Starring Ramon Novarro and May McAvoy
"Ben Hur" (Metro-Goldwyn) comes to us a magnificent picture -- a picture which reflects great credit upon its sponsors, who have approached it with fine sincerity and reverence. Pictorially, it is a thing of surpassing beauty, its scenes being superbly eloquent -- and there isn't evidence of any departure from either the plot of the story or the mood of the play, although it could be more dramatically sound. The effort has been made to achieve something on a truly spectacular scale -- there being a suggestion of bigness everywhere. Perhaps this is its only flaw -- since it overshadows the poignant love drama of Ben Hur and Esther.
Great Ocular Appeal
We see the pomp of Rome and the agony of Israel brought forth with startling effect. The glory of an ancient civilization -- of Rome at the height of her power and the tragedy of Israel's slavery -- these are spread before us in scenes of tremendous scope. Entire villages are involved in the drama; great navies sail the Italian seas and engage in combat -- and the climax presenting the mighty chariot race is a marvelously vivid experience to anyone who sees it.
"Ben Hur" is rich in pictorial effects -- any one of which would have been sufficient to make a stirring film. Yet here is a work that carries a great assortment of them. The sea fight alone is done on a truly colorful scale -- and balancing it is the horror of the galley where dozens of slaves struggle at the oars -- slaves who are chained and who drown like so many rats. Not a sweet sight, this -- but it lends graphic realism.
But with all its sweeping drama, it remains for the poignant touches of the Nativity -- the panels in color from the Biblical passages to establish the true spirit of the picture. We see the Christ's communion with his disciples, his entrance into Jerusalem and his march to Calvary -- the scenes being presented by means of symbols.
And the loveliest touch of all is Betty Bronson's smile as she rides into the Holy City. She fairly exudes a spiritual glow.
The other players are splendid. Ramon Novarro never gave a finer performance than Ben Hur -- his personality stands out vivid and sincere. Francis X. Bushman's Messala is a study in Roman ruthlessness -- and those who take care of the lesser roles perform with authority and feeling.
It's a picture which takes rank with the best the screen has ever produced. Nothing is introduced to mar the sober context of its theme. It could be shortened without spoiling the story. However, no one can take away its tone and quality. It's a credit to producer, director and cast.
Starring Ramon Novarro, May McAvoy, Francis X. Bushman
MOTION PICTURE CLASSIC
After three years in the galleys of pagan Hollywood and Christian Rome, "Ben Hur" has at last reached the screen.
"Ben Hur" has been one of the four great successes of the American speaking theater. The fact that the other three were "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Lightnin'" and "Abie's Irish Rose" indicates that a fine literary or dramatic quality is not essential to a popular success behind the footlights. Before it reached the theater, "Ben Hur," which was written by a veteran of the Civil War, General Lew Wallace, had passed into editions of many millions. General Wallace, if I may be permitted to say so, was the Harold Bell Wright of his day.
"Ben Hur" hit the Chautauqua mood of America with singular exactness. It was a romance with pseudo-historical trappings. Ostensibly, its central figure was Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and it traced Him from His birth in the manger of Bethlehem to His death upon the cross. Actually, "Ben Hur" followed the established historical pattern. The usual clean-limbed young hero comes to the usual city of evil, rejects the courtezan of the moment and returns finally in triumph to the girl he had loved from the beginning. Small wonder then that Chicago mail order houses used to command "Ben Hur" in editions of a million for America's hinterland bookworms.
Naturally when "Ben Hur" came to the stage, it was a sensational success. People went to see it who looked upon the theater as the first step in the general direction of a place still considered warmer than Coral Gables in July. They took a chance with the evil one because "Ben Hur" was a Biblical story. I can still remember how "Ben Hur" used to come to my home town. There was nothing like it except Barnum and Bailey's Circus, which carried more camels. In those pre-movie days in the chariot race, with eight horses galloping one way on a treadmill while a painted panorama of the Circus Maximus unrolled in the other direction, was looked upon as the last word in the spectacular.
So much for the appeal of "Ben Hur" between covers and behind the footllghts. I suspect that the screen "Ben Hur" will have just as great an appeal. It will probably go on making millions for years.
All of which does not make "Ben Hur" a really great motion picture. It is fundamentally weak, of course, from a literary standpoint. That probably is beside the point. Our real complaint is that "Ben Hur" offers nothing really new directorially. It is old-fashioned in its workmanship. The characters never seem flesh and blood to me. They are just automatons (frequently graceful and well done automatons) moving before scenes of massive and spectacular expenditure. I was touched just once by "Ben Hur."
There are two big moments to "Ben Hur." One, of course, is the chariot race. The other comes earlier, when Ben Hur serves his years of servitude in the Roman galleys. But neither of these lavish interludes got to me as much as the few thrilling seconds of Betty Bronson as Mary, mother of Jesus. Were Miss Bronson an unknown newcomer to the films, these few seconds would make her famous overnight. They were tremendously thrilling to me.
I am not going to relate the story of "Ben Hur" here. General Wallace set out to paint the bitterness of Jewish oppression under Roman rule and he frequently painted at complete odds with facts as set down by historians. Thus his romance was to reveal how Christianity personified by the son of the Jewish house of Hur lifted the oppressed from their bondage. Brutality always sounds more horrific as it comes crashing down the ages. Probably Roman galley-slaves had just as cheery a time as our sweat-shop workers or our coal miners. Distance lends brutality.
I cannot think of a better Ben Hur than Ramon Novarro. He sustains a long and grueling role with grace, charm and considerable force. I am reliably informed by feminine members of our editorial staff that there has been no thrill such as that supplied by Novarro's legs since John Gilbert spilled soup on Mae Murray's dress in that exciting moment of "The Merry Widow."
I hand my superlatives to Miss Bronson. A minute more of Miss Bronson and I would have been a true believer. Francis X. Bushman seems to me pretty stodgy as Messala, the Roman enemy of Ben Hur. Claire McDowell has an effective moment as the mother of Hur, but the rest of the cast is lost in the maze of huge sets and trick photography.
My biggest disappointment was Carmel Myers' performance as that celebrated siren, Iras. This Egyptian temptress turned out to be just an old-fashioned and entirely too eager movie vamp.
I have commented rather severely upon Fred Niblo's direction. It is thoroly conventional. The early Star of Bethlehem scenes, in which Miss Bronson does such excellent work, and the chariot race were staged by associate directors, I am told. Ferdinand Earle deserves the credit for the former, while any thrill you get out of the chariot race will be due to one "Breezy" Eason, an old-time comedy director. The titles of Katherine Hilliker, be it noted, are excellent.
Don't let me discourage you from seeing "Ben Hur." It is lavish and spectacular, miles ahead of the "The Wanderer" and other Biblical screen dramas. You will probably get a kick out of the chariot race, you will be won by Novarro's playing and you will see screen acting touch the heights for a flash in your glimpse of Miss Bronson. Anyway, "Ben Hur" is that bigger and better Biblical story Merton would have worshiped. It will drag many a non-film going family away from their radio and their mail-order catalogues in the next two or three years.
Starring Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman and May McAvoy
Forty-five years ago, some vital spark that gleamed among the rather tedious details of a book by General Lew Wallace, aroused an answering spark in the hearts of a tremendous public. The book was called "Ben Hur," and it was a purely fictional tale mingled with bits from the Bible stories of the life of Christ. But the spark that gave it life was a bright enough and hardy enough to burn its way to the stage; and while the stage of twenty-five years ago, footlighted and mechanically deficient, was not ready for such a spectacle, "Ben Hur" survived gloriously for nearly a quarter of a century. It is hardly strange then that, surrounded by every modern effect of lighting, coloring, and staging the spark of "Ben Hur" should now flame up into dazzling brilliance.
Somehow, out of the chaos of the three actual years spent in filming "Ben Hur," out of the mechanical confusion that must have befuddle its makers, a picture of clarity and beauty has been formed. The settings are superb; some of the biblical views are poignantly lovely; but most of all, it has the earnest and romantic acting of young Ramon Novarro, who has at last lifted Ben Hur from the ranks and changed him from an actor to a hero.
The name "Ben Hur has always suggested chariot races, togas, actors in grease paint, and a stage constructed at great expense, to hold eight galloping horses, and to the sophisticated, it has also meant something to be vaguely smiled at. In this age of individual expression, it is usually rather funny to see an actor assume the clothes and attitudes of a mythical hero. We know so little of how brave young men really did act a thousand or so years ago, that no matter how an actor interprets these actions, we usually become condescending and feel that he must be wrong. But Mr. Novarro's youth, spirit, and very fine acting are not to be laughed away. He is earnest and he is real, and the mammoth sets, the long and rambling story, the almost overwhelming brilliance of the whole picture, have been caught and held together by the intensity of his youthful belief in his part. And in this day of Nordics and brisk young go-getters, his Ben Hur is a romantic and fiery bit from the past. The rest of the cast, I am willing to believe, are everyday people, people I know or know about, but Mr. Novarro seems utterly foreign, very, very handsome and most gorgeously young.
In the first chapter of the picture, Betty Bronson does a very astounding thing. In a few brief and exquisite flashes, she gives an unforgettable portrait of the Madonna. She is as inspired and gracious as a religious masterpiece. I could hardly believe that this was the same Betty Bronson who had disported herself prettily and prankishly in "peter Pan." She, too, has inevitable youth and belief in what she is doing.
The rest of the cast can be dismissed as capable actors. May McAvoy's pretty face is set off by a blond wig, and in keeping with her role, she plays with doves. In a scene where Mr. Novarro catches one of her birds and brings it back to her, he seems awake with interest, while she displays no more than her usual coyness. She plays the part of Esther. Claire MacDowell brings a little Oriental sadness to the role of Ben Hur's mother, and Kathleen Key is the dark-eyed glowing Tirzah.
Francis X. Bushman is really superb as Messala, that haughty and villainous Roman. He is an actor at all times, but there is something admirable in the way he does it. He has the muscled, theatrical, effects of several years ago, ready to use at a moment's notice, and he uses them. He was in the audience at the opening of the picture, and I thought he seemed a little dazed at the superb spectacle of which he formed a part.
There are exceptionally few hackneyed devices employed by Fred Niblo, who directed the film. He has freshened the story and handled it without the gloves of convention.
The picture begins with a simplicity that is disarming. No long list of names is thrown on the screen. There is no foreword of explanation. The names of the cameraman and assistant directors, the number of extras used, the amount of money spent -- all this is kept from you, and in blissful ignorance, you watch the picture just for itself. Before the curtain rose, the names of the members of the cast were set in panels, attractively lighted, at either side of the stage. When the picture began, they vanished, and no more was said about them.
Years ago, when "Ben Hur" was first staged by Mr. Erlanger, he assured its author, General Wallace, that the religious scenes would be handled as delicately as possible. Christ was represented only by a suggestive use of light. IN the film, Mr. Niblo has represented Him by a compassionate and sensitive hand, and in this way, he has attained an effect of divinity that could not have been achieved in any other way.
Most of the biblical scenes are in color, the color of old masterpieces. Those of the birth of Christ and of the Last Supper are as inspiring as lovely canvases. I think the entire audience was completely awed by their beauty.
It is hard to say which are the most conspicuous spots in the picture. The scene showing the galley slaves chained to their oars is as modern and striking in its brutality of handling as anything I have every seen. The steady beat of the drum, and the monotony of the ghastly straining at the oars very nearly set m nerves on edge. The sea battle that follows is as spectacular and thrilling as even the most critical could wish for. But none of the scenes measured up to the final and glorious thrill of the chariot race. In a superb amphitheater, the horses, the dust, the crowds, and the endless romance of that race obliterated all pictured dramatics that have gone before.
"Ben Hur" should not, in justice, be called a spectacle. It is much, much more than that -- it is an achievement, and a gorgeous one. For in spite of Rome and the Romans, there isn't the faintest sing of an orgy in it, and the brief appearance of an Egyptian siren, played by Carmel Myers, seemed entirely plausible. Only one jarring note is struck, and that is when there are flashes of lightning and great earthquakes during the crucifixion. I think these scenes might very well be cut.
This is the first time I have ever seen color used intelligently, with the greens and blues predominating, and it is the first picture with biblical significance that hasn't gone in heavy for long gray beards. There isn't even a faint suspicion of the grinding of the camera, nor of the creaking of the scenery. It is a big thing, but it is a real one.
Instead of relying on it overwhelming details to impress you, it has decided to stand on it feet as a whole, with the result that the impression of effort and money spent is not always with you.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer must be happy indeed over their prospects for the new year. In New York, "The Merry Widow" is still playing to crowded houses, "The Big Parade" is selling six weeks in advance, and now "Ben Hur" has apparently become a fixity.
For, the story that was translated into every language in the world and was blessed by His Holiness Leo XIII, and the play that ran for nearly twenty-five years, have now met on that common meeting ground, the screen, and unless I am very much mistaken, "Ben Hur" should go on and on, s the nearest thing to a Passion Play that America is likely to produce.
Video source: Movies Unlimited, Critic's Choice, Amazon.com
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