He was one hunk of a man. At the height of his popularity, he was dubbed by his studio the “King of Photo-Play.” The attendance of his movies by appreciative fans seconded the motion. They were responding to the charisma of Francis X. Bushman (1883-1966), truly the screen’s first matinee idol. While the term may seem superficial, he represented the type when it meant something. His physical features were well suited for his first love, the stage. He possessed a classic profile like John Barrymore. Yet, unlike Barrymore, Bushman treated his strapping, muscular body like a temple, and women understandably swooned. It wasn’t just about looks. Bushman was an actor of range and depth who had deep reverence for his profession. When stage work became scarce, Bushman saw the future of film was lucrative enough for his tastes. He entered films in 1911, becoming an instant asset for Bronco Billy Anderson’s Essanay Studio. It was at this company that Bushman would become the biggest star that the movies had yet produced. Bushman packed them in playing princes, paupers, lovers, and athletes. However, his career was all but over by 1918. Why?
Bushman had everything going for him. He had moved up the ladder of success in an almost meteoric fashion. He radiated a super confidence that saturated his personality and impressed those around him. The young and successful stage star married 18-year-old seamstress Josephine Fladume in 1902. By 1909, they had five children (two who later joined the acting profession – Francis Jr., a.k.a. Ralph Bushman, 1903-1978, and Lenore Bushman, b. 1909). Bushman of “Bushmanor” was a man of intellect and refinement, a model husband, dedicated churchgoer, patriot and social leader who commanded genuine respect. His fall from grace was falling in love with another woman.
She happened to be Beverly Bayne (1892-1982), his leading lady. They had met in 1912, made a number of pictures together (their first film was A Good Catch (Essanay, 1912)) and were considered the screen’s first red-hot romantic teaming. Bushman guided their joint career, deciding what vehicles were bet suited for the couple. One of their biggest hits was Romeo and Juliet (Essanay, 1916), which was even more successful than Fox’s version with Theda Bara released that same year. Their relationship culminated in marriage in the summer of 1918, a mere three days after his divorce was finalized. For a man of such sterling character, this event was nothing less than scandalous.
Bushman married his leading lady, but created a moral dilemma in the process. Neither the public nor the industry could accept it. The couple was washed-up in pictures. As a result, they went on the vaudeville circuit and performed comedic sketches. They would attempt to come back to movies in the early 1920s under their own production banner of “Bushman Pictures.” By 1925, the marriage that had rocked Hollywood was over. Ironically, the split occurred at the beginning of Francis X. Bushman’s comeback. Securing a job through the Goldwyn merger at the newly-formed, yet already prestigious M-G-M Studio, he was given the meaty role of “Messala” in the epic Ben-Hur (1925) (44k jpeg) – a part he almost turned down. Full of reluctance, he went to see his friend William S. Hart, who had established the role on the stage:
“Bill, do you think I ought to play this filthy Roman?”
“Frank, that’s the best goddamned part in the picture.”
Bushman accepted the part and almost stole the show. The years had not diminished his physical magnificence or his larger-than-life appeal. However, the long weeks of separation on location in Italy took their toll on the shaky marriage, and the couple divorced before the film’s release.
It had been proven what studio mogul Louis B. Mayer gave with one hand, he could take away with the other. Bushman found himself blacklisted at the end of production of Ben-Hur (this meant no publicity for his prominent role as Messala nor any more films for M-G-M). The story goes that the boss wanted to visit the actor in his dressing room and was Mayer given the message that he was not to disturb Bushman’s concentration. Not a wise move for the self-absorbed thespian. He had grievously offended the powerful potentate who bowed to no one. Mayer’s subsequent actions hurt Bushman’s career (the actor admitted as much), but it did not sink him. He would survive this setback and continue for many decades appearing in sound films, radio and television.
Francis X. Bushman: A Biography and Filmography is a complete homage to a one-of-a-kind performer who created the model for the modern leading man. The authors secured the kind cooperation of Virginia Bushman Conway Stuart, the third child from Bushman’s first marriage (and wife of director Jack Conway, m. 1926). She provided lively commentary about her father which makes the book even more authentic in its narrative. Thanks to this actor’s legacy, the advent of the matinee idol will forever symbolize a more stylish era when silent movies reigned supreme and Francis X. Bushman ruled as the “King of Photo-Play.”