March 2014


I’ve been reading about Ben Hecht recently. He’s almost forgotten, but he scripted some great movies (Scarface, Front Page, Barbary Coast, Wuthering Heights, Monkey Business) and, because he was a complete master of Hollywood cliches, script-doctored a lot more (Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, His Girl Friday, Roman Holiday, Angels with Dirty Faces). Hecht started out as a Serious Author who wrote novels which tried to be decadent on the European pattern. He also was a newspaperman and his reporter’s cynicism was equal to Mencken’s. In general he thought that film was a debased, stupid medium. And that’s why he was so great! When he finally decided to switch teams and prostitute himself, his sharp awareness of the trite, cliche-ridden crappiness of film meant that he already knew the business. A sharp mind + cynicism + decadence + a complete contempt for the mass + a mercenary attitude = a genius awareness of what is commercially viable. Hecht was not the only decadent in Hollywood, of course. Mercenary European decadents flocked to Hollywood by the boatload. Hollywood’s sophisticated, decadent mixture of puritanism and prurience, with happy endings often tacked on to the end, is one of the wonders of world culture.

 

Ben Hecht, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, Bibliobazaar, 2006 (1923).

Ben Hecht, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, Google Books.

Ben Hecht, Fantazius Mallare, Frugoli and Taylor, 2001 (1922).

Ben Hecht, Fantazius Mallare, Google Books.

William MacAdams, Ben Hecht: A Biography, Barricade Books reprint, 1990.

 

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