Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ben-Hur - 1925 and 1959

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and Ben-Hur (1959) dramatize the novel from 1880 by Lew Wallace about a wealthy Jewish prince during the time of the Roman occupation of Judea who was sent into slavery by his old friend, now a Roman soldier who aspires to political high office. Judah Ben-Hur will eventually avenge himself, sorrow and suffer, and his path will cross many times with Jesus Christ until the moment of Christ’s Passion. The story combines so many elements dear to Hollywood: a successful novel, a biblical epic wherein images of suffering, torture, a certain degree of salaciousness, are permitted because they are deemed biblical, including a showing fair degree of muscled legs and chest of our hero, and the opportunity to appear as if they are enlightening their public as much as entertaining them. We mark the annual crisscrossing of Passover and Easter with this story of Ben-Hur.

The original feature-length movie from 1925, being a silent movie, and being predominantly in black and white, except for some two-strip Technicolor scenes, is obviously different from the blockbuster 1959 multiple Oscar-winner, which was made in color, and where every sound from grunts and groans, the hoofbeats during the chariot race, a relentless hammering of the wooden mallet on the drum to mark the time of the galley slaves rowing, is gloriously and intimately recorded. It was also shot in a widescreen process allowing us a view of everything on either side of the principal characters in the scene, thereby allowing our eyes, and our minds, to wander.

Astonishingly, however, there is much about both movies that is quite similar, including much of the chariot race and the scenes leading up to the race. The 1925 version is a little closer to the novel, but it is no less an opportunity to embrace all that is lavish and lush about an era in Hollywood where there was no CGI and those thousands of people we see in the arena and on the rocky hillsides and the lonely road to Calvary, were real people and not embedded by computer-aided graphics. One might even note that the naval battle in the 1925 version is actually a little more impressive than the 1959 version because it does not appear so much like models in the M-G-M pool.

One of the great delights of the Easter season is watching these old Hollywood epics on regular broadcast television. As we know, broadcast TV rarely shows classic films these days; they are to be found only on retro channels and on TCM, so fewer people are exposed to classic films today. And though broadcast TV does include those pesky commercials, does include edits which are extremely annoying to us old movie fans, there is still something wonderfully egalitarian about being able to see them for free, especially when one is sated after the holiday family meal and the kids are tired out from a long day of festivities and the whole family can gather in front of the TV and watch Hollywood’s ambitious take on the deeper meaning of the season.

Of course, Hollywood’s take on the deeper meaning is never all that deep, but it is entertaining and picturesque, sometimes as magnificent a feast for the eye as the old Renaissance masters’ versions of biblical events; their views were also slanted viewpoints. We could note that the scene of the Last Supper in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur looks almost exactly like the da Vinci painting. Of course, that was da Vinci’s version of the Last Supper, which probably did not happen on a long rectangular table with all twelve apostles and Christ sitting on one side of the table like the dais at a Friars roast. More likely they were all seated together on the floor, dipping pieces of their unleavened bread into a communal dish. And the lighting wasn’t as good.

The other fun aspect about watching biblical epics is that they always end up containing a dream team of players. Sometime or other we’re going to have to discuss The Ten Commandments (1956), a movie I cannot think of without recalling Edward G. Robinson in one of his most campy roles. Just hearing his gangster delivery makes me laugh. (Or was that Billy Crystal?) But that is Hollywood.

It was in The Ten Commandments that Charlton Heston first became famous for the biblical genre. He played Moses in that epic free-for-all, and he comes to the 1959 Ben-Hur with that under his belt. Sam Jaffe and Finlay Currie as well as Martha Scott are the old-timers from classic films here, but they are joined by popular actors of the day such as Stephen Boyd, and Hugh Griffith, who with great panache plays Sheik Ilderim. Newcomer Haya Harareet plays Esther in what was intended to be a dash of authenticity in this version. Ms. Harareet was herself from Israel, born before that country was established when it was still part of British Palestine. She made only a handful of films after that however.  Director William Wyler cast most of the Romans with British actors and most of the Jews with American actors, because he felt the distinction in accents would help differentiate them in the minds of the viewers.  It seems that most Romans in the old epics were played by Brits, which may lead many of us to assume Caesar studied at Oxford.

The 1925 version of Ben-Hur, untroubled by the need for different accents, we also have a dream team of sorts.  Except for star Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman, the movie features a large cast of actors who are predominantly unknown even to classic film buffs. This might give the film more of a purity in the sense that we come to the story without any preconceived notions about the actors playing the roles. However, most of us would be delightfully shocked to discover that many of the Hollywood stars of the day played uncredited bit parts in this movie, lending themselves to crowd scenes, including John and Lionel Barrymore, who supposedly were spectators at the chariot race, as was director Clarence Brown, Joan Crawford and Marion Davis, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, as well as producer Samuel Goldwyn. Even theater owner Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was there in the stands. Gary Cooper is supposed to have played a Roman guard, as was Clark Gable. Janet Gaynor and Myrna Loy played slave girls. I did not see them, but I promise you I’m going to watch this movie over and over again until I can find them. Let me know if you do.  I don’t think there has ever been such a collection of future stars in bit parts in the same movie.

There actually is something very pure and very innocent and strikingly emotional in the 1925 silent Ben- Hur. Directed by Fred Niblo, June Mathis was the scriptwriter, and we may recall that the 1920s was a time of greater opportunity in Hollywood for women. Ramon Navarro, a really excellent actor, is handsome and very moving as Ben-Hur. Francis X. Bushman is his friend and foe Messala the Roman soldier. In the 1959 version Stephen Boyd plays the role and at first, he and Charlton Heston meet after an absence of many years and renew their childhood friendship. It is only after they discuss the political events of the day and Boyd’s request that Heston inform on fellow Jews who work against the Roman Empire that they fall out and become enemies. Though the 1925 version has Navarro welcoming Bushman after a long absence, the beefy and brash Bushman acts like a bully from his first entrance.

May McAvoy plays Esther, the daughter of Simonides who is Ben-Hur’s slave and steward. She will be his future love. Claire McDowell plays his mother and Kathleen Key plays his sister Tirzah. Mitchell Lewis plays the flamboyant Sheik Ilderim but he does not have the grandiose humor of Hugh Griffith. Charles Belcher plays Balthazar, one of the Three Kings who paid tribute to Christ at his birth and who has been seeking him these many years. Finlay Currie gets the job in the 1959 version, and also serves as narrator.

The moments where Ben-Hur’s life intersects with the life of Christ are commonly treated with a two- strip Technicolor process. We see the brightly colored robes and skin tone on the actors.

Though the grand scenes of the enormous palaces, the gigantic sets are mind blowing, we are treated to very small, intimate scenes of equal power as was common in silent film. After the impressive naval battle when Ben-Hur has rescued the Roman captain and they are brought to another ship, he climbs the outer net of rope rigging to the deck and he passes by a porthole where a fellow galley slave looks up at him mournfully. So much is said with a glance. The director gets a lot of mileage out of these kinds of scenes. One of the problems with the widescreen process as used in 1959 is, as director William Wyler himself lamented, all the space has to be used and so even when the director is focusing on two people in the scene, the audience is going to be looking elsewhere because there is so much else to look at. The director is not able to focus on a pinpoint moment.

The chariot race is perhaps the most famous element of either movie or even the book. It is stunning. The silent version gives us remarkable camera angles where both actors are seen handling the four horses that pull their chariots and I’m assuming that stunt doubles were kept to a minimum simply because of the difficulty of filming. There are those amazing shots, replicated in the 1959 version, of the chariot actually driving over the camera which has been placed into the ground. The stunning wide sweeping shots of the chariots making turns and thrusting down the straightaway, sometimes crashing into each other and overturning is breathtaking. What the silent version lacks is the sound of hoofbeats. We have a beautifully restored version of the 1925 film from 1988 scored by Carl Davis which provides a stirring backdrop to this scene, but we have no hoofbeats.

One thing that some critics remarked upon in the 1959 version was that it was a very slow, unwieldy tale, a very long movie and the parade of characters were presented with chronological diligence but with without raw emotion. The 1925 version carries all the raw emotion including several scenes that are utterly heartbreaking. We may note that this movie was remade in 2016, and it was not successful, but though I have not seen it I can imagine one reason for its lack of success among others – the heavy use of computer graphics makes a modern film more cost-effective but it removes us emotionally from the scene. It must have been extremely expensive and extremely laborious to have thousands and thousands of people rising as one, perfectly choreographed to cheer during the chariot race but it is far more effective because it is real, and because people whose emotions we understand are more interesting, and always will be, than technology we don’t understand.

Both movies deal with the representation of Christ as a silent figure and whom we see only from the back or only his arm, or his hand. Christ gives Ben-Hur a drink of water when he has been marching through the desert to become a galley slave and we see his gentle touch on Charlton Heston’s hair; the difference, however, is that the reaction toward Christ is on a more human and less spiritual manner in the 1959 version. When Charlton Heston looks up at Christ, Heston’s expression seems to tell us that he is grateful for the water and relieved he has found a sympathetic person who is helping him. He does not look as if looking into the face of the Messiah. Ironically, the Roman soldier who comes by to bark at him and tell Christ to go away suddenly stops and looks towards Christ with more of a sensation of encountering something strangely mystical. We see a more powerful reaction from the soldier than we do from Heston.

Ramon Navarro always appears as if deeply moved when The Nazarene crosses his path. Another interesting moment done with pure acting, is when his mother and sister are healed from their leprosy by their interaction with Christ. They had been told that The Nazarene performs miracles for those who believe and they arrive in time for his Passion as he drags the heavy cross through the streets. We don’t see his face; we see the cross on his shoulder and his face is behind it. They sorrow for him, and just with lighting, a white light that centers on their faces, the dark circles of their illness disappear and they immediately delight, acting as if they had been cured of their leprosy. There is no Jekyll and Hyde makeup transformation; it is all in the acting.

The 1959 version has Christ on the cross in the storm, the rain pouring down, dripping from his fingers on the hand nailed to the cross.  In a nearby cave, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister discover they are cured of leprosy. The darkness of the cave masks their need to wear makeup. The 1959 version is more sweaty and dirty, but even the realism does not match the heartbreak of the 1925 mother and sister close enough to the sleeping Ben-Hur to touch him, but resisting to wake him from sleep because they want to spare him the knowledge of their leprosy.

Both films make an attempt to address the political issues of a conquered people, for the biblical events, as in current events, are always as much about politics as about faith. Ben-Hur’s quest for Christ is his militant quest for a king to lead them out of Roman bondage, but he eventually adopts Christ’s message of peace. In the 1959 version Stephen Boyd taunts Charlton Heston with the idea that he is a member of a conquered people and he needs to get used to that. “The glory of Solomon is gone... Joshua will not rise again to save you, nor David.” To which Charlton Heston replies, “Rome is evil... Rome is an affront to God.”

The story ends with Ben-Hur reunited with his mother and sister, and with his love, Esther. But there’s a big “what happens next” that is never answered. How does he live with no end to Roman occupation for the rest of his life? We are meant to assume that the early Christian followers find strength and comfort in the teachings of Christ and in their own growing numbers, but though Hollywood enjoyed platitudes as a way of staying on the good side of the public who always thought that movie capital was a Babylon among the orange groves, it did not even trouble to answer the larger questions, preferring to wallow in the spectacle.

I enjoy biblical epics, but not because I find them instructive or inspirational; rather because, like a painting by a great master, they are imaginative pictures of wondrous events brought down to a human level we are better able to relate to – and despite the temptresses, the virile warriors, and the gauzily dressed slave girls, I think the most frivolous thing about them is that they are so irresistibly commercial.

So frivolous that, unlike the more meaningful and reflective rituals of the holidays, I cannot help but equate theses movies with a handful of jelly beans and winding down a busy weekend of celebration.

May I wish a Blessed Passover and a Happy Easter to all who celebrate.

You have a chance to watch the 1959 Ben-Hur this Easter Sunday on TCM.  

Have a look at the chariot scene from the 1925 version below.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

My Wife's Relations - 1922 - Fish for Friday

My Wife's Relations (1922), starring Buster Keaton, who also co-wrote the script and co-directed with Edward F. Cline, is a jubilant reminder of when comedy was not just king, but a rough-and-tumble jester in a world without political correctness but with a kind of egalitarian substitute -- the view that all of society was made up of fools and everyone deserved his chance to be made ridiculous.

The plot is simple, but the gags are elaborate.  Buster lives in a polyglot neighborhood, where, in a mistaken melee with a postman, a window gets broken in the office of a local magistrate/justice of the peace.  This judge happens to be an emigrant from Poland.  Moments before, he has been contacted by a young Polish couple wanting to be married and desiring to have the ceremony performed in their language.  He assures them that he can do the job, as he speaks no other language but Polish anyway.

Having set the gag thusly, a window in the magistrate's office gets smashed in the fight with the postman, and Buster runs away, knocking down a stout Irishwoman named Kate.  She is furious with him, and hauls him before the Polish magistrate intending to rat on him for breaking the window.  Of course, the judge thinks they are the couple who just phoned him wanting to be married, so he marries them.

I love how the title cards for his speech are written in Polish. Irish and Poles make up a good chunk of my ancestry, so the comic premise of this movie is especially dear to me.  My Polish grandmother, or Babci, never learned much English, and in her first days as an immigrant to America before World War I, she loved silent movies because she could understand them.  Even the title cards in English were irrelevant to her, so clear was the pantomime.  Marie Dressler was her favorite actress.

Poor Buster looks like a Liliputian among the giants, but he uses his wits to stay alive.

This brings us to one of my favorite laugh-out-loud moments, though it is probably too subtle for any viewer who does not really relate to the joke.  There is a moment when dinner is served and the family says a quick grace, then the men stab large chunks of beef with their ready forks and take all the meat before Buster can have any.  Buster is hungry and dejected...until he notices the date on the wall calendar.  It's Thursday.  Aha!

Buster goes over to the calendar, rips the page off, and demonstrates to the family greedily gobbling their beef that it is really FRIDAY!

They are Irish.  We next assume they are Catholic, because they choke and sputter in horror at committing a sin, and Kate, not so delicately, spits out the meat.

Kate is played by Kate Price, who performed in an astounding number of movies from 1910 to 1937, something like 300.  She was also a writer of silent film scripts.  I hope to learn more of her career.

Kate and her relatives ashamedly return the uneaten portions of beef back to the platter, and Buster, evidently not playing a Catholic in this movie, helps himself to a solitary feast.

Today, the observance of fasting from meat on Fridays by Catholics is reserved only for the Lenten season, but before Vatican II, this fish-for-Friday rule was all the time.  Indeed, in my home growing up we never stopped having fish on Friday and still do to this day, I suppose because we are just creatures of habit and we like fish.  Friday's as good as any day to eat it.

My favorite gag in the movie, however, is when they gather for a family portrait and the photographer's camera tripod slips to the floor, causing the family to slide down to the floor as well.  That is genius, and one of funniest scenes in any silent film.

But it is Buster's prank on the boorish family, using their religious observance as a level to gain parity with them, that clearly pokes fun at Catholics in a way that is pointed and shrewd without being caustic.  Films from the silent era are not so innocent as they are unselfconscious, which is their great strength and value.  This movie, made in 1922, was at the end of a long and boisterous era of mass immigration to this country where if not everyone got along, there was certainly an entertaining period of adjustment.  Later in that decade, the welcome mat got pulled in, immigration was restricted, and home-terrorist organizations like the KKK, long dedicated to the persecution of African Americans, added Catholics to their list of hated targets, as we discussed a few weeks ago in the intro to our series on films of the 1920s.

Come back next Thursday when we conclude the Lenten season on a less silly note and celebrate Easter and Passover with two versions of Ben Hur - from 1925 and 1959.

Have a look here at My Wife's Relations:

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Old Uniforms Never Die

The uniforms are one of the most iconic images we remember from classic films.  They are the identification of The Greatest Generation.  For many of us, the uniforms are entwined with personal family memory; my father, for instance, wore the Army uniform in his formal portrait that my mother kept on the table all the years he was gone in the jungles of the South Pacific.  He wears it in snapsots  taken the first exhilarating days he finally returned home, hugging his wife and daughter while friends and relatives took turns holding the Brownie box camera (the men were allowed one month before they legally had to return to civilian clothes.)  Relatives asked him to wear it on his first rounds of visits to them, including the little nephew who wanted to see his uncle soldier. He wore out his uniform pants and shirts while gardening in the months and years ahead. 

All that's left are the medals over the breast pocket, which I still have, and the portrait photo, which sits behind me on my filing cabinet.

They are no more, except in photos.

Until now, apparently.  The Army is in the final stages of deciding upon a new uniform, and will move towards a new service dress uniform based upon the old World War II model. According to Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel Dailey, published on the site, "We wanted a uniform that we could re-identify with the American public that was significant in the American public's eye of the sense of pride in their Army," Dailey said.

"That's why we went back in history and said, 'What was the last time when there was this sense of pride and true identification … based upon their uniform?' And that's when automatically we both agreed it was Pinks and Greens during World War II.

"It was a very symbolic statement in America when you saw these young men and women coming back to and from war ... wearing that very distinctive olive drab jacket with pinkish hue pants uniform."

For more on the interview and information about this pending change in Army dress, please see this article on

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Housework in I'll Be Seeing You (1944)

I'll Be Seeing You (1944), which we covered in this previous post, and also in this one, features this scene of Ginger Rogers and Spring Byington cleaning the living room. 

Can you think of any other classic films where the characters are seen doing everyday housecleaning chores -- who don't happen to be servants, just housework in their own home?

Thursday, March 1, 2018

11th Anniversary of Another Old Movie Blog - and a trivia question

This weekend marks 11 years for Another Old Movie Blog.  It has been a fascinating journey for me, and I thank you most sincerely for the pleasure of your company.


Recently a request came to me to ferret out the name of a movie with this clue.  See if you can help!

"The story was something like--- a group of college students were entering a parade float (some kind of contest maybe - maybe the parade of Roses in Pasadena). They all worked really hard, at the last minute the engine broke down- so they all got inside and under the float and pushed it while singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic."

I don't think it's:

Pigskin Parade 1936
College Rhythm 1934
Best Foot Forward 1943
Mr. Belvedere Goes to College 1949
Blondie Goes to College 1942
Love Laughs at Andy Hardy 1946
Mother is a Freshman 1949
She's Working Her Way Through College 1952
Horse Feathers 1932.

But if you have any idea of what this film could be, please let us know.

Hold your calls, please, I think we may have a winner. Caftan Woman, you are, indeed, swell.

Your suggestion of Peggy (1950) starring Diana Lynn could be the one.  She plays a girl whose family has just moved to Pasadena, and the neighbor boy turns out to be Rock Hudson.  AND, Charles Coburn, Charlotte Greenwood, Connie Gilchrist, Jerome Cowan, and Ellen Corby are in it, so I don't know how this one fell off my radar.  I'm going to keep my eye out for it.  What I think may be the smoking gun, as it were...a lobby card with a picture of a parade float on it.

Leave it to Paddy at the Caftan Woman blog to save the day again.


Hold the phone, classic film afficionados - the person requesting this info thinks this is not the movie:

"I checked out the write-ups of the movie Peggy- it's as close as I have come thus far but I am pretty sure that it is not the movie that I am seeking.The story line in the movie I am speaking of all leads up to the final moments when the students that built the float (some kind of competition) discover that the float's engine has broken-down and after moments of disappointment and angst, at the last minute they team together, triumphantly, to push the float themselves. It was the plot, not a sub-plot behind a love story which is what the parade in the movie Peggy is."

Well, that lets the air out of my parade float.  Keep your suggestions coming.

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