Walter Mencken 2:08 p.m., Aug. 27
Homage to Ben Hecht
A name fewer and fewer people recognize, but he was probably responsible for at least one play or book or movie you will never forget.
San Diego paid Ben Hecht an overdue homage this month. Scripps Ranch Theatre staged Ron Hutchinson's farce Moonlight and Magnoilas - about the time Hecht, producer David O. Selznick, and new director to the project Victor Fleming improvised (and Hecht wrote) part one of Gone With the Wind in seven days (the playwright says five, to amp up the lunacy).
The La Jolla Playhouse is currently staging His Girl Friday, John Guare's adaptation of Hecht and Charles MacArthur's film version of their Broadway hit, The Front Page.
Hecht (1894-1964) was such a prolific writer no one has a clue about how much he actually accomplished. And he wrote fast: entire screenplays in two weeks (the one for The Unholy Garden in 12 hours, he boasted, though he had a reputation for elongating the truth a smidge).
Every screenwriter in Hollywood, says Selznick, "aspired to be Ben. The resourcefulness of his mind, his vitality, were so enormous. He could tear through things, and he tore through life. They'd see this prodigious output of Ben's and they'd think, 'Oh hell, I'm a bum.' I think it must have been devastating."
Selznick added, "it is also true that I have never seen anyone else bring to a job more thorough analysis, more willingness to rewrite, than he has."
He wrote 10 novels, several with fearless, pro-Zionist themes. Among the 70 movies that give him a credit: the original Scarface, His Girl Friday (with Charles MacArthur, based on their great pressroom comedy, The Front Page), Hitchcock's Notorious, plus Duel in the Sun, Twentieth Century, Wuthering Heights, and Mutiny on the Bounty.
They say Charlie Parker was such a genius, in part, was because he could improvise in many different keys. Hecht never met a genre - comedy (Monkey Business), drama (A Farewell to Arms), psychological mystery/thriller (Spellbound) - he couldn't master.
He won the first Academy Award for Original Screenplay - Underworld (1927) - this after he received a telegram from screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz urging him to come to Hollywood: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots."
Mankiewicz added, "don't let this get around."
Howard Hawks described Hecht's method (with frequent co-author MacArthur): "We'd sit in a room and work for two hours and then we'd play backgammon for an hour. Then we'd start again and one of us would be the character and one would be another. We'd read our lines of dialogue and the whole idea was to try to stump the other people, to see if they could think of something crazier than you could."
Hecht began as a newspaper reporter in Chicago, where he learned to compose un-blocked and capture the voices of the streets ("I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock," he writes in his autobiography, A Child of the Century, "learned not to sleep, and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me."
He hated typewriters. He propped a board on his lap and wrote on unlined paper - "with 75 to 100 pencils a week" - and rarely required revision.
Some say his autobiography has an apt title. "Ben was never comfortable in the adult world," said Helen Hayes, who was married to Charles MacArthur. "He spent his whole life trying to hang on to youth, its mindset, its wonderment, its carefree fizz."
Although Tennessee Williams credited Hecht with taking "the corsets off American theater," and though his works are carefully plotted with brilliant dialogue, many critics regard his improvisational approach, and the works it produced, as slipshod. One called him "the great hack genius."
Hecht replied in A Child of the Century: "I can understand the literary critic's shyness toward me. it is difficult to praise a novelist or a thinker who keeps popping up as the author of innumerable movie melodramas. It is like writing about the virtues of a preacher who keeps carelessly getting himself arrested in bordellos."
More like this:
- La Jolla Playhouse stages John Guare's tour de farce His Girl Friday — June 12, 2013
- Moonlight and Magnolias at Scripps Ranch Theatre — June 3, 2013
- Breaking Stories — Dec. 15, 2005
- Never Say Retreat — Jan. 25, 2001
- I'm Leaving Now, Mr. Selznick, and I'm Leaving for Good — Nov. 25, 1998