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Thursday, February 6, 2014


Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht was a prolific author and a very influential figure in the land of Hollywood screenwriting. His intense passion for and curiosity of life began at an early age. Forced to raise himself in many ways due to his parents' job demands, he allowed his own thirst for knowledge and experience to be his guides to maturity. A child prodigy, his keen intelligence and the ease with which he picked up new ideas and talents won him early respect and equally enriched his lonesome early life. He excelled in the violin; he joined the circus. Finally, at sixteen, he ran away from home and began treading the pavements of Chicago as a journalist. By the age of 21, he had written his first novel: Erik Dorn.

Fast forward through many plays, short stories, and further articles, and by 1926, Hecht found himself in Hollywood, (allegedly due to a tip from writer friend Herman Mankiewicz). While critically successful, the writer is ever the starving artist, so Hecht jumped at the chance to earn money through the new medium of "screenplays." With the talkie revolution encroaching, his particular talent would ease this rocky transition with witty, intelligent, and provocative scripts that paved the way for future screenwriters and scenarists. Dialogue was truly a new phenomenon, as the silent era had either entrusted actors with improvisation based upon a general plotline or had otherwise given them a loose script to work with or without. Words meant little in those days when title card writers were as close to literature as film writing got, but those days were about to change. During his tenure in Hollywood, Ben managed to win the first ever Academy Award for Best Screenplay for 1927's Underworld. Other classics were to follow, which were either the result of his solo gifts or partial contribution-- the latter case in which other writers, directors, etc. asked him to assist on their scripts, which he unfailingly improved.

Examples of his work include: The Front Page (1937), Beast of the City, Scarface (1932), Queen Christina, Twentieth Century, The Prisoner of Zenda, A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred, Angels with Dirty Faces, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Gilda, Gone with the Wind, Journey into Fear, The Man with the Golden Arm, and-- as a Hitchcock favorite-- Lifeboat, Spellbound, Notorious, Foreign Correspondent, Rope, Strangers on a Train, etc. As a political activist, particularly during the forties when he wrote tirelessly about the rising anti-Semitism and eventual Jewish extermination in Germany, the only hiccup he seemed to run into with his writing was censorship. A man who palled around with irreverent men like Mankiewicz, John Decker, John Barrymore, Howard Hawks, and even Mickey Cohen (whom he aided in an aborted biographical project), the great wound to his pride was in writing anything less than the truth. His irritation with this was but one of the demons that haunted him throughout his career. H was a man forever hard on himself and always, always pushing for more.

With countless works of art under his belt-- novels, plays, essays, short stories, screenplays, etc-- Ben passed away after suffering a heart attack at the age of 70. He was nearly finished with his adaptation of Casino Royale, which would have been the first serious 007 film. Indeed, it was produced, but his drama of espionage was altered and turned into a spoof-comedy. One wonders what would have happened had another writer and another actor other than Connery initiated "James Bond" into the modern mainstream. In any case, his work has, and still does, provide the backbone of truly great writing, most specifically for our purposes in the land of cinema. Who better to have brought us out of the silence than a man who pulled no punches with words?

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