Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood & Broadway's greatest writers, won an Oscar for best original story for Underworld (1927) at the first Academy Awards in 1929 and had a hand in the writing of many classic films. He was nominated five more times for the best writing Oscar, winning (along with writing partner and friend Charles MacArthur, with whom he wrote the classic play The Front Page) for The Scoundrel (1935) (the other nominations were for Viva Villa! (1934) in 1935, Wuthering Heights (1939) (shared with MacArthur), Angels Over Broadway (1940), and Notorious (1946). The latter two for best original screenplay. Hecht wrote fast and he wrote well, and was called upon by many producers as a highly paid script doctor. He was paid $10,000 by producer David O. Selznick for a fast doctoring of the Gone with the Wind (1939) script, for which he received no credit and for which Sidney Howard won an Oscar, beating out Hecht and MacArthur's "Wuthering Heights" script.
Born on February 28, 1894, Hecht made his name as a Chicago newspaperman during the heady days of cutthroat competition among newspapers and journalists. As a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, he wrote the column 1001 Afternoons in Chicago and broke the Ragged Stranger Murder Case story, which lead to the conviction and execution of Army war hero Carl Wanderer for the murder of his pregnant wife in 1921. The newspaper business, which he and MacArthur famously parodied in The Front Page, was a good training ground for a screenwriter, as he had to write vivid prose and had to write quickly.
While in New York in 1926, he received a telegram from friend Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had recently arrived in Hollywood. The telegram read: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." Hecht moved to Hollywood, winding up at Paramount, working uncredited on the script for Lewis Milestone's adaptation of Ring Lardner's story The New Klondike (1926), starring silent superstar Thomas Meighan. But it was his script for Josef von Sternberg's seminal gangster picture Underworld (1927) that got him noticed. From then until the 1960s, he was arguably the most famous, if not the highest paid, screenwriter of his time.
As a playwright, novelist and short-story writer, Hecht always denigrated writing for the movies, but it is for such movies as Scarface (1932) and Nothing Sacred (1937) as well The Front Page (1931), based on his play of the same name for which, he is best remembered. He died on April 18, 1964 in New York City from thrombosis. He was 70 years old.
|Rose Caylor||(1925 - 18 April 1964) (his death) 1 child|
|Mary Armstrong||(November 1916 - 27 February 1926) (divorced) 1 child|
Had his own TV talk show in the New York City area in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Hecht was portrayed by Mark Kiely in an episode of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues (#2.5)" (1993).
Wrote the complete script for Scarface (1932) in 11 days.
Before working as a script writer, he was a crime reporter and columnist in Chicago.
If uncredited work is included, he is the best represented screenwriter in the 5th edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (edited by Steven Jay Schneider). The films credited to Hecht on the list are Scarface (1932), Gunga Din (1939), Wuthering Heights (1939), His Girl Friday (1940) (his credit is for writing the original "The Front Page"), Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946). Additionally, Hecht worked without credit on Queen Christina (1933), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Stagecoach (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Angel Face (1952), Guys and Dolls (1955) and the remake of his script, Scarface (1983).
Hecht wrote Scarface (1932), a thinly disguised biography of Chicago gangster Al Capone. After the script had been finished, but before shooting had begun, Hecht was in his Hollywood hotel room when he was "visited" by two of Capone's gunmen, who had somehow managed to obtain a copy of the script and wanted to "discuss" its portrayal of their boss. A nervous Hecht told them that the only thing it had in common with Capone was the title "Scarface", which was Capone's nickname. That was because they were using it to lure in audiences who would think that the film was about Capone which, Hecht told them, it really wasn't (although it really was). His story convinced them and they left him in one piece.
A movie is never any better than the stupidest man connected with it.
People's sex habits are as well known in Hollywood as their political opinions, and much less criticized.
[on movie moguls, studio heads and New York senior executives who care about profits and nothing else] Most of them were nitwits on a par with the lowest run of politicians I had known as a reporter.
Hollywood is to sex what the major leagues are to baseball. The glamorous Hollywood figures perform in a sort of World Series sex math.
There are millions of Americans who belong by nature in movie theaters as they belong at political rallies or in fortuneteller parlors and on the shoot-the-chutes. To these millions the movies are a sort of boon--a gaudier version of religion. All the parables of right living are paraded before them tricked out in gang feuds, earthquakes and a thousand and one near rapes. The move from cheap books to cheap movie seats has not affected them for the worse.
Not only was the plot the same, but the characters in it never varied. The characters must always be good or bad (and never human) in order not to confuse the plot of Virtue Triumphing. This denouement could be best achieved by stereotypes a fraction removed from those in the comic strips.
Two generations of Americans have been informed nightly that a woman who betrayed her husband (or a husband a wife) could never find happiness; that sex was no fun without a mother-in-law and a rubber plant around; that women who fornicated just for pleasure ended up as harlots or washerwomen; that any man who was sexually active in his youth, later lost the one girl he truly loved; that a man who indulged in sharp practices to get ahead in the world ended in poverty and with even his own children turning on him; that any man who broke the laws, man's or God's, must always die, or go to jail, or become a monk, or restore the money he stole before wandering off into the desert; that anyone who didn't believe in God (and said so out loud) was set right by seeing either an angel or witnessing some feat of levitation by one of the characters; than an honest heart must always recover from a train wreck or a score of bullets and win the girl it loved; that the most potent and brilliant of villains are powerless before little children, parish priests or young virgins with large boobies; that injustice could cause a heap of trouble but it must always slink out of town in Reel Nine; that there are no problems of labor, politics, domestic life, or sexual abnormality but can be solved happily by a simple Christian phrase or a fine American motto.
The American of 1953 is a cliché-strangled citizen whose like was never before in the Republic. Compared to the pre-movieized American of 1910-1920, he is an enfeebled intellect. I concede the movies alone did not undo the American mind. A number of forces worked away at that project. But always, well up in front and never faltering at their frowzy task, were the movies. In pre-movie days, the business of peddling lies about life was spotty and unorganized. It was carried on by the cheaper magazines, dime novels, the hinterland preachers and whooping politicians. These combined to unload a rash of infantile parables on the land. A goodly part of the population was infected, but there remained large healthy areas in the Republic's thought. There remained, in fact, an intellectual class of sorts -- a tribe of citizens who never read dime novels, cheap magazines or submitted themselves to political and religious howlers. It was this tribe that the movies scalped. Cultured people who would have blushed with shame to be found with a dime novel in their hands took to flocking shamelessly to watch the picturization of such tripe on the screen. For forty years the movies have drummed away on the American character, They have fed it naïveté and buncombe in doses never before administered to any people. They have slapped into the American mind more human misinformation in one evening than the Dark Ages could muster in a decade. One basic plot only has appeared daily in their fifteen thousand theaters -- the triumph of virtue and the overthrow of wickedness.
The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century.
Of their many sins, I offer as the worst their effect on the intellectual side of the nation. It is chiefly from that viewpoint I write of them -- as an eruption of trash that has lamed the American mind and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.
For many years Hollywood held this double lure for me, tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle. Of the 60 movies I wrote, more than half were written in two weeks or less. I received from each script, whether written in two weeks or [never more than] eight weeks, from $50,000 to $150,000. I worked also by the week. My salary ran from $5000 a week up. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1949 paid me $10,000 a week. David O. Selznick once paid me $3500 a day."
For many years I looked on movie writing as an amiable chore. It was a source of easy money and pleasant friendships. There was small responsibility.
Producers are men who will keep their heads in the noisy presence of writers and directors and not be carried away by art in any of its subversive guises. Their task is to guard against the unusual. They are the trusted loyalists of cliché.
The job of turning good writers into movie hacks is the producer's chief task.
[on Herman J. Mankiewicz] I knew that no one as witty and spontaneous as Herman would ever put himself on paper. A man whose genius is on tap like free beer seldom makes literature out of it.
[on John Gilbert] In the time of Hollywood's most glittering days, he glittered the most. There were no enemies in his life. He was as unsnobbish as a happy child. He went everywhere he was invited. He needed no greatness around him to make him feel distinguished. He drank with carpenters, danced with waitresses and made love to whores and movie queens alike. He swaggered and posed but it was never to impress anyone. He was being John Gilbert, prince, butterfly, Japanese lantern, and the spirit of romance.
[on Clark Gable] He was America's dream of itself, a symbol of courage, indomitable against the greatest of odds. But he was also a human being, kind, likable, a guy right out of the life all around the fans who worshiped him. Gable was the boy-man, without arrogance, but plenty of fire and spunk, a gay, daring, dashing blade.
[on Fanny Brice] So many things she said stopped you cold. She was about people the way those carnival fellows are about your weight.
Would that our writing had been as good as our lunches.
[to David O. Selznick] The trouble with you, David, is that you did all your reading before you were twelve.
(on politicians) They bore me. The best of them are dummies and the worst are pickpockets.
|Gone with the Wind (1939)||$5,000|
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