Arts: Theatre: A hack of genius

Ben Hecht's 'The Front Page' opens in London this week. David Thomson profiles the playwright, novelist, screenwriter, script-doctor and wise-cracker and liar
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He was a helpless muddle of a man, victimised by his own notion that he had to be seen as the smartest, most cynical, least foolable guy around. And so he was a chronic, lifelong writer, a writer for hire who despised his own facility, a writer who sometimes demanded to be paid in cash at the end of the day (just to show how unfoolable he was, and how transient the movie business was), and who died lamenting that his hectic career of writing stuff to deadline had barred him from doing the loftier things of which he felt he was capable. He wrote one of the best American autobiographies, a book that is still enjoyed even if it is also regarded as rose-coloured exaggeration by an author not to be trusted. He said everyone was out for himself - that was the only sane practice; but then late in life he found a cause and became so outspoken on its behalf that his work was banned in Britain. When he died, in 1964, there were eulogies from Luther Adler, a great actor, George Jessel, the comedian, and Menachem Begin, then known as a terrorist.

Ben Hecht was only 71 when he died of a heart attack. He was a terrific, self-dramatising character, a journalist, a novelist, a playwright, a man for emergencies, a wise-cracker, a fabulist - OK, a liar - and Pauline Kael, Jean-Luc Godard and David O Selznick (this covers the territory) thought he was the best screenwriter the movies ever had. For why? For Underworld, Scarface, Viva Villa!, Twentieth Century, Barbary Coast, Nothing Sacred, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, It's a Wonderful World, His Girl Friday, Spellbound, Notorious, Kiss of Death - you still here? - The Miracle of the Bells, Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Monkey Business, A Farewell to Arms, et cetera. And those are just some of the ones with his name on. Those that never bothered to include his credit make a longer list, for he was the first great script-doctor. On Gone With the Wind, would you believe?

And, with his favourite partner and long-time friend, Charles MacArthur, in 1928, he wrote a thing called The Front Page, a play that won't go away, and which has probably had as strong an influence on behaviour and style in the newspaper business as Gone With the Wind did on our ideas about the South.

But, as if you needed some clinching proof of the disaster of our culture, not to mention the fraud called education, there are honest, decent opinion- makers out and about today, trading in words, who are not quite sure if they've ever heard of Ben Hecht. "I told you so!" I hear him groan, and I remember the remark of someone who knew and worked with him, Hugh Gray (they collaborated on a script for the film Ulysses - with Kirk Douglas as U): "I felt that what he made of himself was a hack, a hack of genius."

He had a large, sour ego, but it was his way to be self-deprecating, too - before anyone else could attack him. So he said he'd been born in a toilet in New York, on 28 February 1893, to Joseph and Sarah, Jewish escapees from Minsk. But it was a cousin who had that indignity - Ben just stole, or borrowed, the anecdotal detail. He was a very bright kid: there is a photograph of him, aged seven, in which he looks like an expert, 17-year-old poker-player. By the time he was that age, he was in Chicago, the city of his youth, a place he would memorialise as well as any other writer, and a scene in those days that epitomised the raw, smart, lusty, cocky America ready to take over the world. He was there for only about 15 years, but it was the experience that made him, and taught him he could do any kind of writing invented, so long as it was with words. Like the characters in The Front Page, Hecht loved fast, rough talk and the way in which, given nerve and an opening, a great talker can run the show.

In Chicago, Hecht was a journalist for such magazines as The Little Review, Smart Set, The American Mercury and the Chicago Literary Times. In 1921, he published a novel, Erik Dorn, about a journalist who abandons his first wife for a younger woman - events that would overtake Hecht in the thing called real life just a few years later. He wrote short stories and one-act plays; he was a man about town, the pal to writers, drunks and rogues like Herman J Mankiewicz. It was a time when, to quote another Hecht novel, Humpty Dumpty, in 1924:

"Young women were going about in short skirts, exposing their legs and stirring the frightened libido of their elders ... The nerve-hungry post- war generation was treating itself to the artifice of barbarism. Tomtoms beat in the cafes, Nigger shows, Russian dancers, Gauguinistic sceneries, jazz bands with gilded drums and gilded violins delighted the night throng of the cities ... The radio was supplanting the phonograph and nature found herself further coerced in the growing mania of society to bombard itself with caterwaulings and stupidities. Prohibition was routing drunkenness out of the saloons and spreading it through the homes of the nation."

There's a lot of Hecht in that passage; the giddy list, the excited satire, the scolding sensuality, as well as the love of words. He was a serious writer: he reckoned he might be a great novelist, and in time he was very put out when another son of Chicago and its environs, Ernest Hemingway (five years younger), proved himself the hot new fiction writer. But by the time of Hemingway's great successes, Hecht had gone West, lured first by a famous cable from his pal Mankiewicz:

"WILL YOU ACCEPT THREE HUNDRED PER WEEK TO WORK FOR PARAMOUNT PICTURES? ALL EXPENSES PAID. THE THREE HUNDRED IS PEANUTS. MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON'T LET THIS GET AROUND."

Hecht heeded the call not just because he needed money (he always did), or because he was coming off a crazed experience writing brochure material for a failed Florida land rush, but because journalism had trained him in the boisterous, sniping group activity of making a movie. He was always rather fearful of solitary concentration and "being an artist". But once in Hollywood, he was trapped, for he was good, and, above all, so quick at the game of scenario writing (and rewriting) that he fell into a lifestyle that demanded a steady flow of fanciful cheques.

He could do a dialogue and story: he could take someone else's screenplay and make it 20 per cent better by dinner-time. He could write a day or an hour ahead of the shooting process without losing his nerve. He could do anything - so long as it was done quickly, and with a superior tone of condescension towards the low racket. Of course, he was smart and self- lacerating enough to mock his own skill, the sums of money, and the general empty-headedness with which Hollywood functioned. It was a mercy that, with MacArthur, he managed to do the two plays that made them famous - The Front Page and Twentieth Century - before movies grabbed him for good. And so we have portraits of editor and his star reporter, and of a ham actor and his protege, that are biting pictures of the love and loathing that Hecht enjoyed in journalism and show business. Throw in Nothing Sacred - an exhilarated satire on advertising - and you have the best of Hecht.

All of these works are love stories done as running battles, lit up by the thought that competition and rivalry keep people together more securely than "love" itself. No wonder, in 1940, that Howard Hawks persuaded Hecht to let him do The Front Page for a man and a woman. The result, His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, is not just the funniest of American movies, but one of those most content with the constant battle of the sexes. But The Front Page had been filmed straight, in 1931, with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien.

By the mid-1930s, Hecht was a Hollywood pro. As well as the films he was credited on, he did some doctoring on Topaz, The Prisoner of Zenda and A Star is Born (all Selznick productions - for the two men were belligerent buddies, with Selznick loving Hecht's speed, while Hecht thought his literary tone was being dismissed.

Even then, there was another Hecht - a bolder, more artistic figure, as if to prove that guys like Selznick were nuts. In 1934, still with MacArthur, he persuaded Paramount to let him direct a movie, Crime Without Passion, about a lawyer (Claude Rains) who believes he has murdered his mistress and who tries to cover up the crime. It is a remarkable movie - a little stagy, rather pretentious maybe, but moody, innovative and a testimony to Hecht's "secret" soul. It began a series of odd films, outside the mainstream, a little like French movies made in America, not one a real success but not one that's flat-out dull: Once in a Blue Moon (1936); The Scoundrel (1936), with Noel Coward, based on the life of publisher Horace Liveright (Hecht had briefly thought of being a publisher himself); Soak the Rich (1936); Angels Over Broadway (1940); and Specter of the Rose (1946).

It speaks all the more of his neurosis that Hecht would make such films with one half of his mind, while using the other to do doctoring jobs for friends. Which brings us to Gone With the Wind and a week of strange all-night sittings, much clarified and romanced in the one narrative version that survives - by Hecht, of course. Early in 1939, after the years of preparation and prevarication, Gone With the Wind began shooting, with George Cukor as director. It broke down after 10 days, some said because Cukor's footage was too slow, too devoted to the female characters, and too indifferent to Clark Gable. But there was another problem: Selznick had commissioned a very effective script, from Sidney Howard, which he had gradually undermined and despoiled in two years of anxious rewriting. The script they had started shooting with was a mess, and the new director, Victor Fleming, had never even read Margaret Mitchell's book.

So David Selznick seized Hecht out of bed, and asked for a quick salvation job. Hecht's version of this (put in print and on sound tape in a Columbia University oral history) is hilarious, with Hecht as the weary wise man surrounded by fools. Hecht hadn't read the book, either; and there was no time for that if the script was to be saved. So he told Selznick to tell him the story - but he couldn't make head nor tail of it. Then Selznick and Fleming acted it out from the script they had. Hecht said it was gibberish. Everyone was going crazy. Until Hecht found the Sidney Howard script, looked at it quickly, and said, "You know, David, this is pretty good." So Hecht took Howard and, in a week, doctored the first half of the script - there was no time for more (a fact you may gauge in the finished film).

By now, there's no certainty over what happened - except that Gone With the Wind did resume, and did work, and Selznick said the recovery owed a lot to Hecht. Beyond that, the only lesson is that if you want to be a Hollywood hero, make sure you write the history.

After 1945, Hecht teamed up with Alfred Hitchcock: most critics and moviegoers nowadays would rate Notorious as one of the best-written movies, and Hecht did that on his own, defining one of the screen's most psychologically acute love triangles (like many in Hollywood, Hecht had fallen for psychoanalysis - but he was far better on characters than on himself). He was there, uncredited, on Duel in the Sun and Rope, too; on The Thing, Strangers on a Train, Angel Face and Roman Holiday. By the 1950s, he was bitter about his own skill, about his weakness for paydays and his poor standing in literary America.

But he had another cause: Israel, or Zionism. Near the end of the war, he had begun to take up the plan for a new Israeli state, and he became a leading fund-raiser in Hollywood, as well as a headstrong propagandist for the Irgun Israeli freedom fighters. In May 1947, he wrote an article that appeared in most leading American newspapers, a letter to the "terrorists of Palestine":

"Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British train sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your bombs and guns at the British betrayer and invader of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts ... "

Not every one. Some American Jews were horrified at Hecht's intemperate support of violence, Meyer Levin said that his pro-Israeli work was full of "attitudinising and self-deception". In truth, those traits had always been strong in Hecht; that's how he did gangster talk for Scarface, and how he deluded himself, year in and year out.

But in 1954, he came back with a triumph, A Child of the Century, his autobiography. It is a great story, unhindered by facts or proof. Yet it conveys the life and vitality of the man, his wit and his fun, his nerve and his mocking regard for 20th-century hype and humbug. In truth, if Hecht had just done that book, The Front Page and Nothing Sacred he might be established as a genius. But he did so much more, so we call him a hack.

! 'The Front Page': Donmar Warehouse, WC2 (0171 369 1732), previews from Wed, opens 15 Dec, to 28 Feb 1998.

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