Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Francis X. Bushman 'The King of the Movies'

He was one of the biggest stars of the silent film era.  He was a multi-millionaire, and an early body-builder.  His name was Francis X. Bushman (1883 - 1966) and he is almost forgotten today.  He was a victim of the Talkies.

Bushman's movie career began in 1911, about the same time as the great movie migration to California.  He started work at Essanay Studios in Chicago, about three years before Charlie Chaplin started working there.  As you may know, Essanay was an elongated name for the initials of the founders, George Spoor and G. M. 'Bronco Billy' Anderson.  Other famous stars at Essanay were Ben Turpin, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Tom Mix and Harold LloydLouella Parsons got her start at Essanay as a screenwriter before becoming a gossip columnist.

90% of Bushman's titles are silent films.  Most of these have been lost to deterioration of the nitrate film stock, or just plain carelessness on the studio's part.  Who would have thought that a 20 minute short film would need to be preserved?  We can only hope someone has a film vault somewhere with these forgotten films.  It does happen.

Bushman owned a large estate, somewhere near Baltimore, MD.  It is said he was always seen in public with five Great Danes, and he had 295 more of them at home.  He was considered one of the most handsome men in America, and he was also a model.  He was married four times.

In 1925, Bushman was cast as Massala in MGM's Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  This was, perhaps, his most famous role.  Ramon Novarro (1899 - 1968) was cast in the title role, and it was possibly MGM's biggest silent success.  The silent version is included with the 1959 release in a box set.

In Ben Hur we also see Betty Bronson (1906 - 1971) who played the first screen Peter Pan in 1924, and Leo White (1873 - 1948) who made a living as a Bit Actor and extra in over 430 films from 1911 (at Essanay) until The Fountainhead was released in 1949 after his death.

He was the only one on the Ben Hur production who could handle driving a team of horses pulling a chariot, without being injured or killed.  When Charleton Heston had to master the same task for the 1959 release, he said "The only one in Hollywood who could drive a chariot was Fancis X. Bushman...and he was too old."

One of Bushman's last silent films was Say it with Sables (1928), a feature film written and directed by Frank Capra.  This was their only work together.

I was unable to find a quick answer to why his popularity waned with the talkies.  Perhaps his voice wasn't clear enough for the mike, or maybe he didn't want to let go of the silent film style of acting.  In sound films you don't need big body language and facial expressions to carry the story as you do without sound.

Bushman would appear in about 20 more big screen films, plus numerous teleplays and TV shows.  His final film was a 1966 Tommy Kirk (b. 1941) vehicle called The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, and his last appearance was as an old man on "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" that same year.

He's a hunk...isn't he?

8 comments:

  1. He was quite the side of beef in "Ben-Hur"!

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  2. He apparently wanted the title role in Ben Hur, but he was offered Massala. When he heard that Massala had the best acting part, he took it. I saw a great pic of him lassoing Novarro with a bull whip on chariots.

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  3. My daughter and I have been enjoying "Perry Mason" on DVD and there, in all his glory, was Francis X. Bushman in "The Case of the Flighty Father. It was a wonderful opportunity to share a whodunnit and a classic movie lesson. Now I can add your blog as a supplemental. Thanks!

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  4. Thanks, Caftan Woman. Bushman would have been about 77 years old then. At least he could still work, and my guess is that the rest of the cast paid him a lot of respect if they knew his background. He once owned the land where Grauman's Chinese Theatre was built after he donated it to Sid Grauman.

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  5. Terrific post on an actor who should not be forgotten. I was looking through one of my books to see if I could find out why movie career dropped off so suddenly with the coming of sound. One book said he lost his fortune during the 1929 stock market crash but worked on radio soap operas steadily. I agree with you that hopefully there's some film vault somewhere with his missing movies.

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  6. Thanks for the comment! I heard about his financial problems in the depression as well, but that wouldn't account for his acting career decline. There must be some reason why he couldn't make it in the talkies. He was born in Baltimore, so he probably didn't have much of an accent.

    It is little known that Teddy Roosevelt had a high, whiny speaking voice, and so did Abraham Lincoln, but neither one looks that way. Would they have had such important political careers in the age of radio and TV? It is important to sound they way you look on the big screen.

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  7. When I was a little girl I would occasionally hear the name "Francis X. Bushman" on TV as the punchline for jokes about the formerly famous. I've since seen the silent version of "Ben-Hur" & realize he's fortunate to have co-starred in a film that survived as a silent classic.
    Coincidentally, I'm now reading Irene Mayer Selznick's autobiography & one of the thrills of her childhood was the day Bushman came to visit the Mayers who then lived in Boston. Irene referred to him as the reigning male star of the time and recalled she'd never before seen a man with such "virility and good looks." She remembered that he directed his "big, lovely personality and magnetism" to each member of her family. Irene noticed that Bushman wore a massive ring on his little finger - it was gold with a large amethyst - and for many years after she didn't find any man "exciting" unless he wore a big ring on his little finger.
    ...and thanks for another great post on the unsung, Allen...

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  8. That is a great story, Eve. How many others are almost forgotten? Is this one of the problems of nitrate film. We all know that it is flammable (Nitrate film will actually burn underwater.) and it deteriorates into dust over the years. Along with that dust goes the work of some great actors.

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