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Remembering a long-ago 'Ben-Hur' bad guy from Baltimore

Francis X. Bushman, left, as Messala opposite Ramon Novarro's Ben-Hur in the 1925 film.
Francis X. Bushman, left, as Messala opposite Ramon Novarro's Ben-Hur in the 1925 film. (Chicago Tribune)
I like to tell visitors this: The guy who posed for the statue of Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, outside the the Mitchell Courthouse on St. Paul Street was a Baltimore-born actor who played the bad guy in the Hollywood epic, “Ben-Hur,” of 1925. His name was Francis X. Bushman, and 100 years ago, he was huge.
Bushman learned to drive a horse-powered chariot for that remarkable long-ago movie, and he somehow got through the filming of its famously brutal chariot race unscathed.

In fact, when Hollywood remade “Ben-Hur” in the late 1950s, the star of that production, Charlton Heston, was reported to have said, “The only man in Hollywood who can drive a chariot is Francis X. Bushman, and he's too old!”

Bushman died 50 years ago this month in California.
Once upon a time, he was a matinee idol, the highest-paid screen actor of his era, known at the peak of his career as “the handsomest man in the world.” He built a mansion near Baltimore. His name was up in lights all over the country.
He took the role of Messala in MGM’s “Ben Hur,” at $4 million the most expensive film of the silent age. It is an amazing work for its time. Bushman plays opposite another silent-movie beefcake, the Mexican-American actor Ramon Novarro, who had the title role.

I mention it because of the release today of a new “Ben Hur,” starring Jim Huston as Judah Ben-Hur and Toby Kebbel as his former buddy, now arch-rival, the villainous Roman nobleman and commander, Messala.

In today’s episode of the Roughly Speaking podcast, film critics Linda DeLibero and Christopher Llewellyn Reed talk about the various productions of “Ben-Hur” over the years, and the long line of lavish movies rightfully called Hollywood epics. We trace that lineage back to “Ben-Hur” of 1925 and the buff Baltimore guy whose likeness jurors and judges pass whenever they enter the Mitchell Courthouse from the west.
To many, the statue is Calvert. To me, it’s Bushman.

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