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The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
Featuring: FRANCIS X. BUSHMAN

 

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1916 Water Color Company Francis X. Bushman PremiumRemember when movies were still called photo-plays? Photo-play, literally meaning “play of light”, referred to what was considered, at the turn of the last century, an amazing new phenomenon: of cameras being able to capture, and then, with the help of a projector, transmit light and shadow onto a screen. We take it all for granted now, but in the early, heady days of cinema, audiences were shocked by the first worlds constructed out of light and shadow alone. It was magic. Stars, of course, added another magical element to the movies, and king among them was Francis X. Bushman, known at the peak of his fame as … you guessed it, “The King of Photo-play.”

He was also considered, in his heyday, as “the handsomest man in the world.” Not a bad place to be situated! So who is this man and where did he come from?

As with many of his contemporaries, Francis started acting as a little boy. Born on January 10, 1883 in Baltimore, Maryland, he graced the stage throughout his childhood, and had been a popular theatre actor for some time when, in 1911, he broke into the movies. It all started in Chicago, at Bronco Billy Anderson’s Essanay Studio, where he was noticed for his hefty, sculpted frame – fittingly, he had done work as a sculptor’s model, and was well aware of the reaction people had to his physique. Not that he was all about looks. Unlike his peers, though – John Barrymore, for example – his stage and screen presence indicated that Francis was very much attuned to how good looking he was, and he used this as part of his charm.

It worked. Francis X. Bushman became the first true matinee idol, first on stage, and then in the movies – Francis astutely knew it was time to make the switch to the “photo-play”, which the budding star recognized as the future of entertainment. He was right, and he was there from the start to cash in on the potential for stardom and fame the movies provided. It wasn’t long before he was in constant demand; he made one movie after another, as fast as the studio could churn them out. His first role was in “His Friend’s Life” – unfortunately, many of these early films have not survived to this day, so it’s difficult to convey how prolific, and how charismatic this first King of the Photo-play really was. Suffice it to say, he made 17 movies in 1911 alone.

He played lovers. He played princes. He played cupid. He played those who scorn and those who are scorned. He played athletes of all 1917 Kromo Gravure Francis X. Bushman Trading Cardkinds. He played lords and he played convicts. He played Mephisto in 1911’s “Bill Bumper’s Bargain”. He essentially grew up with the movies as the industry was figuring out which stories worked and which didn’t. Women adored him, and flocked to theatres in droves, just to see him. And unlike today, when we have to wait months or years to see our favorite stars onscreen, it seemed Francis was in a new film every week! Lucky women. But there was something they didn’t know …

What they thought they knew was that Francis was a happily married man. In 1902, when he was already a stage sensation, he married an 18-year-old seamstress, Josephine Fladume. Seven years later, they had five children, and it would still be another two years before he would become a movie star. By that time, the public came to know him as a loving husband and father, a churchgoing man, a U.S. patriot, a model citizen and an intellect worthy of the “Bushmanor” he lived in.

1916 M.J. Moriarty Francis X. Bushman Playing CardYou can imagine his fans’ surprise when they found out he had been deceiving them – and his wife! – with another woman. She was Beverly Bayne, his costar in numerous films (notably 1916’s “Romeo and Juliet”), and a big part of the reason Francis was so successful. In those years, Francis and Beverly became distinguished as the first must-see romantic duo, and they shared a memorable screen life together. But in real life, their affair was just too much for audiences and spin doctors to handle. A career-breaking scandal was born.

They were married in 1918, just three days after his divorce was finalized. But their hot movie careers were over – for awhile. They took to the vaudeville circuit as a team and never stopped performing, even making some films with their own, newly-formed company, Bushman Pictures, through the early 1920s. Oddly, it was Francis’ movie comeback that would signal the end of his steamy marriage to Beverly. In 1925, he was offered the prestigious role of Messala in “Ben-Hur”, the classic film by MGM Studio, then a new but already successful company. Francis was reluctant to take the role, fearing Messala wasn’t an appealing character, but changed his mind for the better. The laborious months of production caused irreparable damage to his marriage, which ended that same year.

In the end, Francis’s part was the scene-stealing one, but rosy days were not ahead for this star. He had apparently snubbed studio head Louis B. Mayer during production by refusing to have Mayer in his dressing room, and Mayer sought revenge by blacklisting Francis at the end of production on the film. He got no publicity for the part, and he found it difficult to find work again. Francis knew he make a mistake in snubbing the great Louis B., but this unstoppable performer stubbornly persisted. He made some sound films, and worked in radio and television until his death, in California, in 1966.

Francis X. Bushman was a consummate actor and romantic lead who guided his own career in astonishing directions. Scandals or no scandals, his career lasted as long if not longer than the other silent greats, even if he did face hurdles more than once along the way. Back then his marriage scandal was devastating to everyone, including himself. Today, with hindsight, we can see that he had the stuff – the looks, the charisma, the ambition and the talent – that legends are made of.

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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here on things-and-other-stuff.com.