One of the premiere writers of the 20th century, Ben Hecht quickly established himself as a hardboiled, eminently readable Chicago newspaper reporter and columnist. He went on to pen several successful Broadway plays, including "The Front Page," one of the most widely staged productions of its era, and a number of acclaimed books, including both fiction, non-fiction and anthologies. Hollywood took notice and Hecht was soon putting his skills to work for the silver screen. Within a year, he had won an Academy Award for "Underworld" (1927) and a litany of his credits from that point onward was staggering. Some of the finest movies produced from the 1930s through the early 1960s Hecht either wrote the screenplay or was brought in for an uncredited polish. Some of his greatest works included Scarface" (1932), "Nothing Sacred" (1937), "A Star is Born" (1937), "Stagecoach" (1939), "Gone With the Wind" (1939), "Foreign Correspondent" (1940), "Tales of Manhattan" (1942), "The Black Swan" (1942), "Spellbound" (1945), "Notorious" (1946), "Kiss of Death" (1947), "Strangers on a Train" (1951) and "Guys and Dolls" (1955). His ability to turn out high-quality work in a short period of time - sometimes as little as two weeks - on such a wide variety of genres kept Hecht in near constant demand, and while he considered movies to be a lesser art form, Hecht's creativity and talent for intelligent plotting and crackling dialogue was indisputable.
New York City native Ben Hecht was born on Feb. 28, 1894, but spent his formative years in Racine, WI. At age 16, he relocated to Chicago, IL and was hired on as a reporter at the Chicago Journal, where he proved to be among the most resourceful and determined young writers in the city. After a couple of years, he went to work for The Chicago Daily News, where he began a successful column that commented on the city and its people. A collection of these pieces were later compiled into the book 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, published in 1922. For someone so young, Hecht wrote with great wit and authority. He also penned short stories, and his first novel, "Erik Dorn" (1921), was about the newspaper business. His other early books included "The Florentine Dagger" (1923), "Kingdom of Evil" (1924) and "Count Bruga" (1926). Hecht also soon established himself as a playwright, and "The Egotist" (1922-23) and "The Stork" (1925) were successfully staged on Broadway.
However, his major triumph in this area was "The Front Page" (1928-29), co-written with fellow Chicago writer Charles MacArthur, who would also collaborate with Hecht on several subsequent projects. A witty and consistently engaging look at a group of Chicago reporters, the play was a huge hit and the pair was quickly invited to Hollywood. During that portion of his career, Hecht did uncredited rewrite work on films like the Marx Brothers vehicle "Monkey Business" (1931), "The Beast of the City" (1932), "Million Dollar Legs" (1932), "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932) and "Queen Christina" (1933). Meanwhile, "The Front Page" was adapted into a highly successful 1931 film by other parties, the first of no less than five movie incarnations for that hit property - with the most distinguished being 1940's "His Girl Friday," with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at their best. Hecht's ability to improve the work of other writers impressed the studios, but the full screenplays he penned were often even more extraordinary. "Underworld" (1927) won him an Academy Award, while his screenplays for pictures like "Scarface" (1932), "Design for Living" (1933), "Viva Villa!" (1934), "Barbary Coast" (1935), "Nothing Sacred" (1937) and "Wuthering Heights" (1939) also earned accolades. Hecht & MacArthur tried their hand at directing, beginning with "Crime without Passion" (1934), which they also wrote and produced. Hecht would direct a handful more features over the years, including a few without his partner, but only "Angels Over Broadway" (1940) proved especially noteworthy. The pair's work on the Noel Coward vehicle "The Scoundrel" (1935) also brought them an Oscar.
Hecht enjoyed more Broadway success with "The Great Magoo" (1932), "Twentieth Century" (1932-33), "Jumbo" (1935-36), "To Quito and Back" (1937), and "Ladies and Gentlemen" (1939-40), but the anonymous work he did during that time included titles people were more likely to remember. In fact, the number of superb motion pictures Hecht helped to polish read almost like an AFI list of Hollywood's greatest films, including "A Star is Born" (1937), "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1939), "Stagecoach" (1939), "Gone With the Wind" (1939), "Foreign Correspondent" (1940), "Journey Into Fear" (1942), and "Lifeboat" (1944). The sheer diversity of themes and approaches present in those projects was a testament to Hecht's gifts, but he felt far more proud of his novels and plays, viewing Hollywood assignments as a way of earning the equivalent of a year's salary in a small fraction of the time.
Hecht's heritage as a Russian Jew became of greater importance to him in the1930s as Hitler's threat to world peace and the resulting rise in anti-Semitism was increasingly obvious. He campaigned to have the United States enter World War II and once that happened, Hecht used his work to alert Americans about the extent of the atrocities Germany was committing towards the Jewish people. Hecht's belief in nationhood for Palestine (which extended to public support of the militant Zionist group Irgun) made him persona non grata in England, which banned some of the movies he wrote and removed his name from others. But his work on Broadway resumed, including "Lily of the Valley" (1942), "Swan Song" (1946), and "A Flag is Born" (1946), along with screenplays for "Tales of Manhattan" (1942), "The Black Swan" (1942), "Spellbound" (1945), "Notorious" (1946), "Kiss of Death" (1947), "Monkey Business" (1952), "Ulysses" (1954), "A Farewell to Arms" (1957) and "Circus World" (1964). Hecht's anonymous work was of an equally high pedigree, including "Gilda" (1946), "Duel in the Sun" (1946), "Rope" (1948), "Portrait of Jennie" (1948), "The Inspector General" (1949), "The Thing from Another World" (1951), "Strangers on a Train" (1951), "Guys and Dolls" (1955), "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955), "North to Alaska" (1960) and "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1962).
In 1954, Hecht penned his extensive autobiography A Child of the Century to great acclaim and also served as ghost writer of Marilyn Monroe's biography. "Hazel Flagg" (1953) was his final Broadway credit. With the James Bond craze just having gotten underway, Hecht was tapped to write an adaptation of Ian Fleming's "Casino Royale" and completed one draft prior to his death from thrombosis on April 18, 1964. When "Casino Royale" finally went before the cameras three years after Hecht's death, his original, dramatic approach had long since been scrapped in favor of a slapdash parody of the genre concocted by a small army of other scribes. Norman Jewison's 1969 film "Gaily, Gaily" was based loosely on Hecht's 1963 book which included reminiscences about his exploits as a reporter. However, for some reason, "Ben Hecht" was homogenized down to "Ben Harvey" in the final product and most critics felt that little of the author's legendary wit made the transition to the screen.
By John Charles