A Video Tour of the Souvenir Program from BEN-HUR (1925) with Musical Accompaniment from the 1931 Reissue

MGM spared no expense in producing its massive silent film version of BEN-HUR and, frankly, the story behind the making of this film is a great tale in its own right. Filming began in Italy with different actors in the lead roles, except for Francis X. Bushman playing the villain Messala. He remained in the role despite everybody else being replaced including the director. All told, Bushman worked on the film for about two years!

Constant labor strikes in Italy created huge cost overruns, so the studio decided to shut down filming, scrap most of the Italian footage, and start over again in Hollywood. It turned out to be a wise move. The massive production was eventually completed and had its astounding premiere in December 1925. It was a massive success following in the wake of the best-selling novel by Gen. Lew Wallace, and the ever-popular stage version that brought real horses onstage for the chariot race.

Without further ado, let’s enjoy a video tour of the original souvenir program from BEN-HUR‘s roadshow engagements. I added original color lobby cards and photos colorized by yours truly. To top it off, I added music from the soundtrack of the film’s reissue in 1931.

An original glass slide that was projected onto movie theater screens to promote BEN-HUR:

The Original BEN-HUR (1925)

Ben-Hur 3

This month marks the release of the third version of BEN-HUR, using all the technical and computer wizardry of 2016. However this new version is received, the property has a long and successful history. It began as a novel written by General Lew Wallace in the 1880s. The book became a blockbuster bestseller and was no flash in the pan. It remained a top seller for many years thereafter. By 1899 the story was adapted into a hit play and featured live horses on stage for the chariot race. A one-reel film version (about ten minutes long) was made in 1907 that became famous but for a reason that had nothing to do with its popularity. The film company, Kalem, neglected to obtain permission from the book publisher and was sued for copyright infringement. The publisher, Harper Bros., won and the lawsuit became a landmark decision: the first time that a film company was sued for intellectual property violations. But the first feature-length production was made by MGM and released in 1925  at the height of the silent film era. After many problems, it too lived up to its heritage and became another huge blockbuster.

The film was riddled with production problems mainly due to the decision to make the picture in Italy. Although the Italian government promised its full cooperation, repeated labor strikes crippled the filming and finally the production was shut down and returned to California. BEN-HUR was completed in the good ol’ USA. Ultimately, the title role was played by Mexican actor Ramon Novarro. His treacherous friend Messala was played by veteran Francis X. Bushman who had been a film star since 1912!Ben Hur and Messala Final

Messala falsely accuses Judah of attempting to kill the Roman governor and he is sentenced to be a galley slave for life. The famous sea battle was filmed with full-sized ships on the Mediterranean. Novarro with Frank Currier playing the Roman general whose life he saved during the sea battle: Ben Hur on the sea Final

Lovely May McAvoy played Esther, the romantic interest of Judah Ben-Hur:BenHur1927

Idris, the slinky siren who helps Messala, was played by Carmel Myers:Ben Hur Messala adras

Idras attempts to seduce Judah before the great chariot race:movie_poster_ben_hur_1925_2-normal

Messala believes that Judah died as a galley slave and is shocked to find him alive and his chief rival in the chariot race. Talk about a grudge match!

Ben Hur Early shot Final

The chariot race took three weeks to film and employed 42 cameramen. Ben Hur autocolor 2

A behind-the-scenes photo:Ben Hur 5 Final Final

Intertwined with the fictional story of Ben-Hur was the Biblical story of Jesus Christ and how the two men met at crucial times in Judah’s life. Betty Bronson played the Blessed Virgin Mary:Betty Bronson copy_Final

A magazine ad for the film (color added):Ben hur (2) copy_Final

When sound films replaced the silents, BEN-HUR was re-issued in 1931 with a soundtrack of music and effects – and made another fortune!LC 3be

A number of artifacts from the film survive such as Messala’s helmet that Bushman wore for the chariot race:10657833_2

Watch the trailer (as enhanced by your blogmeister with music from the 1931 re-issue):

Best of all, the 1925 BEN-HUR is available on DVD today, complete with original Technicolor sequences,  and is shown frequently on Turner Classic Movies. Here is an original glass slide that was projected onto movie screens to advertise the film:Slide

 

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