Ben-Hur at 90, Part III (Why I far prefer the original)

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Exhibit A: The Leading Man

Whom do you find more believable as a Middle Eastern Jew who ages from 17–25, the Mexican-born Ramón Novarro, or Charlton Heston, of British and Scottish descent?

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Obviously, good actors can make you believe in their performances even if they’re not exactly like their characters. Ramón was gay in real life, but that doesn’t mean I disbelieve the romances he has with women in his films. I can’t help but wonder how he really felt inside, being forced to do these romantic scenes when he wasn’t attracted to women, but it’s not something that distracts me from enjoying a movie.

Ramón was also in his early twenties while the picture was being shot, as compared to how Heston was 36. Heston was way too old to believably play a young man, whereas Ramón was not only in his character’s real age range, but also had very soft, boyish facial features which kept him looking young. In spite of his baby face, he was totally able to look more stereotypically masculine when the scene called for it. The 1959 remake had to alter the script so Ben-Hur starts out older than he is in the book.

Plus, I just feel Ben-Hur’s character so much more with Ramón. He gets lost in his character and makes us believe he’s not just acting. Let’s be honest, Heston didn’t exactly have a huge amount of range or subtlety, and comes across as wooden more often than not. He’s physically but not emotionally compelling, even in scenes which are supposed to be very emotional and dramatic.

Exhibit B: Length and Focus!

The 1925 original is almost 2.5 hours, but the time goes by like that, and I’m never thinking about how much time is passing. The focus is also on all the right places, without too much time spent on subplots like the plight of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister or the scenes from the life of Jesus. Obviously, those subplots are an important part of the story, but since this isn’t a story with multiple leading characters, the focus remains right where it should, on Ben-Hur.

The remake is 3.5 hours, which wouldn’t be a problem at all for me if it were actually a riveting, focused story. I adore long films, just as I adore long books, but the length has to work for that particular story. A gripping film can last 5 hours and feel like only 15 minutes have gone by because it’s that good, whereas a bad film that’s less than an hour long can seem to drag on forever.

A lot of scenes in the remake could’ve been shortened or cut, particularly all the “As you know, Bob” dialogue. I understand wanting to not be an exact remake, but that still could’ve been accomplished by cutting a lot of fat. Sometimes it seems like they just wanted to show off their costumes and sets, the epic scope, and the massive cast. Until the famous chariot race, the remake moves pretty slowly for me, above and beyond a typical film which just takes longer than usual to establish itself and get to the action.

Exhibit C: Timelessness

I’ll be honest, the Fifties and Sixties aren’t my favorite decades for film. I’m not saying I think every single film is awful or that there were only a few good films made during that time, but in general, it really seems like a lot of films from that era haven’t aged too well. I’m just not a fan of the acting style from that era. The original film meanwhile speaks a universal language with silence, and doesn’t need such frequent dialogue to convey a great story.

I often have a feeling akin to, “I’m watching a person from the Fifties/Sixties, acting in a movie made in the Fifties/Sixties, instead of watching an actor in a movie that just so happens to have been made in [any other decade].”

Exhibit D: Emotional Impact

As I said, Heston is physically but not emotionally compelling, whereas Ramón really gets lost in his character and comes across as far more than just someone playing a role. Ramón also had more than one basic facial expression. Due to the remake’s length, a lot of things are unnecessarily drawn out, whereas the original kept them focused and to the point. The leprosy storyline in particular is much better done in the original. It just felt unemotional and unrealistic in the remake.

Exhibit E: The Subtitle

For a film with the subtitle A Tale of the Christ, the remake really doesn’t spend an awful lot of time depicting the life of Jesus or the religious message found in the original. It even completely removes the rather important storyline about how Ben-Hur becomes a Jesus follower. Their encounter on the Via Dolorosa is so much more emotional and believable in the original.

What the Remake Does Get Right:

The chariot race. While I find the silent version more dramatic, the sound version is still quite good.

Better development of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. In the original, Messala is a villain almost from the jump, and we don’t really get a plausible sense he and Ben-Hur were ever best friends or why Messala turned on him so quickly.

A dark-featured Esther (Haya Harareet). May McAvoy was really pretty and portrayed innocence well, and there’s honestly no such thing as “looking Jewish,” but by first century standards, it’s a lot less likely a Jewish woman would’ve had blonde curls and blue eyes. Their relationship also has more substance, though I didn’t feel any real chemistry.

Ben-Hur at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ben-Hur at 90, Part I (General overview)

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Welcome to Ben-Hur week, as I celebrate one of my favoritest films on its 90th anniversary! Part I is a plot synopsis, Part II will look behind the scenes, and Part III will compare and contrast the 1925 masterpiece with the 1959 remake. It’s a shame the 1925 film only got a DVD release as an extra on the 50th anniversary edition of the Charlton Heston version.

Released on 31 December 1925, Ben-Hur was directed by Fred Niblo and stars Ramón Novarro (my next-favorite male actor), Francis X. Bushman (who’s awesome as villain Messala), May McAvoy (who later played Al Jolson’s love interest in The Jazz Singer), Carmel Myers, Kathleen Key, Claire McDowell, and Betty Bronson. Many big-name moviestars also appear as extras during the chariot race, including Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, John Gilbert, John and Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, and Joan Crawford.

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Ramón plays Prince Judah Ben-Hur, whose life intertwines with Jesus’s several times. The film opens with the familiar story of the birth of Jesus, and the Nativity scene is the first of a number of scenes in beautiful two-strip Technicolor. Most of the Technicolor scenes depict the life of Jesus, but some involve the other characters.

The cruel Gratus has just become the leader of Roman Judea, and the widowed Princess Ben-Hur sends her loyal slave Simonides to Antioch to hide the family fortune. Shortly afterwards, we’re introduced to Simonides’s beautiful daughter Esther (May McAvoy), who buys a dove by the market. Her new pet escapes into the crowd, and the handsome returning Judah Ben-Hur goes to rescue it and return it to its owner. This scene establishes Ben-Hur as a really good guy, with a good heart, someone we can love and root for.

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Ben-Hur comes home and is joyfully greeted by his mother and sister Tirzah. When he steps outside, he runs across his old friend Messala, who’s risen to become a Tribune. Messala holds himself aloof in front of his Roman friends, but privately warmly receives his old buddy. Ben-Hur invites him into his home, and tells him to once more regard it as his own, and his mother and sister as family.

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The rekindling of this old friendship is short-lived, however, as Messala has grown to feel the Jewish people are inferior to the Romans and need brought to heel. Ben-Hur stands up for himself and his people, and Messala warns him what might happen if he says such treasonous things again, even to an old friend.

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The Ben-Hurs go onto their balcony to watch Gratus arriving in a parade, and a tile accidentally breaks off and hits Gratus on the head. Messala immediately blames Ben-Hur, and sends thugs after them. Ben-Hur begs for them to punish him as severely as they want, but to let his mother and sister free. His plea falls on deaf ears, and they’re all taken away.

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Ben-Hur is driven through the desert on his way to becoming a galley slave, and almost dies of thirst. Wouldn’t you know it, they’re passing through Nazareth, and Jesus takes a break from carpentry to give the parched slave a generous ladle of water from a well. I mean absolutely no disrespect, but I’ve always found it kind of creepy how Jesus is only represented by a hand in this film. I’m not aware of any mainstream Christian custom of not depicting Jesus, the way it’s forbidden to give a face to Mohammad in Islamic art! If you can think of a plausible reason why the director used this device, let me know in the comments.

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Ben-Hur serves as a galley slave for three years, his spirit still unbroken thanks to the lust for revenge coursing through his veins. The ship’s commander, Quintus Arrius, likes his free spirit, and orders him to be unchained when the ship is besieged by a whole fleet of pirates. Ben-Hur comes to his rescue during the attack, and they escape on a raft. When they sight a Roman ship, Arrius begs Ben-Hur to take his ring to buy his freedom and says he can’t face his people after what happened. However, Arrius is greeted like a great hero instead of a coward, and introduces Ben-Hur as his adopted son.

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As Arrius’s heir, Ben-Hur becomes a celebrated athlete and the owner of a very large fortune. However, he can’t forget his mother and sister, and goes to Antioch after hearing Simonides is there. Simonides has given the family up for dead and taken over their fortune, and pretends not to know him at first. His fear is Esther will become a slave if one of his former masters is still alive, and of course they’ll lose their fortune.

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While in Antioch, Sheik Ilderim recruits Ben-Hur as a replacement for a chariot driver who just deceased himself. Ben-Hur isn’t interested at first, but immediately changes his tune when he discovers he’ll be competing against Messala. The chariot race is one of the most famous scenes of silent cinema, and absolutely gripping. Though Ben-Hur emerges victorious and leaves Messala humiliated and stripped of his fortune, he still wants revenge on the Romans, and believes fighting for Jesus will accomplish this lofty goal.

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This is one of the all-time greatest films of the silent era, and I’m far from the only one who considers it far superior to the Charlton Heston remake. Your film education isn’t complete if you haven’t seen this masterpiece. Though it runs almost two and a half hours, the time flies by like nothing and just pulls the viewer in. Hopefully someday it’ll have its own DVD release instead of being tacked onto another film’s coattails!

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”

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Summer Reeves of Serendipitous Anachronisms is hosting her very first blogathon, France on Film. Day one, Friday, covers actual French cinema, and day two, Saturday, covers France as a subject. For the list of participants, click the button above.
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My subject is Scaramouche, released 15 September 1923, directed by Rex Ingram (one of my favorite silent era directors), and starring the gorgeous Ramón Novarro (my next-favorite male actor), the underrated Alice Terry (Mr. Ingram’s wife), Lewis Stone (who’s best-remembered as Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy series), and Lloyd Ingraham. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini. The novel has the awesome opening line “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” which eventually was to become the epitaph on Mr. Sabatini’s gravestone.

Though I’m normally not mad about silent costume dramas (frequently too many intertitles, and everyone looks the same in a powdered wig), I’ve adored this film from the very first time I saw it. It just pulls the viewer in, and the time goes by like nothing. I don’t even think of how much time is passing, too engrossed in the unfolding, gripping story.

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Young André-Louis Moreau comes home to the village of Gavrillac after two years at law school in Paris, with his best friend Phillippe de Vilmorin, a divinity student. They discover a local man was murdered for poaching on the Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr’s estate, as a warning for others who might have the same idea. This is in violation of a decree from the National Assembly and accepted by King Louis XVI, saying nobility must stop all tyranny and oppression.

Whom but the Marquis himself should presently come to the scene of the crime, where Phillippe calls him out for what he’s done. The Marquis brushes him off, and Phillippe slaps him. This leads to a duel in which the Marquis kills Phillippe. André is consumed with heartbreak and rage, and vows revenge. Things get even worse when he goes to his godfather, Quintin de Kercadiou, only to discover the Marquis has begun courting Kercadiou’s niece Aline. André and Aline were in love when he left for Paris, and she promised to wait for him while she was away at the Versailles court.

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Kercadiou thinks the idea of justice against such an important personage is madness, and additionally says there can be no trouble with him because of his relationship with Aline. Undeterred, André goes to the town of Rennes to petition the King’s Lieutenant by the Palace of Justice. At first the Lieutenant is very moved and asks who did this, but immediately turns on André when he names the guilty party. He refuses to believe such a great personage could’ve done such a thing.

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André is righteously outraged, and rakes the Lieutenant over the coals for caring more about rank than blind justice. He also gets in a humorous dig at the Lieutenant’s less than attractive appearance. The Lieutenant calls for André’s arrest, but André escapes and joins a large crowd listening to a student orator. When the young radical is shot down, André bravely takes his place. He’s shortly grazed by a bullet from the Palace of Justice, and then the dragoons ride out to break up the crowd. André goes into hiding, and ends up in the company of a wandering theatre troupe headed by the vulgar Challefau Binet.

Thanks to André’s plays, the troupe becomes much more successful, eventually going all the way to an important theatre in Paris. Since he doesn’t want to divulge his true identity, he calls himself Monsieur X. At a performance of his latest play, Figaro-Scaramouche, he and Aline catch sight of one another. La Tour is also there, and flirts with Binet’s daughter, Climène. André doesn’t yet know this, and when Aline comes to beg for another chance, he claims he and Climène are engaged and that he prefers a humble woman who doesn’t care about some lofty title.

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Aline is now living by a Countess Thérèse de Plougastel, and when La Tour comes into Aline’s booth, she introduces him to the Countess. It’s obvious from their body language they’ve met before and have some kind of less than pleasant history.

André ends his association with the Binets after discovering Climène has been out consorting with La Tour, and the feeling is very mutual. She has high aspirations for herself, and doesn’t think André is good enough. I love André’s line “I had begun to think you grotesque, but you are just vile—both of you!”

Around the same time, Aline tells La Tour she never wants to see him again, and after she leaves, the Countess says his old habits persist and that Aline saw him messing around with that theatre girl. At first she refuses to help them reunite, but La Tour reminds her he knows a secret from her past.

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By his final theatre performance, André steps out of character and delivers a stirring speech against La Tour. The people are roused to action, and melée breaks out. After this, André first opens a fencing academy on Rue du Hazard and then is convinced to join the National Assembly as the Rennes deputy. La Tour and his fellow aristocrats silence their Assembly opponents in duels, and André is more than up to responding in kind. He finally gets his longed-for duel with La Tour, but lets him get off with just a wounded arm.

When the uprising of 10 August 1792 hits, everyone’s lives are in danger, and André goes to rescue Aline. However, in spite of his permission to come and go from Paris as he sees fit, this mission won’t be easily accomplished. I won’t spoil anything that happens in the climactic final quarter of the film!

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I love a good historical drama and long film, and Scaramouche doesn’t disappoint on any level. Maybe the French Revolution is an overdone setting, but when the story is so strong and original, it shouldn’t matter how many times we’ve seen films and read books set in this time and place.