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.
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.