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April 2, 2018

Ben-Hur 1925: Rare and Amazing Behind the Scenes Photos From the Making of the Most Expensive Silent Film Ever Made

A treasure trove of behind-the-scenes photos from the 1925 silent epic "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" has been unearthed thanks to Jill Bergstrom, the granddaughter of the great silent movie-era and B-Western cinematographer George B. Meehan Jr.

At almost four million dollars, the 1925 version of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur is widely considered the most expensive silent movie ever made. Expenses for the movie began in 1919 with the initial negotiations with Henry Wallace and with Abraham Erlanger, producer of the successful stage play. Erlanger eventually concluded a deal with MGM for generous profit participation and total control over the production. Cost escalation accelerated in 1923 when filming of the movie began in Italy. There were accidents, changes in directors, corporate mergers, and changes in cast, including the hiring of Ramon Navarro as Ben-Hur replacing George Walsh. Walsh had been hired to play the title role and went to Italy, but he felt he was being treated shabbily and went home in a huff.

As the MGM publicity machine continued its promotion emphasizing the quality of the production, actors wearing heavy costumes who jumped overboard to escape burning ships during the sea battle had to be rescued from drowning and horses were being maimed and killed with alarming regularity because of the punishing demands placed on them. Even the building of the elaborate sets by Italian craftsmen was delayed by Italy’s new leader, Benito Mussolini. In a bold move, Irving Thalberg, MGM’s head of production, closed the Italian operation and moved the entire effort to Hollywood to contain costs. This was an early instance where the “business side” of show business significantly curtailed the “show side.” Because of the cost overruns in Italy, for decades after Ben-Hur, most movies were mounted on Hollywood’s back lots so that the businessmen could keep an eye on the productions and their bottom lines.

Filming ran from October 1923 through August 1925—almost two full years. This lengthy filming and final editing of the movie also added to the expenses. For instance, 42 cameras were used and over 200,000 feet of film was shot for the chariot race—in the final cut of the movie only 750 feet of the filmed race was used. Also, sections of the movie boasted an early 2 tone version of Technicolor using red and green filters. While not the first movie to boast color sequences, it was an early use of this technology raising its production value and audience interest.

The enormous chariot race arena was constructed at what is now the intersection of La Cienega and San Vicente Boulevards in Los Angeles. The chariot race sequence was filmed in one day and MGM made the most of it. They made the day of filming a holiday for the studio which gave the day a circus-like feel. With the exception of the leading men, Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman, the other titled characters from the movie are today largely unknown. However, because of the holiday, established stars such as John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, and even America’s sweetheart—Mary Pickford made special appearances in the crowd scenes. While they weren’t matinee idols, Samuel Goldwyn and Sid Grauman (of the Chinese Theater) also showed up on screen rooting for Ben-Hur.

Although the movie made over nine million dollars in its original run, it was not considered to have made any money for the studio because of the production and promotion costs and because of the deal struck by Mr. Erlanger. In subsequent releases, it continued to make money for the studio, but more importantly, it cemented MGM’s reputation as the quality studio in Hollywood. This reputation helped Thalberg and his associates leverage other successful projects and for the next three decades allowed MGM to attract more stars than there were in the heavens.

In this shot from Meehan's personal collection, Francis X. Bushman, one of the biggest stars of the silent era, poses grandly on his chariot during a break from shooting the climactic chariot race sequence for "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." Relaxing on the wheel of the chariot is George Meehan, who was a part of the camera crew for the movie.

This interesting shot from the George Meehan collection reveals one of the production techniques used to create the chariot race footage. The "chariot" in which Francis X. Bushman is standing, at bottom right, is not pulled by horses for this part of the shoot, but is in fact attached to a car. Meanwhile, a camera truck is in position to catch all the action from beside the unusual rig, with five cameras and five cameramen on board.

In this encounter on the camera truck, Meehan, standing between the two cameras, appears to be showing the film's star, Ramon Novarro, how the camera works. Novarro played the title role of Ben-Hur.

Meehan and Novarro continue to hang out during a break from filming, posing for a "candid" photo next to the camera truck. Meehan would go on to become one of the most accomplished cinematographers of the B-Western era, working for years for Columbia shooting cowboy heroes including Bill Elliott and Charles Starrett — and doing some of his best work on the Iverson Movie Ranch.

This shot from the set of the chariot race gives some idea of the massive scale of the set pieces used during the sequence, with the cameramen at right dwarfed by a large statue in the background. The race is said to have been filmed in a sprawling arena built for the movie near the intersection of La Cienega and San Vicente in Los Angeles, although it has sometimes been reported in error that the sequence was shot at Iverson.

A wide swath of open space where the chariot race was filmed can be seen in this shot. The sequence was one of the most ambitious undertakings up to that time for a still relatively young movie industry — a large-scale shoot that encompassed a wide arena and featured enormous sets. The movie, which took almost two years to film, is often cited as the most expensive silent movie ever made, coming in at about $4 million.

Here's a closer look at some of those sets, filled with hundreds of extras. A number of the stars of the era reportedly had uncredited roles as race spectators — a list of names including John and Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford and even Samuel Goldwyn and Sid Grauman. Future B-Western hero Bill Elliott is also on that list.

A promotional still for the movie provides a better look at the packed stands during the chariot race.

Another shot taken during a timeout from filming has Bushman waving from his chariot — still rigged up to the tow car — Meehan nearby with hand on hip and other members of the crew standing by.

This shot of George Meehan in his "office" on the back of the camera car again provides a sense of the large scale of some of the sets.

(via General Lew Wallace Study & Museum)


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