'Ben-Hur' 1925: Fast & furious epic Los Angeles screening
Directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro, the 1925 Ben-Hur, a.k.a. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, will be screened at 8 p.m. on Wed., June 26, '13, at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Clark Wilson will provide live accompaniment on the Orpheum's original Mighty Wurlitzer organ, while the evening will be hosted by photographer and film historian Mark A. Vieira, whose books include Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits, Sin in Soft Focus, Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M-G-M.
Tortuous path to Hollywood success
Based on Lew Wallace's semi-biblical bestseller, which in the late 19th century became the top-selling book after the Bible in the United States, Ben-Hur was initially a Broadway hit and then an unauthorized 1907 movie short that led to a landmark copyright lawsuit.* After four years of legal battles, film production company Kalem lost the case.
In June 1922, Goldwyn Pictures – by then no longer associated with independent producer Samuel Goldwyn – acquired the film rights to Ben-Hur by agreeing to cover its 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 the reins of the mega-project 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 (1921), which had turned Rudolph Valentino into a worldwide 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 – or rather, phrase – for the 1925 Ben-Hur, though by the time the movie was released in December of that year, June Mathis had long been kicked out of the out-of-control production. Along with her, also fired were director Charles J. Brabin (replaced by Fred Niblo) and star George Walsh (replaced by Ramon Novarro); Walsh's movie career would never recover from the debacle.†
Although in my view the Fred Niblo-Ramon Novarro Ben-Hur is eons superior to the multiple Oscar-winning, William Wyler-Charlton Heston version (1959), I find the convoluted story behind the making of the 1925 film 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.
'Ben-Hur' chariot race: 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 Yes, despite the fact that the studio wouldn't see any (very minor) profits until the early '30s, when Ben-Hur was rereleased with the addition of synchronized sound and became an international blockbuster all over again. (Curiously, the sound rerelease flopped in the U.S.)
Although flabby in parts – and notwithstanding Ramon Novarro's at times overblown performance – it's easy to see why Ben-Hur was such a mammoth blockbuster at the time of its release. In fact, the MGM production would remain both the costliest movie and the biggest worldwide box office hit until Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind (1939).
The film's highlight is the climactic chariot race – directed by B. Reeves Eason – that to this day remains one of the most electrifying sequences ever assembled. So, if your idea of movie thrills is watching Robert Downey Jr. flying around in Iron Man 3, Paul Walker and Vin Diesel racing about in Fast & Furious 6, or Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon fighting to the death in Man of Steel, once you watch the 1925 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 (Al Jolson's leading lady in the first part-talkie feature film, The Jazz Singer). Carmel Myers. Claire McDowell. Kathleen Key. Frank Currier. Nigel De Brulier. Mitchell Lewis. And Peter Pan star Betty Bronson in a two-color Technicolor cameo as the Virgin Mary.
According to reports earlier this year, MGM has been planning another Ben-Hur. Besides Charlton Heston, the 1959 remake featured:
Stephen Boyd. Haya Harareet. Martha Scott. Hugh Griffith. Jack Hawkins. Cathy O'Donnell. Sam Jaffe. Finlay Currie. Frank Thring. George Relph. André Morell. Uncredited: Marina Berti. Giuliano Gemma. Richard Hale. Claude Heater. John Le Mesurier. Ferdy Mayne. Aldo Silvani. May McAvoy (?).
* In the Broadway adaptation of Ben-Hur, future Hollywood cowboy William S. Hart was featured as the villainous Messala (Francis X. Bushman in the movie).
† George Walsh was the brother of High Sierra and White Heat director Raoul Walsh. Charles J. Brabin, who would direct Ramon Novarro in the 1930 musical Call of the Flesh, was vamp Theda Bara's husband.
Ben-Hur 1959 movie cast info via the IMDb Sone uncredited appearances are unconfirmed, including that of Ben-Hur 1925 actress May McAvoy in a crowd scene.
Images of Carmel Myers, Francis X. Bushman, and Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur 1925: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.