BEHIND THE PUBLICITY MACHINE
Could a major Hollywood studio such as MGM really have covered up the deaths and mayhem on a movie set, as depicted in “The Ben-Hur Murders”?
Yes, it could have. Based on my research into the power wielded by motion picture companies in 1920s Los Angeles, there is no reason to doubt it.
By 1925, there were 16,000 theaters showing movies in the United States, bringing in several million dollars a year. American movies dominated the world. Stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin and Valentino were greeted as royalty wherever they went.
All domestic film production was centered in Hollywood, with some 75 studios working full-time and keeping many, many people employed. Greater L.A. was a rich company town, and motion pictures fueled that economy.
Most studios had their own press departments — such as the MGM publicity unit illustrated in the photo above. Publicity staffs were trained to crank out bald-faced lies and distortions on a daily basis to build up their stars and promote new releases. They were primed to do exactly the same to counteract harmful stories and head off scandals.
For decades after the filming of the big “Ben-Hur” chariot race in Culver City, rumors were passed by insiders of fatal crashes and the wanton destruction of horses. “The Ben-Hur Murders” goes behind the rumors to reconstruct what might have gone on that day.
Of course, MGM released its own official accounts of the filming. One was published by Picture Play Magazine in Jan. 1926, the month the film was beginning its nationwide roll-out. In that story by A.L. Wooldridge, the unplanned crashes on the track were miraculously harmless:
“Movie patrons will never see all that took place in that ‘Ben-Hur’ derby,” wrote Woolridge. “They will not see five chariots, twenty horses and their drivers go down in a heap. But that’s what happened in the filming. And although two or three horses in each of the five teams were on the ground, and some of the drivers buried beneath a huge pile of wreckage, not a limb was broken.”
Amazing! Movie fans in 1926 were certainly glad to read it, and the only ones in a position to refute the studio version had too much to lose.
The larger studios like MGM “owned” their contract stars and ruled over the most intimate aspects of their lives. That could mean seeing that they got special services such as studio-prescribed drugs, off-the-book abortions, arranged marriages, even U.S. citizenship.
Studio heads like Louis B. Mayer and Joseph Schenck paid handsomely to make public relations headaches disappear — whether in the press, in the courts, or even from hospital records. They not only had their own studio police force to investigate crimes, they made generous contributions to the district attorney's office, the mayor, and to the L.A. Police Department.
A big studio could keep a stable of judges on its side through charitable donations and through the granting of special access to its movie stars. “You want Lon Chaney to make a personal appearance at your son’s Halloween party, judge? He will be thrilled to be there. By the way, we hear you will be presiding over that cocaine rap against our actress, Barbara LaMarr ...”
When things happened that might prove a problem for the studio — such as when William Haines was caught taking MGM’s “Ben-Hur” star Ramon Novarro to an all-male bordello — a chief like Louis B. Mayer would want to be told so that he could protect his investment and put the fear of God into his new leading man.
As often as not, though, executives did not want to know the details of unsavory dealings that might later emerge in lawsuits or police reports. Some studios paid well to shield themselves and their investors from public embarrassments. As documented in E.J. Fleming's tell-all book “The Fixers,” MGM employed super-publicity agents like Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling to head off its stickier challenges, such as the murder of comic Ted Healy allegedly at the hands of actor Wallace Beery.
With so many livelihoods depending on the health of the studios, even low-level employees would be tempted to help protect a company's reputation. Many problems were “handled” on the front lines even before they reached the ears of the bosses.
A ‘worst catastrophe’
While MGM and other studios funded mighty public relations machines to stop potential scandals from going public, not every scandalous act needed to be turned over to the professionals. In one first-hand account published years after the phenomenal success of “Ben-Hur,” a famous MGM veteran revealed perhaps more than he intended about the willingness of the film industry to cover-up deaths on the set.
A. Arnold Gillespie was one of MGM’s leading artistic technicians throughout its glory years, moving from set designer to head of its Oscar-winning special effects department. Among other things, he worked up the earthquake for 1936’s “San Francisco” starring Clark Gable and created that awesome Midwest twister for “The Wizard of Oz.” His name is on nearly every prestige MGM release from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s.
But in 1923 Gillespie was a rookie assistant to art designer Horace Jackson, and was sent with him to Rome to oversee the location shoot of “Ben-Hur”:
“From late-1923 clear through to March of 1925, Italy was our playground,” wrote Gillespie about his early career at MGM.
What a playground! For much of those 18 months, the shoot was bogged down in labor strikes, endless delays, Italian politics, and phenomenally bad weather.
Gillespie was on hand in October 1924 when the company filmed the ill-fated sea battle that figures prominently in the movie. What happened next, according to different eyewitness accounts, is described by one fictional character in my novel, “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 ‘Hollywood Games’”:
“They were filming this big sea battle. You know, pirate ships taking on a Roman convoy. Like in the book. The way it was supposed to be, there’s this fire, see, and there’s supposed to be time to get everyone off the ships. But those dago shipbuilders, they didn’t get the vessels finished early as promised, and the decks were still fresh with tar. So the shooting starts. All at once, a ship’s on fire and the fire spreads lickety-split. Extras start diving over the side, only some of them Italians can’t swim and others got metal breast plates on. By the time the boats get to them, they’re not all there to be accounted for. Then someone notices there’s a lot of street clothes still on the racks at the end of the day. So the production chief orders them burned, and that’s the end of it. After that, any talk of drowned dagos is chalked up to hearsay and politics.”
In his published memoir, Gillespie gave us his view of what happened.
After scuttling the flagship vessel and igniting a “volatile tinder box” with an “ordinary Roman Candle,” Gillespie saw the flames spreading faster than anyone anticipated. Some 150 oar holes “served to create a reverse draft inside the ship,” he recalled.
By the time he returned on deck, the fire was everywhere and the 400 Italian extras were in a panic. All of them had claimed to be able to swim in order to get a bonus of 100 lire as “hazard pay,” but few were prepared to actually dive into the dark Mediterranean waters wearing heavy costumes.
“Many were afraid to jump overboard,” he recalled. “The flames, however, were always the prime mover. Over they would go, often with smoking wardrobe, and then immediately scramble, dog-paddle fashion, back to a hand hold somewhere on the side or the stern of the sinking ship. As she slowly slipped further and further into the water, the wild struggle for a higher something, anything, to grasp, became truly frightening. ... It seemed to me that here in the making could be motion pictures’ worst catastrophe.”
Gillespie was saved by an Italian crew foreman, and when both had made it safely ashore they found that MGM’s entire “Ben-Hur” contingent had left without them.
“A strange law, existing at that time, was to the effect that suspected culprits could be thrown into the dungeon with no immediate recourse, if apprehended within 48 hours of a supposed crime. ... The entire company, sensing the possibility of loss of life, had headed pell-mell for Rome.”
MGM wardrobe head Adolph Sidel eventually noted the many unclaimed and unaccounted for civilian outfits left on the beach, and itemized various costumes that had not been turned back in after the shooting. “It was several days later,” wrote Gillespie, “that he told me what had happened.
“Sidel, in his loyalty to the organization ... decided to destroy any remaining evidence. Alone, he burned the unclaimed apparel ... shoes, hats, and all. Only a scattered pile of ashes remained. But there was still a job to do. Bodies sometimes float and, again alone and with no witnesses, Sidel started his mission number two on that night at midnight.
“He loaded a rowboat with chains and weights and proceeded silently from Tito’s boatworks. ... It was again his plan to destroy, or rather ‘sink,’ with those weights and chains the evidence — if any.”
Gillespie concludes that no actual bodies were ever found and that it turned out, “quite miraculously,” that no one had been lost. In coming days, all the Italian extras returned with stories of being rescued “by fishing boats,” and many were outraged to find that their personal belongings had been destroyed.
There’s no reason to doubt Gillespie’s words. He was probably told there were no fatalities, and he might even have believed it.
But putting aside the issue of accidental deaths, isn’t it striking that he would repeat such a story so cavalierly for the public record? Can anyone doubt the willingness of employees back then to implicate themselves in the most serious of crimes to protect their studio?
This incident, coming so soon after one Italian stunt driver’s death in the first attempt to shoot the chariot race, hastened MGM’s costly decision to pull the plug on the production at last and bring everyone home to Culver City. At least in Hollywood the studio could safeguard its own investment and take control of what “news” was leaked to public and prosecutors.
Read more about the true behind-the-scenes drama of making “Ben-Hur” in my historical novel, “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 ‘Hollywood Games.’ ” It is available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon.com. A special hardcover edition is also now at Lulu Press.
©John W. Harding 2015