King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman (2009) – By James L. Neibaur

Francis X. Bushman was a major star in silent films, remaining active in several ventures until his death in the 1960s.  He is another actor of the silent screen whose work is unfairly forgotten today, mostly due to the poor survival rate of films from this period (less than 50%).  It is unfortunate that this important piece of early 20th century popular culture has so few representations, especially since those films that do survive, and have been effectively restored, provide such magical and enchanting entertainment.

Bushman’s most noted role may be as Messala in the original silent version of BEN HUR (Fred Niblo, 1925), but from his debut at the old Chicago Essanay studios in 1911, Bushman commanded every scene in which he appeared. 
By talkies he was relegated to bit roles, like many giants of the silent era, as the advent of sound films relegated this art form into an archaic laughingstock.  So Bushman investigated other areas of his talent.

A true renaissance man, Bushman was, at different times according to authors Lon and Debra Davis,  a dog breeder, a songwriter, a vaudeville headliner, a radio performer, a TV personality, and a senior citizen’s advocate.  Always active, never bored, Bushman’s life story is one of fascinating fulfillment.  But Bushman’s life was not consistently triumphant as the heroics in some of his pictures.  He was married four times, had six children, and mismanaged his money to the point where, as the authors note, he went from multi-millionaire superstar to bankrupt has-been.

But through it all, Bushman somehow perseveres, finds new territory, and investigates other possibilities.  It all makes for a fascinating, insightful story, as cleverly and entertaining told by Lon and Debra Davis in one of the finest actor biographies to celebrate the silent screen.

This book is available from Bear Manor Media publishing.