The 1950’s were the dawn of the television age and this new form of entertainment was so different from silent films that we sometimes forget that barely two decades had passed since the last major American silents were released. (Chaplin’s 30’s work being the notable outlier.)
I chose to focus on Francis X. Bushman because of his long and resilient career. He survived scandals, battles with moguls and not one, not two, not three but four revolutions in the movie industry. He worked through the shift from short films to features, the transition to sound, the transition to color and the rise of television.
Of course, Mr. Bushman’s exploits deserve a book of their own (and they have one) but we are going to be taking a look at the twilight of his life and career. Without further ado, a selection of Francis X. Bushman’s television appearances in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Perry Mason: The Case of the Flighty Father (1960)
Without giving too much away (this is a mystery show, after all), Mr. Bushman plays a wealthy blind man who is also the, ahem, guest of honor.
I chose to open with the Perry Mason appearance because it is very much in keeping with the other roles Bushman would take through the final decade of his life: the elderly member of the American aristocracy.
This Perry Mason episode involved a naive young woman who has reunited with her long-estranged father. Is the father legit or is he a conman after the girl’s considerable fortune? Bushman is the girl’s cousin, Lawrence, and the only surviving member of the family who knew the father before he disappeared. Things take a twist when another father shows up– and Bushman is found murdered.
Of course, we all know that Perry Mason will solve the case and save the day but getting there is all the fun. Speaking of fun, Bushman also seems to be really enjoying his work as the morally ambiguous Lawrence. I mean, that kindly man couldn’t possibly be scheming himself… could he? While his character dies halfway through the episode, Bushman certainly has an impact.
Bushman would return twice to Perry Mason, in The Case of the Nine Dolls (1960) and The Case of the Nervous Neighbor (1964).
You Bet Your Life (1958)
This is my favorite of all of Francis X. Bushman’s television appearances. It is the one that best displays the charm that had made him the idol of millions. While Bushman could be rather troublesome to producers, studio execs and his fellow actors (his dislike list included Mary Pickford and Shirley Temple), he was always kind and appreciative toward his fans.
One of those fans happened to be Groucho Marx, who has a great deal of fun bantering and delivering sharp quips to Mr. Bushman and his new wife, Iva. (Iva was a talent agent and was able to pull the widowed Bushman out of his bout of depression.) The Bushmans come off as a charming older couple who are having the time of their lives.
Bushman did not take his reputation as a heartthrob too seriously. He once offered to auction himself off to the highest female bidder and laughed so hard at his own performances that his seatmate (who had no idea who was sitting next to her) shushed him with great venom. This willingness to laugh at himself comes across loud and clear in You Bet Your Life.
Batman: Death in Slow Motion & The Riddler’s False Notion (1966)
Oh, the things I do for you, readers. I first saw the 60’s Batman show on VHS when I was, perhaps, nine or ten. My immediate reaction can best be summed up with a simple phrase:
Kill it with fire.
But I am here for Bushman, not Batman! Don’t tell anyone that I just skipped to the Francis X scenes. It’s a secret.
In this two-parter, Bushman plays Mr. Van Jones, a silent film collector who hires the Riddler to shoot a silent comedy epic that will star the unwitting Batman and Robin. (By the way, Commissioner Gordon was played by Neil Hamilton, former Griffith leading man.)
Now I realize that the show was never meant to be a reproduction of the silents but what I found interesting was how many silent era misconceptions were already in place. Keep in mind that this was just over three decades after the sound revolution and many silent veterans were still alive and active.
We have the sped-up action, the sawmill scenes, pies everywhere, the graceless slapstick, the silent loving nutbirds who plan to bring them back at any cost… everything that gets thrown in when people who have never seen a silent movie make a silent movie.
Bushman’s bearing is as noble as ever and he seems to be having an excellent time in this light program.
These episodes aired just a few months before Mr. Bushman passed away. He would make one final appearance as a guest star in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which was aired posthumously in October of 1966.
Francis X. Bushman
Francis X. Bushman was the ninth child born to his parents. That’s a lot of kids to name and Mr. and Mrs. Bushman finally settled on naming their latest child after Sir Francis Bacon. Fortunately, our young Francis was spared the indignity of the (admittedly internet-friendly) middle name of Bacon when the priest at his christening asked the parents to consider Xavier instead.
(The senior Bushmans went on to have three more children. They truly were running out of names. One daughter was named Lula and a son was named Merlin. Francis dodged a bullet.)
Bushman married while still a teenager and soon had five children. Making a living for his large family proved to be a challenge. A struggling stage actor and model, Bushman was being forced off the stage by the popularity of the motion pictures. Since there was no beating the movies, Bushman joined and started his film career in 1911.
At the time, close-ups were seen as exotic and the medium or long shot was favored to better capture all the action at once. Like fellow superstars Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford, Bushman’s features were easily distinguishable at a distance. This may sound like an odd prerequisite for stardom but try watching some of these early films and examining the faces of the biggest names. You will soon see that the biggest stars had features that were on the strong and distinct side.
Girls swooned over Bushman, his Grecian profile and his bulging muscles. The screen idol’s wife and children were carefully concealed by his employers as it was thought that moviegoers could not sigh over a married man. This wouldn’t have mattered if Bushman had not fallen for his frequent co-star, Beverly Bayne. His fans likely would not have objected to the union if Bushman had been single but the revelation that their idol was a married father and now divorcing one wife for another? That would never do!
Many of Bushman’s early films are lost and those that do survive are locked away in vaults. His most famous role to modern audiences is probably his comeback part as the villainous Massala in the 1925 epic production of Ben-Hur.
Bushman is sometimes listed as a victim of sound but he was actually done in by a feud with Louis B. Mayer. Bushman later claimed that his new butler did not recognize Mayer and denied him entrance, unleashing the MGM mogul’s wrath. Bushman fails to mention that Mayer was still smarting from the fact that Bushman waited until the over-budget Ben-Hur was too deep into production for recasting and then demanded a handsome raise. Mayer gave Bushman a personal loan to keep him on the picture but was understandably annoyed.
Bushman’s voice was fine, with a charming east coast softness. (Bushman was a native of Baltimore.) While Bushman never regained his A-list status in the talkies, he still found work in film, stage, radio and television.
Why did Mr. Bushman survive the kind of scandals, hubris, battles and misfortunes that had tripped up other stars? Well, his idol status certainly helped but other idols did not carry on as he did. I think much of it had to do with his attitude and his refusal to throw in the towel. Further, Mr. Bushman’s genes were an enormous help. Age gave his classical features even more dignity, making him an ideal patrician, intellectual or leader. Simply put, his fans of decades past would not be disappointed at seeing their girlhood crush in old age.
Further, Bushman had an affable onscreen persona (behind the scenes was another matter) worked well in semi-scripted shows like You Bet Your Life. Bushman is charming, pleasant and obviously pleased by his enthusiastic reception. (His new wife, Iva, is a doll as well.) The clichéd image of a silent star often conjures up Norma Desmond or the tragic death of John Gilbert. Mr. Bushman is clearly enjoying his work, is perfectly sane and is happily wedded to a lovely woman.
Oh, and if Mr. Bushman looks familiar to you, he probably is. You may have seen him dozens of times, just not on the screen. As a model, Bushman’s likeness was rendered in marble and bronze for classical statues all over the United States.
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