Documentary Review: “This Is Francis X. Bushman” (2021)

Thus he would proudly introduce himself during his numerous stints on the radio: “This is Francis X. Bushman!” Which is also the fitting title of the first in-depth documentary on Bushman’s life, created with love by Lon and Debra Davis. I’ve previously reviewed their engaging biography on the silent star, and can say that if you’re even slightly interested in Bushman’s colorful life, you’ll find the fruits of their research easy to enjoy.

Francis X. Bushman was a major matinee idol of his era, a strong-jawed body-builder advertised as “The Most Handsome Man in the World.” The saying so commonly applied to popular swoon-worthy actors–“Women wanted him, men wanted to be him”–could probably have been coined for Bushman. His legions of fans flocked to his films, many of them romantic dramas costarring Beverly Bayne. Offscreen, he happily spent money like it was going out of style, purchasing a three-story mansion, driving the latest Marmon automobiles (he would joke that he traded them in when the ashtrays were full) and amassing a zoo’s worth of animals and birds.

But even Bushman’s popularity couldn’t ride out the wave of scandal when he left his first wife Josephine for Beverly Bayne. He would eventually make a comeback of sorts with the iconic role of Messala in Ben-Hur (1925), but never regained his superstar status. In his later years he kept busy with movie roles, stage roles, television appearances, and numerous appearances in radio, and had a happy marriage with his adoring third wife, Iva. His filmography includes around 200 films.

The 1910s era of Hollywood history can be pretty foggy to most people. (It certainly was to me when I was a kid–I had a vague idea that it was still the nickelodeon era! Haw, crazy kid!). But it was arguably the most immensely fruitful period of cinema history, when advancements were coming fast and furious and “the industry” was becoming established in Hollywood. If we’re trying to understand this long-ago era and bring it “to life,” at least in our minds, we can’t go wrong by studying the lives of personalities like Bushman who were right in the thick of it.

Happily, watching This is Francis X. Bushman is an ideal way to get to know the megastar. The 60-minute documentary moves at a brisk pace, deftly weaving in rare stills, portraits, film snippets, and plenty of audio excerpts from Bushman’s own interviews about his life. The excerpts almost give the illusion that Bushman himself is helping to narrate the film (which he no doubt would’ve appreciated). In fact, the main narrator is his own grandson Chris, who is a film technician.

Bonus materials include the rare films Two Men and a Girl (Love Conquers All) (1911), Dawn and Twilight (1914), a fragment of The Marriage Clause (1926), and a 1957 episode of the popular CBS radio drama Suspense called “The City That Was.” There is also a video introduction by Lon Davis describing he and Debra’s many years of research on Bushman. The combination of the documentary and the bonus materials make for a perfect (and educational!) evening’s viewing.

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This is Francis X. Bushman is part of Flicker Alley’s “Flicker Fusion” series. As they stated when the documentary was released: “Our ‘Flicker Fusion’ series is a new publication line that brings new projects, lesser known rarities, and archival restorations to light. With a nod to the steady stream of images that motion pictures utilize in creating the magic of moving images, our ‘Flicker Fusion’ series will be an on-going way to offer high quality, pressed Blu-ray Disc publications at an affordable rate.”

This is Francis X. Bushman is available on Blu-ray at the Flicker Alley site, Amazon, and elsewhere online where movies are sold. Many thanks to Lon and Debra for providing me with my review copy!

4 thoughts on “Documentary Review: “This Is Francis X. Bushman” (2021)

    • He definitely had his faults but he’s very entertaining to read about, he also had a lot of optimism, which is refreshing. I saw this nice quote in a Baltimore Sun article: “‘I got $6 million worth of enjoyment,’ he said, reflecting on his life. ‘Beside, I don’t think about yesterday. I love today and live it to the fullest.'”

  1. I remember seeing him on you bet your life Rerun from the50s: positive and cheerful. So many former stars were negative or went into the bottle: clyde bruckman and many others. There really need to be more plays or movies about Hollywood, without salaciousness (word?) for its own sake. Singin the rain is great but we need more of its ilk.

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