One of the biggest movie stars of the Silent Era paid a visit to my home town one hundred years ago this week.
According to an article in The Times, Francis X. Bushman paid a surprise visit to the Crescent Theatre in Ottawa, Illinois to visit an old friend from vaudeville.
Bushman was working for the Essanay Studio in Chicago (before moviemakers figured out that they could produce movies year-round in California without dealing with Chicago winters). Even Chaplin worked for Essanay, though he only made one film for them in Chicago before heading west.
Bushman made his first movie in 1911, but made 175 films by the end of the decade. Largely forgotten today, he was the first great movie idol, though most people who know of him for playing the villain in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur because most of his movies have long since deteriorated. His stardom didn’t last beyond the Silent Era (he was allegedly blacklisted by Louis B. Mayer), but he kept working, in radio and TV, until his death in 1966. His final role, shot just weeks before his death, was as a silent movie collector on the old Batman TV series.
But most interesting to me was the reason that the star came to Ottawa. As it turns out, he was going to be spending the next day filming at what is now Starved Rock State Park.
What he was filming is unknown, but the odds are the movie is one of the 90-percent of silents that no longer exist, forgotten and crumbled into dust (or at least combustible nitrate sludge). How many other movies were filmed at Starved Rock? Apart from the recent kids’ Christmas movie Prancer, I can’t think of one. (I once wrote a screenplay based on Steve Stout’s The Starved Rock Murders, which is too obvious to even mention though that’s not why I bring it up.) It’s a great opportunity for a smart production company, and would be a spectacular setting for any number of scenes in any number of scripts. First one there is going to be mighty happy. Illinois Film Office, are you listening?