Saturday, April 30, 2011
Ben-Hur 1925: The Most Expensive Silent Film Ever Made
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.
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.