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MacArthur, Charles

MacARTHUR, Charles

Writer, Producer, and Director. Nationality: American. Born: Charles Gordon MacArthur in Scranton, Pennsylvania, 5 November 1895. Education: Attended Wilson Memorial Academy, Nyack, New York. Military Service: 1916—served as a trooper in the 1st Illinois Cavalry on the Mexican Border, and as a Private in the 149th Field Artillery, 1917–19. Family: Married 1) Carol Frink (divorced); 2) the actress Helen Hayes, 1928; one daughter and one son, the actor James MacArthur. Career: 1914–16—reporter, City News Bureau, Herald and Examiner, and Tribune, all Chicago; 1921–23—journalist, New York American; 1924—special writer, Hearst's International Magazine; 1926—first play produced, My Lulu Belle; 1928—began collaboration with Ben Hecht, on play The Front Page; 1930—first film as writer; 1934—formed production company with Hecht to write, produce, and direct their own films; 1942–45—Assistant to the Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service: Lt. Colonel. Awards: Academy Award for The Scoundrel, 1935. Died: 21 April 1956.

Films as Writer:


The Girl Said No (Wood); The King of Jazz (Anderson); Billy the Kid (K. Vidor); Way for a Sailor (Wood)


Paid (Wood); The Unholy Garden (Fitzmaurice); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (The Lullaby) (Selwyn); The New Adventures of Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (Wood)


Rasputin and the Empress (Boleslawsky)


I Take This Woman (Van Dyke)


The Senator Was Indiscreet (Kaufman)


Lulu Belle (Fenton)

Films as Cowriter with Ben Hecht:


Twentieth Century (Hawks); Crime without Passion (+ co-d+ co-pr)


Once in a Blue Moon (+ co-d + co-pr); The Scoundrel (+ co-d + co-pr)


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


Gunga Din (Stevens); Wuthering Heights (Wyler)


By MacARTHUR: plays—

My Lulu Belle, New York, 1925.

With Ben Hecht, The Front Page, New York, 1928.

With Hecht, Twentieth Century, New York, 1932.

With Hecht, Jumbo, New York, 1935.

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

With Hecht, Wuthering Heights (script), in Twenty Best Film Plays, edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, New York, 1943.

Stage Works, Tallahassee, Florida, 1974.

By MacARTHUR: other books—

A Bug's-Eye View of the War (nonfiction), Oak Park, Illinois, 1919.

War Bugs (nonfiction), New York, 1929

On MacARTHUR: books—

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

Robbins, J., Front Page Marriage: Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur, New York, 1982.

On MacARTHUR: articles—

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

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

Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1975.

Film Dope (Nottingham), June 1987.

"The Scoundrel," in Reid's Film Index, no. 3, 1989.

"Crime Without Passion," in Reid's Film Index, no. 6, 1991.

* * *

Charles MacArthur is best known for his collaborations with Ben Hecht, yet his contributions to the Hollywood era proved him an exemplary crafter of what Howard Hawks referred to as "three cushion dialogue." He created sophisticated banter which could bounce gaily about a ticklish subject yet pocket a message usually left to cruder forms of innuendo. He participated in the artistic cross-fertilization of the movie-mills and the New York theatrical dynasty, bringing to each a sensibility of impertinent perfectionism.

After his immensely successful collaboration with Hecht, The Front Page, left a permanent mark on Broadway, MacArthur went to work for MGM as a dialogue writer on such early talkies as Way for a Sailor and Billy the Kid. His first complete script, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, provided his wife Helen Hayes with her first film role and an Academy Award for best actress.

Samuel Goldwyn, always in search of a great script, bought the Hecht/MacArthur team for the first of their eventual nine film collaborations. The result was The Unholy Garden, which failed critically and financially in spite of much witty dialogue and the magnetic presence of the stars Ronald Colman and Fay Wray. In the mid-1930s Paramount financed MacArthur and Hecht to produce and direct four feature films, most notably The Scoundrel. This film won an Academy Award for best original story and discovered an audience hungry for their Baroque style of dark humor and crisp naturalism.

While MacArthur's second billing to Hecht was originally determined (according to Hecht) by a flip of a coin, he nonetheless played the sidekick role well, acting as model, muse, and editor for Hecht's wildly erratic genius. Much of the sparkling repartee found in their films was but a replay of conversations between these old friends.

The occasional sentimentality of MacArthur's own scripts reveals a central ambiguity of his personality: he was a reverent iconoclast. In Hecht's words, "He believed in all the conventions he flouted. He broke laws but he never took sides against them." At the same time MacArthur brought his own personal charm and his objectivity toward human folly and pomposity to all his best work.

—Rick Broussard

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