The Great Screenwriters: Part 2 – Ben Hecht

By February 3, 2016Main

The Great Screenwriters is a new series for Scriptlab that examines the life and work of the finest writers for cinema, from Shakespeare to Diablo Cody.  In Part 2, Martin Keady examines the legacy of the man often regarded as the Greatest Hollywood Screenwriter of all, Ben Hecht.

Ben Hecht himself would have appreciated the irony that, for all his wonderful plays and screenplays (not to mention his journalism, memoirs and other writing, which reportedly included ghost-writing Marilyn Monroe’s biography), he is probably best remembered today for something that was written not by him but to him.  The extract in question was the legendary telegram sent to him by his friend and fellow writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz (the screenwriter of Citizen Kane, whose own writing I will look at later in the series) in 1926, which informed Hecht both of the desperate need for writers in the booming movie industry of California and the relative lack of competition, or as Mankiewicz famously put it: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.  Don’t let this get around."  Of course, word did get around (it was probably spread by Hecht himself once he had made his fortune) and the story of “the telegram” became one of the great founding myths of Hollywood, certainly for screenwriters.

Ben Hecht was his real name and it is almost onomatopoeic: his scripts would indeed become “hecked” and “helled” as his characters exchanged quips and curses with the lightning speed of the Tommy Guns that the Mafia and other gangsters used in the 20s and 30s to control much of Depression-era America, leading to the description of his trademark style of rapid-fire dialogue as “machine-gun dialogue”.  Certainly, Hecht’s immortal exchanges of wisecracks and one-liners were as much the soundtrack to America between the two world wars as the sirens that announced the onset of yet another car chase in Chicago, New York or any other major US city. 

Hecht was born in New York in 1894 and like so many of the great geniuses of American letters and music (from Gershwin to Saul Bellow and beyond), he was the son of Jewish immigrants to America, who had fled Russia and in particular the vicious pogroms led by the Cossacks.  Ben himself would take flight at an early age, running away at the age of 16 to Chicago (the city, of course, that would become the personal fiefdom of the greatest gangster of all, Al Capone) to become a journalist, and particularly a crime reporter.  Hecht would eventually combine the two co-dependent worlds of crime and crime reporting in his breakthrough work of fiction, The Front Page, a stage play that told the story of how a newspaper editor and his star reporter would shamefully (and simultaneously shamelessly) rig the story of a murderer’s execution to generate extra sales.  As well as finding his subject matter with The Front Page (which would go on to be adapted for the screen several times, most notably in His Girl Friday, arguably the greatest example of machine-gun dialogue in all of American cinema), Hecht also found his great collaborator, Charles MacArthur, with whom he would go on to write several of his greatest screenplays.

The success of The Front Page attracted the attention first of Broadway and then of Hollywood, so Hecht was immediately receptive to Mankiewicz’s invitation and promise of riches.  He thrived in LA, soon outstripping all the other novelists and playwrights who had been drawn West by the thrill of writing movies (or at least the thrill of cashing huge studio paychecks).  And Hecht timed his move to California as perfectly as he timed his characters’ fast-paced exchanges, arriving just as cinema made its greatest ever transition, from the Silent era to the age of the Talkies (an age that continues to this day).  In many ways, just as Hollywood was literally finding its voice, Hecht was the man putting words in its mouth.

Hecht was able to deploy all his journalistic and playwriting experience from Chicago in Hollywood, as the first great wave of gangster films (the ultimate American movie genre, even more so than the Western) hit the screens.  Entirely fittingly, in 1929 he was the first ever winner of the Academy Award for Screenwriting, for his work on the Josef von Sternberg-directed Underworld, which, atypically for a Hecht flick, was a silent movie.  But as the “talkie” technology developed, Hecht’s matchless ear for fast-paced dialogue led him to create (or co-create with MacArthur and a few other co-writers) a succession of classics, beginning with the first screen adaptation of The Front Page (1931), continuing with Scarface (1932), which was directed by Howard Hawks and made a star of Paul Muni as the eponymous gangster, and culminating with an extraordinary adaptation of Wuthering Heights in 1939, starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, which was nominated for Best Picture alongside Stagecoach and Gone With The Wind, in what is often cited as the greatest single year in American cinema history (if not in global geopolitical history).

What is absolutely fascinating about Hecht is that he became the embodiment of the two great archetypes of Hollywood writers, in that he was probably the first great screenwriter in his own right and the first of the great “script doctors”, the uncredited geniuses who have rewritten problematic scripts (often at the last possible minute before shooting began) throughout Hollywood history.  Thus it was that in addition to his own credit on Wuthering Heights in 1939, Hecht is also regarded as probably the most important screenwriter on Gone With The Wind itself, with the producer, the legendary David O. Selznick, allegedly begging him to save his great but saggy movie from oblivion. 

So Hecht enjoyed parallel careers of scriptwriter and script doctor, with his list of writing credits – from Underworld and Scarface to Gunga Din and Hitchcock’s Notorious ­– arguably only matched by the screenplays that he corrected without being credited, which range from the aforementioned Gone With The Wind to numerous other classics, including The Shop Around The Corner, Mutiny On The Bounty and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.  Clearly, having often worked “undercover” as a crime reporter in Chicago, Hecht had no problem in working “undercover” as a script writer or rewriter in Hollywood.

Hecht’s stock was at an all-time high in the thirties and early forties, such that he is still regarded by many critics as “the Hollywood screenwriter”, to use the critic Richard Corliss’s phrase, and even in the 1960s, when he was still working on scripts such as the original Casino Royale, a James Bond spoof that was originally written by Woody Allen, the great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael pronounced, “between them, Hecht and Jules Furthman (writer of The Outlaw and To Have and Have Not, among many others) wrote most of the best American talkies”.

Ultimately, if one were to single out just one Hecht script as his absolute classic, it would be the one that exemplifies his peculiarly unshowy but distinctive genius, His Girl Friday, because it was both based on his and MacArthur’s original stage play and allegedly rewritten by Hecht after another of his collaborators, Charles Lederer, had run into problems in updating it for the screen.  The particular stroke of genius that made His Girl Friday so remarkable was the “sex-switch”, whereby the original male reporter of The Front Page was transformed into the proto-feminist “Hildy” Johnson, beautifully played by Rosalind Russell.  Whether it was Hecht himself or Lederer who came up with the idea of switching the star reporter’s sex ultimately doesn’t matter (and will almost certainly never be known for certain).  What does matter is that in making this switch, the film’s writers and its inimitable director, Howard Hawks (the great poet of marital and extramarital sparring), created a classic movie that is simultaneously a newspaper drama, a crime story and a race against time, both to save an innocent man’s life and Hildy’s chances of marrying the man she loves (once she can decide whether that is her editor, Cary Grant, or her fiancée, Ralph Bellamy).

Finally, so “storied” was Hecht’s own life (having been both a crime reporter and a war reporter, and a Broadway playwright as well as a Hollywood screenwriter) that it was almost inevitable that at least part of it would itself be made into a film, and that was exactly what happened with Gaily, Gaily (1969), which was based on Hecht’s memoir, A Child of the Century, and in particular his early years as a crime reporter.  However, now it is impossible not to conclude that the wrong film was made about Hecht’s life, because with Trumbo – the story of Dalton Trumbo, the great 1950s screenwriter who was blacklisted because of his alleged involvement with the American Communist party (and which I will also look at later in this series) – having just been released, there is surely the opportunity to consider filming (or telling in some other way) the extraordinary story of Ben Hecht’s own experience of blacklisting.

It was extraordinary because Hecht, unlike Trumbo and so many others in the 1950s, was not blacklisted by his fellow Americans but by the British, because of his support for the Zionist movement in Israel.  He wrote plays in support of the cause and then, amazingly, financed the purchase of a ship (a testament to his great wealth as well as to his political idealism) to transport nearly a thousand Holocaust survivors to Palestine in 1947.  Named The SS Ben Hecht, it was captured by the British (who still ruled Palestine at this point and were implacably imposed to the creation of a Jewish state) and its crew members were imprisoned.  However, in a final plot twist worthy of one of Hecht’s own spectacular scripts, the imprisoned crew of the SS Ben Hecht became part of the great Acre Prison Escape, whereby Jewish freedom fighters broke into the supposedly impenetrable Acre Prison and helped about 20 of their imprisoned colleagues to escape, a story that became one of the great founding or origin myths of the new state of Israel, and which was created, at least in part, by the brilliant son of Jewish refugees who probably did more than anyone to make the fast-paced argot typical of much Jewish and Yiddish communication the lingua franca of American movies.