Ben Hecht (pronounced hekt), (February 28, 1894 – April 18, 1964), was an American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, and novelist. Called "the Shakespeare of Hollywood", who received screen credits, alone or in collaboration, for the stories or screenplays of some 70 films and as a prolific storyteller, authored 35 books and created some of the most entertaining screenplays or plays in America. According to film historian Richard Corliss, he was "the" Hollywood screenwriter, someone who "personified Hollywood itself." The Dictionary of Literary Biography - American Screenwriters, calls him "one of the most successful screenwriters in the history of motion pictures."
He was the first screenwriter to ever receive an Oscar for an original screenplay, for the movie Underworld, in 1927. The number of screenplays he wrote or worked on that are now considered "classics" is, according to Chicago's Newberry Library, "astounding," and included films such as, Scarface (1930), The Front Page, Twentieth Century (1934), Barbary Coast (1935), Stagecoach, Some Like It Hot, Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, (all 1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Monkey Business, A Farewell to Arms (1957), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and Casino Royale (posthumously, in 1967). In 1940, a film he produced, directed, and wrote, Angels Over Broadway, was nominated for Best Screenplay. Six of his movies overall were nominated for Academy Awards, with two winning.
It is estimated that of the seventy to ninety screenplays he wrote, many were written anonymously due to the British boycott of his work in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The boycott was a response to Hecht's active support of the Zionist movement in Palestine, during which time a supply ship to Palestine was named the S.S. Ben Hecht.
He could produce a screenplay in two weeks and, according to his autobiography, never spent more than eight weeks on a script. Yet he was still able to produce mostly rich, well-plotted, and witty screenplays. His scripts included virtually every movie genre: adventures, musicals, and impassioned romances. But ultimately, he was best known for two specific types of film: crime thrillers and screwball comedies. Despite his success, however, he disliked the effect that movies were having on the theater, American cultural standards, and on his own creativity.
The 1969 movie, Gaily, Gaily, directed by Norman Jewison, was based on his life during his early years working as a reporter in Chicago, and was nominated for three Oscars. The story was taken from a portion of his autobiograhy, A Child of the Century.
Besides working as reporter in Chicago, "he also contributed to literary magazines including the Little Review. After World War I he was sent by the Chicago Daily News to Berlin to witness the revolutionary movements, which gave him the material for his first novel, Erik Dorn (1921). ... A daily column he wrote, 101 Afternoons in Chicago, was later collected into a book, and brought Hecht fame." These works enhanced his reputation in the literary scene as a reporter, columnist, short story writer, and novelist. After leaving the News in 1923 he started his own newspaper The Chicago Literary Times.
Besides working on novels and short stories, (see book list,) he as been credited with ghostwriting books, such as Marilyn Monroe's autobiography My Story. "The reprint of Marilyn Monroe's memoir, My Story, in the year 2000, by Cooper Square Press, correctly credits Ben Hecht as an author, ending a period of almost 50 years in which Hecht's role was denied...Hecht himself publicly denied writing it ..."
Film historian Richard Corliss writes, "Ben Hecht was the Hollywood screenwriter...[and] it can be said without too much exaggeration that Hecht personifies Hollywood itself." Movie columnist Pauline Kael wrote that "between them, Hecht and Jules Furthman wrote most of the best American talkies." His movie career can be defined by about twenty credited screenplays he wrote for Hawks, Hitchcock, Hathaway, Lubitsch, Wellman, Sternberg, and himself. He wrote many of those with his two regular collaborators, Charles MacArthur and Charles Lederer.
While living in New York in 1926, he received a telegram from screenwriter friend Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had recently moved to Los Angeles. "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots", it read. "Don't let this get around." As a writer in need of money, he traveled to Hollywood as Mankiewicz suggested. Later, however, "to their own minds, Herman Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht both died morose and frustrated. Neither of them had written the great books they believed possible."
He arrived in Los Angeles and began his career at the very beginning of the sound era by writing the story for Josef von Sternberg's gangster movie, Underworld, in 1927. For that first screenplay and story he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in Hollywood's first Academy award ceremony. Soon afterward, he became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood..." Hecht spent from two to twelve weeks in Hollywood each year, "during which he earned enough money (his record was $100,000 in one month, for two screenplays) to live on for the rest of the year in New York, where he did what he considered his serious writing." Nonetheless, later in his career, "he was a writer who liked to think that his genius had been stifled by Hollywood and by its dreadful habit of giving him so much money."
Yet his income was as much a result of his skill as a writer as well as his early jobs with newspapers. As film historians Mast and Kawin wrote, "The newspaper reporters often seemed like gangsters who had accidentally ended up behind a typewriter rather than a tommy gun; they talked and acted as rough as the crooks their assignments forced them to cover...It is no accident that Ben Hecht, the greatest screenwriter of rapid-fire, flavorful tough talk as well as a major comic playwright, wrote gangster pictures, prison pictures, and newspaper pictures."
Hecht was also one of Hollywood's most prolific screenwriters, able to write a full screenplay in two to eight weeks. According to Samuel Goldwyn biographer Carol Easton, in 1931, with his writing partner Charles MacArthur, he "knocked out The Unholy Garden in twelve hours. Hecht subsequently received a fan letter from producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr.: 'After reading your magnificent script, Mr. Goldwyn and I both wish to go on record with the statement that if The Unholy Garden isn't the finest motion picture Samuel Goldwyn has ever produced, the fault will be entirely ours. You have done your part superbly." It was produced exactly as written, and "became one of the biggest, yet funniest, bombs ever made by a studio."
In an interview with Irene Selznick, ex-wife of producer David O. Selznick, she said, when discussing the other leading screenwriters of that time, "They all aspired to be Ben. The resourcefulness of his mind, his vitality were so enormous. His knowledge. His talent and ambition. He could tear through things, and he tore through life. They'd see this prodigious output of Ben's, and they'd think, 'Oh, hell, I'm a bum.' I think it must have been devastating. Ben did it to [Charlie] MacArthur, who died in time to save his reputation. And I'd hate to have been Herman [Mankiewicz], caught between Kaufman and Hecht."Styles of writing "The talkie era put writers like Hecht at a premium because they could write dialogue in the quirky, idiosyncratic style of the common man. Hecht, in particular, was wonderful with slang, and he peppered his films with the argot of the streets. He also had a lively sense of humor and an uncanny ability to ground even the most outragious stories successfully with credible, fast-paced plots."
He was best known for two specific and contrasting types of film: crime thrillers and screwball comedies. Among crime thrillers, Hecht was responsible for such films as The Unholy Night (1929), the classic Scarface (1932), and Hitchcock's Notorious. Among his comedies, there were The Front Page, with led to many remakes, Noel Coward's Design for Living (1933), Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, and Howard Hawks' Monkey Business (1952).
According to film historian Richard Corliss, "it is his crisp, frenetic, sensational prose and dialogue style that elevates his work above that of the dozens of other reporters who streamed west to cover and exploit Hollywood's biggest 'story': the talkie revolution.Blacklisted in England From 1948 to 1951, Hecht was blacklisted in England because of his criticism of British policies in Palestine. His films were banned in England, and of the ones shown, his name was removed from the credits.
"Like so many of his films, Underworld and Scarface are 'stories' that ace-reporter Hecht loved to cover, as much for the larger-than-life qualities of his headliners as for the enormity of their crimes. Love-hate ... fascination-revulsion ... expose'-glorification ... these are the polarities that make Hecht's best films deliciously ambiguous." "Hecht's introduction, which is nothing if not moody and Sandburgian, describes 'A great city in the dead of night - streets lonely, moon-flooded - buildings empty as the cliff-dwellings of a forgotten age."
Hecht was noted for confronting producers and directors when he wasn't satisfied with the way they used his scripts. For this film, at one point he demanded that its director, Josef von Sternberg remove his name from the credits since Sternberg unilaterally changed one scene. Afterwards, however, he relented and took credit for the film's story, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay - the first year the awards were presented.The Front Page (1931) After contributing to the original stories for a number of films, he worked without credit on the first film version of his original 1928 play The Front Page.
Of the original play, theater producer and writer Jed Harris writes, "..here is a play which reflects miraculously the real as well as the literary personalities of the playwrights. Every line of it glows with a demoniacal humor, sordid, insolent and mischievous to the point of down right perversity, in which one instantly recognizes the heroic comic spirit of its authors... Both Hecht and MacArthur owe their literary origins to the newspapers of Chicago. Famous crime reporters, their talents were first cradled in the recounting of great exploits in arson, rape, murder, gang war and municipal politics. Out of a welter of jail breaks, hangings, floods and whore-house raidings, they have gathered the rich, savory characters who disport themselves on the stage to Times Square Theatre. " Scarface (1932) After ushering in the beginning of the gangster film with Underworld, his next film became one of the best films of that genre. Scarface was directed by Howard Hawks, with ("Hecht the wordsmith and Hawks the engineer...", who became "one of the few directors with whom Hecht enjoyed working." It starred Paul Muni playing the role of an Al Capone-like gangster. "Scarface's all-but-suffocating vitality is a kind of cinematic version of tabloid prose at its best."Twentieth Century (1934) For his next film, Twentieth Century, he wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Charles MacArthur as an adaptation of their original play from 1932. It was directed by Howard Hawks, and starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. It's a comedy about a Broadway producer who was losing his leading lady to the seductive Hollywood film industry, and will do anything to win her back.
It's "a fast-paced, witty film that contains the rapid-fire dialogue for which Hecht became famous. It is one of the first, and finest, of the screwball comedies of the 1930s."Viva Villa! (1934) This was the story about Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, who takes to the hills after killing an overseer in revenge for his father's death. It was directed by Howard Hawks and starred Wallace Beery. Although the movie took liberties with the facts, it became a great success, and Hecht received an Academy award nomination for his screenplay adaptation.Barbary Coast (1935) Barbary Coast was also directed by Howard Hawks and starred Miriam Hopkins and Edward G. Robinson. The film takes place in late nineteenth century San Franciso with Hopkins playing the role of a dance-hall girl up against Robinson, who runs the town.Nothing Sacred (1938) Nothing Sacred became Hecht's first project after he and Charles MacArthur closed their failing film company which they started in 1934. The film was adapted from his play, Hazel Flagg, and starred Carole Lombard as a small-town girl diagnosed with radium poisoning. "A reporter makes her case a cause for his newspaper. The story "allowed Hecht to work with one of his favorite themes, hypocrisy (especially among journalists); he took the themes of lying, decadence, and immorality and made them into a sophisticated screwball comedy."Gunga Din (1939) Gunga Din was cowritten with Charles MacArthur and became "one of Hollywood's greatest action-adventure films." The screenplay was based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling, directed by George Stevens and starred Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.. In 1999 the film was deemed \"culturally significant\" by the United States Library of Congress.Wuthering Heights (1939) After working without credit on Gone with the Wind in 1939, he cowrote, with Charles MacArthur, an adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel,Wuthering Heights. Although the screenplay was actually cut off at the story's half-way point, being considered too long, it was nominated for an Academy award.
Angels Over Broadway (1940) Angels Over Broadway was the only movie he directed, produced, and wrote originally for film. It was considered \"one of his most personal works.\" It starred Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Rita Hayworth and was nominated for an Academy award. \"The dialogue as well as the script's descriptive passages are chock full of brittle Hechtian similes that sparkle on the page but turn leaden when delivered. Hecht was an endlessly articulate raconteur. In his novels and memoirs, articulation dominates...\"
In the script, he experimented with \"reflections of life - as if a ghost were drifiting in the rain.\" These \"reflections\" of sidewalks, bridges, glass, and neon make the film a visual prototype of the forties film noir.Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946) For Alfred Hitchcock he wrote a number of his best psycho-dramas and received his final Academy award nomination for Notorious. He also worked without credit on Hitchcock's Paradine Case (1947). Spellbound, the first time Hitchcock worked with Hecht, is notable for being one of the first Hollywood movies to deal seriously with the subject of psychoanalysis. Monkey Business (1952) In 1947 he teamed up with Charles Lederer and cowrote three films: Her Husband's Affairs, Kiss of Death, and Ride the Pink Horse. In 1950 he cowrote The Thing without credit. They again teamed up to write the 1952 screwball comedy Monkey Business, which became Hecht's last true success as a screenwriter.
The D.C. Examiner writes, \"Director Howard Hawks’ 1940 classic “His Girl Friday” is not just one of the funniest screwball comedies ever made, it is also one of the finest film adaptations of a stage play. \"Hawks took Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Broadway hit “The Front Page,” the best play about newspapers ever written, and, by changing the gender of a major character, turned it into a romantic comedy. The new script was by Hecht (uncredited) and Charles Lederer. \"
According to Hecht historian Florice Whyte Kovan, he became active in promoting civil rights early in his career. \"...in the early 1920s, Hecht organized campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan, whose lynchings of minorities, primarily blacks, terrorized the American South and North... Artists and writers joined the effort, blending civil rights into the arts and literary scene...
\"Hecht wrote enough stories about black/white dynamics to form a small collection, including To Bert Williams, a richly symbolic obituary to the eminent vaudevillian, the thought provoking The Miracle...In the same period, circa May-June of 1923, Hecht ... collaborated on a musical with Dave Payton (Peyton), jazz pianist and music critic for the black newspaper the Chicago Defender...He broke taboos by publishing a regular column, Black-belt Shadows, about Chicago and broader AfroAmerica by young William Moore -- with the then-daring editorial note: 'This column is conducted by a Negro journalist.' A factor in his willingness to work with blacks on occasion was his first playwriting experience: His collaborator was a young black student.
\"Hecht film stories featuring black characters included Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, co-starring Edgar Conner as Al Jolson's sidekick in a politically savvy rhymed dialogue over Richard Rodgers music.\" (Jolson, a noted blackface performer and star of The Jazz Singer, was also active in promoting racial equality on the Broadway stage.)
"Before World War II Hecht took on a ten year commitment to publicize the atrocities befalling his own religious minority, the Jews of Europe and the quest for survivors, to find a permanent home in the Middle East." And in 1943, during the midst of the Holocaust, he predicted, in a widely published article, "Of these 6,000,000 Jews [of Europe], almost a third have already been massacred by Germans, Rumanians and Hungarians, and the most conservative of scorekeepers estimate that before the war ends at least another third will have been done to death."
Ben Hecht's activism began when he met Peter Bergson (né Hillel Kook) - an ETZEL emissary to America. Hecht wrote in his book Perfidy that he used to be a scriptwriter until his meeting with Bergson, when he accidentally bumped into history - i.e. the burning need to do anything possible to save the doomed Jews of Europe (paraphrase from Perfidy). After meeting Kook, Hecht dedicated himself to working with Kook's rescue group, and after the war ended he continued work for the establishment of the State of Israel.
His writing has influenced many of Hollywood's most loved movies, including, Rouben Mamoulian's Queen Christina (1933), John Ford's The Hurricane (1937), David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind (1939), and several Hitchcock films, including Lifeboat (1944), The Paradine Case (1948), and Rope (1948). He received no screen credits for his work on those films.
from Elegy for Wonderland, by Ben Hecht, Esquire Magazine, March 1959
"The factors that laid low so whooping and puissant an empire as the old Hollywood are many. I can think of a score, including the barbarian hordes of Television. But there is one that stands out for me in the post-mortem.... The factor had to do with the basis of movie-making: ‘Who shall be in charge of telling the story.’ ...
“The answer Hollywood figured out for this question was what doomed it. It figured out that writers were not to be in charge of creating stories. Instead, a curious tribe of inarticulate Pooh-Bahs called Supervisors and , later, Producers were summoned out of literary nowhere and given a thousand scepters. It was like switching the roles of teacher and pupil in the fifth grade. The result is now history. An industry based on writing had to collapse when the writer was given an errand-boy status. ...
“The writer is a definite human phenomenon. He is almost a type – as pugilists are a type. He may be a bad writer – an insipid one or a clumsy one – but there is a bug in him that keeps spinning yarns; and that bulges his brow a bit, narrows his jaws, weakens his eyes and gives him girl children instead of boys. Nobody but a writer can write. People who hang around writers for years – as producers did – who are much smarter and have much better taste, never learn to write. ...
“Most of my script-writing friends – I never had more than a handful—took eagerly to the bottle or the analyst’s couch, filled their extravagant ménages with threats of suicide, hurled themselves into hysterical amours. And some of them actually died in their forties and fifties. Among these were the witty Herman Mankiewicz and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the fine novelist. ...
“I have known a handful of producers who actually were equal or superior to the writers with whom they worked. These producers were a new kind of nonwriting writer hatched by the movies—as Australia produced wingless birds. They wrote without pencils or even words. Using a sort of mime-like talent, they could make up things like writers.
“When I come to put down their names, there weren’t many. David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, Walter Wanger, Irving Thalberg seem to exhaust the list…Ninety per cent of the producers I have known were not bright. They were as slow-witted and unprofessional toward making up a story as stockbrokers might be, or bus drivers. Even after twenty or thirty years of telling writers what and how to write, they were still as ignorant of writing as if they had never encountered the craft.
“Out of the seventy movies I’ve written some ten of them were not entirely waste product. These were Underworld, The Scoundrel, Wuthering Heights, Viva Villa, Scarface, Specter of the Rose, Actors and Sin, Roman Holiday, Spellbound, Nothing Sacred.”
A simple fact entered my head one day and put an end to my revolt against the Deity. It occurred to me that God was not engaged in corrupting the mind of man but in creating it. This may sound like no fact at all, or like the most childish of quibbles. But whatever it is, it brought me a sigh of relief, a slightly bitter sigh. I was relieved because instead of beholding a man as a finished and obviously worthless product, unable to bring sanity into human affairs, I looked on him (in my conversion) as a creature in the making. And lo, I was aware that like my stooped and furry brothers, the apes, I am God's incomplete child. My groping brain, no less than my little toe, is a mechanism in His evolution-busy hands.