Family & Companions
While he did not quite attain the heights of success enjoyed by his long-time partner Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur was a justifiably popular and respected writer and bon vivant. Like Hecht, the droll, larger-than-life MacArthur earned his literary stripes in the highly competitive world of 1920s Chicago, where dozens of reporters would vie for headlines and only the most creative and talented would rise to the top. MacArthur thrived in this environment and later used his talents to pen Broadway plays, including the highly successful comedy "The Front Page" (1928-29), his first and finest collaboration with Hecht, and the madcap "Twentieth Century" which was adapted into one of the finest screwball comedies of all time in 1934. MacArthur further cemented his fame with the New York high society crowd when he married beloved Broadway star Helen Hayes, the First Lady of the American Theater. Working with Hecht, MacArthur earned an Academy Award and a pair of nominations for writing such notable movies as "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932), "The Scoundrel" (1935), "Gunga Din" (1939) and "Wuthering Heights" (1939). The pair also directed a handful of features and MacArthur found himself in demand as a script doctor, doing anonymous re-writes on such films as "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1931) and "Freaks" (1932). Prolific and consistently witty, MacArthur brought considerable verve and intelligence to his work and those qualities were perfectly showcased in "The Front Page," one of the most enduring and re-staged American plays of any era.
Charles Gordon MacArthur was born on November 5, 1895 in Scranton, PA. MacArthur's father was a Baptist minister of the fire and brimstone school whose religious obligations kept his sizeable family on the road. One of eight children, the boy was expected to follow in his father's footsteps and spent two years studying theology at Wilson Memorial Academy. However, he decided to change course in life and pursue journalism, a goal that arose from his incredible love of literature. This was put on hold for a time when MacArthur served in Mexico as one of the 12,000 troops sent into that country to arrest Pancho Villa. He later fought in France during World War I and chronicled his experiences in the book A Bug's-eye View of the War (1919). Relocating to Chicago, MacArthur was hired on as a reporter at the Herald and Examiner and later, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Daily News.
Excelling at his profession, he eventually relocated to New York City and experienced additional success as a playwright, with his works "Lulu Belle" (1926) and "Salvation" (1928) granted runs on Broadway. In 1928, MacArthur collaborated with Ben Hecht, another writer who had cut his teeth on the Chicago news scene, with their joint effort, "The Front Page" (1928-29). A look at a group of Chicago newspaper reporters covering a sensational murder trial, the sharp, rapid-fire, often hilarious production was a Broadway smash and went on to become one of the most influential plays of the 20th century. It also spawned several movie adaptations, including the most famous version, "His Girl Friday" (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as the leads. On a personal front, MacArthur wed Broadway superstar Helen Hayes in 1928, though their union was briefly tainted by his first wife, Carol Frink, a newspaper drama critic to whom MacArthur was briefly married during his days in Chicago. Frink, who had worked with him at the Herald and Examiner, earned headlines when she named Hayes in a $100,000 alienation suit she had filed against MacArthur. In the wake of this matter, the couple's first child, Mary Hayes MacArthur, arrived in 1930 along with some more unwelcome headlines as the "Act of God Baby," so named as part of a frivolous lawsuit filed against Hayes when the pregnancy forced her to leave a play before its run had concluded.
On the basis of "The Front Page," both men were invited to Hollywood and set to work on screenplays for "The Unholy Garden" (1931) and "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932), the latter earned them an Academy Award nomination. They also bolstered their bank accounts by working as script doctors, with MacArthur doing uncredited punch-ups on pictures like "Quick Millions" (1931), "Freaks" (1932), "Riptide" (1934) and "Upperworld" (1934). When Hayes appeared in the film "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1931), MacArthur was employed by MGM to work on the picture after it was felt the initial version was unreleaseable. MacArthur came up with changes and the studio financed some re-shoots. In this new incarnation, the film turned out to be a success and Hayes won the Best Actress Academy Award. In 1938, MacArthur and Hayes welcomed a son, James, whom they had adopted. The boy would go one to have his own successful career as a performer, being best known for his role of Danny "Danno" Williams on the hit crime series "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS 1968-1980).
MacArthur and Hecht also tried their hand at directing with "Crime without Passion" (1934), "The Scoundrel" (1935), "Once in a Blue Moon" (1935) and "Soak the Rich" (1936), "The Scoundrel" brought them a Best Screenplay Oscar. The year 1939 was an especially notable one for the team, as their screenplays for "Gunga Din" and "Wuthering Heights" earned high marks from critics and an Oscar nomination for the latter production which became a romantic classic. They also wrote three other plays that made their way to Broadway, including "Twentieth Century" (1932; adapted for film in 1934), "Ladies and Gentlemen" (1939-40) and "Swan Song" (1946), while MacArthur penned and directed the Great White Way presentation of "Johnny on a Spot" (1942). Hecht and MacArthur achieved enough notoriety that the Broadway hit "Boy Meets Girl" (1935-37) centered on a pair of screenwriters, played by James Cagney and Pat O'Brien in the subsequent 1938 movie version, modeled in part on them.
MacArthur's output slowed during the 1940s, due in part to his military service in the Army's Chemical Warfare Service Division during World War II. Following "The Senator Was Indiscreet" (1947), MacArthur took over the editorial post at Theatre Arts magazine in 1948 and was credited with breathing new life into the struggling publication. Unfortunately, daughter Mary died of polio in 1949 at the age of 19 just as she was about to enter into a stage acting career. MacArthur took the loss hard and this exacerbated his already excessive drinking. His health gradually declined and MacArthur died of an internal hemorrhage on April 21, 1956, the result of ongoing battles with ulcers, nephritis and anemia. In tribute to his collaborator and friend, Hecht wrote Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur in 1957 and the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play was created in his memory.
By John Charles