Directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro, Ben-Hur, the MGM production that became both the costliest movie and the biggest worldwide box office hit until Gone with the Wind, will be screened at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 26, at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The 1925 Ben-Hur will be accompanied live by Clark Wilson on the Orpheum's original Mighty Wurlitzer organ. The evening will be hosted by photographer and film historian Mark A. Vieira, among whose books are Sin in Soft Focus, Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M-G-M, and Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits.
Based on Lew Wallace's semi-biblical bestseller, which in the late 19th century became the top-selling book in the United States after the Bible, Ben-Hur was first a major Broadway hit – with future Hollywood cowboy William S. Hart as the villainous Messala (Francis X. Bushman in the movie) – and then a Kalem-produced 1907 movie short that led to a landmark film-related copyright lawsuit. After four years of legal battles, Kalem lost.
Ben-Hur's tortuous path to Hollywood success
In June 1922, Goldwyn Pictures – by then no longer associated with Samuel Goldwyn – acquired the rights to Ben-Hur by agreeing to cover the film's production costs and to give half of the theatrical proceeds to the Classical Cinematograph Corporation, a recently created business entity whose sole purpose was selling the rights to the hot property, and whose owners were theatrical impresarios Abraham Erlanger (one of the producers of the Broadway adaptation), Charles Dillingham, and Florenz Ziegfeld.
Goldwyn then handed over the reins to the magaproject to June Mathis, a former Metro Pictures screenwriter-producer partly responsible for one of the biggest box office hits in film history, Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which turned Rudolph Valentino into a worldwide movie sensation.
“Success for Ben-Hur is already written on the heights,” said Mathis at the time. “… And it now rests with the screen to give that immense scope of which it is capable, to make Ben-Hur immortal.”
Well, “immense scope” is the word for the 1925 Ben-Hur, even though by the time the movie was released in December of that year, June Mathis had been long kicked out of the project. Along with her, also fired were director and vamp Theda Bara's husband Charles J. Brabin (replaced by Fred Niblo) and star George Walsh (brother of High Sierra and White Heat director Raoul Walsh; replaced by Ramon Novarro), whose career never recovered from the monumental debacle.
In fact, although in my view the Fred Niblo / Ramon Novarro Ben-Hur is eons superior to the better-remembered, multiple Oscar-winning William Wyler / Charlton Heston 1959 version, I find the convoluted story behind the making of the movie much more fascinating than most anything that takes place on screen. Careers were made and destroyed; millions of dollars were wasted as disaster after disaster struck the production in Italy; a mighty studio went under (Goldwyn Pictures) to be replaced by an even mightier one, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (See also: “Ramon Novarro Brutally Killed on Halloween Eve.”)
Ben-Hur: Fast & Furious 1925 style
Was it all worth it? Well, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Louis B. Mayer and Irving G. Thalberg would probably have said that it was, even though the studio itself would only see any (and very minor) profits in the early '30s, when Ben-Hur was rereleased with synchronized sound and became an international blockbuster once again (after flopping in the United States).
Though flabby in parts and despite Ramon Novarro's at times overwrought performance, Ben-Hur offers a superb chariot race – directed by B. Reeves Eason – that to this day remains unmatched in sheer excitement. If your idea of movie thrills is watching Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious 6 or Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man 3 or Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon in Man of Steel, once you watch Ben-Hur you'll discover that nearly a century ago, with way less money and without CGI, movie thrills were achieved just as effectively via clever camera placements, expert editing, and earnest (if at times over-the-top) performances. (See also: “Best Films of 1925.”)
Ben-Hur 1925 cast
Besides Ramon Novarro, one of MGM's top stars of the late '20s and early '30s, and Francis X. Bushman, in the 1910s known as The Handsomest Man in the World, the Ben-Hur cast includes May McAvoy (the leading lady in the first part-talkie film, The Jazz Singer), Carmel Myers, Claire McDowell, Kathleen Key, Frank Currier, Nigel De Brulier, Mitchell Lewis, and in a two-color Technicolor cameo as the Virgin Mary, Peter Pan star Betty Bronson.
According to reports that came out earlier this year, MGM has been planning another Ben-Hur. More on that in an upcoming post. Besides Charlton Heston, the 1959 version featured Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Martha Scott, Hugh Griffith, Jack Hawkins, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe, and Finlay Currie.
Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur 1925 photo: Warner Bros.