The superstar comedy team of John Bunny and Flora Finch strut their stuff in this humorous look at jealousy and a wayward husband. Disguises, counter-disguises and a very wacky confrontation ensue.
Home Media Availability: Stream from EYE.
The lovely boys at the office
For the first half of the 1910s, the Vitagraph company was a top purveyor of cinematic comedy and its biggest comedy duo was the combination of John Bunny and Flora Finch. Bunnyfinches were popular with audiences and critics alike with the physical contrast of the two comedians being played for laughs, often in domestic situations.
In this case, Finch plays the neglected wife of a businessman and Bunny is the wayward husband who spends late, late nights in restaurants with his younger colleagues (one a very young Wallace Reid). A review of the time described Bunny’s character as a man who likes “the large cold bottle and the small hot bird.” This is interesting because the available cut, a Dutch language release, makes it clear that Bunny is guilty of nothing more than forgetting to call his wife while catching a late dinner with his male clerks.
Infuriated by her husband’s behavior and imagining nights of carousing with young women and song, Finch comes up with a plan. She disguises herself as an English businessman in order to be included in one of her husband’s carouses and obtain evidence against him. However, Bunny recognizes his wife in disguise and arranges for his young colleagues to dress in drag themselves and pretend to be the small hot birds at dinner. (Fairly difficult as Reid was about six feet tall. He looked quite “hot” in his fashionable hat and off-the-shoulders gown but “small” he was not!)
Anyway, Finch springs her trap, doffs her mustache and reveals herself as Bunny’s wife, while the small hot birds throw off their wigs and reveal themselves as his coworkers. The mortified Finch is forced to flee with a makeshift tablecloth skirt.
The Moving Picture World described Diamond Cut Diamond as “funny in the extreme” and “a roaring comedy.” The magazine urged Vitagraph to continue the Bunny and Finch collaboration. The Bioscope raved “Bright as they make ‘em.” It was another hit in the Bunnyfinch lineup and the topic of adultery was a popular one in the movies.
You see, throughout the silent era, there was a loud disagreement in the movies as to whether husbands staying out late with drink and other women was a marriage dealbreaker. One side presented the behavior as cruel and immoral, while the other portrayed it as boys will be boys, leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.
The Russian comedy, Antosha Ruined by a Corset (1916) features its hero trying desperately to get rid of the offending garment that was left over a from a wild party he threw while his wife was out of town. He is treated as a lovable rogue. The Dream (1911), a vehicle for Mary Pickford and real-life husband Owen Moore, takes the opposite approach. Pickford is the little woman left home while her husband carouses… until he dreams of his wife turning the tables on him. Chastened by recognizing the double standard, the husband makes amends to his wife. (Life did not imitate art as Moore was abusive and Pickford left him for Douglas Fairbanks.)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926) riffed on Die Fledermaus and managed to carve out some rare middle ground with both Charley Chase and Vivien Oakland fully intending to cheat on their spouse with… their spouse. Her Sister from Paris (1925), another Fledermaus variation, featured Constance Talmadge posing as her own identical twin in order to teach Ronald Colman a lesson. (It was later disastrously remade as The Two Faced Woman with Greta Garbo presented very much as the fool for daring to doubt her husband.)
The disagreement about the harm of a little light adultery continued well into the talkie and Code eras, with The Women (1939) being a notable example of “give hubby a mulligan, after all, it’s kind of your fault he strayed!” argument. The famous Laurel and Hardy comedy, Blotto, ended with Anita Garvin taking a shotgun to her husband after he stole her liquor to go reveling. I feel a cinematic mashup of the two films would have been legendary.
Diamond Cut Diamond lands somewhere in the middle. I am going to assume that the critic who described Bunny’s character as an adulterer was mistaken because it spoils the joke if he really was fooling around. There’s a big difference between playing a prank on an unreasonably jealous partner and playing one on an innocent spouse. In any case, other material on the film seems to support my belief that Bunny was framed.
Even though she is the antagonist, this is Finch’s picture all the way and she absolutely knocks this one out of the park. Her talent for physical comedy is on full display. She communicates her character’s rage and frustration at being left alone without a single title card, she rage-plays the piano, she calls, calls, calls, calls the office.
And then, when she takes on the appearance of an English businessman, things get even zanier. Finch is marvelously convincing with the help of a well-tailored suit and a mustache. (Drag performances were a staple of English music hall and vaudeville comedies and gender bending was a staple of period bedroom farces.) Unfortunately, that part of the film is over too quickly.
Despite equal billing, Bunny’s part is very much secondary to Finch’s antics and his main role is to act as a mischief maker, setting up his jealous wife for a fall. It is, however, extremely fun to see Wallace Reid on the edge of twenty-one and having the time of his life. Oh, and the telephone operator is Mae Costello, wife of Maurice and mother of Dolores and Helene, and the second colleague is Richard Rosson, brother of Arthur and Harold. So, quite the Hollywood dynasty in the background here.
It’s worth noting that Finch didn’t lose in every Bunnyfinch but the films featured rougher domestic situations than those of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, Vitagraph’s other big hit duo. John Bunny’s sudden death in 1915 permanently broke up the team. Finch continued to work steadily through the silent era, notably in a supporting role in the hit horror-comedy The Cat and the Canary.
I would rate Diamond Cut Diamond as a fun little gem. The double drag ploy is amusing and Flora Finch is absolutely delightful. It’s very much in the tradition of a bedroom farce of the era and is definitely worth your fourteen minutes.
Where can I see it?
Stream courtesy of EYE. The intertitles are in Dutch but the story is easy to follow.
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