Ben Hecht - Writer

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.

Ben Hecht
Ben Hecht

Films as Writer:


Underworld ( Paying the Penalty ) (von Sternberg)


The Big Noise (Dwan)


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


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


The Unholy Garden (Fitzmaurice)


Scarface—The Shame of a Nation (Hawks)


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


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


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


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


Nothing Sacred (Wellman); Goldwyn Follies (Marshall)


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)


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


Lydia (Duvivier)


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


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


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


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


The Miracle of the Bells (Pichel)


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


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


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


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


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


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


Queen of Outer Space (Bernds)


Hello Charlie (Lanfield)


Circus World ( The Magnificent Showman ) (Hathaway)

Films based on Hecht's writings:


The Front Page (Milestone)


Shoot the Works (Ruggles)


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


Some Like It Hot (Archainbaud)


His Girl Friday (Hawks)


Perfect Strangers (Windust)


Some Like It Hot (Wilder)


Chicago, Chicago (Jewison)


The Front Page (Wilder)


Je hais les acteurs (Krawczyk)


Switching Channels (Kotcheff)


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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