BEHIND "THE BEN HUR MURDERS"
The Jazz Age was an amazing time for “The Dream Factory” — especially if you liked studio tyrants, union thugs, gangsters and Prohibition. The Volstead Act had shut the spigot on legal spirits, but you could always nip a swig on the streets from a seller with a flask strapped to his boot-top. It was the birth of a new criminal profession — “bootlegger” — and the first thing to understand about life in 1925 is that Mr. Volstead and his pals in Congress were only kidding themselves if they thought their “act” was going to clean up the way business was done in Hollywood.
Making movies required cash, and that meant bankers and lawyers and big-money deals. You couldn’t do those deals without the free flow of liquid assets. So the tightly guarded studio gates momentarily swung open to admit a new category of criminal and black-market corruption.
“The Ben-Hur Murders” notes effects from that corruption both on the ground and up in the stands among the industry elite.
One eyewitness that day is a determined Canadian beauty seated up in the V.I.P. stalls. Norma Shearer fears that her career in silent films is coming to an end unless she can advance her position at M-G-M. So she has come out to support the new studio. But she is really there to do whatever it takes to bag its aloof “Boy Wonder,” production executive Irving Thalberg.
Another actor playing an important role that day is the film’s handsome star, Ramón Novarro, Hollywood’s first Mexican leading man. He is M-G-M's answer to Italian screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. The role of Judah Ben-Hur is meant to establish him, but his recent escapades in an all-male bordello have horrified studio chief Louis B. Mayer. What would happen if the newspapers learned the truth about the star of their expensive new religious picture?
Also on the set that day is Baltimore native son Francis X. Bushman, who hasn't had a major screen role since being caught in a love tryst that ended in a messy divorce scandal. He has reluctantly signed on to play the Roman villain Messala in the hopes of re-igniting his screen career.
Along the way to untangling the day's mysteries, we learn the truth about the failing marriage of “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, to the ever-dashing Douglas Fairbanks, and gain insights into such flamboyant celebrities as Buster Keaton, Barbara LaMarr and Constance Talmadge.
Soft-pedaled by authorities and covered up by a fawning L.A. press, the day, its dreams, and its scandals live on in Hollywood lore:
Back before the Market crashed,
When Freedom reigned —
Dreams still Rode
On the Wheels of Chariots ...