Fannie Bourke: A Feminist Funny Lady in Films

Fannie Bourke (1886-1959), sometimes billed as “Fan”, was a stage and screen actress whose career began around the turn of the last century and extended into the early 1930s.

Born and bred in Brooklyn, Bourke started out in vaudeville, where she played piano, danced, and sang dialect songs. Her first Broadway show was Mere Man (1912), in which she appeared with Nat Nazarro. From 1914 through 1915 she appeared in over two dozen films for the Thanhouser Film Company in upstate New York. Towards the end of this period she appeared in some movies for other studios, and then took over the management of the Princess Theatre in New Rochelle, which she converted into a feminist venue, complete with women’s suffrage posters and literature, the hosting of women’s clubs, and her own live performances, in addition to screening silent films released by Mutual company, including the Thanhouser catalog.

In 1918 Bourke returned to Broadway to appear in A Very Good Young Man, with Alan Dinehart and others. This was followed by An Unknown Woman (1919-20) with Marjorie Rambeau. The following year, she supported Constance and Natalie Talmadge in The Love Expert (1920), penned by Anita Loos and John Emerson, her last silent film.

Bourke’s credits after this are a little scattered. She was in the Broadway production Chivalry (1925-26) with Doris Rankin and others. She had a small part in the 1930 film Lummox, her only talkie, starring silent actress Winifred Westover in her last role, along with Lydia Yeamans Titus, Ben Lyon and William Collier, Jr. In 1932 she returned to Broadway for Chrysalis, with a young Humphrey Bogart and Elisha Cook Jr. It’s said that she appeared in the 1933 revue As Thousands Cheer, although she isn’t listed among the opening night Broadway cast. When she died over a quarter century later, she was living in Connecticut.

To learn more about vaudeville please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent comedy film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.