Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Born Today January 10: Frances X. Bushman


The man who could easily be named as America's first movie heartthrob, Francis Xavier Bushman was born today in Baltimore (though the Los Angeles Times cites Norfolk, VA).  Obviously athletic from an early age, he was the first actor to be "crowned" "The King of Movies." (Clark Gable famously "inherited" the title--problem was that Bushman was still very much alive and working at the time!).   Like so many actors of the early studios, he was a stage actor before entering the movie business; only in Bushman's case, he was performing with a stock company associated Gilbert Anderson (better known as "Broncho Billy"), one of the founders of Essanay studio (which is remembered mostly today for the Chaplin films they produced--the studio was later incorporated into Warner Bros.).  Bushman had long been into body building (he was a fan of Sandow the famous body builder of the late 19th century and an Edison film subject in the 1890's) and had worked as an artist's model in New York before making his way onto the stage.  He was the perfect physique for putting into romantic films (though reportedly his height was occasionally a problem--but I can't imagine that was an issue often).  [There are several stories as to how he came to the attention of Essanay in the first place, which ones to believe is a hard guess.] He made his film debut in 1911 in the Essanay marriage drama His Friend's Wife opposite Lottie Briscoe.  He was an instant success and the studio put him dozens of domestic shorts between 1911 and 1916, many of these opposite actress Beverly Bayne.  Bushman became a bonafide movie idol coast to coast, earning him the above nickname, and also "King of the Photoplay" (it should be noted that the film industry had only just begun to name their film players, thus Bushman very much deserved the monikers!).  One aspect of their star's life that was kept as a closely guarded secret after his rise to such popularity with female moviegoers, was that he was married...and with kids to boot!  Bushman quietly began to "carry on" with his leading lady Bayne and the two even moved studios together--landing at a company that had a distribution deal with Metro (one of the M's of the later MGM).  In 1916 they showed up in Quality Pictures Man And His Soul, in which he played two characters.   While at the company, he also directed two films: In The Diplomatic Service (for which he is credited as scenarist as well) and Romeo and Juliet (which he co-directed).  Both films starred him and Bayne and both were released in 1916.  The pair worked for Metro through 1918 (with one picture filmed in 1917, released after they left in 1919: God's Outlaw).  When Bushman and Bayne wanted to marry, it came out that he was already a married man, and that he had 5 children.  This, and a contract dispute, led to trouble in Hollywood (which he would recover from); but the national print scandal caused by the divorce and remarriage led to trouble with female fans (for which he would not, nor would he regain the "Handsomest Man in the World" er...bachelor status).  Not that this stopped his film acting; quite the contrary, he would go onto some of his best known work in the 1920's.  Though he would not return to "bankable" work until 1925 when he appeared in Christy Cabanne's The Masked Bride (reportedly Joseph von Sternberg had a hand in secondary direction on the film), he and Bayne would appear in a couple of marriage dramas in the early 20's.  He had amassed a large fortune which allowed him to live in style and had a number of odd habits that stood out.  He drove around Hollywood in large odd colored and makes of cars and always had great danes with him (he also kept a VERY large number of them on his ranch).  What he is best remembered for in terms of his print on Hollywood's physical presence, is the gifting (well, leasing) of land to Sid Grauman for his Chinese theater, which survives to this day (now known as Mann's).  The role that he is most famous for in terms of silent film came in the form of a villain in the massive epic project that was Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1925 (ironically, the man that would take his title of "King of the Movie," Clark Gable had a role simply as "Roman Guard").  Bushman performed his own chariot stunts in the film, which became a big part of Hollywood lore--even by the time the film was remade with Charlton Heston, his work was still the stuff of legend (and somehow the helmet that he wore wound up in the collection of Debbie Reynolds...).  It seemed that his career had been revitalized by the film, and he did appear several more films in the 1920's--all of them silent (in one short he played George Washington), but his career was on clearly on the wane.  The last silent film he appeared in was the 1928 crime drama Midnight Life (made for Gotham productions) .  He wouldn't appear in another film until 1930 when talkies had come and would never go.  The picture was Call of the Circus and was his first speaking role in a film.  In the meantime he had lost most of his fortune in the infamous stock market crash in 1929.  For some odd reason, the film studios also regarded his voice as suspect for talkies, which is so strange in retrospect, given that he went into radio and was very successful there for years.  He did have small roles in a handful of films in the next two decades.  He would also go on to have a fairly lengthy television career in guest spots on a variety of different types of shows.  He made his small screen debut in 1954 in a episode of The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse on ABC.  Thourhgout the rest of his career, he appeared in episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason, 12 To The Moon, and Dr. Kildare.  He was also in a couple of funky films in the 1960's (The Phantom Planet (1961) & The Ghost n The Invisible Bikini (1966)).  He famously played Mr. Van Jones in a Riddler two part episode of Batman in 1966 (playing with Neil Hamilton, whom he had appeared in a film with almost forty years earlier).  This is often cited as his last acting job, but the Batman appearances were broadcast in April 1966, but his appearance in The Terrible Toys episode of Irwin Allen's series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which aired in October of that year, came almost two months after Bushman's death.  He died of a heart attack on 23rd of August.  He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale with "King Of The Movies" embossed on his tomb. 

[photo: Find A Grave]

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