Hello fans of golden-era Hollywood, Turner Classic Movies, and/or lovers of historical fiction!
Last month, I revealed the title, cover, and book description of my upcoming book
THE HEART OF THE LION
a novel of Irving Thalberg’s Hollywood
And today, I am both ready and a teensy bit nervous to share with you the first chapter of The Heart of the Lion. Why, after ten novels, am I nervous? Because this is my most ambitious project. The story spans more than 10 years of an extraordinary life and was, I’ll admit, quite a lot to take on. But, like any novel, you write it one word at a time, one sentence at a time, one scene at a time, and one chapter at a time until you’re done.
The Heart of the Lion will be released in June, 2020. Meanwhile, here is the first chapter to whet your appetite:
Irving Thalberg gripped the wooden railing in front of him and tried to tune out his director’s latest tantrum. It’s the weather, he wanted to shout back at this jabbering peacock. There’s not a whole lot we can do.
“We’re going to have to wait it out,” he said at last, keeping his voice even.
“How about getting some wind machines to blow the fog away?”
Irving felt Fred Niblo’s breath puff against his cheek. “Wind machines?”
“We could wheel them onto the field and get them to blow the fog—”
Irving swept his hand across the majestic set in front of them. “That would be like using paper fans to douse the Lighthouse of Alexandria.”
Irving would never have tried to film a sprawling six-act play set in Ancient Rome. He preferred to make pictures dealing with relationships rather than crowd-filled pageants. But Ben-Hur had thudded into his lap when Metro Pictures had merged with Sam Goldwyn’s studio. So here they were on the gargantuan Circus Maximus that Metro-Goldwyn had built at the corner of Venice and La Cienega Boulevards. They had eight chariots, fifty-six horses, forty-two cameras, hundreds of extras, and only one day to film the race that Irving hoped would make his customers gasp.
Fred thumped the railing with his fist. “We’ve gotta do something.”
The thick bank of fog obscured the tops of the crouching giants at each end of the Circus. “We’re going to say hello to our V.I.P.s. When the fog lifts—”
“If it lifts.”
“When it lifts, we’ll be too busy to fawn and flatter them. But we’re lucky they’re here, because that means the columnists will mention us.”
“What if all they talk about is how this damn fog hid their view?”
Irving started down the narrow stadium steps that led onto the field. It would be faster to cut across the Circus’s wide dirt track to the emperor’s box, where he’d instructed Fred’s assistant to seat the petite queen of Hollywood, Mary Pickford, and her dashingly roguish husband, Douglas Fairbanks. “If you’re going to be Mister Down-in-the-mouth, perhaps you’d better not come along.” Fred grunted his acquiescence from two steps behind; Irving didn’t wait for him to catch up.
The October sea breeze blowing in from Santa Monica held the first chill that reminded Angelenos summer was over. It tingled Irving’s face, reinvigorating his senses; he’d been standing around since dawn waiting, waiting, waiting.
Months before, when he and his boss, Louis B. Mayer, had made the difficult decision to bring Ben-Hur back from its disastrous Italian shoot, Irving had told his art department to construct a set to outdo D.W. Griffith’s Babylon in Intolerance.
“It’ll cost you,” they’d warned.
“Do you remember how the industry scoffed when Metro merged with Goldwyn?” he had shot back. “They said, ‘How do Mayer and Thalberg think they can make a success out of two failed small-timers?’ Let’s prove them wrong, shall we, gentlemen?”
Ben-Hur was Irving’s chance to prove to Mayer, to Hollywood, and to the New York money men that a twenty-four-year-old kid like him could handle a colossal project like this. He loved the challenge of taking a troubled movie and turning it into a triumph. Even if it seemed hopeless. Especially if it seemed hopeless. But with Metro-Goldwyn two million dollars down, he couldn’t imagine a more unpromising scenario.
The Circus Maximus set stretched nearly half a mile. Judiciously chosen camera angles meant they’d only needed to build half of it, but what a spectacle they’d pulled off. Standing seventy feet tall, with seating for hundreds of extras, it resembled a grand football stadium. Down at the far end, a pair of hundred-foot columns soared on each side of the emperor’s box. A fifteen-foot ball rested atop each column, and on each ball stood an eagle with a twenty-five-foot wingspan.
The unprecedented size meant that every Angeleno in a ten-mile radius could see what they were doing. If they were seeing it, they were talking about it. And if they were talking about it, they were likely to hand over their dimes and quarters at their local Loew’s movie palace.
Irving was a little winded as he came within waving distance of Doug and Mary, but he didn’t dare slow his pace. As he cupped his hands to call out hello, he took in the celebrated faces around them. Holy Toledo. If he’d known who they’d brought along, he’d have come calling long before now. He raced up the steps faster than he should have and stepped onto the platform, smiling broadly. “I can see we’re going to have to find more chairs.”
“Irving, my dear.” Mary presented him with a cheek to kiss. “We wouldn’t have missed this for the world. It’s—it’s—”
“Staggering, is what it is.” Doug pumped Irving’s hand in his typical over-enthusiastic way. “You know the Barrymore boys, John and Lionel, don’t you?”
Irving had met none of the famed Barrymore acting clan, but Garbo’s upcoming picture had a role Lionel would be perfect for, so this meeting was gloriously fortuitous. “What a pleasure,” he said, “and welcome to Ancient Rome.”
A brash young woman, barely twenty years old, stepped forward. “You remember me, don’t you, Mr. Thalberg?”
It was a superfluous question. Irving had cast her in his upcoming Sally, Irene, and Mary.
“Of course I do, Miss Crawford.” She leaned in for a hug, but Irving shook her hand instead. Brazen self-assurance had won her the role, but Irving had seen her type a thousand times. Chutzpah and confidence were qualities he admired; it took nerve to get noticed in Hollywood. But when they tipped over into dogged pushiness, oversized personalities became hard to manage. If this girl’s performance as Irene caught the public’s attention, Irving knew he’d have some choppy waters to navigate.
“Don’t tell me your date today is John Gilbert,” he added in a stage whisper. “The man is an incorrigible philanderer.”
An entrenched member of Doug and Mary’s Pickfair crowd, Gilbert was a popular Metro-Goldwyn leading man. More importantly, though, he was one of Irving’s few personal friends. Irving had spent much of his childhood enfeebled by poor health, which meant no running around the playground, scraping knees, playing tag, or climbing fences for him—not if his mother had anything to say about it. Which she did. Loudly and often. By the time Irving was twenty-one, Carl Laemmle had put him in charge of Universal Studios, and when you’re the boss, nobody invites you to a weekend barbeque—not without an ulterior motive.
But then along had come blithe, suave, carefree John Gilbert—Jack to his friends—who didn’t give a hoot what Irving did for a living, or how it might further his career. His offer of genuine friendship had felt like a refreshing spring day.
Irving spotted Sam Goldwyn over Jack’s shoulder. The Metro-Goldwyn merger had required buying Sam out of his own company. But despite that, Sam had never shown him a moment’s spite. In fact, he behaved more like a kindly, if somewhat eccentric, uncle, and was always pleased to see Irving. Today, Sam had brought along Harold Lloyd, whose date was Norma Shearer.
“Hello, Mr. Thalberg,” she said, smiling shyly. “Quite a setup you’ve got here. I do believe you’ve outdone yourself.”
Whereas Joan Crawford was all jazz baby and frenzied flapper, Norma Shearer was quiet culture with just enough pluck to make a run at stardom without the risk of awakening a monstrous ego. It was why Irving had rewarded her with the lead in Metro-Goldwyn’s first full production, He Who Gets Slapped.
“Miss Shearer,” he said. “A delight, as always.”
It wasn’t until then that he noticed Marion Davies standing next to Arthur Brisbane. Marion was William Randolph Hearst’s mistress—not that anybody dared say that word out loud—and Brisbane was Hearst’s most prominent columnist. If filming went well today, Brisbane was sure to write about it tomorrow, which meant twenty million people would read of Irving Thalberg’s ambitious Ben-Hur.
What a breathtaking view of his set they’d have, if only this fog would lift.
Irving tapped his foot impatiently on the wooden floorboards and looked around at the sparse crowd of extras. His staff had put out the word that Metro needed as many people as would show up and sit on a movie set all day. A decent number had answered the call, but not enough. So Irving had sent out a team of runners to recruit passersby, including Skid Row bums, who’d do anything for a meal. They’d come back with dozens and dozens of people, but Ancient Rome was still too thinly populated.
He beckoned to the lead assistant. Henry Hathaway was a keen go-getter whom Irving was grooming as a potential future director. Henry was by Irving’s side in a trice, worry creasing his round, genial face.
“I know what you’re going to say, Mr. Thalberg, but I’ve been thinking. There’s a lot of foot traffic along Venice Boulevard. I could take a team down there and start hiring.”
Irving prodded the guy toward the rear of the Circus, where the location manager had set up a tented office. Inside, Irving knew, was a lockbox filled with five-dollar bills, hidden beneath a wicker basket labeled ‘Centurion Sandals.’
As he turned back to face his cluster of the beautiful and the celebrated, an odd vibration crawled across his scalp, prickling the skin beneath his hair. Irving mustered a smile. “We’re a little light on extras. I told the art department to think big, but I woefully underestimated the number of seats we’d need to fill.”
Marion pointed out the nearest throng, half of whom were facing forward as though they saw Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Marion Davies every day of their lives. “Are those mannequins?”
The group moved closer to the balustrade. Joan said, “I wondered why some of them were ignoring us.”
The vibration in Irving’s skull grew heavy and tight, like a vice was slowly closing in on his head. His pulse pounded his ears. “Yes.” The word came out a little breathless. He discreetly placed a hand against the wall for support. Did anyone notice? “About twenty percent of this crowd is mannequins rigged up with wires and handcuffs. When the extras attached to them move, they will too.” Irving longed to massage his head or press fingertips to temples. Anything to curtail this throbbing.
“How ingenious, Mr. Thalberg!” Norma said.
Irving nodded his appreciation as a flicker of concern dimmed her deep blue eyes. She was the only one who wasn’t studying the dime-store dummies scattered throughout the stadium.
“I would have ordered more, but there were none left in the entire city.” His voice seemed to be coming from somewhere outside himself. Then, without warning, the vibration stopped. The vice released its grip. Irving sighed with relief and took his hand away from the wall. “I don’t suppose any of you are looking for work?”
“What?” Joan spat out the word.
“We’re in desperate need of warm bodies, and—”
Lionel let out a roar of a laugh. “I’ll do it!”
“Hold on a minute!” Mary jammed her fists onto her hips. “If this is to be a business transaction, I need to know how much you’re paying.”
“Five dollars plus a boxed lunch. Corned beef sandwich, apple, and a Hershey bar.”
It had probably been a very long time since Mary Pickford had been an extra—had she ever?—but Irving now had a strategy: give Arthur Brisbane an angle for tomorrow’s column. “The Day Mary Pickford and I Played Film Extras.”
“Sounds like a good deal to me.” Mary clapped her hands together. “What a nice change from being front and center. No pressure to look marvelous. We can just sit there and gobble down our Hershey bars. Where would you like us?”
Irving was walking toward the front of the platform to pick out a spot when he caught a glimpse of the crouching giant statue at the far end. The fog! It was lifting! He pointed out a block of empty seats and told his extra-special extras that he would make sure they’d be served their boxed lunches first. Fred was nowhere in sight, but he spotted Joe Cohn, the studio manager, who stood in a huddle with the picture’s stunt coordinator, Breezy Eason, chatting with the camera crew. Irving rushed through his goodbyes and dashed onto the field, pointing skyward.
“Joe! Joe! It’s clearing up!” He arrived at the men, breathless and sweaty. “Where’s Fred?”
“Last I saw him, he and Easterbrook were huddled with one of the construction guys. There’s a problem with the plastering on the—”
“Go find him,” Irving told Joe. “And hurry! We’ve wasted enough time with this blasted fog.”
He pointed to the line of chariots, each one with its team of four horses hitched up and ready to race. “You,” he told Breezy, “come with me.”
They raced across the field to where the stuntmen stood waiting; the stink of manure hung suspended in the dusty air.
“Ramon? Francis?” Irving called. “Where are you?” Ramon Novarro was playing Ben-Hur, and Francis X. Bushman was his nemesis, Messala. The two men stepped to the front, decked out in their Roman tunics, leather harnesses strapped across their chests.
Irving was still breathless from sprinting; his heart beat wildly, erratically. Had they not wasted so much of this morning waiting for the fog to lift, he would have found some other excuse to put off talking, but they were racing against the clock.
“You have to pull out all the stops.”
“What do you need?”
Irving swiped at the flies buzzing around him. “An honest-to-god, no-holds-barred, give-it-all-you’ve-got contest. And what’s a competition without prizes, right?” Each stuntman stood north of six feet tall and weighed at least 200 pounds. At five feet six and 125, Irving normally would have felt intimidated, but only one person was in charge of this circus, and it was him. “The man who wins the race today gets a hundred and fifty dollars. The second man gets a hundred. Third place wins fifty.”
The biggest stuntman of the lot—a grizzly bear of a man, with a scarred face and hairy knuckles—thrust his fist into the air. “You’ve got yourself a real battle, mister!”
As the men dispersed to their assigned chariots, Irving noticed Ramon lingering behind. “Anything wrong?”
The guy was one of Metro’s rising stars. He was Mexican, but possessed a wide range of exotic looks that Irving intended to take full advantage of. “We are wasting time. It’s nothing.”
“What’s on your mind, Ramon?”
He set his mouth into a grim line. “Doesn’t Ben-Hur win the race?”
“Of course he does. It’s the whole point of this sequence.”
“One hundred and fifty dollars buys much determination.”
“I need them to give us terrific footage, and that’s the best way to do it.”
Ramon’s hands trembled. “Mr. Thalberg, have you ever stood on a chariot? Behind a team of powerful horses? Holding onto a thin strap of leather, knowing it’s all that stands between you and being trampled to death?” He gave Irving’s stuntmen the once-over. “You offered them an incentive to be reckless.”
“They’re professionals whose allegiance is to safety first, especially the safety of the star of a picture that’s over budget and behind schedule. They know what’s at stake, and they know how to give the cameras a heck of a show.”
Around them, jittery stallions pulled their chariots toward the starting line, leaving behind Ramon’s team of white horses and matching chariot.
“All I need is for you to stay in the mix,” Irving said. “No need to pull ahead or take chances. We’ll be filming the wide shots today, and then tomorrow, we’ll capture close-ups and reaction shots. Okay?”
Ramon was about to speak his mind, but hesitated instead. Irving figured it was getting close to noon now, and they hadn’t even shot one take. Checking his wristwatch was the most undiplomatic thing he could do, so he took a step closer and lowered his voice.
“Look, Ramon, I know I’m not the one who’ll be out there, behind a team of horses who may or may not do what they’re told, surrounded by chariots clocking thirty miles an hour or more. I want you to know that I admire your willingness to do it. Truly, I do. But this whole picture rests on our being able to pull off a spectacular chariot race.” That last sentence wasn’t wholly true, but it was close enough: shots of the race would probably feature on the poster. “I can send for your stand-in, but audiences need to see that Ramon Novarro himself is in the race, and that’s going to make all the difference.”
Irving took his position on a platform at the finishing line. Fred and Henry stood next to him.
“You don’t think the fairy’ll faint on us, do you?” Fred asked.
Irving kept his binoculars trained on the line of eight chariots. “Are you referring to the valuable star of our picture who is brave enough to get on a chariot with a team of unpredictable horses pulling him at high speed, any of which could trample him to death without breaking stride?” He let a moment tick by to give Fred’s discomfort a chance to ferment before he signaled the director.
A whistle blasted across the Circus Maximus. Chariots charged forward. Extras crowding the bleachers roared to life, screaming, clapping, waving their arms, and stamping their feet.
A pair of burly stagehands pushed the camera mount along a pair of tracks paralleling the edge of the stadium. Four brown geldings pulling a silver chariot shot to the front, mouths already straining at their bits. Bushman, half a length behind, whipped his reins.
Irving felt the pounding of hooves shake the wooden boards beneath his shoes.
The sun slipped out from behind a cloud as Ramon spotted an opening in the cluster and directed his horses to fill it. The sun picked up his white chariot as though it were a spotlight.
The platform quaked as forty-eight horses hammered past, the extras screaming themselves into a manic fever. The chariots rounded the corner and disappeared behind the wall that ran down the center of the field.
“FANTASTIC!” Fred yelled over the din. “INCREDIBLE!”
Irving nodded. “Tell them to keep going. They can’t lose momentum.”
Fred made a circular motion with his right hand. Cohn ordered the camera to dash back to its original starting point so it could catch them a second time. They had barely reached their position before the pack stampeded around the corner again.
Irving searched for Ramon’s white horses, but clouds of dust obscured his vision. It would add an aura of menace to the final shot, but Irving knew he would feel better if he could see his star actor.
They had approached the halfway mark when one of the chariots jumped a foot into the air. Its wheels locked as it landed again and then skidded across the dirt. The four horses writhed in a jumble of legs, tails, reins. Unable to slow down, the chariot behind rammed into the wreck. It flipped sideways, hurling the driver through the air in a high arc that landed him in the tangle of wheels and writhing horseflesh.
Chariots swerved left and right to avoid the churning pile. Bushman missed it, but the rim of Ramon’s right wheel clipped the edge of a fallen vehicle. Irving held his breath as Ramon’s chariot tipped onto one wheel, then wobbled and lurched as his panicked horses charged forward. Desperate to regain control, Ramon yanked on his reins until, at last, the chariot righted itself.
Stagehands ran onto the field, their arms outstretched, waving wildly to get the stuntmen to stop.
Irving asked, “Did we hire a medic?”
Henry shook his head. “There’s a bank of public phones on La Cienega.” He dashed away.
Fred leaped from the platform and sprinted toward the smash-up. Irving stepped forward to follow him, but the binoculars slipped from his hand as a sudden pain crushed his chest. His knees buckled and he crumpled to the floor, grazing the palms of his hands on the rough wood.
Breathe, he told himself. Breathe! A jagged pain ripped through him. He fumbled for the field glasses. In case anybody was watching, he had to make out like he was doing nothing more than picking them up and dusting them off.
That collision was disastrous for the drivers, he thought, but it’ll make memorable footage for the movie, and everybody here today will go home talking about how they were there when the chariots piled up on Metro-Goldwyn’s Ben-Hur.
Mercifully, the chest pain dissipated as suddenly as it had arrived. A whirl of lightheadedness overcame him, but it, too, receded. He scrambled to his feet and stared incredulously at the scene before him; he was weak and a little disoriented, but not so much that he couldn’t fake it for the rest of the day. The crash site was a chaotic farrago of dust and horses, wreckage and personnel. He needed to be there, helping however he could. He took the steps two by two and jumped to the ground. As he did, a sickening thought struck him.
Did I just have a heart attack?
UPDATE – June 20, 2020:
The Heart of the Lion is now available on all major online retailers.
You can see the 3-minute chariot race sequence from 1925’s Ben-Hur on YouTube.
And I have some photos of the set on my website.
I’d love to know what you thought – positive, negative, indifferent? I welcome all comments. Leave them below or feel free to contact me.
Also by Martin Turnbull:
Chasing Salomé – a novel of 1920s Hollywood
The Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels
Book 1 – The Garden on Sunset
Book 2 – The Trouble with Scarlett
Book 3 – Citizen Hollywood
Book 4 – Searchlights and Shadows
Book 5 – Reds in the Beds
Book 6 – Twisted Boulevard
Book 7 – Tinseltown Confidential
Book 8 – City of Myths
Book 9 – Closing Credits
Connect with Martin Turnbull