by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was an epic in more ways than one in that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Ben-Hur was not just a biblical extravaganza at a time when Hollywood had several major features in this genre like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923) and King of Kings (1927), but it was colossal in terms of its tortured and expensive production history.
Lew Wallace (1827-1905) was a Union Army general during the Civil War (he was blamed for decisions that nearly cost the army a victory at the Battle of Shiloh in spring 1862), a member of a commission investigating the conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln, governor of New Mexico Territory and an American diplomat to the Ottoman Empire, but he was also a novelist. His first book, The Fair God, based on Hernán Cortez’ conquest of Mexico, was published in 1873 and did well enough to inspire Wallace for his second effort.
Research for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was begun that year and the writing was worked on in the author’s home state of Indiana and completed while he was in Santa Fe. It was published by Harper and Brothers in late 1880 and, after slow initial sales, the book attracted a sizable readership and brought fame and some wealth to Wallace. Within ten years, 400,000 copies were sold and, by the end of the 19th century, it was acclaimed as the best-selling American novel of the century, besting Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince enslaved by the Romans and then a charioteer converted to Christianity, was written as a parallel story to that of Jesus. A chariot race and fight with Ben-Hur’s childhood friend, Messala, a Roman officer, whose accusation of an attempted assassination led to Ben-Hur’s enslavement, is a core element of adventure in the novel.
The desire for revenge is transformed into redemption through Ben-Hur’s interactions with Christ, particularly his witnessing of the crucifixion, which leads to his conversion. There are also two love interests, including one character, Iras, who rejects Ben-Hur and takes up with Messala, though she later kills him, and Esther, named for Wallace’s mother and who becomes Ben-Hur’s modest wife and mother of their children.
After resisting overtures for years about turning the novel into a play, Wallace made a deal with impresarios Mark Klaw and Abraham Erlanger and the stage version opened in late November 1899. A key for the author was a realistic representation of the chariot race, which was achieved with live horses, real chariots, a treadmill system and a rotating backdrop. Over the course of just more than two decades, it was estimated 20 million people saw the play.
Wallace had been dead for two years when the first film version of Ben-Hur was released by the newly launched New York-based Kalem Company (who later had Princess Mona Darkfeather, a.k.a. Josephine M. Workman, as one of its stars in California) in 1907. The fifteen-minute movie focused on the chariot race (in fact, the publisher of the book issued a special edition based on that element) and starred the actor who played Messala in the first run of the stage version: William S. Hart, who later became one of the most famous cowboy actors in Hollywood. The film also led to an important copyright suit, as Klaw, Erlanger, Harper and Brothers and the Wallace estate won a major victory against infringement by film companies.
Samuel Goldwyn, after extensive negotiations and concessions, was able, in 1922 after the play’s final run was finished, to secure the film rights to Ben-Hur from Erlanger (his partnership with Klaw ended three years prior.) The theatrical mogul received hefty financial rewards, apparently including a $1 million payout and profit sharing, and detailed approvals for the content of the film from Goldwyn.
Hired to write the screenplay for this first feature-length rendition was June Mathis, a theater performer who became one of Hollywood’s best-known screenwriters and, later, a highly-paid executive at MGM. Mathis was also known for discovering Rudolph Valentino and wrote The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922), which made him a mega-star.
Mathis wanted Valentino to play Ben-Hur and it was publicized that he was to take the role, but he was attached to Famous Players-Lasky. Marshall Neilan, best known for a string of films he directed with Mary Pickford, was to be at the helm. Changes, however, were made and George Walsh, said to be romantically linked to Mathis and a rising star at Fox and then Goldwyn, was given the main role. Charles Brabin, who’d directed films for about a dozen years and was contracted with Goldwyn, signed on to direct.
Meanwhile, Francis X. Bushman, a major star in the 1910s but then on the wane, was hired to play Messala. Carmel Myers, another well-known and busy actor, signed on as Iras and Betty Bronson, later known as co-star to Al Jolson in his popular 1928 film, The Singing Fool, his follow-up to the prior year’s The Jazz Singer.
Film had transformed dramatically in recent years with longer features, more elaborate sets, exotic far-flung locations, bigger budgets and other evolutions taking place. This seemed to reflect the ambitions and scope of the American economic boom of the Roaring Twenties. Another notable development was the rise of Latino/a actors into major stars, even as racial divisions and discord soared during the era. Antonio Moreno, Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez, and Ramon Novarro were among the most celebrated of the period.
So, when the decision was made to do principal filming in Rome, this was big news and much was made in the press about the lavishness of the sets, the production problems in an Italy then newly controlled the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and the whirlwind social life of the stars. Shooting began in October 1923, but difficulties with the production, soaring costs, and the creation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) led to a reevaluation.
Walsh was sacked and replaced by Novarro, Brabin was also let go and Fred Niblo, director of such classics as 1920s The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers (1921), and the aforementioned Blood and Sand was brought in to take the helm. Another change was that the role of Esther, assigned to Gertrude Olmstead, was given to May McAvoy, who’d made three dozen films since her 1917 debut. Finally, Mathis was replaced by Carey Wilson, though she was given credit for an adaptation, while Wilson was recognized as having “produced from the scenario.”
One report of trouble in Rome was from an 8 June 1924 article in the Los Angeles Times, headlined “Chariot Wheels Squeak.” The piece by noted critic William Schallert stated “things are certainly not going as well as anticipated abroad” and he added “I am inclined to feel that the producers are sorry that the company wasn’t kept at home and the chariot race filmed at one of the local speedways.” Schallert, however, cast doubt on the rumor that Brabin was to be replaced by Niblo, but the squeaky wheels of production were obviously well-known.
Later that month, Marcus Loew, who owned Metro Pictures and was a key player in the new MGM enterprise, sailed to Italy to right the ship of production by overseeing the change in cast and crew and the reboot of the filming. Brabin responded by suing MGM for $375,000, but the matter appears to have been handled out-of-court.
The arrival of the handsome and dashing Novarro made a big stir on the ship steaming across the Atlantic, especially the women passengers, and in Italy, according to a number of press reports, which indicated that the actor charmed the locals.
In late August, Wilson returned to Los Angeles from Rome and “tells a story of almost incredible difficulties.” The sole studio in the capital was sadly equipped, so a 40-acre studio was built outside the city, including an exact replica of the Circus Maximus (it was rumored the producers wanted permission to renovate the original ruins and were, of course, turned down!) and artesian wells had to be dug to supply water. Electricians had to make their own equipment for lighting, none of satisfaction being available.
When it came to carpentry, “the Italian workman were helpless,” requiring elaborate blueprints so that a dozen architects had to be employed and carpenters putting in three shifts. Costumes had to be imported, largely from Berlin, and transportation was woefully inadequate.
Still, Niblo, given the green light to scrap some 200,000 feet of film shot by Brabin and begin again, set to work, even with $300,000 of overhead accrued by summer 1924. A Times report credited Irving Thalberg, who would go out to become a major force in Hollywood, with keeping the Ben-Hur project going, arguing that, whether there was a profit or not, MGM could benefit from the publicity of the sheer scale of the epic.
For example, a couple dozen full-size gallery ships were made to recreate a battle scene in the Mediterranean, while Niblo planned for 20,000 extras in a key scene in which Ben-Hur was to rally the masses in defense of Jesus and he also intended to take cast and crew to north Africa to film scenes in the vast Sahara Desert. A recreation of a Jerusalem street took up five acres, and a reproduced Gate of Jaffa from that holy city spanned sixteen stories. The final scenes of the movie were to involve an astonishing 150,000 extras, reputedly five times more than in any previous film scene.
While Niblo estimated production costs would be some $2 million, Loew was celebrated for reaping $4 million in profit on the $1 million investment in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As expressed by writer Herbert Howe in a special dispatch to the Times, “What’s a couple of million the way Hollywood shoots craps?”, meaning the taking of risk on rolling the dice on big productions.
Grace Kingsley, a top film critic for the Times, reported in late September on the hectic social life of the cast, observing “life is colorful and exciting for the players” and the actresses, in particular, “haven’t yet recovered from the thrill of being courted and admired by the array of Italian dukes and counts. Accidents apparently were few, with one involved Novarro and Kathleen Key, a featured player, being struck by a sun deflector toppled by a strong wind. Not reported were the deaths of many horses tripped in a major scene.
Key wrote the columnist to report on the filming and marveled at the Gate of Jaffa and its scale, while praising the director, who was “handling the picture as no one else could” and “has a gift for managing mobs that is amazing.” Key also spoke of Novarro, enthusing “he is an exceptionally nice boy, a pleasure to work with—really seems like my brother.”
Yet, production dragged on far longer than anticipated and, in November, Bess Meredyth, another prominent woman screenwriter and who was Key’s roommate for a time in Italy, returned to Los Angeles, heralding the first of the major cast and crew migrations back home. Meredyth went on to work on such notable films as Don Juan (1926), starring John Barrymore, the Greta Garbo vehicle A Woman of Affairs (1928), and Wonder of Women (1929), which was nominated for a writing Oscar.
In a mid-December article, the Times reported on a new production scheme initiated by studio head Louis B. Mayer, in which there was a main filming unit led by Niblo for big scenes, while two other crews were helmed by Niblo’s assistant, Al Raboch, and a long-time assistant for D. W. Griffith, Christy Cabanne, who was brought in specifically by Mayer for this work.
Mayer was paraphrased as saying that there were “great handicaps and disappointments” but also “declares that he would be willing to remake the picture four times to keep it on a par” with the filming of the famed gallery battle. Specifically, the mogul was quoted as saying that the sea battle was “the most tremendous thing that has ever been seen.” Still, he went on, “I found Mr. Niblo working under a terrific strain, enough to break any one man.”
As for the lead, Mayer gushed that “Novarro is a marvel. He will knock them cuckoo . . . I cannot say enough for him. He has enchanted me.” Mayer also confessed, when asked, that the production costs were likely to near $3 million, though he expressed he would be thought a liar for saying so, noting that previous publicly expressed costs of $1 million were usually a third or so and that the inflated amounts were for publicity.
With regard to a completion date, Mayer estimated filming would last through April 1925, a full two years from the beginning with the first cast and crew. The impresario expressed confidence that the film was worth every penny expended, even at the astronomical cost.
The decision, however, was made in early 1925 to bring the production back to Hollywood from Italy and complete filming locally, as Schallert suggested long before. Even then, there was talk that the famous chariot race scene would be done back in Italy in the summer, though there was also surprise expressed in February that there was more work to be done than believed.
An elaborate page in the “Pre-View” section of the Times of 25 March claimed that the return of production of the epic was “the best proof . . . for the fact that Hollywood is the place to make pictures.” Claiming the performers were more happy and that the “technical resources” in filmland simply made for a better process. Heavy promotion of the ongoing shooting continued through the spring and, finally, by early June, it was announced that filming was ending, with a release date expected to be early in 1926.
Then, a short time later, on the 21st in a piece by Schallert about the financial possibilities of the picture, the premiere date was said to be 12 October, even as the chariot race scene was still to be filmed, though not in Italy as earlier stated, but locally. Yet, in another full-page illustrated piece, the Times reported, on 4 October, that a set for the Antioch Circus was only just beginning construction and that this would be the end of filming. With editing and post-production, it stated, a premiere was likely around Christmas, obviously an opportune time.
That estimate, for once, turned out to be just a few days off. The world premiere was in New York on 30 December 1925 and then Ben-Hur made the rounds in eastern and midwestern cities through the first half of 1926. When it was announced, however, that the local premiere would be early that year and at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, that also turned out to be premature reporting.
The film did not open until 2 August 1926 and the venue was, instead, the Biltmore Theatre, added to the rear of the hotel adjoining Pershing Square and, not surprisingly, owned by Abraham Erlanger, who sold the film rights four years before for a cool million dollars. Shown twice daily, at 2:30 and 8:30, with prices ranging from 50 cents to $1.50, the nearly 2 and 1/2 hour epic drew, as it did in previous engagements in the east, huge crowds.
Schallert’s review was ecstatic, as he wrote it was “beyond all hopes and expectations” and constituted the “greatest of film spectacles” and an “overwhelming triumph.” Whether it was the exciting action of the galley battle and the chariot race or the deeply spiritual elements associated with Christ, the critic stated that audiences were “stirred as a public in a theater seldom has been by an emotion not only of delight, but of a radiantly glowing appreciation.”
The Los Angeles engagement of Ben-Hur ended in mid-November, sixteen weeks after its opening, and then headed, with the same orchestra, to engagements in Santa Ana and San Diego before moving to Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas and then returning to other portions of California.
In all, the film grossed $10 million, an impressive figure, but, because of Erlanger’s cut and those of others, as well as other costs, the movie did not actually make a profit until there was a re-release a few years later. A 1959 remake by MGM and directed by William Wyler with Charlton Heston (who also starred a few years earlier in the Cecil B. DeMille remake of The Ten Commandments), ran over 3 1/2 hours and cost more than $15 million to make. Its box office take, however, was nearly $150 million, with only Gone With the Wind reaping more money.
The Homestead’s collection includes a colorful broadside for the film with the tag line “Nothing Like It Ever Before—Perhaps Never Again!” and calling it “The One Mighty Spectacle.” There was no hesitation is stating the astronomical cost of $4 million, nor that the cast numbered 150,000, though, obviously, this meant all the extras,
What could almost go unnoticed is the rear panel showing the listing of Ben-Hur at the head, with such films as The Winning of Barbara Worth and The Mark of Zorro following, at the Olympic Theatre in, apparently, Washington, D.C.—the address of “You St.” meaning U Street between 14th and 15th N.W. was the location of a theater by that name through 1927.
But, just below the venue’s name is the phrase “For White Patronage,” even though, just two years later, it was renamed the Booker T Theatre for the famed black educator and reformer, Booker T. Washington, because of the rapidly changing demographics of that portion of the nation’s capital, just north of the White House.