George D. Baker (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1913) cas.: John Bunny, Flora Finch, si, b&w. Archive: EYE Filmmuseum [NLA].
Stenographer Troubles. Dir.: Frederick A. Thomson (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1913) cas.: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Florence Turner, Clara Kimball Young, Norma Talmadge, si, b&w. Archive: EYE Filmmuseum [NLA].
How Cissy Made Good. Dir.: George D. Baker (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1915) cas.: Maurice Costello, Cissy Fitzgerald, Edith Storey, Flora Finch, si, b&w. Archive: Cineteca del Friuli [ITG].
Lady of Shalott. Dir.: C. Jay Williams (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1915) cas.: Constance Talmadge, Flora Finch, Kate Price, si, b&w. Archive: George Eastman Museum [USR].
A Mistake in Typesetting. Dir.: Lee Beggs (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1915) cas.: Flora Finch, Jay Dwiggins, Templar Saxe, Florence Natol, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
Two and Two. Dir.: C. Jay Williams (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1915) cas.: Tom Brooke, Nicholas Dunaew, Flora Finch, Kate Price, si, b&w. Archive: Danske Filminstitut [DKK].
The Smoking Out of Bella Butts. Dir.: George D. Baker (Vitagraph Co. of America US 1915), cas.: Flora Finch, Hughie Mack, Betty Gray, si, b&w, 8mm. Archive: Private Collection.
Boodle and Bandits. Dir.: Larry Semon (Vitagraph Co. US 1918) cas.: Larry Semon, Madge Kirby, Flora Finch, si, b&w. Archive: Cinemateca Romana [ROB].
The Great Adventure/Her Great Adventure/Spring Of The Year. Dir.: Alice Guy-Blaché, sc.: Agnes Christine Johnston (Pathé Exchange, Inc. US 1918) cas.: Bessie Love, Flora Finch, si, b&w. Archive: BFI National Archive [GBB].
Oh, Boy! Dir.: Albert Capellani (Albert Capellani Productions, Inc. US 1919) cas.: June Caprice, Creighton Hale, Flora Finch, si, b&w. Archive: Lobster Films [FRL].
Lessons in Love. Dir.: Chester Withey (Constance Talmadge Productions US 1921) cas.: Constance Talmadge, Flora Finch, James Harrison, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
When Knighthood was in Flower. Dir.: Robert G. Vignola (Cosmopolitan Productions US 1922) cas.: Marion Davies, Forrest Stanley, Lyn Harding, Flora Finch, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
Davy Jones and Captain Bragg, 1910; The Gossip, 1911; Her Hero, 1911; Intrepid Day, 1911; Selecting His Heiress, 1911; Subduing Mrs. Nag, 1911; Two Overcoats, 1911; The Woes of Wealthy Widow, 1911; Awakening of Jones, 1912; Bachelor Buttons, 1912; Bunny and the Twins, 1912; Captain Barnacle’s Legacy, 1912; Church Across the Way, 1912; An Expensive Shine, 1912; First Woman Jury in America, 1912; The Foster Child, 1912; The Hand Bag, 1912; Her Old Sweet Heart, 1912; His Better Half, 1912; In the Flat Above, 1912; Irene’s Infatuation, 1912; Jocular Winds of Fate, 1912; Leap Year Proposals, 1912; Martha’s Rebellion, 1912; Mr. Boulter’s Niece, 1912; Planting the Spring Garden, 1912; Professor and the Lady, 1912; Red Ink Tragedy, 1912; Servant Problem, 1912; The Suit of Armor, 1912; Thou Shalt Not Covet, 1912; Umbrellas to Mend, 1912; Autocrat of Flapjack Junction, 1913; Bingles’s Nightmare, 1913; Cupid’s HiredMan, 1913; Dog House Builders, 1913; The Fortune, 1913; A Gentleman of Fashion, 1913; The Girl at the LunchCounter, 1913; He Answered the Ad, 1913; His Honor the Mayor, 1913; Horatio Sparkins, 1913; Hubby Buys a Baby, 1913; Hubby’s Toothache, 1913; John Tobin’s Sweetheart, 1913; The LittleMinister, 1913; Love Laughs at Locksmiths, 1913; Love’s Quarantine, 1913; A Millinery Bomb, 1913; The Misadventures of a Mighty Monarch, 1913; No Sweets, 1913; One Good JokeDeserves Another, 1913; The Schemers, 1913; Suspicious Henry, 1913; There’s Music in theHair, 1913; Three Black Bags, 1913, Vampire of the Desert, 1913; When Women go on the War Path, 1913; The Wonderful Statue, 1913; Bunco Bill’s Visit, 1914; Bunny’s Birthday, 1914; Bunny’s Little Brother, 1914; Bunny’s Mistake, 1914; Bunny’s Scheme, 1914; Bunny’sSwell Affair, 1914; Change in Baggage Checks, 1914; Cutie’s Wife, 1914; Father’s Flirtation, 1914;The Locked House, 1914; Love’sOld Dream, 1914; Mary Jane Entertains, 1914; Mr. Bingles’ Melodrama, 1914; Mr.Bunnyhug Buys a Hat for his Bride, 1914; The Old Fire Horse and the New Fire Chief, 1914; The Old Maid’s Baby, 1914; A Strand of Blond Hair, 1914; Between Two Fires, 1915; Conquest of Constantia, 1915; Heavy Villians, 1915; Hugheyof the Circus, 1915; They Loved Him So, 1915; A Pair of Queens, 1915; Pat Hogan, Deceased, 1915; SomeDuel, 1915; Starring of Flora Finchurch, 1915; StrictlyNeutral, 1915; War, 1915; When Hooligan and Dooligan Ran for Mayor, 1915; Whose Husband?, 1915; Hughey, the Process Server, 1916; A Night Out, 1916; Prudence the Pirate, 1916; Dawn, 1919; Birthright, 1920; Man Wanted, 1922; Orphan Sally, 1922; Luck, 1923; Roulette, 1924; Adventurous Sex, 1925; His Buddy’s Wife, 1925; Lover’s Island, 1925; Men andWomen, 1925; Captain Salvation, 1927; Fifth Avenue, 1926; Rose of the Golden West, 1927; Oh, Baby, 1927; Five and Ten Cent Annie, 1928; The Haunted House, 1928; The Wife’s Relations, 1928; Come Across, 1929.
2. Flora Finch as Actress and Producer (Flora Finch Film Company)
Flora the Dressmaker, 1917; Flora in the Movies, 1917; Flora the International Spy, 1917; Flora Joins the Chorus, 1917; Flora the Life Saver, 1917; Flora the Manicure Girl, 1917; Flora the School Teacher, 1917; Guess What? 1917; War Prides, 1917.
C. DVD Sources:
Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies. Dir.: Hugh Munro Neely DVD (Timeline Films, in Association with UCLA Film and Television Archive US 2001).
While we have attempted to be as thorough as possible, Flora Finch is reported to have appeared in over 400 shorts and features and it is likely that some titles are missing. As Fate Would Have It has credits that are only listed in FIAF. The film is not listed in AFI or Braff, and while it is listed in Spehr, no credits are given. Bunny Als Herbergier is translated from Dutch as Bunny as an Innkeeper (or Landlord). The English translation can’t be found in any of our standard sources, which is why the title remains in Dutch. Flora Finch supposedly starred and acted in a series of “Flora film” (Flora in the Movies, Flora Joins the Chorus etc.) in 1917 according to Motion Picture World. While none of these titles are listed in Spehr, FIAF or Braff, they are mentioned in Denise Lowe’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early Films and Alastair Phillips and Ginette Vincendeau’s book on European actors in American film, Journey of Desire.
EYE Filmmuseum is said to have a 35mm fragment of The Smoking Out of Bella Butts, but this may be misattributed.
Miller, April. "Flora Finch." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-3etb-tk37>