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teaser Ben-Hur (1925)

"The great decade of the progress of motion picture art reaches its summit! A cast of 125,000!" read the advertising tag-line for MGM's silent epic Ben-Hur (1925). "Endless strife in the making!" could have been added to the exclamations, since the production proved to be as troubled as it was lavish. The behind-the-scenes story of this version of the Lew Wallace novel involved abrupt cast and production crew changes, with original star George Walsh replaced by Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur and director Charles J. Brabin dumped in favor of Fred Niblo. Also taken off the production was writer-supervisor June Mathis, who had supervised the successful The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and had persuaded MGM executives to film Ben-Hur on location in Italy and Egypt. Runaway costs, with much of the footage proving unusable, finally led studio head Louis B. Mayer to dictate that the production be brought back to the States, with supervising producer Irving G. Thalberg put in direct control of the project.

Thalberg turned potential disaster into a personal triumph, partly by lavishing $300,000 on a single sequence - the all-important chariot race. The filming of this sequence, on a specially built replica of the Circus Maximus, became the talk of Hollywood. An accidental crash, when the wheel of one chariot smashed into another vehicle and created a pileup of four chariots, horses and stuntmen, was captured on film to become one of the most stunning episodes yet seen in movies. Thalberg's masterly handling of Ben-Hur appeared to justify his assertion that a producer should maintain both financial and artistic control over studio directors.

The final production cost of Ben-Hur was $3.9 million, a fortune in 1925. The film was a sensation with audiences and grossed $9,386,000, but royalties and distribution costs were so high that MGM came up $850,000 short. The prestige the film brought to the new studio, however, left its executives feeling that Ben-Hur was well worth it. More than any other single production, this film laid the foundation for the studio's reputation as the producer of elite entertainment. The Oscar-winning remake of Ben-Hur (1959) would herald the end of MGM's Golden Era, just as this silent version had begun it.

Producer: Irving G. Thalberg (uncredited), Louis B. Mayer, Charles B. Dillingham, Abraham Erlanger, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., Samuel Goldwyn (uncredited)
Director: Fred Niblo, Alfred Raboch (associate)
Screenplay: June Mathis (adaptation), Katherine Hilliker (titles), Bess Meredyth, Carey Wilson, from novel by Lew Wallace
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Horace Jackson
Cinematography: Clyde De Vinna, Rene Guissart, Percy Hilburn, Karl Struss
Costume Design: Hermann J. Kaufmann
Editing: Lloyd Nosler
Original Music: Carl Davis (new score)
Principal Cast: Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur), Francis X. Bushman (Messala), May McAvoy (Esther), Betty Bronson (Mary), Claire McDowell (Princess of Hur), Kathleen Key (Tirzah).
BW & C-144m.

by Roger Fristoe

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