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Hecht, Ben

HECHT, Ben



Writer, Producer, and Director. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 28 February 1893. Education: Attended Racine High School, Wisconsin. Family: Married 1) Marie Armstrong, 1915 (divorced 1925), one daughter; 2) Rose Caylor, 1925; one daughter. Career: Child violin prodigy and circus acrobat; 1910–14—staff member, Chicago Journal; 1914–18—reporter, correspondent in Berlin, 1918–19, and columnist, 1919–23, Chicago News; wrote first play in the mid-1910s, and first novel in 1921; 1923–25—founding editor, Chicago Literary Times; 1927—first film as writer, Underworld; 1934—formed production company with Charles MacArthur to write, produce, and direct their own films; 1940—began collaboration with Charles Lederer; 1948–51—boycotted by British exhibitors for his criticism of British policy in Palestine. Awards: Academy Awards for Underworld, 1928; The Scoundrel, 1935; Writers Guild Laurel Award, 1980. Died: Of a heart attack, 18 April 1964.

Films as Writer:

1927

Underworld (Paying the Penalty) (von Sternberg)

1928

The Big Noise (Dwan)

1929

Unholy Night (L. Barrymore); Le Spectre vert (The Green Ghost) (Feyder)

1930

Roadhouse Nights (The River Inn) (Henley); The Great Gabbo (Cruze)

1931

The Unholy Garden (Fitzmaurice)

1932

Scarface—The Shame of a Nation (Hawks)

1933

Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (Hallelujah, I'm a Tramp; Lazy Bones) (Milestone); Turn Back the Clock (Selwyn); Design for Living (Lubitsch)

1934

Upper World (Del Ruth); Twentieth Century (Hawks); Crime without Passion (+ co-d + co-pr); Viva Villa! (Conway)

1935

Once in a Blue Moon (+ co-d + co-pr); The Scoundrel (+ co-d + co-pr + ro); Barbary Coast (Hawks)

1936

Soak the Rich (+ co-d + co-pr + ro)

1938

Nothing Sacred (Wellman); Goldwyn Follies (Marshall)

1939

Let Freedom Ring (Song of the West) (Conway); It's a Wonderful World (Van Dyke); Lady of the Tropics (Conway); Gunga Din (Stevens) (+ ro); Wuthering Heights (Wyler); Gone with the Wind (Fleming) (dialogue)

1940

Angels over Broadway (+ co-d + pr + ro); Comrade X (K. Vidor)

1941

Lydia (Duvivier)

1942

Tales of Manhattan (Duvivier); China Girl (Hathaway) (+ pr); The Black Swan (H. King)

1945

Spellbound (Hitchcock); Watchtower over Tomorrow (Cromwell—short)

1946

Specter of the Rose (+ co-d + pr); Notorious (Hitchcock)

1947

Her Husband's Affairs (Simon); Kiss of Death (Hathaway); Ride the Pink Horse (Montgomery)

1948

The Miracle of the Bells (Pichel)

1950

Whirlpool (Preminger) (co-sc as Lester Bartow); Where the Sidewalk Ends (Preminger)

1952

Actors and Sin (+ co-d + pr + ro); Monkey Business (Hawks)

1954

Light's Diamond Jubilee (K. Vidor, Wellman and Taurog)

1955

Ulisse (Ulysses) (Camerini); The Indian Fighter (de Toth)

1956

Miracle in the Rain (Maté); The Iron Petticoat (Thomas)

1957

Legend of the Lost (Hathaway); A Farewell to Arms (C. Vidor)

1958

Queen of Outer Space (Bernds)

1959

Hello Charlie (Lanfield)

1964

Circus World (The Magnificent Showman) (Hathaway)



Films based on Hecht's writings:

1931

The Front Page (Milestone)

1934

Shoot the Works (Ruggles)

1935

The Florentine Dagger (Florey); Spring Tonic (Bruckman)

1939

Some Like It Hot (Archainbaud)

1940

His Girl Friday (Hawks)

1950

Perfect Strangers (Windust)

1959

Some Like It Hot (Wilder)

1969

Chicago, Chicago (Jewison)

1974

The Front Page (Wilder)

1986

Je hais les acteurs (Krawczyk)

1988

Switching Channels (Kotcheff)

Publications


By HECHT: plays—

With Maxwell Bodenheim, The Master Poisoner, New York, 1918.

With Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, The Wonder Hat, New York, 1920.

With Goodman, The Hero of Santa Maria, New York, 1920.

With Goodman, The Hand of Siva, New York, 1920.

Christmas Eve, New York, 1928.

With Charles MacArthur, The Front Page, New York, 1928.

With MacArthur, Twentieth Century, New York, 1932.

With Gene Fowler, The Great Magoo, New York, 1933.

With MacArthur, Jumbo, New York, 1935.

To Quito and Back, New York, 1937.

With MacArthur, Ladies and Gentlemen, New York, 1941.

With MacArthur, Fun to Be Free, New York, 1941.

We Will Never Die, New York, 1943.

With MacArthur, Wuthering Heights (script), in Twenty Best Film Plays, edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, New York, 1946.

A Flag Is Born, New York, 1946.

With Angus MacPhail, Spellbound (script), in Best Film Plays, 1945, edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, New York, 1946.

Hazel Flagg, New York, 1953.

Winkelberg, New York, 1958.


By HECHT: fiction—

Erik Dorn, New York, 1921.

Fantazius Mallare, Chicago, 1922.

A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, Chicago, 1922.

Gargoyles, New York, 1922.

The Florentine Dagger, New York, 1923.

Humpty Dumpty, New York, 1924.

The Kingdom of Evil, Chicago, 1924.

With Bodenheim, Cutie, A Warm Mamma, Chicago, 1924.

Broken Necks, Chicago, 1926.

Count Bruga, New York, 1926.

A Jew in Love, New York, 1931.

The Champion from Far Away, New York, 1931.

Actor's Blood, New York, 1936.

A Book of Miracles, New York, 1939.

1001 Afternoons in New York, New York, 1941.

Miracle in the Rain, New York, 1943.

I Hate Actors!, New York, 1944, as Hollywood Mystery!, 1946.

Collected Stories, New York, 1945.

Concerning a Woman of Sin and Other Stories, New York, 1947.

The Cat That Jumped Out of the Story (for children), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1947.

The Sensualists, New York, 1959.

In the Midst of Death, London, 1964.


By HECHT: other books—

A Guide for the Bedevilled, New York, 1944.

A Child of the Century (autobiography), New York, 1954.

Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur, New York, 1957.

A Treasury of Ben Hecht, New York, 1959.

Perfidy, New York, 1961.

Gaily, Gaily (autobiography), New York, 1963.

Letters from Bohemia, New York, 1964.

Primack, Bret, editor, The Ben Hecht Show: Impolitic Observations from the Freest Thinker of 1950s Television, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1993.

Fifty Books That Are Books, Washington, 2000.


By HECHT: article—

"My Testimonial to the Movies," in Theatre, June 1929.

On HECHT: books—

Fetherling, Doug, The Five Lives of Ben Hecht, Toronto, 1977.

Martin, Jeffrey Brown, Ben Hecht, Hollywood Screenwriter, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1985.

MacAdams, William, Ben Hecht: A Biography, New York, 1995.

Kovan, Florice W., Rediscovering Ben Hecht: Selling the Celluloid Serpent, Washington, 1999.


On HECHT: articles—

Photoplay (New York), October 1934.

Rains, Claude, in Film Weekly (London), 22 February 1935.

Houston, Penelope, in Sight and Sound (London), September 1951.

Bluestone, George, on Wuthering Heights in Novels into Film, Baltimore, Maryland, 1957.

Cinéma (Paris), June 1964.

Focus on Film (London), March-April 1970.

Fuller, Stephen, in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970–71.

In The Hollywood Screenwriters, edited by Richard Corliss, New York, 1972.

National Film Theatre Booklet (London), April-May 1975.

Brown, Geoff, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1975.

Fuller, Stephen, in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1978.

Oakman, Elizabeth W., in Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Detroit, Michigan, 1981.

Skoop (Amsterdam), May-June 1981.

Clark, Randall, in American Screenwriters, edited by Robert E. Monberger, Stephen O. Lesser, and Randall Clark, Detroit, Michigan, 1984.

Télérama (Paris), 27 July-2 August 1985.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1985.

Klein, Andy, "Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend," in American Film, November 1990.

Epstein, Joseph, "The Great Hack Genius," in Commentary, December 1990.

McGilligan, Patrick, "Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend," in Film Quarterly, Fall 1991.

Brandlmeier, T., in EPD Film (Frankfurt), March 1993.

Slattery, W.J., "The Bindery," in Audience (Simi Valley), February-March 1996.


* * *

Ben Hecht is synonymous with the "Hollywood" film. He was one of the most prolific and sought-after screenwriters during the 1930s and 1940s, working in a variety of genres and with such notable directors as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Wyler.

Hecht first came into prominence as a screenwriter with his gangster story Underworld (directed by Josef von Sternberg). He further enhanced the development of the gangster genre with his script for the Howard Hawks classic Scarface—The Shame of a Nation. The material for these films and others, most strikingly The Front Page, can be traced back to his journalist days in Chicago. Hecht was only 16 when he began working as a reporter for the Chicago Journal. As a reporter, Hecht received a thorough education in the seamier side of human nature. He reported the foibles of the police, politicians, and gangsters in a colorful and cynical style—a style that would later emerge in his screenwriting.

During the early period in Chicago, Hecht was also developing his skills as a novelist and playwright. By 1922 he had published the first two of his many novels, Erik Dorn and Gargoyles. He was also involved in the bohemian life of the city. Charles MacArthur, a fellow reporter, and Hecht teamed up and worked in New York as successful playwrights. Their plays The Front Page and Twentieth Century were critical and financial successes and both were to become major motion pictures. There have been three screen versions of The Front Page. Lewis Milestone directed the first version in 1931.

Howard Hawks saw the film as a love story and changed the sex of the reporter, Hildy, from a man to a woman in His Girl Friday. The most recent version, directed by Billy Wilder in 1974, is the closest adaptation of the original play. Twentieth Century, also directed by Howard Hawks, became the prototype for the screwball comedy—a genre popular in the 1930s.

The collaborative efforts of Hecht and MacArthur were legendary in Hollywood, not only for their creative output (Soak the Rich, Wuthering Heights, and Barbary Coast) but also for their nonstop antics. Due to their quick success as screenwriters, Paramount awarded Hecht and MacArthur a four-film contract which guaranteed them full control over their work. Between 1934 and 1936, Hecht and MacArthur took over the Paramount Studios in Astoria, Long Island, and co-produced, co-directed, and co-wrote their own feature films. Their inspiration was to produce films that could compete with the European art films. All of the four films were financial failures, quickly ending their experiment in artistic autonomy. Of the films, only Crime without Passion and The Scoundrel received critical acclaim. These films, along with Angels over Broadway, the only film Hecht directed, produced, and wrote originally for the screen, reflected his preoccupation with German Expressionistic ideas that had also informed his earlier literary efforts. Hecht continued to work independently and with other writing partners, Charles Lederer, I. A. L. Diamond, and Gene Fowler, on film ideas. Although he never felt truly comfortable in Hollywood, his reputation as a quick and skilled screenwriter kept him involved in numerous film projects. He still pursued his literary career and considered it to be his more serious work. Critical success in the literary field eluded him while the film ideas he tossed out at an incredibly rapid rate were by contrast consistently well received.

With the advent of World War II, Hecht devoted considerable energies to protest the German slaughter of his fellow Jews. He also became an ardent Zionist and aligned himself with the Irgun Movement. Because of his strong attacks on the British position in Palestine, his films, although not dealing directly with this issue, were banned in Britain from 1949 to 1952. During this time, Hecht found it difficult to obtain work in Hollywood because the producers feared they would lose the British market. Until his death, Hecht remained active in a variety of fields, still working on occasional screenplays, writing articles and books, and even hosting his own television talk show in 1958.

Hecht's style at its best was a delicate balance between cynicism and sentimentalism. His heroes tended to embody his own anti-middle-class bias, preferring a life of rugged individualism over the bland comforts of conformity. His unique brand of rapid fire overlapping dialogue often served to unmask the quick-witted cynic as a surprisingly caring humanitarian. Film provided Hecht with a medium in which he could collaborate with like-minded individuals who shared his individualism, comradeship, and professionalism.

—Doreen Bartoni

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Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht

A leading American journalist and playwright, Ben Hecht (1894-1964) became Hollywood's most prolific and sought-after scriptwriter of his time.

Ben Hecht was born on February 28, 1894, in New York City, although he grew up and attended school in Racine, Wisconsin, where his mother owned a store. On graduation from high school, he worked as an acrobat and then owned and managed a theater.

In 1910 he went to Chicago, where he got a job as a reporter for the Chicago Journal. At the time there were seven news-gathering organizations in the city, so the competition was cutthroat. Hecht proved himself one of the best at getting exclusives, although his methods were at least unorthodox. On one occasion he was sent by his city editor to get a photograph of a girl who had joined in a suicide pact with a married clergyman; of course, reporters from other newspapers had been given the same order. But the dead girl's mother and brothers barricaded themselves in their home and refused to have anything to do with the press. The newsmen waited all day with no developments, and the others left. Noticing that the family had lit a fire in their fireplace, Hecht secured a ladder and some boards, climbed up onto the roof, put the boards over the top of the chimney, waited until the resultant smoke had driven the residents from the house, dashed inside, and grabbed a photo.

But at the same time as he was establishing himself as one of the wilder members of a wild journalistic fraternity, Hecht had hopes of making a reputation as a serious writer. Among the literary figures he met and befriended were the leaders of the "Chicago Renaissance," Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Vincent Star-rett. He began to publish short stories in Margaret Anderson's The Little Review, the voice of the movement.

In 1914 he moved from the Chicago Journal to the Chicago Daily News, where he stayed for nine years, with a brief interval (1918-1919) spent as a correspondent in Berlin. It was during these years that he began to publish vignettes about Chicagoans, mostly the dispossessed and the downtrodden. These pieces purported to be about real people, but in his autobiography Hecht later confessed: "It was not my talents as a news gatherer that I offered my paper but a sudden fearless flowering as a fictioneer. … I made them all up."

Many of these pieces were anthologized in his first collection, One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago (1922), but by that time his reputation had been solidly established by his novel Erik Dorn, the first of 11. Published to wide acclaim in 1921 and soon snapped up for inclusion in the prestigious Modern Library, Erik Dorn, the story of a newspaper editor and his loves, now seems sentimental romanticism more like 1891 than 1921. Hecht published many more volumes of short stories and sketches (a total of 17), and his early reputation as a litterateur rested principally on them.

He also had aspirations as a playwright, completing The Egotist in 1922, and began to write screenplays, winning an Academy Award in 1927 for Underworld.

In 1928 he joined with fellow Chicago newsman Charles MacArthur (later the husband of Helen Hayes) to compose one of the major American plays of the 20th century, The Front Page. The plot concerns an addled leftist condemned to death for murder who escapes on the eve of his execution and hides in the pressroom of the Chicago jail. While an emissary from the governor seeks to deliver a commutation, the venal mayor and the sheriff hope to deliver the escapee dead to ensure their re-election. The subplot involves a reporter who is about to marry and leave for a lucrative public relations job in New York and his city editor, who wants to keep him in Chicago.

Yet the whole play is really about the Chicago newspaper business and, in an epilogue often appended to published versions, Hecht and MacArthur wrote that their intention had been to expose "inequities, double dealings, chicaneries and immoralities which … we knew so well," but that they had ended up with "a Valentine thrown to the past, a Ballad … full of Heimweh and Love."

It was very much a drame à clef, with the mayor based on a combination of Fred Busse and William Hale (Big Bill) Thompson, Jr.; the hapless leftist, Earl Williams, based on Terrible Tommy O'Connor who, sentenced to hang in 1921, escaped and was never recaptured; Hildy, the reporter, on Hilding Johnson, a Swedish immigrant who rose from copyboy to top reporter; and Walter Burns, the city editor, on Walter C. Howey, for whom MacArthur had worked on the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Herald and Examiner. Other acquaintances of the two show up in minor roles: Roy Benzinger of the Chicago Evening American appears as Bensinger, the hygiene-conscious reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

The great success of this play led its authors to Hollywood, where Hecht became the top script writer of the 1930s and 1940s. He won a second Oscar for The Scoundrel in 1935 and was nominated for four others: Viva Villa in 1934, Wuthering Heightsin 1939, Angels over Broadway in 1940, and Notorious in 1946.

It is actually impossible to assess the totality of Hecht's work in the movies because so many of the films turned out in Hollywood's Golden Age were the result of collaboration, with one writer providing the script idea, another preparing the treatment, and two or three or four others writing the screenplay. Hecht showed his versatility by working on everything from gangster stories like Scarface (1932) and Kiss of Death (1947) to sophisticated comedy like Design for Living (1933) to arrant sentimentalism like The Miracle of the Bells (1948). He himself said that he was involved in more than 70 films, but he kept no close count and the total may well have been more than that. He never felt, however, that cinema was a significant art. In his autobiography he wrote: "I can understand the literary critic's shyness toward me. It is difficult to praise a novelist or a thinker who keeps popping up as the author of innumerable movie melodramas."

It was in 1939, at the height of his fame and influence, that Hecht became conscious of his Jewishness and began a fight which lasted for nine years to help found the state of Israel. As he put it: "I had before then been only related to Jews. In that year I became a Jew and looked on the world with Jewish eyes."

At that time he joined "Fight for Freedom," a group dedicated to taking the United States into the war against the Germans, and later began a column for the now-defunct New York newspaper P.M., urging a moral outcry against the fate of European Jewry.

In 1941 he became a supporter of and fund-raiser for Irgun Tzevai Leumi, the most militant of the groups in Palestine trying to force Great Britain to turn that nation into a Jewish homeland. So successful was he in his efforts that the British declared a boycott against him and his work.

In 1943 in the Reader's Digest he published the article "Remember Us," the first generally circulated exposéof what was happening to the Jews under the Nazis, and in that same year, working with Kurt Weill and Billy Rose, he staged the pageant "We Will Never Die" on Jewish indomitability at Madison Square Garden in New York.

After the state of Israel was established, he became one of its foremost supporters in America and raised funds for the young nation until his death. He continued to write films and, in print, turned more to non-fiction. Ben Hecht died on April 18, 1964.

Further Reading

Hecht's autobiography, A Child of the Century (1954) is the best source, although it is rambling and unfocussed. Other autobiographical works include Gaily, Gaily (1963) and Letters from Bohemia (1964). The best biography is The Five Lives of Ben Hecht by Doug Fetherling (1977), which includes as complete a filmography as readers are ever likely to get. Also worth mentioning is The Novels of Ben Hecht by Ronald M. Roberts (1970), although now few would agree that the subject merits a book.

Additional Sources

Fetherling, Doug, The five lives of Ben Hecht, Toronto: Lester and Orpen, 1977.

Hecht, Ben, The Ben Hecht show: impolitic observations from the freest thinker of 1950s television, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.

Hecht, Ben, A child of the century, New York: Primus, 1985, 1982.

Hecht, Ben, A thousand and one afternoons in Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

MacAdams, William, Ben Hecht: a biography, New York: Barricade Books, 1995.

MacAdams, William, Ben Hecht: the man behind the legend, New York: Scribner, 1990.

Martin, Jeffrey Brown, Ben Hecht, Hollywood screenwriter, Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985. □

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Hecht, Ben

Ben Hecht (hĕkt), 1894–1964, American writer, b. New York City. He grew up in Wisconsin and, while still in his teens, worked on newspapers in Chicago. Early in his career he became involved in the Chicago literary movement of the time, founding in 1923 the Chicago Literary Times, an iconoclastic review that he edited for two years. A stormy and controversial figure, Hecht was known for a variety of literary and theatrical activities. He wrote novels, short-story collections, and plays, and he wrote, directed, and produced for the motion-picture industry. With Charles MacArthur, he collaborated on several film scripts and plays, of which The Front Page (1928), an irreverent drama of newspaper life, is the most famous.

See his autobiography, A Child of the Century (1954).

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