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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) Poster

Trivia

This film had an "extra" cast like no other. Many Hollywood stars showed up on set to watch the shooting and were pressed into service as extras, especially in the chariot race. In addition, many who would later become Hollywood's top stars, but who were at the time just struggling actors, were also in the crowd scenes as extras. Among well-known and soon-to-be-well-known names "working" in the film were John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Marion Davies, Myrna Loy, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Harold Lloyd, Carole Lombard, Janet Gaynor, Fay Wray, Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Samuel Goldwyn and Rupert Julian.
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The troubled Italian set was eventually torn down and a new one built in Culver City, California. The famed chariot race was shot with 42 cameras, which consumed 200,000 feet of film. Second-unit director B. Reeves Eason offered a bonus to the winning driver who won the race. The final pile-up was filmed later; the stuntmen for the chariot race scene were not seriously injured, but several horses were killed during production.
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According to The Guinness Book of World Records (2002), the movie contains the most edited scene in cinema history. Editor Lloyd Nosler compressed 200,000 feet (60,960 meters) of film into a mere 750 feet (228.6 meters) for the chariot race scene - a ratio of 267:1 (film shot to film shown).
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At $3.9 million, this was the most expensive film of the silent era.
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The famous chariot scene was filmed at what is now the intersection of La Cienega and Venice Boulevards in Los Angeles.
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Producer Irving Thalberg was short of "hedonist slave girls", so he called up Hal Roach and Mack Sennett to ask a favor: to loan out their famous "Bathing Beauties". They were happy to oblige, as many girls were making their film debuts. Among the group of 20 or so girls who eventually appeared in the film: Janet Gaynor, Carole Lombard, Fay Wray and Joyzelle Joyner.
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Ben Hur shows much nudity in certain scenes of the film scenes, but film censorship boards approved the movie, anyway, due to the depiction of the beginning of Christianity.
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The first attempt to film the chariot race was on a set in Rome, but there were problems with shadows and the racetrack surface. Then one of the chariots' wheels came apart and the stuntman driving it was thrown in the air and killed. See also Ben-Hur (1959).
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MGM inherited the production of Ben Hur when the company was founded in 1924; with the film over budget and getting out of control, the studio halted production and relocated the shoot from Italy to California, under the supervision of Irving Thalberg. William Wyler, one of more than 60 assistant directors for the chariot race, went on to direct the remake Ben-Hur (1959).
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Future Hollywood stars Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy, who were uncredited extras in the chariot race scenes, also played slave girls in Ben Hur.
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A staged fire on one of the ships got out of control. Armor-clad extras had to jump in the water. There is conflicting information as to whether any of them were killed.
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The cast was rumored to be over 125,000 people.
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The religious scenes in Ben Hur were filmed in Technicolor, but the chariot race were filmed in regular tinted black & white film, due to the intense amount of light that was required to shoot in Technicolor, making production in this film extremely difficult at times.
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Ben Hur was advertised as "The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!"
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Although the film grossed $9 million on its initial run, its huge cost overruns and the deal with rights-holder Abraham L. Erlanger meant that MGM was unable to make good on its initial $4-million investment. It was not until a 1931 re-release did it make a profit.
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Clark Gable and his future wife Carole Lombard first met in late 1924 while working as extras on the set of this film. They would run into each other off and on again for the next year and a half (the two also appeared as extras in the epic The Johnstown Flood (1926)), but would not formally meet until 1931.
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Forty-eight cameras were used to film the sea battle, a record for a single scene.
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Ramon Novarro's weekly salary of $10,000 was 80 times more than what he earned while filming The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) - $125 per week - just three years previously.
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During a European visit to move the production from Italy to the US, producer Louis B. Mayer stopped in Berlin, Germany, and attended a screening of The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924). The production introduced him to the actress who would become one of the studio's most bankable stars a few years later: Greta Garbo.
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This production used more that 600 gallons of Max Factor's Liquid Body Make-up.
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Actor George Walsh, the original choice for Ben-Hur, agreed to take a $400 cut in salary, and was sent second-class on a ship to Italy, only to shoot one reel of film, a test with an unidentified Italian actor that was not intended for use in the finished film. He then heard, several months later, that he was being replaced with Ramon Novarro when co-star Francis X. Bushman told him he had read about it in the morning papers.
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Author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda Fitzgerald became friendly with many of the cast and crew while in Rome revising his book "The Great Gatsby". They attended a cast/crew dinner on Christmas Eve, honoring director Fred Niblo and his wife Enid Bennett. Zelda, among others, signed one of the dinner menus, which became the possession of Carmel Myers, who played Iras in the film. The menu is now in the archives of the University of South Carolina library.
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After being brought to Italy, many of the lead actors were kept waiting around (on salary) for so long that Francis X. Bushman went on a 25-country tour with his sisters, and Carmel Myers went to Germany to film Garragan (1924).
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The religious scenes, plus Ben Hur's entrance into Rome and some interior scenes that occur thereafter, were shot in two-strip Technicolor.
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For the sea battle, scores of extras were required to play galley slaves and Roman soldiers. Because of the high unemployment figures in Italy, many extras desperate to get a job, lied that they could swim when they were being hired. An accident on the boat, and the fact that no one was sure how many extras were involved in the scene, caused great unease among the MGM management. Rumour has it that afterwards the production manager and his assistants took a boat out, and brought chains with them, to weigh down any bodies they might find floating on the surface.
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Abraham L. Erlanger was the producer of a very successful stage production that had been running for 25 years. In 1922, two years after the play's last tour, the Goldwyn Company purchased the film rights, though Erlanger insisted on a generous profit participation deal and total approval over every detail of the production.
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The budget skyrocketed due to all sorts of accidents, recastings and a change of director halfway through production.
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Many of the scenes in this film, interestingly enough, were NOT remade in the more popular 1959 version of the story. Among these are the three Wise Men's journey through the desert, Mary and Joseph seeking refuge in the manger, and the scene in which Messala enlists the help of Iris to discover the identity of his chariot-racing opponent.
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At one point during the Italian shoot, Francis X. Bushman was offered the job of directing the picture which he readily declined. He stated that he told the head office (MGM Culver City) to get the production back to Los Angeles or they would never get it completed. Bushman had been in Italy for the film from 1923-1925.
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Both Rudolph Valentino and Buck Jones were considered for the role of Judah Ben-Hur.
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The film was marketed in the trailer as "The Supreme Motion Picture Masterpiece of All Time".
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The sea battle was filmed at Anzio, Italy. Many extras apparently lied about being able to swim, but due to political troubles engulfing Italy at the time, tension between Fascist supporters of Benito Mussolini and their opponents was evident.
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According to press interviews with her, Carmel Myers (who played Iras) spent a lot of time shopping while on location for this film in Italy, leaving to go to major European capitals. The blond wig that Iras wears in her first scene was bought by Myers on a shopping trip to Vienna.
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The nine 2-strip Technicolor sequences totaled 1029 ft, about 9% of the complete 11,693 ft. (12 reels).
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Included among the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 400 movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
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When it opened at the Tivoli on The Strand in London it ran for 49 weeks.
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One of the chariots from this film was at one point housed in The Crocker Museum in Hollywood, the first museum dedicated to props and other artifacts from American films. The museum was started by actor Harry Crocker, circa 1928, and was located on Sunset Blvd.
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When the production was foundering, studio boss Irving Thalberg replaced director Charles Brabin with Fred Niblo.
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May McAvoy replaced Gertrude Olmstead in the role of Esther.
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According to an article in the December 1923 issue of American Cinematographer, John W. Boyle brought three motorized Bell & Howell cameras to Italy for use during the film's first phase of production.
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Second-unit director B. Reeves Eason had 62 assistant directors when working on the chariot race.
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Cast members Charles Belcher and Gilbert Clayton were cast in the middle of production, in January, 1925.
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Stewart Copeland of The Police composed a score for an abridged version of the movie, which premiered in 2014 at the Virginia Arts Festival.
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Assuming its copyright has not lapsed already, this film and all others produced in 1925 enter the U.S. public domain in 2021.
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According to Kevin Brownlow's book "The Parade's Gone By", Ben Lyon tested for the role of Judah Ben-Hur.
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