A biography is "good" if you close the last page of the book and feel as though you know about the person. A biography is "great" if you lay the book down and feel as though you know the person. Therefore, Lon and Debra Davis have provided us a great biography of Francis X. Bushman. Although the authors never had the pleasure of meeting the great man personally, their tribute to this icon of cinema (not just silent cinema!) is filled with special insight due mainly to two people with whom they did have personal contact: Bushman's second wife and most famous co-star, Beverly Bayne - and Bushman's last wife, Iva, who allowed the authors access to Bushman's personal reminisces left in notes and recordings. Theirs, therefore, is an authentic biography filled with memories only Bushman himself could provide. His was an intriguing life - both film career and personal life lending themselves well to a fascinating biography that is difficult to lay down before the final chapter. His early life in Baltimore where he experienced his share of youthful shenanigans is absorbing. As one would expect, he wanted to be an actor, and his father wanted a more stable, respectable career for his son - resulting in his running away at 14 years of age to work on a ship. Then we are moved by the romance of his first marriage and the love of his children complicated by their financial ups and downs - all further complicated by his legendary love affair with co-star Beverly Bayne - a love affair that the Davises, through their conversations with Bayne, reveal was not the great romance film history has led us to believe. The glory days of the 'teens when Bushman and Bayne ruled the screen are brought to life in these pages, as well as the desperation of the early 1920's when Bushman waited in vain for producers to call - then the most prestigious role of his career - Messala in "Ben Hur." The reader will be intrigued by the many incidents in Bushman's life that are incredible but true. For example, Bushman and his then-wife being kicked out of their mansion after he had lost all of his fortune in the Wall Street crash - with no money and no place to go, he breaks into a vacant Santa Monica beach house and takes up residence without the owner's knowledge. In another instance, believing in outlandish publicity stunts, he offers himself in marriage to the highest bidder - the fact that he was married at the time serving as little deterrent. Throughout these mesmerizing episodes, we then are told happily of a career revived by radio; laying aside pride to take advantage of less-than-distinguished acting opportunities in radio, television and movies; a final happy marriage; and the comfortable and happy twilight years of his life. All give life to Bushman's memory. The Davises' deserve credit for telling the story rather than dissecting the man. Bushman's life speaks for itself as the authors lay out Bushman's eccentricities (for example, an extraordinary obsession with Great Danes), resiliency, egotism, talent, professionalism, foibles, self-indulgence, extravagance, charisma, and charm. They write with style, ease of reading, a comfortable flow and without pretension. Lots of great photos, and, in addition to an authoritative filmography, there is an interesting section on Bushman's surviving films. Bushman's life makes good reading; the Davises make good writing - so if you want to curl up with a good book, this is it.
The average small boy soon outgrows the phase when he repeatedly
orders his parents (or the nearest hand-wringing little girl)
to "Watch me!" as he walks a picket fence, defying the
laws of gravity. But Francis Xavier Bushman was not an average
boy or man. In every sense of the word, he was an original. As
America's first, most popular, and longest-reigning matinee idol
of stage and screen, he kept his worldwide audience watching him
from childhood to his final curtain call. Throughout sixty years
in a notoriously precarious profession, he never lost his compulsion
to rush into a host of (mostly self-made) scandals, any one of
which was enough to destroy a major star's career. But even as
he emerged, pretty much unscathed, from each financial, professional
or moral shipwreck, he seemed to be shouting, "Watch me get
out of this one!"
Lon and Debra Davis, the empathetic but objective husband and wife team of authors of King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman, first began work on this groundbreaking book back in 1981, when they were both attending the University of California at San Diego. Their mutual interest in film (and Francis X. Bushman) not only brought them together as writers, but led them to the altar in 1984.
Along the way, the young couple fostered relationships with
two of Bushman's four wives: Beverly Bayne and Iva Richardson.
Beverly Bayne was the famous actress who had co-starred with Bushman
in a series of wildly successful romantic films (including the
lavish 1916 Metro production of Romeo and Juliet). Miss
Bayne (as she preferred to be addressed) was generous with film
stills, but her memories of Bushman were positively venomous.
Iva Richardson, on the other hand, had been a Hollywood talent
agent and understood temperamental actors. An attractive younger
woman of almost saintly patience, she filled her aging husband's
last years with love and companionship, but common sense kept
her short of being a worshipful Francis X. fan. She gave Lon and
Debra valuable interviews and donated a windfall of production
stills from some of the 200 films in which her late husband appeared.
She also shared nine hours of taped reminiscences and notes for
a proposed autobiography. These recollections reveal a consummate
actor who loved what he did for a living. He also relished every
minute of the extravagant lifestyle he maintained for most of
his life, thanks to the staggering salaries he was able to command.
He had few regrets and was duly grateful for the talents he was
born with, as well as those he acquired and burnished along the
This gifted, heedless bon vivant evolved from an angelically beautiful toddler, endowed with golden ringlets, light-blue eyes and a heart-melting smile. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1883, the adorable child grew into a stunningly handsome youth with a courtly bearing and patrician profile that other male leads would have gladly died for. Luckily, he took up Bernarr MacFadden's tips for bodybuilding early enough in his underweight teens to put him in top physical shape by the time he was twenty. At that same age, he was hired as an ideal male model by the top sculptors and illustrators of the day, including Isidor Konti, whose heroic bronze sculptures graced several American cities. But Bushman did not intend to remain silent in the public arena. He knew he was destined to win wealth and fame as the greatest actor of the American legitimate stage. With his finely chiseled features, mellow baritone voice, and lithe, broad-shouldered figure, he was an arresting presence on any stage. (It was said that more than one delicate lady swooned when he made his entrance.)
Given his lofty goals, it was ironic that he married Josephine
Flaudune in 1902, when he was only nineteen. During his early
barnstorming years he provided for her and their eventual brood
of five children with a more stable, but always remote and permanently
separate address. However, this arrangement greatly enhanced his
romantic bachelor image (not just before the footlights but in
those candlelit trysts he arranged with various demimondes after
the show). Being a famous matinee idol with no strings attached
became an even greater advantage to his career in 1911 when Bushman
joined the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in Chicago, Illinois.
His already-immense audience of female fans was suddenly multiplied
by millions when the silver screen turned him into an internationally
famous and omnipresent movie star virtually overnight. In keeping
with his newfound image, he purchased an imposing 35-room mansion
in the Green Spring Valley area of Maryland. He dubbed this palatial
residence "Bushmanor," and began living there quite
grandly, with a staff of servants, blooded horses, and a kennel
of prize-winning Great Dane dogs.
Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne were teamed as a romantic duo in so many films the nascent industry made them into a kind of brand name symbolizing lifelong lovers. This relationship was not limited to the screen, it seems. Bushman fell in love with his beautiful leading lady and pressured her into marrying him. Bushman's career advisors warned him that a confirmed bachelor, magically producing a heretofore-nonexistent wife and five children in a courtroom just in time for a second marriage might deal a mortal blow to the star's universal popularity. Furthermore, marrying the actress he had been making passionate love to on the screen for six years added up to professional suicide. After all, they reminded him, this was still Victorian America! Bushman insisted he was too big a star to be judged by outmoded social rules.
The advisors' prophecies proved correct. Francis X. Bushman was cast out of the movie industry for nearly four years.
In 1923 the Samuel Goldwyn Company decided to bring the best-selling religious novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, to the screen. It had toured as an enduring stage play for more than a generation and was now being touted as a surefire hit movie. Bushman was offered the second-most important role in the story, and surprisingly enough, he accepted. At forty he was finally willing to risk his matinee idol image by playing the pitiless and roundly hated Roman officer, Messala.
The world press lionized Francis X. Bushman as the best-known star in the new screen epic. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, the disenchanted Beverly Bayne sued Bushman for divorce on charges of desertion.
Costly delays plagued the Ben-Hur production and eventually most of the footage shot in Italy was scrapped. Filming started all over again in Culver City, California, on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot; Bushman was one of the few actors not to be recast. When the film opened in New York City at the conclusion of 1925 it was a smashing success, and Bushman's searing performance as Messala won him new respect as a character actor. It might have changed the trajectory of his career, but in 1927 the introduction of "talkies" caused an industry-wide upheaval and Bushman's silent film triumph was lost in the transition. Among many other Hollywood kings, queens and Jacks, Bushman got reshuffled to the bottom of the deck and never resurfaced as a major star again.
But he continued to manipulate his heart-stopping crises and anyone who got caught up in his personal ride. He played every offscreen high-wire scene like the proverbial "second act curtain." Fortunately, Lady Luck stuck by him most of the way. But financial reverses and being labeled a "has-been" after being one of Hollywood's grandest stars was devastating to a proud man.
What his last wife, Iva, considered the luckiest break of all came in a 1966 offer to play the role of an elderly saloon keeper in Huntsville, a Western being filmed at Paramount. (By then, what old-timers had come to refer to as a pioneer actor's "happy death" was being fortunate enough to die with a good part or "a callback for tomorrow" at a major studio.) Francis X. was eighty-three and almost forgotten by the moviegoing public. Yet he was still able to memorize lines and deliver them well-all for a sizable day check and a credit on the movie's "crawl sheet." But on the morning he was to begin filming, he suffered a rupture of the heart and expired. "That he died with a movie role was the beautiful part of his passing," Iva informed a reporter after her husband's funeral.
With the publication in 2009 of King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman-a book that was truly a labor of love-authors Lon and Debra Davis will celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Meanwhile, Francis X. Bushman has been waiting impatiently in the wings. Now at last he can step back into the spotlight, the story of his incredible life firmly in hand, final proof that all of it was true. He was a genuine original, as he had always said.
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