Though I’ve never read the book, I’ve heard the 1925 Ben-Hur is much closer to the source material than the 1959 remake. Published on 12 November 1880, General Lew Wallace’s religious historical novel became a giant bestseller after slow initial sales and in spite of mixed reviews from critics. No matter how critics panned the writing, the reading public ate it up like candy. It was inevitable it’d eventually be adapted for the stage, and then the silver screen. The first film version was in 1907.
The stage play toured from 1899–1921, and was seen by about 20 million people. The grand spectacle, as in the film, was the chariot race. The first film adaptation was made without the permission of General Wallace’s estate, and was the subject of a copyright lawsuit. The ruling established a precedent which stands to this day, that film companies must secure the rights to adapt copyrighted work instead of just blazing ahead without permission.
In 1922, the Goldwyn company (the future MGM) bought the book’s film rights for quite a hefty sum on condition the play’s producer, Abraham Erlanger, have complete approval of every single detail. Filming began in October 1923 in Rome, with Charles Brabin (Theda Bara’s husband) as the original director. Before long, production costs went through the roof. After two years, production returned to Culver City and the newly-created MGM. The total cost was $3.9 million, which is about $52,892,022.86 in today’s currency.
It would seem as though the investment paid off, as the film made $9 million worldwide, but it was actually a net financial loss for MGM, not just because of the mammoth expenses but also because of the deal with Erlanger. In addition to getting complete approval over all the details, Erlanger also demanded a 50% profit. The total loss was $698,000. However, in spite of the loss, the film was a great success for MGM’s reputation. Both critics and viewers loved it. Ben-Hur‘s success really put the newborn MGM on the map, and proved boy wonder producer Irving G. Thalberg really knew what he was doing.
The film was re-released in 1931, with just as much success, earning $1,352,000 and making a profit of $779,000. Over the decades, the Technicolor scenes were supplanted by black-and-white versions. Eventually, the Technicolor scenes came to be considered lost. Miraculously, they were discovered in a Czech film archive during the 1980s. The currently-available restoration is absolutely beautiful, with the usual awesome score by Carl Davis.
Ben-Hur made Ramón Novarro into a huge superstar. Rudy Valentino wisely decided not to take that role, since he felt it would’ve been a huge peak against which he’d always be judged, with nowhere to go but down. As much as I love Rudy, I honestly can’t imagine him as Judah Ben-Hur. Ramón is absolutely perfect in the role. After Rudy’s tragic death in 1926, Ramón emerged as the leading Latin lover of the silver screen, though John Gilbert was still the most popular male actor overall. The film also gave Francis X. Bushman’s career a big boost, though thanks to the petty, vindictive Louis B. Mayer, his career was prevented from rising as high as it could’ve.