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The man who made stories, and made history

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Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures by Adina Hoffman (Yale University Press)

He was, according to noted film critic Pauline Kael, “the greatest American screenwriter.” French new-wave artist Jean-Luc Godard called him a “genius” and said he “invented 80 per cent of what is used in Hollywood movies today.” He is credited with introducing several film genres, as well as archetypal characters such as the all-powerful, talky newspaper reporter.

His name appeared on many great and notable American movies, and he scripted or doctored many others in which his name did not appear. The list includes A Star Is Born, Monkey Business, Scarface, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, Mutiny On The Bounty, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Shop Around the Corner, Roman Holiday, Nothing Sacred and Twentieth Century.

As Adina Hoffman points out in her new book, Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, Ben Hecht was a jack of numerous trades – ace reporter, edgy playwright, provocative novelist, political activist – whose legend has dimmed over the decades. Few movie lovers today can reel off a list of his credits, or the equally impressive list of the films in which he was purposely not credited because he had been blacklisted.

Another extraordinary fact: he was Alfred Hitchcock’s “go-to” screenwriter who worked on no less than seven of his films: Foreign Correspondent (1940), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), Rope (1948) and Strangers On A Train (1951).

Film buffs regard 1939 as one of the best years for Hollywood films, with a gold-
embossed list of Academy Award nominees that has never been surpassed. Hecht had a hand in scripting an astonishing array of these classics: Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, It’s A Wonderful World (but not The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips or The Hunchback of Notre Dame).

Perhaps his signature piece is The Front Page, a darkly comic stage play, written with Charles MacArthur, that reflected his experiences as a Chicago newspaper columnist; it was made into a popular film in 1928. Some years later, director Howard Hawks got the brilliant idea of turning its lead character, newspaperman Hildy Johnson, into a female who is romantically involved with newspaper editor Walter Burns. Hawks hired Hecht and Charles Lederer for the adaptation.

The resulting film, His Girl Friday, starring Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy, is regarded as one of the great screwball comedies of all time. It was filmed in 1939, just another assignment for Hecht in that very busy year.

READ: AN INTRIGUING LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF JEWISH NAME CHANGING

Hecht also crafted (or helped to craft) many outstanding “B” pictures, whose names we are not expected to know. I recently watched Crime Without Passion (1934, written and directed by Hecht, starring Claude Rains), a clever and engaging exploration, full of twists, of the psychology of the criminal mind; and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), an innovative, tightly written noir starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney about a San Francisco cop who walks on the dark side. (These and many other forgotten films are easily available on YouTube.)

In a mere 200-plus pages, Hoffman gives us an intelligent “capsule” assessment of Hecht’s remarkable, meteoric career: Hoffman, like Hecht, obviously understands the supreme importance of brevity and makes every word count. Never heavy, her prose is frequently a delight to read. She pays particular attention to Hecht’s politics and his sudden, powerful reawakening as an American Jew with a strong mission. That, too, occurred in 1939 – a very busy year, indeed! – just as Hitler and the Nazis were cruelly tightening the screws on the Jews of Europe.

In one of his short stories of that era, he prophesied a coming day when “we Jews would open our morning papers … unprepared for what we were to read.” The calamity that he foresaw was an “international pogrom,” in which half a million Jews would be slaughtered and another million forced from their homes – events, as Hoffman points out, “that were still imaginary when he was writing.”

Suddenly Hecht’s long-held feelings of Jewish nationalism and solidarity emerged in full force and he became an outspoken crusader for the imperiled Jews of Europe and an activist in support of the immediate establishment of a Jewish homeland.

“Ben Hecht had at last found a cause worthy of his formidable fury,” Hoffman writes. “His allegiance to that cause –  and to that fury – would in many ways determine the course of the rest of his life.”

While Hoffman acknowledges that she strongly disagrees with Hecht’s politics and is anti-Zionistic in her own beliefs, she has said that she took it as a challenge to write a book about someone whose views were so diametrically opposed to her own, and not let her prejudices show. For the most part, to her immense credit, she has succeeded in presenting us with a sparkling summation of his life and career that is far more sympathetic than critical. She has allowed her subject’s abundant humanity to emerge.

Although his legend has faded, Hecht deserves to be remembered, above all for his outstanding contribution to American film. He wrote numerous novels and an autobiography called A Child of the Century, which have also languished. He was supposedly a champion of modern urban realism, but his prose is riddled with so many whimsical flourishes, and so many fantastic, romantic and classical allusions, that it has gone entirely out of fashion. Even his famous Chicago newspaper columns, which have been collected and reissued in book form as 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, seem old-fashioned and dated.

Hecht’s claim to artistic immortality, therefore, resides in his prolific contributions to the movies, which continued through the scriptwriting for the James Bond film Casino Royale, which he completed in April 1964. He died a few days later of a heart attack at the age of 71. “He wrote stories – and he made history,” said Menachem Begin at the funeral.

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