Ben Hecht


Playwright, Screenwriter

About

Also Known As
Rex Conner
Birth Place
New York City, New York, USA
Born
February 28, 1894
Died
April 18, 1964

Biography

One of the premier 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. Holly...

Family & Companions

Rose Hecht
Wife
Married in 1925.

Bibliography

"Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend"
Williams McAdams, Scribner (1990)
"The Five Lives of Ben Hecht"
Doug Fetherling (1977)
"A Child of the Century"
Ben Hecht, Donald I. Fine, Inc. (1954)
"The Florentine Dagger"
Ben Hecht

Notes

Lured to Hollywood by friend Herman Mankiewicz who sent this telegram to Hecht in 1926: "Will you accept 300 per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. 300 is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."

Biography

One of the premier 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

Filmography

 

Director (Feature Film)

Actor's Blood and Woman of Sin (1952)
Director
Specter of the Rose (1946)
Director
Angels over Broadway (1940)
Director
Soak the Rich (1936)
Director
Once in a Blue Moon (1935)
Director
The Scoundrel (1935)
Director
Crime Without Passion (1934)
Director

Cast (Feature Film)

Specter of the Rose (1946)
Waiter
Soak the Rich (1936)
G-man
The Scoundrel (1935)
Flophouse bum
Crime Without Passion (1934)
Reporter

Writer (Feature Film)

Kiss of Death (1995)
From Story
Kiss of Death (1995)
Story By
Notorious (1992)
From Story
Notorious (1992)
Story By
Switching Channels (1988)
Play As Source Material
The Front Page (1974)
Play As Source Material
Casino Royale (1967)
Additional Dialogue
Circus World (1964)
Screenwriter
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
Screenplay (see note)
Queen of Outer Space (1958)
From a story by
A Farewell to Arms (1957)
Screenwriter
Legend of the Lost (1957)
Screenwriter
Miracle in the Rain (1956)
Screenwriter
The Iron Petticoat (1956)
Based on an Original story by
The Iron Petticoat (1956)
Screenwriter
Ulysses (1955)
Screenwriter
The Indian Fighter (1955)
Screenwriter
Monkey Business (1952)
Screenwriter
Actor's Blood and Woman of Sin (1952)
Writer
The Thing from Another World (1951)
Contract Writer
The Secret of Convict Lake (1951)
Cont wrt
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Screenwriter
Edge of Doom (1950)
Prologue and epilogue
Whirlpool (1949)
Screenwriter
The Miracle of the Bells (1948)
Screenwriter
The Paradine Case (1948)
Additional Dialogue
Her Husband's Affairs (1947)
Original Screenplay
Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
Screenwriter
Kiss of Death (1947)
Screenwriter
Dishonored Lady (1947)
Contract Writer
Specter of the Rose (1946)
Writer
Notorious (1946)
Writer
Spellbound (1945)
Screenwriter
China Girl (1943)
Writer
The Black Swan (1942)
Screenwriter
Tales of Manhattan (1942)
Original stories and Screenplay by
Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942)
Contract Writer
Lydia (1941)
Screenplay and dial
Angels over Broadway (1940)
Screenwriter
Comrade X (1940)
Screenwriter
It's a Wonderful World (1939)
Screenwriter
Lady of the Tropics (1939)
Screenwriter
Let Freedom Ring (1939)
Screenwriter
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Screenwriter
Let Freedom Ring (1939)
Original Story
It's a Wonderful World (1939)
Original Story
Gunga Din (1939)
Story
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Contract Writer
The Goldwyn Follies (1938)
Story and Screenplay
Nothing Sacred (1937)
Screenwriter
King of Gamblers (1937)
Contr to trmt
Soak the Rich (1936)
Writer
The Scoundrel (1935)
Wrt by
Barbary Coast (1935)
Screenwriter
Once in a Blue Moon (1935)
Writer
Viva Villa (1934)
Screenwriter
Crime Without Passion (1934)
[Wrt] by
Twentieth Century (1934)
Wrt by
Upper World (1934)
Story
Topaze (1933)
Screenwriter
Design for Living (1933)
Screenwriter
Hallelujah I'm a Bum (1933)
Original Story
Turn Back the Clock (1933)
Screenwriter
Scarface (1932)
Screen story
The Front Page (1931)
Screenwriter
The Unholy Garden (1931)
Story and dial
The Great Gabbo (1930)
Story
Le spectre vert (1930)
Story
Roadhouse Nights (1930)
Story
The Unholy Night (1929)
Story
The Big Noise (1928)
Story
Underworld (1927)
Story

Producer (Feature Film)

Actor's Blood and Woman of Sin (1952)
Producer
Specter of the Rose (1946)
Producer
China Girl (1943)
Producer
Angels over Broadway (1940)
Producer
Soak the Rich (1936)
Presented By
Soak the Rich (1936)
Producer
The Scoundrel (1935)
Presented By
Once in a Blue Moon (1935)
Producer
The Scoundrel (1935)
Producer

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

I Hate Actors (1988)
Source Material (From Novel)

Writer (Special)

The Third Commandment (1959)
Writer

Special Thanks (Special)

The Third Commandment (1959)
Writer

Life Events

1909

Ran away to Chicago at age 16 where he began career as a cub reporter; wrote for the <i>Chicago Journal</i> and the <i>Chicago Daily News</i>

1919

Became a war correspondent in Germany and Russia for 75 newspapers

1923

Founded and edited the <i>Chicago Literary Times</i>

1925

Moved to NYC before heading to Hollywood at the invitation of writer Herman Mankiewicz who offered a contract at Paramount

1934

Formed production company in NYC with Charles MacArthur; made first film as director, "Crime Without Passion"

1954

Published autobiography "A Child of the Century"

1964

Died while working uncredited on screenplay for "Casino Royale" (1967)

1969

Portion of his memoir, "A Child of the Century" served as basis for Norman Jewison film "Gaily, Gaily" starring Beau Bridges as Hecht

Videos

Movie Clip

Front Page, The (1931) - L For Listerine! The boys in the press room tangle then we meet editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), hunting Hildy (Pat O'Brien, not seen), with some remarkable shots from director Lewis Milestone, early in The Front Page 1931, from the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Gunga Din (1939) - Children Are Looking Bonnie! Cutter (Cary Grant) and MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) enter a seemingly abandoned Indian village, where comrade Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks) discovers mysterious Chota (Abner Biberman), early in George Stevens' Gunga Din, 1939.
Gunga Din (1939) - Very Regimental! Famous scene in which Cutter (Cary Grant) supports Sam Jaffe (title character), the humble native water carrier, in his regular-army fantasy, in George Stevens' Gunga Din, based on the Rudyard Kipling poem.
Gunga Din (1939) - We Were Swindled First appearance by India corps sergeants MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and Cutter (Cary Grant), summoned to commander Weed (Montagu Love), in George Stevens' Gunga Din, 1939.
Kiss Of Death (1947) - Open, Christmas Eve Chilling opening with narration by Coleen Gray (who'll appear as "Nettie"), introducing Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), from Henry Hathaway's Kiss Of Death, 1947, from a script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer and story by Eleazer Lipsky.
Kiss Of Death (1947) - I'll Need That Look Swiftly paroled for agreeing to help the cops, thief Nick (Victor Mature) surprises Nettie (Colleen Gray), his former baby-sitter and friend of his wife, who committed suicide while he was inside, sharing a moment before prosecutor D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) calls with instructions, in director Henry Hathaway’s Kiss Of Death, 1947.
Kiss Of Death (1947) - Skin Off A Grape Chance first encounter before court between hard-luck family-man robber Nick (Victor Mature) and nasty mob guy Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), prosecutor D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) stopping by, in Henry Hathaway's Kiss Of Death, 1947.
Kiss Of Death (1947) - Lyin' Old Hag! Horrible famous scene in which Tommy (Richard Widmark, in his first movie) executes Ma Rizzo (Mildred Dunnock, neither old nor a hag) for not giving up her son, Henry Hathaway directing, in Kiss Of Death, 1947.
Viva Villa! (1934) - Fiction Woven Out Of Truth Commanding prologue and screenplay by Ben Hecht, directed by either ultimately-dismissed Howard Hawks or credited Jack Conway, with Phillip Cooper as the young title character and Frank Puglia his dad, from MGM’s hit Viva Villa!, 1934, starring Wallace Beery.
Viva Villa! (1934) - For The Gringo Paper? Taking a town as his notoriety grows, Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa browses females (C.B. DeMille's part-Italian adopted daughter Katherine as Rosita, in one of her earliest roles) then, with sidekick Sierra (Leo Carrillo), meets nervous American journalist Sykes (Stuart Erwin), in Viva Villa!, 1934.
Viva Villa! (1934) - This Is Your Country! Writer Ben Hecht never thought much of Hollywood or screenplays in general, but had few peers for this kind of scene, with Wallace Beery as the bandit title character meeting the scholarly revolutionary Madero (Henry B. Walthall), in MGM’s Viva Villa!, 1934.
Viva Villa! (1934) - Pancho Villa Sent For Me Some scale as the revolution gathers pace, Wallace Beery (title character) rallies volunteers, visits sympathetic aristocrat Teresa (Fay Wray) and reporter Sykes (Stuart Erwin), then a montage, with writer Ben Hecht more successful than the rear-screen process shots, David Durand the bugle boy, inViva Villa! , 1934.

Trailer

Scarface (1932) - (1979 Re-issue Trailer) Al Pacino got nothin' on Paul Muni, see, as the original Scarface (1932) directed by Howard Hawks, produced by Howard Hughes.
Gaily, Gaily - (Original Trailer) Beau Bridges plays a young man coming of age in corrupt 1910's Chicago in Gaily, Gaily (1969) based on a novel by Ben Hecht (The Front Page).
Farewell to Arms, A (1957) - (Original Trailer) A Farewell to Arms (1957), Ernest Hemingway's story of an affair between an English nurse an an American soldier on the Italian front during World War I.
Viva Villa! - (Original Trailer) Wallace Beery stars in Viva Villa! (1934), the story of the bandit chief who led the battle for Mexican independence.
Black Swan, The - (Original Trailer) When he's named governor of Jamaica, a former pirate sets out to clean up the Caribbean in The Black Swan, 1942, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara.
Nothing Sacred - (Original Trailer) When a small-town girl is diagnosed with a rare, deadly disease, an ambitious newspaper man turns her into a national heroine in Nothing Sacred (1937).
Legend of the Lost - (Original Trailer) Three adventurers (John Wayne, Sophia Loren, Rosanno Brazzi) search for a treasure in a forbidden desert temple.
Front Page, The (1974) - (Original Trailer) Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau star in Billy Wilder's version of the classic newspaper comedy The Front Page (1974).
Notorious - (Original Trailer) U.S. agent Cary Grant recruits Ingrid Bergman to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring in Brazil in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).
Iron Petticoat, The - (Original Trailer) American Bob Hope shows Russian Katharine Hepburn the bright side of capitalism in The Iron Petticoat (1956)
Lady of the Tropics - (Original Trailer) An American playboy (Robert Taylor) in Saigon has to fight to get his Eurasian wife (Hedy Lamarr) out of the country in Lady of the Tropics (1939).
Monkey Business (1952) - (Original Trailer) Cary Grant is a scientist whose search for the fountain of youth makes him and his wife regress to childhood in Monkey Business (1952).

Family

Jenny Hecht
Daughter
Actor. Born c. 1943.

Companions

Rose Hecht
Wife
Married in 1925.

Bibliography

"Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend"
Williams McAdams, Scribner (1990)
"The Five Lives of Ben Hecht"
Doug Fetherling (1977)
"A Child of the Century"
Ben Hecht, Donald I. Fine, Inc. (1954)
"The Florentine Dagger"
Ben Hecht
"Erik Dorn"
Ben Hecht
"Gargoyles"
Ben Hecht
"Humpty Dumpty"
Ben Hecht
"I Hate Actors"
Ben Hecht

Notes

Lured to Hollywood by friend Herman Mankiewicz who sent this telegram to Hecht in 1926: "Will you accept 300 per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. 300 is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."