In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I write about Ben Hecht, co-author of The Front Page. Here’s an excerpt.
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Ben Hecht might just be the most famous unknown writer who ever lived. He co-wrote “The Front Page,” one of the smash hits of the current Broadway season, and you’ve almost certainly seen at least a half-dozen of the hundred or so now-classic Hollywood movies on whose scripts he is known to have worked, with and without credit, between 1927 and his death in 1964. “Gone With the Wind,” “Kiss of Death,” “Nothing Sacred,” “Notorious,” “Scarface,” “Stagecoach,” “Twentieth Century,” “Wuthering Heights: All bear Hecht’s stamp in whole or part. But do you know his name? Most likely not. Nor is there much chance that you’ve read any of his two dozen books, most of them long out of print and justly forgotten.
Hecht himself wouldn’t have been surprised by his posthumous obscurity. While he poured most of his energies into the writing of screenplays, his contempt for Hollywood was acid and bottomless, and what he said of his friend Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles, was clearly meant to apply to himself as well: “To own a mind like Manky’s and hamstring and throttle it for 25 years in the writing only of movie scenarios is to submit your soul to a nasty strain.” Yet one of Hecht’s later books, written long after he’d sold his soul to the Celluloid God, deserves resurrection. Published in 1954, A Child of the Century, his 654-page autobiography, is by turns florid, self-regarding and sentimental to a fault. But it is also irresistibly readable, a book that can be opened at random and perused with delight….
What is most noteworthy about Hecht’s reminiscences of Hollywood is how much he hated the place: “The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century….Out of the thousand writers huffing and puffing through movieland there are scarcely fifty men and women of wit or talent. The rest of the fraternity is deadwood.” It is painfully, pitifully self-evident that he believed he had sabotaged his career as a serious writer by spending so much of the second half of his life working there. Therein lies the bitter irony of his life: Except for “The Front Page,” whose machine-gun repartée would become part of the DNA of American movies, he is now remembered solely for his screenplays. Yet the product of the industry at which he sneered is now regarded far more highly by most critics than the earnest output of most of the “serious” American writers of his day, Hecht himself included….
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A shorter version of this column appears in the print version of today’s Journal. To read the whole thing, go here.
The Front Page, the 1931 film version of the stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Lewis Milestone, adapted for the screen by Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer, and starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien: