Hecht, Ben (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Ben Hecht 1894–-1964
American screenwriter, dramatist, novelist, short story writer, journalist, autobiographer, biographer, and author of children's books.
Associated with both the Chicago literary renaissance and the Algonquin Round Table following World War I, Hecht later distinguished himself as the co-author of the popular play The Front Page. He also became the noted screenwriter of many classic films, including Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious and Spellbound, as well as Scarface, Gunga Din, and Nothing Sacred. Hecht's work received critical praise for its realistic and snappy dialogue, often credited to his formative years as a Chicago journalist covering the city's colorful underground of gangsters, gamblers, pool hustlers, and prostitutes. Hecht later confessed to fabricating many of his stories as a journalist, which were collected in 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. His writing for the cinema earned him several Academy Award nominations, including two wins for Underworld and The Scoundrel.
Hecht was born in New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father worked as a tailor and moved the family to Chicago when Hecht was six. Four years later the family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, so that Hecht's father could open a dress design shop. Hecht attended the University of Wisconsin for three days before abandoning higher education. He worked briefly as an acrobat in a circus before moving to Chicago. When he was seventeen Hecht began writing for the Chicago Daily Journal. He then worked as a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. During this period Hecht associated with other writers of the Chicago literary renaissance, including Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Vachel Lindsay, and contributed stories to Margaret Anderson's Little Review. Heavily influenced by German Dadaism and French symbolism, Hecht also wrote several novels and edited the Chicago Literary Times. When the momentum of the Chicago literary renaissance slowed, Hecht moved to New York City, where he became affiliated with the Algonquin Round Table writers, including Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, and Herman Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz, who abandoned New York City to become a successful screenwriter, later wired Hecht: “Will You Accept Three Hundred Per Week to Work for Paramount Pictures? All Expenses Paid. The Three Hundred Is Peanuts. Millions Are to Be Grabbed Out Here and Your Competition Is Idiots. Don't Let This Get Around.” Hecht's first screenplay was Underworld for director Joseph von Sternberg, which earned Hecht his first Academy Award. In the 1930s Hecht earned a thousand dollars a day for his screenwriting, and he is rumored to have written the first draft of the screenplay for the film Gone with the Wind without ever having read the book. During and after World War II, Hecht became increasingly concerned with Zionist issues, particularly the Jewish Irgun, whose stated goal was to remove the British from Palestine. Because of his beliefs, Hecht's films were blacklisted in the United Kingdom, causing film producers to withhold his name from the credits and pay him considerably less money. In the 1950s Hecht hosted his own short-lived television program on which he discussed current events and cultural issues. He died of a heart attack in 1964.
Many of Hecht's best, albeit fabricated, journalistic pieces are collected in 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. His newsroom experience benefited him further when he wrote his tremendously popular play with Charles MacArthur, The Front Page, which was often revived onstage and adapted for the screen three times. His first novel, Erik Dorn, displays the influence of James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and European Dadaist writers and concerns the spiritual malaise of post-World War I American society. His experimental satirical novel, Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath, enjoyed a degree of notoriety when it was declared obscene and banned by a federal court; noted attorney Clarence Darrow unsuccessfully defended the case. Hecht also published a sequel, The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare. Other novels by Hecht include the mysteries The Florentine Dagger: A Novel for Amateur Detectives and Count Bruga. But it was as a screenwriter and coauthor of The Front Page that Hecht was best known. His work for director Howard Hawks includes the screenplay for Scarface, and he wrote three films directed by Alfred Hitchcock: Notorious, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case. He also adapted such works of literature as Gunga Din, A Farewell to Arms, and Wuthering Heights, and wrote the comedies Roman Holiday, Topaze, Monkey Business, and Her Husband's Affairs.
Erik Dorn (novel) 1921
1001 Afternoons in Chicago (short stories and sketches) 1922
The Egoist [also published as Under False Pretences] (drama) 1922
Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath (novel) 1922
The Florentine Dagger: A Novel for Amateur Detectives (novel) 1923
Humpty Dumpty (novel) 1924
The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare (novel) 1924
Underworld (screenplay) 1927
The Front Page [with Charles MacArthur] (drama) 1928
A Jew in Love (novel) 1931
Scarface (screenplay) 1932
The Great Magoo [with Gene Fowler] (drama) 1933
The Scoundrel (novel) 1935
Soak the Rich [with Charles MacArthur] (screenplay) 1936
Nothing Sacred (screenplay) 1937
To Quito and Back (drama) 1937
Gunga Din (screenplay) 1939
Ladies and Gentlemen [with Charles MacArthur] (drama) 1939
Wuthering Heights [with Charles MacArthur; adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel] (screenplay) 1939
Fun to Be Free [with Charles MacArthur] (drama) 1941
Miracle in the...
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SOURCE: “Ben Hecht: Pagliacci of the Fire Escape,” in Midwest Portraits: A Book of Memories and Friendships, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1923, pp. 305–57.
[In the following essay, Hansen presents biographical information and personal recollections of Hecht, finding such literary influences in Hecht's fiction as Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, and Dostoevsky.]
“Ben Hecht is an iconoclast,” says one, “a smasher of idols”; “Ben Hecht is an intellectual mountebank, an insincere fiddler,” says another. “Ben Hecht tramples on that which men have built up through the centuries and hallowed with their tears,” says one; “and destroys shams and that which is foul and diseased,” says another. “Ben Hecht is a combination of street urchin and skeptical intellectual,” says a poet; “he is the incomprehensible lover,” says his friend, “the man who hovers always between ecstasy and disillusionment; who welcomes the dawn with a sneer and folds away the twilight with a caress.” “Ben Hecht is—”
But let me add a line of mine own. It is as Ben told me. At the age of eighteen or thereabouts, Ben Hecht was an acrobat in Costello's road show in a Wisconsin country town. … Make of that what ye will!
Incomprehensible acrobat! Incomparable mountebank of the emotions! Unexplained dreamer and poet, scorner and critic, philosopher...
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SOURCE: “Ben Hecht,” in Sixteen Authors to One: Intimate Sketches of Leading American Story Tellers, Lewis Copeland Company, Inc., 1928, pp. 235–45.
[In the following essay, Karsner favorably compares Hecht to other Chicago writers of the 1920s.]
One can well imagine the lion tamer, who is as certain of life as the sexton is of death and equally as optimistic about the result, having decisive qualms for the safety of Ben Hecht, who was an acrobat in a midwestern circus in one of his early incarnations. Hecht was probably as incorrigible then as he is now. One can imagine him doing ten swift rotations with his left foot on the trapeze, and bringing down the tent with applause and admiration as he does a screw somersault landing upright on the glossy back of a pink-eyed white horse.
Ben Hecht has brought to his books many of the trapeze tricks he learned at the sawdust tracks. He has remained the performer in his novels. He can probably do more tricks with a sentence than any man of the Chicago group of writers, among whom he was looked upon with awe and admiration. Take any simple sentence, submit it to Hecht and he will impart to it the velocity of a pin wheel. Chicago may have something to do with that.
Ben Hecht was a journalist de luxe in Chicago for several years before his first novel, Erik Dorn, appeared in 1921; but with the publication of that book...
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SOURCE: “The Dill Pickle and the End of Chicago,” in Garrets and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America, Covici-Friede Publishers, 1933, pp. 200–11.
[In the following essay, Parry examines the writers and cultural mileau of post-World War I Chicago.]
The notoriety of Greenwich Village in the late 1910s was spreading among other places to Chicago. To youngsters constantly joining the Chicago studios, things seemed dull in comparison with the crazy antics reported from New York. The youngsters wanted genuine, not pretended excitement. The dancing of Princess Lou seemed uneventful, the sessions at Schlogl's tables appeared too conversational, Margaret Anderson was too individualistic. The youngsters wanted a group bang. They got it when the Dill Pickle was formed and derided in the second half of the decade.
Floyd Dell remarked to me, in passing, that the Dill Pickle was “one of those imitations of Greenwich Village,” hence not the real thing. Hansen mildly called it “a little audacious circle.” But Bodenheim was delighted and called it a rough-house. Hecht was delighted mainly because the Dill Pickle dared to produce his profane Dregs which even the supposedly fearless Players' Work Shop dropped after several rehearsals. It was a monologue full of shocking words, especially the opening line, which was considered just too terrible.
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SOURCE: An introduction to Erik Dorn, The University of Chicago Press, 1963, pp. vii–xvii,
[In the following introductory essay to Hecht's Eric Dorn, Algren assesses the work as prophetic of American cultural decline and existential angst.]
We don't even know what living means now, what it is and what it is called,” one of Dostoevski's isolated pellets of humanity warns us. “Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join onto, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men—men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive some sort of an impossible generalized man. We are stillborn and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born from an idea.
So Hemingway's Hollow Man, a Spanish waiter trying to reassure himself as he closes a café in Madrid for the night, is foreshadowed:
You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he...
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SOURCE: “Tom Sawyer Grows Up: Ben Hecht as a Writer,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. IX, No. 4, Spring, 1976, pp. 908–15.
[In the following essay, Felheim finds evidence that Hecht was influenced by Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer.]
Writing a review of A Treasury of Ben Hecht (1959) in The New Republic for September 28 of that year, John Wain correctly identified the aging Hecht as “a romantic.” But he mistook the source. “Not just any kind of romantic, but a Wildean romantic, a man of the nineties.” Further, Wain assumed, with insight, that Humpty Dumpty, Hecht's successful 1924 novel, had been a somewhat distorted but definite redoing of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is easy to agree with Wain's judgment. But I would prefer another model; my candidate: Tom Sawyer.
Like Tom, Hecht and his major heroes, Erik Dorn (1921) and Kent Savaron, the central character of Humpty Dumpty, have excessively literary imaginations. But whereas Tom gets most of his ideas from Sir Walter Scott, Hecht and his characters, as he explains endlessly, both in his autobiography, A Child of the Century (1954), and in his novels, are readers of the later romantics, of Dumas and Maupassant, of Gogol, Gorki and Dostoevski (especially, The Idiot) and of Richard Harding Davis, Bret Harte and Stephen Crane. Indeed, as he relates...
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SOURCE: “‘A Child of the Century,’ and ‘Gaily, Gaily’: 1945–1964” in Ben Hecht, Hollywood Screenwriter, UMI Research Press, 1985, pp. 1–24, 161–182.
[In the following excerpt, Martin discusses Hecht's role in the Chicago Renaissance following World War I, and his screenplays, novels, and autobiographical work following World War II.]
A CHILD OF THE CENTURY
Ben Hecht's fifty-year career embraced a number of different professions. He was by turns a newsman in Chicago between 1910 and 1924 on The Journal and the Daily News; a novelist well known for Erik Dorn (1921) and prosecuted for Fantazius Mallare (1922); a success as both playwright and screenwriter during the Depression; a sufficiently visible propagandist for the Israeli guerilla organization, the Irgun Zwei Leumi, to be singled out by the British Empire as a national enemy in 1948; and finally, a memoirist of imagination and skill.
These were not a succession of activities for the protean Hecht: he worked at many of them simultaneously. He thought of himself as a writer and storyteller, and the medium in which he worked mattered less than the tale itself. Because he thought of himself as a writer working on a deadline, he was able to work without pretention and with great craft, although never with great modesty, in whatever form demanded his skills....
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SOURCE: “The Great Hack Genius,” in Commentary, Vol. 90, No. 6, December, 1990, pp. 40–8
[In the following essay, Epstein assesses Hecht as more interesting as an individual than significant as a writer.]
Nowadays, as the media boys down at the ad agency are likely to tell you, the name Ben Hecht doesn't have much carry. Ben Hecht, Ben Huebsch, Ben Hur, one can easily imagine a crossword-puzzle or Trivial Pursuit addict struggling to get the name straight. Persons now of a certain age will recall Hecht as the co-author, with Charles MacArthur, of the play The Front Page, subsequently made into three different film versions. The movie-minded will remember that Ben Hecht was perhaps the foremost Hollywood screenwriter of his day: “the giant,” as Degas said of Meissonier, “of the dwarfs”—a sentiment with which Hecht himself would probably have agreed. Fewer people figure to remember that Ben Hecht was a uniquely blacklisted screenwriter: unique in that the films he worked on were blacklisted not in America but by the British. In his day Ben Hecht was also a journalist, novelist, poet, autobiographer, and movie director, ran a television talk show, and in his spare time was a fairly serious woman chaser.
No one could ever accuse Ben Hecht of concentrating his efforts, husbanding his substance, spending his talent wisely and well. Profligate in the root and...
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MacAdams, William. Ben Hecht: The Man behind the Legend. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990, 366 pp.
Biography that contains a detailed bibliography of Hecht's screenplays, short stories, nonfiction, and novels.
Citron, Atay. “Ben Hecht's Pageant-Drama: A Flag Is Born.” In Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance, edited by Claude Schumacher, pp. 70–93. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Discusses Hecht's 1946 play A Flag Is Born as the first example of Holocaust drama.
Harap, Louis. Creative Awakening: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 1900–1940s. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987, 196 pp.
Compares Hecht with Nathanael West as examples of self-hating Jews, which Harap feels is evident in the two men's works.
Kramer, Dale. Chicago Renaissance: The Literary Life in the Midwest, 1900–1930. New York: Appleton-Century, 1966, 369 pp.
Reviews the cultural milieu in which Hecht began his career as a newspaperman, novelist, and short story writer.
Additional coverage of Hecht's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85–88; Contemporary Literary...
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