Sunday, 6 October 2013

Werewolves & Ferris Wheels: Ben Hecht

Who was Ben Hecht? Probably the finest screenwriter who ever lived. His credits include such masterpieces as Underworld (the greatest silent gangster movie — for which he won an Oscar); Scarface (the greatest early sound gangster movie); His Girl Friday (based on Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play The Front Page); Notorious (Hitchcock's finest film of the 1940s) and The Thing (the best horror/SF film of the 1950s and one of the best of all time).

He made uncredited contributions to A Star is Born, Stagecoach and Gone With the Wind — but Hecht never worried too much about credit, so long as he was handsomely paid. Which he was — earning more than any other screenwriter of his time. And deservedly, because his material was brilliant. He worked solo, in collaboration, and often invisibly.

Hecht was the ultimate rewrite man, so it is only fitting that his stage play The Front Page was rewritten by George S. Kauffman. Kauffman's contribution was modest — mostly in the form of some cuts. But he did come up with that wonderful title. Hecht wrote plenty of thrillers and suspense films, not to mention science fiction, love stories, historical dramas and even contributed to a Bond movie. He worked with great directors like Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg and John Ford. He also worked with the Marx Brothers, more than once.
He had a particular and spectacular gift for comedy. Screwball comedy was a speciality. One of the greatest of these was Nothing Sacred, directed by William A. Wellmann, which features the classic line where one character is referred to as "a cross between a werewolf and a Ferris wheel." To my mind, one of the most wonderful bits of descriptive dialogue ever penned.

Hecht is very much in my mind because I'm reading an excellent biography of him by William MacAdams. I am a Hecht fiend and I would have bought this book years ago but, stupidly, I was put off by some wildly inaccurate negative reviews on Amazon. One such review castigates MacAdams for referring to Winston Churchill as an American novelist. Sure enough, on page 23 of the Hecht biography the author says "the American  novelist Winston Churchill." This is because there was an American writer of that name, born before the British statesman, and in his day far more famous.

The moral to this story: never pay attention to Amazon reviews by dullards, and if you're interested in Hecht get this book.
A final word. Assigning authorship of dialogue in films is tricky. Even the werewolf and Ferris wheel line could be by Dorothy Parker who did an uncredited polish on the script after Hecht. But of course this cuts both ways. And since Screen Writers' Guild records show Hecht made a significant contribution to the dialogue of Gone with the Wind,  it's quite possible he was responsible for one of the most memorable lines in film history: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." 

(Image credits: The French Scarface poster is from Doctor Macro, a very useful site. The Polish poster is for Nothing Sacred. I couldn't resist it, even if it doesn't give any credit to Hecht. It's from the Movie Poster Shop. I also couldn't resist the horizontal Underworld poster from Silent Sternberg. His Girl Friday is from Popcorn Dialogues.  Gone with the Wind is from Wikipedia. The Thing is from Cinemasterpieces. Casino Royale is from Tiki Lounge. The MacAdams bio cover is from Hardy Books.)

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