Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – Francis X. Bushman, Early Screen Idol
If you were to name a silent film actor famed for being a sex symbol, who would you pick? “Rudolph Valentino” jumps to mind immediately, of course–as is right and just–and maybe some of you would mention John Gilbert or Wallace Reid. “Ah,” I would say, “but what if you went farther back than the 1920s, or even the late 1910s? Who was the matinee idol of the early 1910s?”
Maybe I would get some blank stares, but maybe one of you would know the answer–why, the beefy, blue-eyed, noble-profiled Francis X. Bushman, of course!
His strong-jawed visage, frequently having pale pancake makeup and heavily-lined eyes, definitely screams “Edwardian era” to us today. But during the early years of cinema Bushman was the romantic idol to be reckoned with, no mean feat in the days when studios were popping up like weeds. His name–the ”X” stood for “Xavier”–might sound stodgy nowadays. But consider how it sounds when you say “Francis X. Bushman” a couple of times really fast. Rest assured, that fitting detail wasn’t lost on fans back then.
One of a dozen energetic children, Bushman was born in 1883 and raised in Baltimore by his Roman Catholic parents. From a young age, he had a strong love of animals, keeping dozens of pets at a time – everything from chickens to snakes to raccoons. He also recalled being fascinated by a toy stage with a wind-up curtain, which he had received for Christmas one year. Little did his parents know that their confident little son would one day make a living on the real-life stage, and beyond.
As a teen, Bushman tried a succession of different jobs (he claimed around 37) before deciding his true desire was to be in the theater. At first, he was limited to tiny, walk-on roles, which was hardly satisfying for a young man as self-assured as Bushman. Influenced by ads touting physical fitness, he decided that having a more muscular frame would guarantee meatier roles. Accordingly, he began intense workouts, slowly building up his body until he was beefy enough to enter strongman competitions.
The plan worked; not only did Bushman start getting better roles, but he even got numerous jobs posing for sculptors. Stints in touring stock companies started coming his way, and he also landed a few Broadway shows. Now in his early twenties, he married Josephine Duval, who would be the mother of his five children – and first of his four wives. But while Bushman brought in money pretty regularly, his habit of spending it like water caused him to look for better-paying work – and he found it in motion pictures.
At first apprehensive about appearing in something as lowly as the “flickers,” Bushman did recall being impressed by The Great Train Robbery (1903). In 1911 he was signed by the Essanay studio in Chicago. It took him a while to get used to the noise and bustle of film studios, but he was soon one of Essanay’s leading men, starring in dozens of short films–often melodramas, although he appeared in light comedies too.
As his popularity with audiences grew, Bushman had enough clout to insist that his name be used in Essanay’s advertisements (actors were often anonymous in the early film days). With his strong jawline, royal profile and muscular physique, he was swiftly becoming a romantic idol to countless women–an image he would remain proud of throughout his life.
He would be doubly fortunate to be paired with actress Beverly Bayne, a charming young lady who worked well with Bushman. The two had excellent chemistry and would star in numerous films together, including hits like Dear Old Girl (1913) and Metro’s Romeo and Juliet (1916). They’re often considered cinema’s first “love team.”
The fame of the “King of the Photoplay” began reaching a peak, with thousands of fan letters pouring into the studio every week. Bushman’s salary skyrocketed – as did his extravagance. Soon he was living like a star, moving to an estate with 115 acres of land complete with rolling orchards and gardens. He kept a bewildering number of pets, his favorites being Great Danes, which he would breed and show in competitions. He also drove the finest automobiles–he would joke that he’d trade them in once the ashtrays were full – and had specially-made monogrammed cigarettes.
As it turned out, Bushman and Bayne didn’t just have chemistry onscreen. In 1918, the public was shocked to hear that the two were having an affair–and that Bushman was married with five children. Wanting to keep their idol’s appeal high, the studio had kept Bushman’s family a secret and allowed moviegoers to assume he was single. As the scandal died down he would divorce Josephine and marry Bayne. They stayed together until 1925 and would tour together in the play The Master Thief.
By the 1920s Bushman’s star was on the wane, as he was starting to look old-fashioned next to dashing new actors like Valentino and Ramon Novarro. But in 1925 he was persuaded to star as the villain Messala in the super production Ben-Hur. Bushman got into the role with gusto (even being able to drive a chariot) and his magisterial performance was a hit. Today, his costume of armor and a winged helmet is considered iconic.
Despite this impressive role, Bushman never gained his former level of stardom, especially after the great crash of 1929 wiped out what money he hadn’t already spent. Not even a publicity stunt where he offered to auction himself off to the highest woman bidder could kickstart his career. He was excited by the dawn of the talkie era since he had an excellent voice and was eager to start using it. Starting in the 1930s, he would play roles in numerous radio dramas. He would also marry again to a young woman named Norma, and live more quietly with her until her death in 1956.
As the years went by, he would take small movie roles and start assorted businesses (including an antique shop and a hamburger stand). A frequent guest star on television, he worked steadily up until his death from a heart attack in 1966. He left behind his fourth wife, Iva, and many memories of a dashing, romantic, muscular hero in the minds of women who fondly remembered him from their girlhoods.
My main source for this article is the beautifully-written and fascinating King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman by Lon and Debra Davis. It is highly recommended!
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.