Fred Niblo - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Federico Nobile in York, Nebraska, 6 January 1874. Family: Married Josephine Cohan (died 1916); one son; 2) actress Enid Bennett, 1917, three children. Career: Vaudeville performer, blackface monologuist, through 1907; shot travelogues on 'round-the-world cruise, 1907; company manager and actor for George M. Cohan and Sam Harris; took American repertory company to Australia, 1912–15; directed film for Australian theatrical company J.C. Williamson, 1915; joined Ince company, Hollywood, 1918; co-founder, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1928. Died: In New Orleans, 11 November 1948.

Films as Director:


Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (+ role)


Coals of Fire ; The Marriage Ring ; When Do We Eat? ; A Desert Wooing ; Fuss and Feathers


Happy Though Married ; The Haunted Bedroom ; Partners Three ; The Virtuous Thief ; Stepping Out ; What Every Woman Learns


The Woman in the Suitcase ; The False Road ; Her Husband's Friend ; Dangerous Hours ; Sex ; Hairpins ; The Mark of Zorro


Silk Hosiery ; Mother o' Mine ; Greater than Love ; The Three Musketeers


The Woman He Married ; Rose o' the Sea ; Blood and Sand


The Famous Mrs. Fair ; Strangers of the Night (+ co-pr)


Thy Name Is Woman ; The Red Lily (+ story)


Ben-Hur ; The Temptress


Camille (+ pr); The Devil Dancer (+ pr)


The Enemy (+ pr); Two Lovers (+ pr); The Mysterious Lady ; Dream of Love


Redemption (+ pr); Way out West


Donovan's Kid ; The Big Gamble


Two White Arms ; Diamond Cut Diamond (co-d); Blame the Woman

Other Films:


Officer 666 (role)


Free and Easy (Sedgwick) (role)


Ellery Queen, Master Detective (Bellamy) (role); I'm Still Alive (role)


Life with Henry (Reed) (role)


Four Jills in a Jeep (Seiter) (co-sc)


By NIBLO: articles—

Interview with M. Cheatham, in Motion Picture Classic (Brooklyn), July 1920.

"Sketch," with K. McGaffey, in Motion Picture Classic (Brooklyn), October 1921.

"The Filming of Ben Hur ," interview with R. Wharton, in Classic Film/Video Images (Indiana, Pennsylvania), Winter 1978.

On NIBLO: book—

Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By , New York, 1968.

On NIBLO: articles—

Obituary, in The New York Times , 12 November 1948.

Obituary, in Variety (New York), 12 November 1948.

Route, W.D., "Buried Directors," in Focus (Chicago), Spring 1972.

"1224 Fred Niblo," in Film Dope (Nottingham), December 1991.

* * *

Fred Niblo directed some of the most legendary stars of the 1920s in some of that decade's biggest films: Blood and Sand (with Valentino); The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers (Fair-banks); and Ben Hur. He guided Garbo through The Temptress (replacing her mentor, Mauritz Stiller) and The Mysterious Lady. He worked with Lillian Gish, Ronald Colman, Conrad Nagel, Lionel Barrymore, Vilma Banky, and Norma Talmadge. Valentino, Fair-banks, and Garbo first come to mind at the mention of their films with Niblo. The other actors' best work was done elsewhere, for other more rightfully distinguished filmmakers.

Niblo's one distinction is his credit on Ben Hur , the cinema's first real super-spectacle. Ben Hur is the Titanic of its day, a boondoggle that ran way over budget and took two years to complete. It was begun by the Goldwyn Company, and passed along when Goldwyn, Loew's Metro, and Louis B. Mayer joined together to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Ben Hur was initially shot on location in Italy. The dissatisfied studio ordered a revised script. Ramon Novarro replaced George Walsh in the title role and Niblo, the choice of Mayer and Irving Thalberg, took over for Charles Brabin. The Coliseum was rebuilt several blocks from the MGM lot; inside the studio, Roman galleys floated inside a large tank. Eventually, the budget climbed to $3 million—perhaps even higher—with over one million feet of film shot.

Niblo not so much directed as coordinated Ben Hur , and the result was all effect and no drama. Sometimes the film is confusing, and even tiring, yet it is also at its best thrilling. The image of Novarro and

Fred Niblo (center) with Lillian Gish on the set of The Enemy
Fred Niblo (center) with Lillian Gish on the set of The Enemy
Francis X. Bushman (as Messala) racing their chariots remains one of the best-recalled of the silent era. This sequence is supposed to have influenced the staging of the same scene in William Wyler's far superior remake.

Ultimately, Niblo's career success was more a case of luck than any inherent talent or aesthetic vision. In 1917 he married Enid Bennett, who worked for Thomas Ince; the following year, he began making films for Ince. Later, Niblo was hired by Mayer, who liked him and brought him along to MGM. Niblo's career as an A-film director did not last many years past Ben Hur. He made only a handful of films during the 1930s, even working in Britain before retiring in 1941. In his later years, he took small roles in films—he had commenced his career as an actor, in vaudeville, on tour, and Broadway—and was employed as a radio commentator and master of ceremonies.

Before Don Juan, The Jazz Singer , and the demise of silent movies, Niblo made some intriguing prognostications. He foresaw the advent of sound, declaring that motion picture music would be synchronized by radio to replace the live piano; subtitles would be synchronized and broadcast in the same way, in the actual voices of the actors. He predicted other advances as well, including the use of color cinematography, three-dimensional screens to prevent distortion, and theaters specializing in children's films.

While Niblo may have been a decent technician at best in the director's chair, he was far more adept with a crystal ball.

—Rob Edelman

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