Wednesday, February 20, 2013

1925 Ben-Hur and its Cast of Unknowns

The two leading actors in the 1925 silent movie version of Ben-Hur, Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman, are still well remembered. Many of the others who played lead roles in the movie and were famous in their day have fallen into relative obscurity. Because of the large crowd needed for the Chariot race, it’s not surprising that famous actors like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, John Gilbert, Sam Goldwyn, Dorothy & Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman, Colleen Moore, and Harold Lloyd were pressed into service. What’s surprising is the number of actors and actresses who worked as unbilled players or extras, unknown at the time but who went on to fame and fortune.

Among the lesser lights who made early screen appearances in Ben-Hur were Gary Cooper and Clark Gable as uncredited Roman guards. Beyond these two men, the list of guards is noteworthy, but the list of uncredited slave girls is equally significant. While the names of many of the girls who toiled, twirled and danced as slaves have been lost, the list of those who have been identified is impressive. Among these actresses are:

Janet Gaynor
• Janet Gaynor, who went on the win the very first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1927 just two years after Ben-Hur. Gaynor then became one of the most accomplished actresses to make the transition from silent to talking pictures. After a string of successes in the 1930s, Gaynor largely retired from the industry in 1938 shortly after the release of A Star is Born. Gaynor was nominated for best actress in this film that was nominated for seven academy awards, including best picture. Beyond Gaynor’s performance, this film is remembered as the first color film nominated for best picture.

Carole Lombard
• Carole Lombard, who was born in Fort Wayne and went by the nickname the Hoosier Tornado. Lombard was one of the most beloved actresses in Hollywood and met future husband, Clark Gable on the set of Ben-Hur. Beyond her extraordinary film career, she was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by Franklin Roosevelt as the first woman killed in the line of duty during World War II.

Myrna Loy
• Myrna Loy, who was discovered by Rudolph Valentino’s wife, played a variety of roles and by the mid-1930s was considered the Queen of Hollywood movies to Clark Gables’ King. Her work included the Thin Man series and an extraordinary film, The Best Years of Our Lives. Beyond her film career, Loy was an outspoken critic of Adolph Hitler ultimately making his blacklist, was Co-Chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee against discrimination in housing - exposing segregation in federally funded projects, and was the first actress to work for the United Nations (UNESCO) as a film advisor.

Although they haven’t been officially identified, some speculate that Sally Rand, who was famous for her ostrich feather fan dances, and Fay Wray, who went on to greater things as the girl friend to King Kong, also made screen appearances as seductive slave girls.

The impact of the 1925 film version of Ben-Hur resonated throughout Hollywood and the film industry for years. It assured the survival of MGM as a major studio, it put “business” in the driver’s seat in show business as accountants and financiers took firm control of creative projects, and it gave countless numbers of struggling young actors and actresses precious time on screen as they rose from obscurity to become leaders in Hollywood for decades.

The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum celebrates and renews belief in the power of the individual spirit to affect American history and culture.

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