Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ben-Hur 1925: The Most Expensive Silent Film Ever Made

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 business men 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.

Note: The color sequences were removed from the 1925 film and replaced with black and white footage when it was re-released. These color sequences were thought lost forever when they were found in the 1980s in a Czech film archive. The restoration of the 1925 film by Turner Broadcasting includes these color sequences.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Found: Letter to Bumpa

During a visit today from Nicholson Elementary second-graders, we showed a few artifacts relating to Lew Wallace's occupation as an author. One object was a notebook Wallace used to jot notes, keep accounts, and draft correspondence. Below we have included images and transcriptions as we read them (General Wallace's handwriting is not always easy to make out, and the spelling is at times inaccurate).

Wallace drafted this telegram to Mr. Howland in Indianapolis. As far as we can make out from Lew's hasty handwriting, it reads, "Capt W Wallace Presidio. S. F. Will be at meeting of GAR San Francisco. Have your acounts ready then. L.W." Notes on other pages refer to plantings and itemized accounts for labor and materials. Some, like the bottom page pictured in the photo, include dimensions for spaces ("7 ft + 9"" is pictured here) - perhaps Lew was planning gardens around his home and Study?

The General was not the only Lew Wallace to write in this notebook. June 14, 1903, a younger writer got a hold of notebook and pen and jotted "Lewis Wallace," and "General Wallace," "Lewis Wallace grand son of general Lew Wallace." Interestingly, the elder Wallace wrote consistently in pencil in this notebook, while the grandson Lew Wallace Jr. tried his hand at pen and ink.

A few years earlier, dated June 3, 1899, a child (we assume Lew Wallace Jr., who was born in 1892) began a letter to his grandfather: "Dear Bumpa We went out rideing yesterday an..." Our guess is that Bumpa, or Grandpa, interrupted the little writer and we will never know what happened during the riding excursion!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lew Wallace and the "Doctor"

Josiah K. Lilly, Sr. was a generation younger than Lew Wallace but the two men shared a great friendship. Josiah’s father was Eli Lilly a colonel in the Civil War and founder of the pharmaceutical company. Josiah received his college diploma in pharmacy in 1882 and in the fall of that year he married a second cousin named Lilly Ridgely (making her Lilly Lilly). Josiah had a keen interest in the mixing of medicines, but as the Lilly enterprise grew he was shifted into managerial positions and elected to the Board of Directors.

Around the turn of the century, Josiah and Lew Wallace went on a duck hunting trip. One morning, Lew woke up with a severe stomachache. Josiah jumped into action; digging up some Hydrastis canadensis roots (more commonly known as Goldenseal) he had seen near the duck blind. Josiah ground the roots in whiskey, tasted the brew and finding it suitable he named it Yaller Root Bitters. The drink was then given to the ailing General. According to Lilly, the results were highly satisfactory and he stated: “I do not believe the General was more enthusiastic over his capture of Fort Donaldson in the Civil War.” In his memoirs, Lilly failed to note just how large a medicinal dose Wallace took prior to his enthusiastic response. After taking the cure, Wallace always referred to Josiah as “Doctor.”

According to Wikipedia, Goldenseal is often used as a multi-purpose remedy, and is thought to possess many different medicinal properties. In addition to being used as a topical antimicrobial, it can be taken internally as a digestion aid, and may remove canker sores when gargled. Goldenseal is often used to boost the medicinal effects of other herbs it is blended or formulated with. Wikipedia does not address the medicinal boost offered by mixing Hydrastis Canadensis with whiskey and a couple of duck hunters.

Information for this Tidbit from: All in a Century: The First 100 Years of Eli Lilly and Company, by E.J. Kahn, Jr. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Beauty and the Beast

Ahhh, the joys of Spring.
Green grass, flowering trees, blooming tulips, daffodils and dreaded storms! Overnight the entire Montgomery County area was hit by a series of fast moving storms. The first wave brought straight line winds, hail and moderate rain. The second wave, in the early morning hours, brought torrential downpours with high winds.

The Museum buildings sustained no damage, but the grounds weren't so fortunate. A mature basswood tree was uprooted and toppled, beech trees were decimated, and any weak branch has fallen. The 3.5 acres, normally a dog walker's paradise, is now an obstacle course.

On the bright side, a wonderful fragrance and beautiful blooms can be found in the Study's front garden. The viburnum, with its cluster of blooms, survived the wind, hail and rain. The fragrance can be enjoyed all over the grounds.

Just another typical Spring in Indiana!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The General...and the Boss

As a couple, Lew and Susan had a long and loving relationship. Married over 50 years they had both a public and a private partnership that worked very well. In public, Lew was clearly the leading partner as might be expected in a Victorian marriage. In private, Major General Lew Wallace was not able to pull rank. In letters and references, it is clear that Lew valued Susan’s advice, counsel and thoughtful considerations in a manner that was atypical in 19th century marriages. Susan’s adept handling of her husband was demonstrated early in their marriage.

Lew and Susan married in 1852. It seems Lew entered the marriage anticipating a large family. It also seems that Susan, who had several brothers and sisters, did not necessarily share that vision. Susan wanted to have only one child. While he may have attempted a face saving compromise it’s clear from a letter that Lew wrote to his brother William that Susan made decisions for herself.

Excerpt from a letter from Lew Wallace to his brother, William.

“And first, Bill, the baby hasn’t come yet, though we’re both in nightly expectation.  We’ve had great trouble over it, indeed, our only difficulty.  I insisted that there should be two:  she insisted on one.  The strife waxed higher, and was warmly waged night after night, until the result we at length grew tremulous about.  Finally, the angel of peace on dark night, about the hour of Tristam’s birth, (which you’ll recollect no critic has ever yet precisely ascertained), flew to our relief.  He suggested a mode of settlement.  I immediately proposed it, and we compromised.  I consented to one, in consideration of a solemn promise on her part that that one should be a boy.”
After Susan had graciously consented to have a baby boy, Lew discusses a number of possible names for this boy in another letter to William. After listing and dismissing several names, Lew ultimately informed his brother that the one perfect name for a boy was... Lew. Again, Susan apparently had other ideas as Henry Lane Wallace, the one and only child of Lew and Susan Elston Wallace, was born on February 17, 1853 and named for Susan’s brother-in-law. Even with all of his military training, when it came to big decisions for the family, Major General Lew was not able to out maneuver Civilian Sue.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Maurice Thompson: North vs. South Hunting With Lew Wallace

In the late 19th century, Crawfordsville became known as the Athens of Indiana because of the impressive number of successful authors who claimed Crawfordsville home. At the same time it was also known as the archery capital of the United States. Maurice Thompson was a celebrated leader in both of these seemingly unrelated worlds.

Thompson was born in Indiana but grew up in Georgia. Like Lew Wallace, Maurice learned best in the out of doors; not in the classroom. Like Lew, Maurice served in the Civil War; although in the Confederate army. Like Lew, Maurice tried many careers with varying degrees of success; working as a railroad man, civil engineer, surveyor, naturalist, geologist, soldier, lawyer, politician, novelist, poet, and sportsman. And finally, like Lew, Maurice had strong creative talents. With all of his careers and interests, Maurice Thompson is best remembered as a novelist and sportsman.

For reasons unknown Maurice Thompson moved to Crawfordsville in 1868, quickly followed by his brother, Will. Maurice soon met and married Alice Lee of Crawfordsville and his brother married Alice’s sister. Beginning in the 1870s, a number of Maurice’s essays, articles and publications began receiving broad public acclaim. He is most widely remembered for two works, Alice of Old Vincennes, which was published in 1900, shortly before his death in 1901 and The Witchery of Archery, published in 1878.

An avid outdoorsman Thompson, together with his brother Will, developed a passion for bow hunting and archery. In the 1870s and 1880s, four Crawfordsville men made up the top archery team in the country with Maurice and Will Thompson as two of the men (the others were Henry Talbot and Paul Hughes). The Thompson brothers were also individual champions. The men bow hunted game in the countryside, had contests with archers from surrounding states and even challenged Lew Wallace.

One of the more memorable events in Crawfordsville’s sporting history happened when Thompson and two of his Confederate friends who were visiting Crawfordsville challenged Lew Wallace and two of his Union friends to a competition. Thompson’s team used bows while Wallace and his team used rifles. In this North versus South, bows versus rifles shooting match—the Southern bows won! By all accounts the six marksmen enjoyed the event as “a day’s excellent sport.”

With the Thompson brothers’ national reputations and Maurice’s writing on the sport, Crawfordsville enjoyed the undisputed title as archery capital of the country. The national archery association was formed in Crawfordsville and the first meeting of the association was held here in 1879. As the national craze for bow hunting caught on two local women, Mrs. Alice Klein and Mrs. William Lee, gained fame as they won state and regional contests.

With the significant parallels in their lives, Wallace and Thompson shared a long and strong friendship. They were even neighbors as the impressive Thompson home, Sherwood Place, was within sight of the Wallace Home. Called “The Father of Archery,” Thompson is credited with popularizing sport in the late 19th century and in 1939, the National Archery Association named their highest honor for outstanding members of the archery community the Maurice Thompson Award.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

So What Did You Find?

So what did we find this weekend during this spring's History Beneath Us excavation? Probably the most dramatic find was the metal vessel - bowl, pot, chamber pot, pitcher, whatever. The crew removed it from the ground and have taken it back to the lab at the University of Indianapolis for analysis and some conservation to stop the metal corrosion. We located the builders' trench, which is the ditch the builders dug to stand in while they laid the brick wall of the reflecting pool. When they were finished, they filled it with a dark soil (the the right in the photograph above), which contrasts with the lighter brown clay soil mottled with worm holes (the the left). This trench, Feature 3, didn't get excavated this time, but it will be the focus of future projects. Because it dates to the building of the reflecting pool, the fill and any artifacts in it date to Lew Wallace's time. We also found a pipe! In Unit 3, we knew workers in previous decades had dug through to install a drainage ditch and pipe. We thought the pipe was in the northern half of the unit (the right side of the photo above), but clearly we were wrong! This modern pipe is still in use and is within 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) of the bottom of the pool. In an effort not to disturb it too much and to get a larger picture of the bottom of the pool, we shifted efforts to the north half of the unit where we found... ...another part of the wall! This was one surprise of the weekend: this low part of the wall is largely intact, it follows the curve of the wall uncovered in another unit, and perhaps most surprising is that the chunk of the wall higher in the next unit appears to be in its original place, or in situ. The low part of the wall doesn't seem to be damaged to the extent that one might expect if it were blasted through while installing the drainage. One theory is that Lew Wallace purposely designed it low for a gate or spillway from the pool - quite possible since Wallace had several such structures at his summer home, Water Babble. We also surveyed the grounds to get a topographical map . The crew surveyed the western half of the grounds, and will map the rest of the property later. Several young visitors found plenty at the Archaeologist Training area! The "artifacts" included nails, a doorknob, pieces of tea cups, and an axe head. What we didn't find (yet) was Old John. The search for the horse's grave is off to a good start, but the crew didn't get down far enough in the short time. More to dig next time! The next excavation is planned for the last week of May, when UIndy students and faculty will hold a field school here on the Museum grounds. The public will be invited to observe and talk with the archaeologists, but the actual digging will be reserved for the students. The next public History Beneath Us program is slated for September 2011. Depending on what the find in May, we may be able to find other things related to the Wallaces' life, like a cistern, privy, or kitchen midden. We hope you can join us!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Talk Us Through It

Check out the Museum's YouTube channel for exclusive interviews with the crew of History Beneath Us!

The Wall Continues

Unit 3 still has not yielded the bottom of the reflecting pool, but the crew did find another part of the brick wall. The most recently uncovered portion is much lower than the other sections, which raises the question of why. Did workers decades ago cut through it to install a drainage ditch and pipe? Was it always that low so that Lew Wallace could have a spillway to let water out of the reflecting pool? Hmmm...

It's a bowl! It's a pitcher! It's a chamber pot!

The metal object in Unit 4 seems to be a vessel of some kind. It looks like it has a handle, and it's not very deep (note the small silver spot where they've uncovered the bottom). We're currently gathering guesses about what it is.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Are you there, John?

The crew and public started excavating what may be Old John's grave. The late start due to morning rain held up progress a little, but the crew still opened two units and in the screens found glass and nails. This is one of the most active areas for members of the public to participate - who wouldn't want to help dig up the horse? History Beneath Us continues on the Museum grounds Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and we will also celebrate Lew's Birthday with additional activities and free admission from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. Come join the fun!

History Beneath Us UPDATE

Two University of Indianapolis Archaeology students discover something made of metal buried in the old reflecting pool at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum grounds. The work continues as we speak and will be ongoing all day on Sunday, April 10 from 10 AM until 5 PM. The public is invited to participate and there is a dig going on for the kids as well! Got a question for the volunteers and staff at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum? Call 765-362-5769! Stop by and visit us at 200 Wallace Avenue in Crawfordsville, IN 47933.

History Beneath Us Saturday, April 9, 2011

University of Indianapolis students are beginning to uncover objects on the grounds of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum. While the work is in its earliest stages, you never know what is just a few inches or feet beneath the top soil! We appreciate our University of Indianapolis students and hope that the general public seizes the opportunity to join them this weekend as we explore the History Beneath Us! Thanks to the Archaeological Program at the University of Indianapolis and to the fine students working in the rain and now the sunshine this weekend!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sharpen Your Shovel

The crew from University of Indianapolis is here preparing for this weekend's History Beneath Us public archaeology program! One group of UIndy students are removing the backfill from the initial excavation of the reflecting pool so that they can begin digging where they left off in September. Dr. Christopher Moore, who is leading the student crew, hopes to uncover more of the brick wall, the builders' trench from when the masons laid that wall, and the bottom of the pool.
Another group of students are marking off the 2x2 meter unit over the "horse anomaly" - the geologic disturbance that may be the grave of Lew Wallace's horse, Old John. They will break ground in this area later today to have everything ready for public participation Saturday and Sunday.

Join us from 10am-5pm Saturday and Sunday to help trowel and screen for artifacts. Families can dig in the Archaeologist Training area, where kids are sure to find "artifacts," and Sunday afternoon we will also celebrate Lew's Birthday with activities, refreshments, and free tours of the Study.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Getting There

The end of the Study Restoration Project seems to be in sight! After months of weather delays, workers are installing the last of the copper. To make sure that the roof doesn't leak, all the areas of the roof have to be cut and fastened exactly, from the curved corners to the long skinny battens.
This photo was taken from the tower, looking down on the dome and lawn.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Saturday saw ice on the windshields, but that didn't keep volunteers from cleaning up the 3.5 acres of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum. Over 30 people descended on the Museum to rake, mulch, pick up branches and do general garden work.

Two trailers were filled with leaves and branches and taken to the local compost site for mulching. Volunteers worked hard, then took advantage of the sunshine for some drinks, donuts and a tour of the Study. Pansies and lobelia were planted just in time for the activities on the next two weekends.

Even after working for 2.5 hours, volunteers were still smiling and having fun. After 3 hours, the grounds and gardens are beautiful and ready for the influx of visitors.

Go Butler!!!