The Heroic Fiasco
The sad tale of Ben Hur...
As we discussed last time, June Mathis was a powerhouse of early Hollywood, yet destined to be almost forgotten by history.
Her reign as one of Hollywood’s top execs came to an abrupt end after her involvement in what film historian Kevin Brownlow terms “the heroic fiasco”:
Yep, that Ben Hur. The 1959 classic film, one of the most successful movies ever made, was a remake. The original, written and produced by June Mathis (well, ish, we’ll get to that) came out in 1925, and even that technically wasn’t the first film production.
The novel, written by General Lew Wallace, was released in 1880, was the smash hit to end all smash hits. It outsold any book other than the bible, and was the first work of fiction to be blessed by the Pope. Naturally theatre producers fell all over themselves to buy the rights, but the General turned out to be brilliantly prickly, initially insisting there would be no dramatisation of his work at all. After nine solid years of being bombarded with offers, he finally relented, but, according to The Parade’s Gone By:
He confronted them with a number of unusual clauses, among them a stipulation that if the play was not performed every season the rights were to lapse.
I think I might love the general.
Incidentally, I’ve recently made the decision that the next time a producer comes sniffing for the rights to any of my books, one of my non-negotiables will be that the screenwriter must be female-identifying.
I’ve just read the pilot draft of one of my books just about to go into production (I argued against a male screenwriter and was ignored) and… let’s just say I’m glad my book will be still on the shelf where it belongs. I’m happy with my decision, but also now tempted to add in a few more “unusual clauses”... ;-)
The eventual theatre production was massive, involving real horses on stage and was “regarded as the most profitable production in theatrical history.”
Over the next few years, every Hollywood studio pitched for the rights. The owner of the theatrical rights, one Mr. Erlanger, proved himself either wildly ambitious or a bit mad as he held out for the eye-watering amount of one… million… dollars.
Which actually was a staggering amount in the late teens/early twenties. Not a single studio could afford it, but when the Sam Goldwyn company proposed that they pay a smaller upfront fee, then “divide the profits equally”, Erlanger agreed.
This is crucial, because despite Ben Hur ultimately becoming the highest grossing film of 1925, MGM (as it was by then) made a loss. Many accounts blame June for the loss, but the fact is, between the production budget and that initial deal, there was never a chance of profit. Goldwyn gambled on the prestige, and though he personally lost out (he noped out on MGM before the ink was dry on the merger) I would argue that it paid off for the studio.
So, the Goldwyn Company got the rights.
Some sources state that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer got the rights, and it’s a little bit muddy (to me, at least!) precisely when the legal entity changed over. For our purposes, all we really need to know is that the Goldwyn Company (where June was head of the story department) went after the rights, but the film was ultimately produced by MGM.
The rights to a runaway hit book and theatre production being won in a risky deal, right in the midst of a merger that would change face of Hollywood forever no less, was, inevitably enough, headline news. Which meant that the eyes of the media were on June’s every move. She fought at every turn, for Italy as the main shooting location, for Charles Brabin as director and relatively unknown George Walsh in the title role.
Everyone had assumed that Valentino was made for the lead, plus he had the star power to carry that kind of budget, but he was in a contract at the time that meant it wasn’t possible.
The shoot was plagued by disaster after disaster.
Italy had been a popular shooting location, but in the year or so since Mussolini’s election, strikes had been sweeping the nation and when the Italian crew found out how much more the Americans were getting paid -- well, the production lost its Italian crew.
June jumped on the next ship to try to sort things out in person, but when she got there, she found a morose Brabin locked in his hotel room who refused to let her “interfere”.
As Louis B Mayer’s daughter Irene recalled:
They’d lost contact with their own taste. The atmosphere was fraught, people were getting hurt, and a great deal of money was being wasted.
Author Allan Ellenberger explains:
The first point of order for the new studio, now known as Metro-Goldwyn [and not long thereafter, as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer], was to try to save the fast-sinking Ben-Hur.
Mayer moved the production back to California, ditched almost everything shot so far and fired Brabin, Walsh and Mathis all under cover of secrecy. While there is no question something needed to be done, one can’t help but wonder if the extreme measures had an element of clearing house, of getting rid of the Goldwyn elements and essentially launching an MGM production from scratch. There certainly was a brutality to it all that seems, at best, unnecessary: Walsh discovered he was no longer in the film via the press.
According to June’s statement at the time:
Mr Navarro was in Rome for three days before Mr Walsh was notified he had been succeeded in the leading role.
There is, of course, no way to know at this remove who was at fault and whether anything could have been done earlier to turn it around. I’ve no doubt that June made some missteps, though it’s hard to imagine quite what she could have done when Brabin refused to let her on set. As the Women Film Pioneers Project puts it:
…the problems that arose appear to have been caused not by Mathis but by labor slowdowns and the imperious behavior of the film’s original director Charles Brabin.
(Remind me to share with you sometime a mad story that Freddie Sagor recounts in her memoir about when her roommate was dating Brabin. For now I’ll just say… 😳)
Either way, there is no question that every man involved in the production continued his career unscathed — Brabin was even hired by MGM a year or two later.
June did continue to write successfully (for First National and later United Artists (both for production units ran by women, incidentally), until her death in 1927. However, she was never an executive or producer again and her power definitely waned. She developed and championed a film that would arguably establish MGM as a studio, yet today isn’t even associated with it.
Plus ça change.