“Writing a good movie brings a writer about as much fame as steering a bicycle.”
“The job of turning good writers into movie hacks is the producer’s chief task.”
Screenwriter Ben Hecht was born in 1894 just as moving pictures were being invented. Before he died in 1964 he worked on 70+ films and wrote many plays and books. He was the first screenwriter to ever win an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story. He is considered one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.
Hecht was born in New York City and spent time on the lower east side before moving to Racine, Wisconsin. where his mother worked in downtown Racine. For those keeping score, Racine is not far from Kenosha, WI where Orson Welles was born.
After graduating from high school in Racine and briefly attending college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (for all of three days), Hecht went to Chicago where he eventually began working for newspapers (Chicago Journal and The Chicago Daily News). His first novel (Erik Dorn) was published in 1921. His Chicago-basedplay The Front Page was written in 1928 and was made into films several times. His time in Chicago covering murders and gangster would serve him well in Hollywood as those stories translated well to the big screen.
Jumping into the world of movies just as they were using sound, his script for Underworld was released in 1929 and earned him an Oscar award. He sometimes wrote a script in a matter of days and said that he never took longer than eight weeks. Scarface (1932) was written in nine days. He is quoted as saying of his screenwriting career that he was paid, “tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle.”
He was called The Shakespeare of Hollywood but had this to say of his own career: “Out of the seventy movies I’ve written some ten of them were not entirely waste product. These were Underworld, The Scoundrel, Wuthering Heights, Viva Villa, Scarface, Specter of the Rose, Actors and Sin, Roman Holiday, Spellbound, Nothing Sacred.”
Some of the other movies he worked on (credited and uncredited) include:
Notorious (Oscar Nominated)
Gone with the Wind
The Shop Around the Corner
His Girl Friday
Angels Over Broadway (Oscar Nominated)
Viva Villa (Oscar nominated)
He won his second Academy Award for The Scoundrel (shared with Charles MacArthur). Because he sometimes used a pseudonym (partly because he was blacklisted in Europe) we’ll probably never know exactly how many novels, plays and movies Hecht actually wrote. But it’s safe to say that he cranked out his share of pages. Combine the tough-talking gangster persona Hecht carried with the rapid exchange found in His Girl Friday (based on Hecht/MacArthur play The Front Page) and it’s hard to think that Hecht didn’t pave the way for writers Joe Eszterhas and Quentin Tarantino. (Eszterhas in his book Hollywood Animal called Hecht “the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history.”
Later in life Hecht had his own TV talk show in New York City (you can find a weak interview he did with Jack Kerouac on You Tube) and was critical of the culture that American movies had helped produce:
“The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century….Of their many sins, I offer as the worst their effect on the intellectual side of the nation. It is chiefly from that viewpoint I write of them — as an eruption of trash that has lamed the American mind and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.”
What would he say of TV and the Internet today?