Francis X Bushman in 'Ben Hur'
Francis X. Bushman as Messala in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) | Wikipedia, public domain

‘This Is Francis X. Bushman’ Revives the Dapper Silent Film Star

Silent film star Francis X. Bushman of ‘Ben Hur’ fame overcomes the posthumous oblivion that claims most of the stars who built early cinema.

This Is Francis X. Bushman
Lon Davis
Flicker Alley
21 September 2021

If Francis Xavier Bushman is remembered among film buffs, it’s as Messala, the baddie with Mercury wings on his helmet who rides in the chariot race and wields a whip against the hero in the original silent blockbuster Ben-Hur (Fred Niblo, 1925). It’s important for today’s viewers to be reminded of the actor’s long and amazing career, and that’s the function of This Is Francis X. Bushman, a one-hour documentary issued on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley. As an important bonus, we get what remains of a handful of his films.

As director Lon Davis explains in an introduction about his own personal background, he was a silent-film-happy adolescent in the 1970s when he became friends with Bushman’s second wife and frequent co-star, Beverly Bayne. She poured poison in his ear about the man she divorced. Their marriage was a complicated story.

Years later, Davis and his wife Linda made friends with Bushman’s fourth wife and widow, Iva Richardson, who granted them access to the archives rotting in her garage. Publishers of the early ’80s couldn’t have cared less. Decades later, after DVD and the internet were instrumental in reviving interest in the silent era, Lon and Linda Davis were able to publish the biography, King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman (Bear Manor Media, 2009).

This film, co-scripted by them, is the next step. They compile clips from Bushman’s few surviving films (out of more than 200) and mix them with two narrators. One narrator is Oscar-winning film technician Chris Bushman, a grandson of Francis. The other narrator is Francis, as lifted from an old interview in which he comes across as the dapper self-promoting raconteur he was, and he had a lot of career to promote.

Bushman was a husky stage actor heading toward his 30s when he began starring in one- and two-reelers for Chicago’s Essanay, an important company in the careers of such stars as Charles Chaplin and Gloria Swanson. From the start, Bushman’s aquiline profile was a featured asset, as was his natural ease in front of the camera. He was among the earliest stars to receive name billing and thus became known to millions.

The bonus material includes three films, or what exists of them, from the Essanay years. They have no director credit. From 1911, Love Conquers All or Two Men and a Girl is a charming brief romantic triangle in which the three main characters have a bucolic bicycle chase and the heroine proves a crack shot with a pistol while cycling. The title cards use facetious phrases like “casting Horace aside like last year’s corset”.

The fragmentary The Thirteenth Man (1913) involves a plot about a class reunion that I’ve seen in another silent short, although it’s not coming to mind. Dawn and Twilight (1914) is a tragedy about a blind violinist who gets his sight restored in an operation and discovers, to his dismay and hers, that his girlfriend is homely. Underlining the irony is that she secretly forked over the 500 bucks for the procedure. One wonders if Chaplin thought of this when making his considerably different blind-love story City Lights (1931).

At Essanay, Bushman and Bayne began starring in increasingly prestigious productions like Graustark (Fred Wright, 1915), a lavish adventure based on George Barr McCutcheon’s 1901 bestseller and its sequels, now pretty much as forgotten as Bushman. At least that film survives, as does an incomplete print of the Bushman-less 1925 remake with Norma Talmadge. They’d make a good Blu-ray if anyone’s listening.

In 1915, Metro (later MGM) wooed Bushman away for a significant salary plus a $50K bonus. Two of that year’s acclaimed Metro efforts from director William Bowman have survived: The Second in Command and Pennington’s Choice. Also surviving is the Bushman-directed In the Diplomatic Service (1916). At under an hour each, they’d make another good Blu-ray, ahem. Alas, Bushman and Bayne’s lavish production of Romeo and Juliet (1916) is lost.

Judging by his mail, the female contingent of Bushman’s audience were his biggest fans, and this would remain true for the rest of his career. When he and Bayne were paired in so many films, studios essentially concealed the fact that Bushman was married with children, because it was standard publicity to pretend that male stars were “eligible”.

Unfortunately, this deception intensified the scandal when he divorced his wife in 1918 to marry Bayne. They suddenly became box-office poison. The year 1919 saw Bushman make only three films, including the surviving The Poor Rich Man (Charles Brabin). As the documentary states, this divorce “scandal” would within a few years “seem quaint” in comparison with Hollywood scandals of the early ’20s, yet Bushman and Bayne became nostalgic relics associated with a bygone era rather than the vital Roaring 20s.

When he was offered the chance to co-star in the colossal production of Ben-Hur, it was only Bushman’s fifth credited role of the decade, according to his Wikipedia filmography. The film proved pivotal to both Hollywood and Bushman. Bayne messily divorced him during the production. The film provides Bushman’s anecdotal account of this without going into the detail that the Davises presumably do in their book.

They also provide the star’s claim that Louis B. Mayer blacklisted him for obscure reasons, although Bushman continued to work sporadically and independently. The doc provides clips from a 1928 Argentine co-production rediscovered in 2013, Albert Kelley’s The Charge of the Gauchos (Una nueva y gloriosa nación). We also have the trailer for Frank Capra’s lost Say It With Sables (1928).

Included among the bonuses is the surviving abridgment of Lois Weber’s backstage soaper for Universal, The Marriage Clause (1926), co-starring Billie Dove and Warner Oland. It’s difficult to appreciate what amounts to a highlight-reel version of a restrained, subtle story.

While Bushman made occasional films in the ’30s and ’40s, he mostly hung on with radio jobs and personal appearances. The ’50s and ’60s saw his pop-culture revival on TV shows and occasional films, as was happening to some other silent personalities alive to tell the tale. He got jobs from Henry King, Vincente Minnelli, and Billy Wilder, which ain’t bad.

Producer Fred Gebhardt used Bushman in 12 to the Moon (1960) and The Phantom Planet (1961). In the year of Bushman’s death at 83, his send-off was The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (Don Weis, 1966). It was a living.

Seriously, a lot of youngsters would have seen him in these, so he remained active long after Mayer was fired from MGM and died. Bushman had the last laugh, and a documentary such as this shows him even weathering the posthumous oblivion that has claimed most of the stars who built the history of cinema.

RATING 7 / 10
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