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Book Review: “Ben Hecht, The Man Behind The Legend”

Screenwriter Ben Hecht (1953)

Screenwriter Ben Hecht (1953)

William MacAdams, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 366 pp., 1990.

Ben Hecht was creative enough to hold down three full time writing careers, first as a reporter, coming up in the rough and tumble yellow journalism of turn of the 20th century Chicago where he met his great friend and collaborator, Charles McArthur, the second as a novelist and short story to lesser success, and third and finally as one of the most productive screenplay writers that ever lived either in Old or New Hollywood.

Hecht participatedĀ  in the great intellectual ferment that occurred in Chicago during the 19th Century’s last decades and the first of the 20th. Gifted with a fertile brain and a facile pen, Hecht soon made his mark in the literary circles of the day. He developed a wide and varied circle of friends due to his work as a journalist and as a man about town. One of the most interesting was the Polish sculptor and truly unique mind, Stanislaw Szukalski. Hecht published short stories in literary journals and also novels, but with little commercial success.

It was only when he came to Hollywood and started to crank out screenplays that Hecht truly came into his own. The biography has a filmography at the end that’s simply fascinating for a film buff. Hecht seemed to have a finger in almost everything, from writing the screenplay for Scarface, one of the earliest and greatest gangster films, to laying out the basic plot for Stagecoach, something I hadn’t known until I read this book, to doing Ulysses in the ’50’s, one of my favorite peplum movies and Kirk Douglas (RIP) flicks. Not to mention writing The Front Page with Charlie McArthur, first as a smash hit Broadway play and then the first film version with Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou (a perfect, smug SOB as Walter Burns). Hecht collaborated with some of the most influential directors and producers of his era, Hawks, Selznick, Mankiewicz. The list of his screenplays goes on and on: Lifeboat, Roxie Hart, Spellbound, really just too many to list.

In addition to a prolific writing output, Hecht had a lively personal life too with a good deal of womanizing of the caddish sort, which isn’t surprising given his egocentric nature. After WWII, appalledĀ  by the Holocaust, Hecht did think of more than himself though, by tirelessly advocating for Israel. Even in this respect, he took things too far, spouting some incendiary rhetoric that really didn’t help his cause. These are only a few aspects, however, of an extremely complex personality, with more facets than a cut diamond. Hecht was nothing if not resilient. Toward the end of his life, with his screenplay writing services no longer in demand, he turned to autobiography, weaving fictional, novelistic accounts of his early newspaper days that were best sellers and led to a film with Beau Bridges, Gaily, Gaily.

The author does a good, straightforward job of recounting Hecht’s life, with particular attention paid to his writing. A self proclaimed film buff, the author shows the breed’s devotion to meticulous record keeping, something I appreciated.

This book is a must read for Old Hollywood fans. It might also appeal to those interested in early 20th Century American history. Like I said, old Ben covered a lot of ground.

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