Ben Hecht: the craft of the ‘anonymous’ screenwriter

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Even a cursory examination of Ben Hecht suggests a whirlwind of energy. His output was one long unchecked literary rampage exhausted only by his mortality, and confined only to every possible form of scribbling then available: journalism, theatre, fiction, film, biography, autobiography, ghost writing, political polemic …

Some writers are ‘artists’. These are men and women of – alleged – integrity who like to make things last the course, and who can make assiduity look tawdry, and a carefully selected display of artistic ennui  like the natural prerogative of a refined mind. But if these writers represent the pure faith, Ben Hecht – and the art of writing he symbolises – was a whoring child of Babylon, sacrificing unrepentantly to false idols.

The seeds of his promiscuity were sown in 1920s Chicago where he worked as a newspaper journalist. Here he was a stray hack let loose on the streets, lapping up the city’s detritus, with a playful sense of professional opportunism. From here he morphed into playwright and novelist, then into screenwriter, then into political agitator, and so on. And while there maybe thematic continuity across these reinventions, the most striking continuity is the  act  of reinvention.

These different masks barely disguise a single fact: that he was purely and simply a nomadic pen for hire. Viewed in panorama his complete corpus of writing, which takes on sometimes stodgy proportions, looks homeless and, for all its diligence and energy, lacking in common purpose. Which is why his writing is most ‘in character’ where it requires no artistic integrity; in other words where he is – ironically for the gargantuan size of his personality – largely anonymous.

Considered in this way he looks most comfortable in the world of journalism and film. Both areas entailed a similar working environment, one to which he was clearly well-acclimatised. In both worlds he had placed his services in the hands of a proprietor with a clear editorial vision, crystallised by the market place. He worked, not to satisfy his own idiosyncratic vision as a writer, but to cultivate a confectionery view of things that would sell, or enhance the commercial value of the overarching product to which it belonged.

The natural ties between writing for the screen and writing for the front page (particularly in Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s) have been well chronicled. Studio bosses and supervising producers saw writing and screen doctoring as an investment in the same way they invested in their stars (the premium placed on both a reflection of the formula for success). In their relative naivety they cast their net wide, attracting literary celebrities from around the world (F Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, PG Wodehouse, Herman and Thomas Mann, William Faulkner to name but a few). In the same wide-reaching motion they trawled in a gaggle of slightly less exalted journalists.

Most of the bright lights of modern literature were too ‘free spirited’ to successfully embrace the new rhetoric. But the journalists quickly realised the potential. As Herman J Mankiewicz (of  Citizen Kanefame, and another ex Chicago newspaperman) famously wrote to Hecht ‘Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.’ Naturally they both made a killing, and at the height of his powers Hecht became the highest paid screenwriter employed by the studios.

The reasons why the journalists were disproportionately successful are not exactly mysterious. They were schooled in a discipline that operated inside a tightly controlled and periodically reviewed contract. They were undaunted by collaboration, creative compromise, and dense layers of literary palimpsest. The production supervisors would very often have mutually unaware groups of writers working on the same scenes from a film. Hecht’s reputation as a screenwriter, similarly, came as much from his ability to doctor scripts as his ability to produce an original screenplay. Most notably he re-wrote much of the unassembled raw dialogue for  Gone with the Wind  in three days without having read the novel.

The two worlds were also purblind to any shame in re-using a successful idea repeatedly, which can at times look like cynical exhaustion with the world. One of the most obvious examples is Anita Loos’ re-use of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which, as an idea, effectively became her career and spanned the evolution of modern cinema. Hecht took similar advantage of his and Charles MacArthur’s hit stage play  The Front Page. This was re-made for film recurrently from his earliest entanglements with motion pictures in the 1930s to the smash-hit success of  His Girl Friday, and then again posthumously by Billy Wilder.

This practice of writing, of which Hecht was the pastmaster, can look shallow, unscrupulous, and without anything much to admire. Hecht was, of course, aware of this and playfully acknowledges and celebrates it.  His Girl Friday  affectionately caricatures journalistic sensationalism and its lack of principles, and pokes fun at all po-faced moral evangelists.

Turned on its head, however, Hecht might look, if not more noble, then a little less disreputable. The machinery of the Hollywood studio did not put the writer at the centre of the creative process because it did not put anyone at the centre of the creative process. Films were assembled under the coordinating supervision of a producer, who chopped and changed directors, scripts, writers, and then tested and re-shot the end product. With the advent of the Hays Office and the first formalised code of censorship, the parameters became even more defined.

These techniques meant that writing was a skill subordinate   to the mechanics of the industry. The writers were not mannered  artistes, but closer to craftsmen in a medieval guild motivated by a shared purpose ‘beyond’ their own sensibilities. Considered in this way a studio – despite the flaring egos that lit up the streets of each lot – can look like a collective act of prostration.

The main innovation of the studio – accredited in large part to Irving Thalberg – was to move creative control out of the hands of directors into the hands of producers (a conflict played out for real in the 1920s through Thalberg’s numerous stand-offs with Erich von Stroheim). But the logic of the system did not place final say in the hands of the producer, even if producers such as Thalberg and Darryl F Zanuck became Hollywood royalty in their own right, ruling over not inconsiderable empires.

The final authority was found in a mysterious groping about in the dark for material that kept bums glued to the seats of the chain of theatres over the which the studios then exercised sprawling monopolies. Deference to this authority forced the industry to adopt a formal approach to making films, but pushed invention and creativity within these constraints. In the Hollywood of the 1930s to the 1950s quality writing – and inventive writing – was an integral part of the formality.

At the time Hecht was writing, special effects, stunts, action sequences, and car chases were, at best, underwhelming. It was certainly impossible for a film-maker to make them as fundamental to the film as the actors and the narrative. This meant that directors and producers had to work and re-work their scripts and stars to get the most out of them. Carefully considered words were crucial to success, and it is no accident that the high-grossing ‘star vehicles’ were very often based on the   literature and theatre of the day.

The powers that were may have very often   ’uplifted’ these works, or brought the moral delineations   into sharper focus. If there were no part for a star, one would be created; if the audience couldn’t see the consequences of morally suspect behaviour, the narrative would be refined; if Louis B Mayer couldn’t, in all conscience, show it to his daughters, then it needed censoring.

The end of a Thomas Hardy novel on first screening may have demanded an immediate re-write, but the stories spearheaded by glamour girls and their barrel-chested male leads, had literary pretensions, however cheapened and prostituted. This strange fusion of ‘exalted’ literature retold in a populist idiom is what makes the classics of the period so special, as though the otherwise esoteric language of the gods became incarnate in an all-too-human world of fake Palladian mansions, histrionic gestures, and measurable rhythms of dialogue and wit.

Hecht is among the more pre-eminent writers who translated this world of literature into a digestible form, full of foible and glitz. He encapsulates an approach of saying the un-sayable, depicting the invisible  through  the visible because he was a prodigiously literate professional whose loyalty was to his  craft  rather than any personal artistic vision.

But as soon as cinema, with the advent of – not unimpressive – new technologies and techniques, evolved other quicker, more sensational and more populist means to financial success, time and eternity, mortality and immortality, returned to their separate realms. Where popular culture and the hermetic privileges of so-called ‘art’ had briefly danced cheek to cheek, they went their separate ways.

So much so that to the modern mind ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ are two discrete categories, two separate columns on a carefully monitored balance sheet. This – quintessentially contemporary – neat classification  provides an easy way to make judgements, in which the style of writing fostered by Hecht and his band of quilled companions   might – ironically given his average word count – be seen as the ancestor to high-grossing blockbusters light on dialogue and scenario. Today, the stories of films (rather than the many other aspects of modern film-making) in the former category are of minority interest, and those in the latter are  evangelically  commercial, snaked tenuously around the shoulders of spectacle and visual invention.

But to read these categories backwards into the history of Hollywood is anachronistic. To the ‘golden’ mind ‘literary’ was the poetic patriarch of ‘commercial’. This makes Ben Hecht a sort of corrupt prophet, or a jukebox spewing out the cinematic equivalent to syncopated Jazz.

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