General Lew C. Wallace
"Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ"
THE BEN-HUR CURSE
Old Mrs. Addison had a warning for me the night I came back bragging about being hired to wrangle horses for M-G-M. She said the movie I had signed on for was cursed.
“Watch yer little fanny out there, Mr. Link, you hear me? Those people have smelled failure — and failure smells worse to the rich than it does to me and you!”
The picture was “Ben-Hur,” and it happened that she had been following it in her movie magazines almost from the get-go. Now and then as she paced across her worn linoleum floor she would shove her ragged oven mitt in my face and shake it like she was some sort of Indian medicine man warding off evil spirits.
To me, the novel “Ben-Hur” sparked only happy memories of my mother reading in a warm chair by a kerosene lamp after the dishes were done. I must have just started grade school then, because I wondered if that book had as many words in it as the big dictionary at school. In my eyes it was almost as heavy as the Link family Bible, and everyone in our town seemed to have read it, or wanted to.
The book was written by General Lew C. Wallace way back in 1880 as a sort of soldier’s penance. He had commanded troops at Shiloh and Monocacy, and he knew the miseries that war wrought. Now he wanted to share a hopeful vision for world peace. He wanted to write an epic tale of loss and redemption set in the historical time of Jesus. To get the setting right, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to the site of ancient Antioch near Syria, where the second largest Roman coliseum once stood.
As promised, Wallace’s new tale of the vanquished Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur brought inspiration to the world. It was an international bestseller whose fame spread near and far. Clubs and secret societies were named after it, and there was a whole line of soaps and other products bearing its name. In 1894, composer E.T. Paull dedicated “The Ben-Hur March” to General Lew Wallace, and it became a signature offering by John Philip Sousa’s Band at patriotic events.
By century’s end the novel became a stage play produced by A.L. Erlanger. It opened at the Broadway Theatre in November 1899, and some half-million customers came to see it the first season. The play put the two most famous incidents up there on stage: a sea battle with old-world pirates and a chariot race in which Judah Ben-Hur has a fatal showdown with his Roman betrayer, Messala. Mrs. Addison said they even had live horses on stage for the race scene, running on a treadmill against a moving canvas backdrop.
In the play’s second year, the producers rigged a display up over the theater, outlining the giant figures of two racing horses in electric bulbs. This started the trend of stringing up extra lights around theaters with a big hit show inside. It was “Ben-Hur” that turned Broadway into the avenue known the world over as the “Great White Way.”
The stage success of “Ben-Hur” spawned imitators and touring companies. Eventually, a bootstrap movie company back East tried to make its reputation with a 10-minute film version. This was only a couple years after the author’s death in 1905, and its showing was halted by court order when it was discovered that no one had paid a dime to the author’s heirs. That judge’s ruling became the basis for laws protecting authors’ rights.
No book title was more widely known to the public than “Ben-Hur” when full-length features hit it big with 1915’s “Birth of a Nation.” Motion picture companies bid for rights to the Wallace novel, still tied up with the Erlanger stage production. At one point Broadway showman Florence
Ziegfeld thought he licked the legal difficulties and announced his own movie version starring Rudolph Valentino as Judah Ben-Hur. But Ziegfeld’s plan fell through when New York’s Goldwyn Pictures Corporation inked a new contract with General Wallace’s estate for $600,000. Then the whole Goldwyn company and its rights to “Ben-Hur” were sold to Metro Pictures Corporation, and reorganized under the East coast control of Loew’s Incorporated and in Hollywood under producer Louis B. Mayer. The new outfit was christened Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924.
That’s when my landlady really started to pay attention. The “Ben-Hur” production not only needed an epic scale, it had to recoup an already huge investment. So Louis B. Mayer sent production scouts to Italy to see if it could be made for less there. Dictator Benito Mussolini was trying to get Italy’s economy back on a solid footing and welcomed a new infusion of Hollywood cash. With his promise of government support, the “Ben-Hur” company set sail for Rome.
Huge sets were constructed and a dozen sea-worthy ships were ordered built for the pirate battle. But labor problems and political actions intruded. Strikes forced production shutdowns, and then the country was wracked by storms of almost Biblical proportions. Many of the sets were demolished in floods, and the shooting of the big sea battle ended with a flash fire that destroyed the entire wooden fleet in front of the eyes of horrified filmmakers.
Louis Mayer made an emergency trip to Italy and found the production not only bogged down in labor strikes but much of the shot footage unusable. To salvage the project and save the new studio, he cut his losses and ordered the company home.
All the costly plaster molds of palace cornices and imperial eagles used to remake historic Antioch were carefully packed in crates for the Atlantic crossing. But when studio bookkeepers calculated the high import duties they would have to pay just to get them on the docks in the United States, they decided it was cheaper to dump them all at sea and pay designers and plasterers to start from scratch.
Disgusted, Louis Mayer turned over the whole project to his hand-picked production executive, frail but remarkable “Boy Wonder” Irving Thalberg. Thalberg ordered up a new cast and crew, and throughout the summer of 1925, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer oversaw construction of a new replica of the Antioch Coliseum at a cost of $205,000. It rested on several hundred acres of land in Culver City leased from the Marblehead Land Company.
Now Mrs. Addison said it was all set to go, and they were going to shoot the chariot race in a stadium packed with spectators. Ads were placed in the trade papers calling for thousands of extras, and Irving Thalberg sent out engraved invitations to all the town’s politicians, top attorneys and reigning kings and queens of the silent screen to come out and watch the filming of the most spectacular race in Hollywood history. That is what I had signed on to be part of.
“This picture has cost ’em a bundle,” Mrs. Addison said, “and if it ain’t a success, that fancy new studio of theirs will be sawed up for firewood. All the big chiefs will be back on their reservations, making gloves and peddling their scrap metal. Listen to what I say, Grover Link. This ‘Ben-Hur’ is cursed. You jes’ keep your eyes wide out there, and watch your step!”