Q & A with “Cast Aside” author John W. Harding
Q: As a novelist what made you decide to focus on the early years of motion pictures?
A: It took me a while to get there, actually. I was born in Los Angeles, raised under the Hollywood sign. So I heard these stories growing up. My classmates were often actors and the kids of filmmakers. My first crush in high school was on Terry Burnham, the little blonde girl who played the spooky child sitting outside a woman’s apartment in that famous episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I would just stand around after school like a puppy dog waiting to walk Terry home. She was a delight and I was so starstruck. But movie-making was always more a profession to me than anything exotic. At UCLA I was in film classes with actors like John Saxon, the sheriff in “Nightmare on Elm Street.” My landlady was the original singing voice of Disney’s “Snow White,” Adrianna Caselotti, who owned a couple of huge houses above the Hollywood Bowl. I wanted to write for the movies but I had to make a living and so I drifted into journalism. For decades I interviewed actors and directors until it finally dawned on me that I should be writing my own stories about what most interested me—the origins of the greatest art form of the 20th century.
Q: Your novels often center on real incidents and are based on research. Why not just write them as non-fiction?
A: For me, dramatic conflict is the most powerful tool of communication there is. As a storyteller I wanted that depth of human feeling in my historic characters as well. That meant allowing myself the license to create scenes and dialogue. But I always try to respect the known facts, particularly the timelines. Chronology is essential to making connections so that patterns of reality can emerge. Besides, non-fiction isn’t the last word on anything anymore, is it? The border between fact and conjecture isn’t as secure as it might have been once. Popular biographers take huge liberties with their scenes and ascribe motives they cannot possibly know. Most narratives are slanted toward one pet thesis or another. I think it’s just more honest to say up front “this is a work of fiction built on what is known,” and let readers come to their own conclusions on what it all means.
Q: What moved you to write “Cast Aside: With Bushman at the Unmaking of ‘Ben-Hur’ in Italy”?
A: It began while I was at work on “The Ben-Hur Murders,” which was a look behind the rumors of stunt-man deaths during the 1925 filming of the chariot race in Culver City. That episode came after an even greater debacle on location in Italy. The “Ben-Hur” company had spent nearly a year overseas, quarantined from their loved ones as they lived through violent upheavals on the set and watched colleagues fall victim to a hostile corporate takeover. They all came to Rome thinking they had won life’s lottery, but when it was over they must have returned home feeling more like newly released prisoners of war.
I wanted to know all that happened to them over there, but I could only find a few accounts. There were sketchy stories in the Italian newspapers, and a mention here and there in memoirs like A. Arnold Gillespie’s “The Wizard of MGM.” Only Kevin Brownlow’s pre-eminent work of scholarship, “The Parade’s Gone By… ,” managed to scratch below the surface. I read vague reports about labor strife behind the scenes, and mysterious warehouse fires and possible drownings at sea. But no one addressed the sheer accumulation of suspicious incidents that continued unchecked until the production was halted. Whatever might have been behind it all, there seemed to have been an effort from both sides of the Atlantic to squelch further investigation.
Q: Why would anyone have done that?
A: Money. Money and power. The usual suspects. Unsavory reports about the loss of control and the squandering of innocent lives in pursuit of profits would not have served the interests of either Mussolini or the capitalist overlords in New York and Hollywood. It would have been far more acceptable to have the whole “Ben-Hur” experience written off as jinxed—as a hapless victim of misfortune and bad luck.
Q: Given Mussolini’s distaste for Hollywood and its image of “the emancipated Western woman,” why did he agree to hosting “Ben-Hur” in the first place?
A: That’s an excellent question. There was a joke at the time that Mussolini wouldn’t have allowed “Ben-Hur” to film in his country at all if he’d known that the Italian charioteer loses the race. But Italy’s economy was in very bad shape and needed a fresh infusion of Yankee bucks. Like much of Europe, Italy was still recovering from the cataclysm of The Great War. The Italian film industry, in particular, needed a boost.
Mussolini took many of his cues from Imperial Rome, but he was a modern man in one respect: He embraced movies as a valuable propaganda tool. The national film industry had been a world leader with early epics like “Quo Vadis?” and “Cabiria.” Now he needed it to help him spread the gospel of Fascism. The Pope had given his blessing to “Ben-Hur,” so that also made it worth taking a risk for Mussolini. He ordered his secret police to keep a close watch on the Hollywood reprobates like Ramón Novarro and the scandal-scarred Francis X. Bushman. But when the film company began generating its own scandals, he was more than ready to drop “Ben-Hur” like a political hot potato. All reminders of its stay were soon scrubbed clean.
Q: What did Hollywood stand to lose from its failed adventure in Italy?
A: Again, it was all about money and power. Goldwyn Pictures shelled out $600,000 for the dramatic rights to “Ben-Hur”—about $10 million in today’s money. Goldwyn would have had trouble recovering from that debt even if everything had gone smoothly. But June Mathis convinced everyone they could film it below budget in Italy while elevating its international standing. No one foresaw how the costs would soar due to post-war supply chain issues and numerous acts of sabotage.
Q: You call “Ben-Hur” the most expensive film of the silent era. Does that take into account the costs of epics like “Intolerance” or “The General”?
A: Absolutely. No question. Beside the price of the dramatic rights to the Lew Wallace book, there was the huge cost to Goldwyn and MGM of refurnishing Cines, the partnering studio in Rome. They also had to pay for the construction of the massive coliseum at Antioch, a detailed miniature of ancient Jerusalem, and a towering replica of the Joppa Gates. But the most costly thing of all was the maritime disaster in the waters off Livorno, which I make the climactic event in “Cast Aside.” Seven full-scale imperial warships were built at a cost back then of more than $40,000 apiece. All seven ended up either sinking or damaged in flames for a present-day tally of about $4.6 million. By comparison, the loss of the Civil War locomotive and a full trestle bridge in Buster Keaton’s “The General” only amounted to about $700,000 in today’s currency.
Q: You mentioned the lost Italian studio, Cines: What did you learn about it?
A: For one thing it taught me that writing a book is the surest way to uncover gaps in the historical record. Not a single photo seems to remain of the original Cines studio layout. Despite my two research trips to Italy, the aid of commissioned researchers and the help of my own Italian-citizen wife, most of what I learned of Cines during its “Ben-Hur” period came from a handful of references in private memoirs and studio invoices. We know the grounds and structures were in utter disarray when Goldwyn arrived. The contract agreement specified that the company would bring it all up to modern standards. In just the first six months it took delivery on 125,000 tons of steel, concrete and lumber. I re-imagined the compound based on those and other clues. One of the things I’m proudest of in “Cast Aside” is its reconstruction of that “lost” studio.
Q: How did Francis X. Bushman become a central player in “Cast Aside”?
A: Are you serious? Bushman was the coolest leading man in silent pictures. He didn’t play gigolos or patsies, and he never wanted to play a villain like Messala. But I saw there was more to him the minute he stepped out on a page in my novel “The Ben-Hur Murders.” Beneath that cheerful, no-nonsense exterior was an equally no-nonsense interior. He was a Baltimore boy with a great love of animals and an unswerving drive toward self-improvement. He was no “company man” and no country club hypocrite. Once he had made a mistake and paid the price. But in the grand scheme of human transgressions, falling in love with one’s leading lady in a dream world like Hollywood doesn’t seem like such a damnable sin. Later, when his future career in movies was on the line and all he had to do was parrot the studio version of what happened in the chariot race, Bushman didn’t waver. He told reporters exactly what he saw, effectively ending his chance at a comeback.
June Mathis picked him as her Messala because she knew “Ben-Hur” needed the most stalwart villain she could find. She was right about his vanity and his arrogance, but she was wrong about him appearing to movie-goers as unbending and despicable.
When I was planning my author’s journey to “Cast Aside,” I wanted Bushman with me. My working title from the start was “Bushman in Italy” because I hoped the juxtaposition said something about civilization and human integrity. This was never meant to be Hollywood’s Francis X. Bushman, the figure of fun from a lot of comically dated B-movies. This was someone who only needed one name, like Batman or Spiderman. He might also wear a phony cape from time to time but he would always be the hero in disguise.
Q: What do you hope today’s readers will find intriguing about the making of a silent movie?
A: There’s plenty of inventiveness and artistry to discover in all silent movies. But “Ben-Hur” occupies a special place in that history. It stood at the crossroads between an era when directors had almost total control over their films, and the dawning of the studio system when huge budgets left creative people under the thumbs of bankers and executives. The line between those two eras runs straight through the unmaking of “Ben-Hur” in Italy.