John R. Cumpson: Beyond Bumptious

Buffalo native John R. Cumpson (1866-1913), may be better remembered by the names of his two hit comedy series (Jones and Bumptious) and only then by hardcore silent comedy fans. He was one of American cinema’s very first screen comedians, making his mark some six or seven years before Charlie Chaplin.

In his early adulthood Cumpson had been a bank teller and a bookkeeper. He is recorded in the latter position in an 1890 census, then the trail leaves off until 1901 where he appears in a Broadway play called Up York State through early 1902. One can reasonably deduce that during the intervening decade he had obtained experience in regional stock and/or vaudeville, although I’ve not yet turned up clips to evidence the fact. It is possible that he used a pseudonym during those years, as was common.

In 1905 he appeared in his first movie, Edison’s The White Caps, co-directed by Wallace McCutcheon and Edwin S. Porter. This peculiar movie is PRO-vigilante; the heroes are a KKK style group who rescue a woman from her abusive husband. In 1908 he began his film career in earnest at Biograph, appearing in early D.W. Griffith films like A Calamitous Elopement and The Stolen Jewels. His gifts for comedy were soon harnessed in the “Jones” shorts, in which Florence Lawrence played the Missus. These domestic comedies were precursors to the John BunnyFlora Finch movies of a few months later, as well as those of Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew. Like Bunny, Cumpson was stout around the middle and frequently got into scrapes that caused domestic discord. This series ran until 1909. The following year, he toured with a play called Yon Yonson, playing a Swedish dialect character named Ole Oleson. Then he returned to the Edison studios, where he starred in a series of split-reel comedies where he played an accident-prone character named “Bumptious” through 1911. In 1912, he started a new phase, signing with IMP, precursor to Universal, where he had just begun to play a new comic screen character named “Ferdie” in a couple of films when he died at age 46 of pneumonia, complicated by diabetes.

It should be pointed out that in addition to being a pioneering screen comedian, Cumpson acted in a wide variety of dramatic films at all three studios. From 1908 through 1912, just give years, he appeared in 139 films. At this writing, several of the Mr. Jones comedies and one Mr. Bumptious short are available to watch on Youtube.

For more on early silent film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.