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?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Skippy a.k.a. Asta

I thought I would write a few quick notes on one of the most talented actors of the 1930s, Asta the dog (b.1931 or 1932 - d. ?).  I just happen to have After the Thin Man (1936) on TCM as background noise.  That may have made me think of Asta.

Asta was originally named Skippy, but after The Thin Man (1934) he was forever known as Asta.  IMDb lists eight titles for Asta, but that has to be incorrect.  The final title is "The Thin Man" television series in 1958, and Asta would have been 26 years old.  Not possible for a wire haired terrier.

A look at Wikipedia shows a more logical glance at his professional career.  Asta probably appeared as an extra in several films before hitting it big.  They also note that one of Asta's trainers was Rudd Weatherwax (1907 - 1985), who made Lassie (or Pal) famous.

In 1937 we see Asta starring in The Awful Truth, with supporting players Irene Dunne (1898 - 1990) and Cary Grant (1904 - 1986).  Asta is the center of a custody dispute in this rom-com.

Asta also appears in Bringing Up Baby (1938) working with Grant again, and also with Katherine Hepburn (1907 - 2003).  Then, the same year, he appears in Topper Takes a Trip, with Constance Bennett (1904 - 1965).  That was a curious entry in the Topper series, as it was absent the George Kirby character.  I must look into that!

Asta's character appears in six Thin Man movies, but Skippy is only in the first two.  There is an interesting quote from an article in The American Magazine in 1938 -

"Skippy, a smart little wire-haired terrier, is one of the leading stars in pictures. He leads a glamorous life—a dog's life de luxe. He is rated as one of the smartest dogs in the world, and when contracts are signed for his appearance in a picture he gets $200 a week for putting his paw-print on the dotted line. His trainer gets a mere $60."

Asta's antics in The Thin Man and After the Thin Man have endeared him to dog lovers for decades.  Another line from the magazine article said, "Treat a dog kindly and he'll do anything in the world for you."  Our wonderful dog Sadie has shown us that.  My wife and I rescued her and she has turned into a loving pet.

After the Thin Man also has Mrs. Asta, and is probably the best of the series.  Who needs a murder story when you have talented dogs!