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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Hecht’

Inspired by seeing the silent film The Artist (2011) I’ve spent most of the past week or so reflecting on the early days of motion pictures, and since the Academy Award nominations are today it seems fitting to look back on the first Academy Awards on May 18, 1929.

One of the most significant things about that date is it was just five months before the Stock Market Crash in October of 1929, which began the Great Depression. Another interesting fact is the award ceremony only last 15 minutes—a far cry from the marathon 3 hour plus modern ceremonies. It also reflected not on one year of films as done today, but on a two-year period of 1927 & 1928.

So the first Academy Awards really represent a shift from the early silent era into what is known as “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” The beginning of syncretized sound pictures in 1927 through sometime around 1930 when detailed attendance records began being kept, film going attendance in the USA was at an all time high of 90 million moviegoers per week (which was around 60% of the population). Just as a comparison, these days in the United States the weekly movie going attendance is less that 30 million people (or 10% of the population).

Back in 1929, the First Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story went to Underworld by Ben Hecht, beating out The Last Command by Lajos Biro. (Ironically, a movie titled Underword happened to be the box office winner this past weekend).  And Best Writing, Adapted Story went to Benjamin Glaser for Seventh Heaven (beating out Glorious Betsy by Anthony Coldway and The Jazz Singer by Alfred A. Cohn.). The best picture was the silent film Wings. 

And you know those title cards that sometimes popped up on silent movies? They had an Oscar for that in 1929. (The only year it was given.) Best Writing, Title Writing went to George Marion Jr. (for No Specific Film) beating out The Private Life of Helen of Troy by Gerald Duffy.

What’s interesting about the Best Writing, Original Story for Underworld and Ben Hecht is look at the other people who are listed on credits who did not partake in Oscar victory; Adaptation by Charles Furhmann, Screen play by Rober N. Lee and Titles by George Marion, Jr.

Related Post: The Shakespeare of Hollywood (Ben Hecht)

Hugo & The Artist (Both of these films lead the 2012 Oscar nominations with a combined total of 21.)

Scott W. Smith


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“Movies are dying because they killed off the people who could make them, the writer and the director. They took away their identity.”
Ben Hecht
February 15, 1958

Yesterday, on the post The Shakespeare of Hollywood, I wondered what screenwriter Ben Hecht (Spellbound, Wuthering Heights) would think about TV and the Internet today.  In one of those happy accidents I found an 1958 interview that I think gives the answer.

Hecht was one of those guys you don’t meet much any more. He openly spoke his mind. If you didn’t agree with him he didn’t seem to care. He was what they used to call a colorful character. He died in 1964 before political correctness came into vogue. (Though he was concerned with growing censorship.) And though Hecht had a long distinguished screenwriting career, one of the things he liked to lambast was Hollywood. The main targets of his diatribes were greedy producers and how American films had dumbed down American culture. I found a link at the University of Texas that had a transcript for The Mike Wallace Interview where in 1958 Ben Hecht was a guest.

WALLACE:  You’ve said that (TV is) a babysitting industry cooing at the crowds, it threatens to turn us all into furniture.

HECHT: It will when it gets matured. When you get your screen eight by ten feet picture on the wall and color and three dimensions, I’m afraid America will lose the use of its legs.

So here we are just a little over 50 years down the road from Hecht’s comments. While in 2010 we may fall a little short of 8′X10′ screens—color, large screens, and 3-D are now here. The largest I could find on a quick search is a Panasonic 4K 3D 152-inch Plasma. (It appears to be about the same size as a 4′X6′ piece of plywood.)

And back when Hecht made that comment there would have only been three main TV stations. And it was the heyday of live TV drama when The Philco Television Playhouse provided writing opportunities for writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote.  Of course, today all the many network and cable channels provide employment opportunities for all sorts of creative folks, including writers.

But when you step back and look at the overall kind of programing that is being produced you have to wonder what kind of culture we are helping to produce. Has the writing evolved as much as the technology? (Some say there is more crap on the air, but more good stuff as well.) Or are we creating simply creating “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? (A colorful character like Ben Hecht, the Shakespeare of Hollywood, might have said that described the final episode of LOST.)

Hey, did you see that video on You Tube where the dog wakes up and starts chasing its tail until it runs into a wall?…

Scott W. Smith



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“Writing a good movie brings a writer about as much fame as steering a bicycle.”
Ben Hecht

“The job of turning good writers into movie hacks is the producer’s chief task.”
Ben Hecht

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’s 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.
Ben Hecht

Some of the other movies he worked on (credited and uncredited) include:

Gunga Din
Notorious (Oscar Nominated)
Gone with the Wind
The Shop Around the Corner
His Girl Friday
Stagecoach
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.”
Ben Hecht

What would he say of TV and the Internet today?

Scott W. Smith

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My years in Chicago were a bright time spent in the glow of new worlds. I was a newspaper reporter, playwright, novelist, short-story writer, propagandist, publisher and crony of wild hearts and fabulous gullets.  I haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, mad houses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls and bookshops. I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than my fly belly could hold, learned not to sleep, and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me.”
Screenwriter Ben Hecht
A Child of the Century

Tomorrow I’ll write more about the greatest Hollywood writer of his day, Ben Hecht, but before he turned to the riches of writing movies the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter was a newspaper writer in Chicago. Back in the bad old days. 1920s—Gangsters.
A collection of his articles were published in the book A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago. That’s where I found the excerpt below that gives you a glimpse of his observational powers as a journalist that I’m sure served him well in Hollywood and the 70 or so films he worked on;

People come in out of the rain. A girl without an umbrella, her face wet. Who? Perhaps a stenographer hunting a job and halted by the rain. And then a matron with an old-fashioned knitted shopping bag. And a spinster with a keen, kindly face. Others, too. They stand nervously idle, feeling that they are taking up valuable space in an industrial establishment and should perhaps make a purchase. So they permit their eyes to drift politely toward the wares. And then the chatter of the books has them. Old books, new books, live books, dead books–but they move carelessly away and toward the bargain tables–”All Books 30 Cents.” Broken down best sellers here–pausing in their gavotte toward oblivion. The next step is the junk man–$1 a hundred. Pembertons, Wrights, Farnols, Websters, Johnstones, Porters, Wards and a hundred other names reminiscent more of a page in the telephone book than a page out of a literary yesterday. The little gavotte is an old dance in the second-hand book store. The $2-shelf. The $1-rack. The 75-cent table. The 30-cent grab counter. And finis. New scribblings crowd for place, old scribblings exeunt.

The girl without an umbrella studies titles. A love story, of course, and only thirty cents. An opened page reads, “he took her in his arms….” Who would not buy such a book on a rainy day?

A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago is no-longer copyright protected and you can read the entire book for free at Project Gutenberg.

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