Francis X. Bushman and Virginia Rappe

[Early this morning, TCM host Jacqueline Stewart featured a documentary about the silent film actor Francis X. Bushman, narrated by one of his grandsons. The following provisional passage is from our draft and covers an episode in Bushman’s life that we didn’t expect to see covered in the documentary, that is, the interruption in Bushman’s film career following his divorce from his first wife and his marriage to Beverly Bayne. This was an era when studios treated disclosure of a divorce to be as toxic to a star’s career as drug addiction or homosexuality.

It was In the third week of September 1921, Bushman and Bayne appeared for an engagement at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater and were in the city during the first weeks of the Arbuckle case. The couple had already weighed in on their feelings about Roscoe Arbuckle in the press and Bushman shared his rather impersonal personal connection to Rappe.]

After Game Lady was completed , [Henry] Lehrman couldn’t afford to publicize it so its release was held up for months. With little to no money coming in, he ceased all production for the foreseeable future. In December, he had defaulted on a loan of $25,000 and was forced to move out of his Franklin Avenue house of five years. Although Lehrman had gambled and lost by going out on his own, he wasn’t the only one suffering financially. The ongoing postwar recession had reached Hollywood.

Matinee idol Francis X. Bushman described the situation after an airplane ride over Hollywood in which he could see fifteen studios seemingly at a standstill. He blamed “the needless extravagance” of studios and a recession, the “financial tightness [that] has hit the movie industry harder perhaps that any other, to such an extent that stars who formerly commanded $1,500 weekly now are glad of employment at $300 a week.”[1]

Bushman made these remarks while en route to New York City from Los Angeles. He had not made a film in two years due to his divorce and remarriage to the actress Beverly Bayne. The divorce was bad enough, but Bayne was pregnant at the time of her marriage and that brought their morals further into question. Studios shunned them and limited Bushman—who was once proclaimed “the king of the movies” during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915—and Bayne to performing in bedroom farces and the like on the vaudeville circuit.

In October 1920, the couple were engaged in a theatrical production in Los Angeles and hoping to resume their film careers. They rented a Mission-style bungalow at 2217 Canyon Drive from actor William Worthington—not only to accommodate themselves and their baby boy, but Bushman’s five children from his first marriage ranging in age from seventeen to nine. The living arrangements prompted a number of amusing articles about life with the Bushmans, made awkward by so many in such a small house and doubly so by the first Mrs. Bushman, who insisted on being close to her children by staying in an expensive hotel suite nearby on her former husband’s tab.

In November, Bushman’s nine-year-old son Bruce—Bushman’s namesake until his ex-wife had the boy’s name changed out of spite—suffered multiple fractures to his leg and hip. He was bedridden in Los Angeles and cared for by his new stepmother and father until a week before Christmas. His siblings had already left with the mother for their home in Baltimore.

Francis Bushman could not afford to renege on his bookings in various cities on the East Coast so he left Bruce in the care of a private nurse and he was routinely informed of his son’s progress. From the nurse, he learned that the actress Virginia Rappe was managing his bungalow and others on Canyon Drive. Apparently, Rappe interceded when a neighbor cursed Bushman for having so many children in the small bungalow and for the seeming desertion of his son, who was still in a leg cast up to his hip. Bushman never met Rappe, but recalled her kindness three days after her death while he and Bayne were performing in Portland, Oregon. He told a reporter that “Miss Rappe was in charge of the house, and I was in New York. My nurse, who was caring for young Bruce, said that Miss Rappe was a sweet, very beautiful young woman and had a big, clean heart. I am willing to believe her.”[2] Both Bushman and his wife excoriated the film colony for its “wild parties” and how real actors, like themselves, didn’t consider Arbuckle one. “He is just a fat boy,” said Bushman, and almost anything a fat boy does is funny. That is the way he is looked upon.”

Francis X. Bushman as Messala in Ben Hur (1925)

[1] “Postpone Attempt to Break into Movies, Says Bushman; Movie Idol Visits El Paso,” El Paso Herald, 20 December 1920, 1.

[2] “Los Angeles Scored by Beverly Bayne,” Los Angeles Times, 13 September 1921, I:2; and merged with “Beverly Bayne Denounces Hollywood’s Wild Orgies,” Buffalo Times, 19 September 1921, 9.

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