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Ramon Novarro BEN-HUR: First Big-Budget Hollywood Movie Saved by International Market

Ramon Novarro naked and famous Ben-HurRamon Novarro is Ben-Hur: The Naked and Famous in first big-budget Hollywood movie saved by the international market

(See previous post: “Ramon Novarro: Silent Movie Star.”) Turner Classic Movies' Ramon Novarro Day continues with The Son-Daughter (1933), on TCM right now. Both Novarro and Helen Hayes play Chinese characters in San Francisco's Chinatown – in the sort of story that had worked back in 1919, when D.W. Griffith made Broken Blossoms with Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. By 1933, however, the drab-looking, slow-moving The Son-Daughter felt all wrong. (Image: Naked Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur.)

Directed by the renowned Clarence Brown (who guided Greta Garbo in some of her biggest hits), The Son-Daughter turned out to be a well-intentioned mess, eventually bombing at the box office. And that goes to show that Louis B. Mayer and/or Irving G. Thalberg didn't always know what the hell they were doing with their stars and properties. Stage actress Helen Hayes, by then a Best Actress Academy Award winner (for The Sin of Madelon Claudet), is all affected mannerisms in the title role, while Ramon Novarro, who became a major star chiefly because of his looks, mopes about under heavy East Asian make-up. (See also: “'Whitewashing' in Hollywood Movies: Racism?.”)

'The Cat and the Fiddle': Ramon Novarro and Jeanette MacDonald in her first MGM movie

The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), based on Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach's 1931 operetta about romantic entanglements in the European music world, is chiefly notable as Jeanette MacDonald's first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie. The following information about The Cat and the Fiddle is from my Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise:

Unlike the tight-budgeted 42nd Street, The Cat and the Fiddle would ultimately cost an extravagant $843,000. The excess indulged by MGM on this production – the third most expensive picture of Novarro's career and the studio's fifth-costliest production that season – is particularly curious, considering that Novarro had not had a single major hit since Mata Hari, MacDonald had come to the studio after several box office disappointments at Paramount and Fox, and MGM was having its worst year to date. The studio was clearly determined to lift the sagging fortunes of its former top male star, and, of even more importance to The Cat and the Fiddle, Mayer was intent on turning his protégée into a major star. (Mayer, who wanted MacDonald to see him as a “friend, counselor, and guide,” was probably the one who had MacDonald billed above the title, as Novarro's original contract – later modified – had stipulated solo star billing.)

Directed by William K. Howard, the film itself starts out well as a light romantic comedy; about halfway through, however, it derails into heavy melodrama. Perhaps appropriately, Ramon Novarro acts like his old lively self in the film's first half, but looks quite downbeat in the second half.

Also of note, The Cat and the Fiddle was the first live-action feature film to include a three-color Technicolor sequence: the musical finale. And in 1937, with World War II just around the corner, it was refused a rerelease certificate from the censors at the Hays Office – ever concerned about the Grave Dangers facing humankind – because its “two sympathetic leads” engage in an “illicit sex relationship without compensating moral values.”

'Ben-Hur': Ramon Novarro lands title role in biggest movie of the silent era

Credited to Fred Niblo, but also directed by an uncredited Christy Cabanne, in addition to Alfred L. Raboch and stunt director B. Reeves Eason, Ben-Hur (1925) was the most gigantic undertaking of any studio anywhere in the world up to that time. It's also a movie that radically changed Hollywood history: initially a Goldwyn Pictures production, Ben-Hur's costs escalated to such a degree that the (by then Samuel Goldwyn-less) studio floundered, eventually coming under the umbrella of exhibitor Loews, Inc., thus becoming part of the newly founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – the other two entities being Loews-owned Metro Pictures and the independent Louis B. Mayer Productions. A Metro Pictures player, Ramon Novarro became one of the new company's top assets.

At Goldwyn, Charles Brabin, best known perhaps as early vamp Theda Bara's husband, had been the assigned director. George Walsh, brother of director Raoul Walsh (Humphrey Bogart's High Sierra, James Cagney's White Heat), was to have the title role. June Mathis, a former Metro Pictures producer-screenwriter who left the studio following a salary dispute between the top brass and her protégé, Rudolph Valentino, was to write Ben-Hur's screenplay and supervise its production in Italy.

By mid-1924, Charles Brabin, George Walsh, and June Mathis had all been fired. Fred Niblo and Ramon Novarro replaced, respectively, director and star, while Carey Wilson and Bess Meredyth were assigned to rewrite the film's screenplay. But things remained so out of control that Louis B. Mayer himself traveled to Italy to check in on the production. Even so, all sorts of problems continued to beset Ben-Hur until cast and crew were finally shipped back to Culver City, where production on the film was resumed under the watchful eyes of Mayer and Irving Thalberg.

'Ben-Hur': Costly blockbuster became first movie saved by the international market

Finally budgeted at an unheard of $3.97 million (approx. $53 million today), Ramon Novarro's Ben-Hur became the costliest movie ever, and would remain so until Gone with the Wind 14 years later. With a worldwide (probably net) take of $10.73 million (approx. $350 million today; including the 1931 reissue with sound effects – a flop in North America, but a huge hit overseas), Ben-Hur also became the biggest box office hit ever, and would remain so until Gone with the Wind.

Nowadays, big-budget movies such as Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, Tom Cruise's Oblivion, Bruce Willis' A Good Day to Die Hard, Leonardo DiCaprio's The Great Gatsby, Brad Pitt's World War Z, and Kristen Stewart's Snow White and the Huntsman, to name a few, are frequently saved by the international market. Even domestic blockbusters such as James Cameron's Avatar, Chris Evanss' The Avengers, Paul Walker's Fast & Furious 6, Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man 3, and Henry Cavill's Man of Steel only manage to fully justify their outlandish price tags once international box office figures are tallied.

In truth, the international market has always been important to Hollywood movies, but Ben-Hur is probably the earliest case of a megabudgeted Hollywood production – and a major movie studio – quite literally saved by moviegoers outside the United States and Canada. Despite the 1925 World War I drama The Big Parade's hefty domestic profits, had Ramon Novarro's Ben-Hur bombed internationally MGM might have gone the way of Goldwyn Pictures. (See also: “Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur: Fast & Furious Silent Epic.”)

[“Ramon Novarro: Ben-Hur” continues on the next page. See link below.]

Naked Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

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