vp19 (vp19) wrote in carole_and_co,

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National Screenwriters Day: He wrote for Carole, and so many others

Despite her uncharacteristically cropped hair (at least from that angle), that is indeed Carole Lombard on a date with writer Robert Riskin. (And he was coming off a relationship with Glenda Farrell, back in the days when screenwriters' salaries weren't dwarfed by actors'.)

Today marks the second annual National Screenwriters Day, and a year ago we saluted the actress and author Carrie Fisher, whose work fixing scripts received relatively little notice (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/856641.html). We've previously saluted Riskin, best known for his work with Frank Capra, though he also rewrote the Lombard film "Virtue" (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/8177.html), and Norman Krasna, writer of "Hands Across the Table" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/319553.html).

Now, to examine another writer, facile and talented, who excelled creating for stage and screen -- in fact, he wrote the screenplays for "Twentieth Century" and "Nothing Sacred" (above), two legitimate Lombard classics. His name? Ben Hecht, who film historian Richard Corliss has called "the Hollywood screenwriter... it can be said without too much exaggeration that Hecht personifies Hollywood itself." (The irony is that Hecht spent no more than three months a year on the West Coast, preferring to live in New York.

Another film historian, James Harvey ("Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges") said of "Nothing Sacred," "[Producer David O.] Selznick determined to make the classiest of all screwball comedies, turned to Lombard as a necessity, but also to Ben Hecht, nearly the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood at the time, especially for comedy. ...it also was the first screwball comedy to lay apparent claim to larger satiric meanings, to make scathing observations about American life and society."

(Incidentally, the film's comic relief portrayal of a Harlem bootblack who passes himself off as a sultan has led some to view Hecht as a racist. Not the case by any means -- he organized campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan, produced many stories about black-white relations in early 1920s Chicago and wrote the World War II documentary "The Negro Soldier" for Capra. He even collaborated with Louis Armstrong on his 1937 song salute to porters, "Red Cap.")

Born in 1894, Hecht became a newspaperman in the 1910s, working in Chicago before moving to his hometown in New York. In 1926, before talking pictures had been perfected, he received this now-famous telegram from Herman J. Mankiewicz, a new arrival in Hollywood: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." Hecht headed west, where he wrote scripts for a few late silents, including Josef von Sternberg's "Underworld" (1927), which won Hecht the first-ever Oscar for best original story.

By the early '30s, Hecht hit his stride with the newspaper drama "The Front Page" (1931) and the original "Scarface" (1932). Armed with talent and speed, Hecht was arguably the sound era's first "script doctor," rewriting many screenplays, often going uncredited. Some titles?

* "The Beast of the City" (1932)
* "Design for Living" and "Queen Christina" (1933)
* "Viva Villa!" (1934)
* "A Star Is Born" and "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1937)
* "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938)
* "Gunga Din," "Stagecoach," "Wuthering Heights" and "Gone With the Wind" (1939)
* "The Shop Around the Corner" (below), "Foreign Correspondent" and "Comrade X" (1940)

And he continued working until his death in 1964 (including uncredited work on the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor spectacle "Cleopatra"). After World War II, he became active in the Zionist movement -- so much so that from 1948 to 1952, the British film industry refused to shown any films Hecht had a hand in, due to his support of the Jewish insurgency in Palestine.

Hecht had an acerbic wit; how about this example? "Hollywood is to sex what the major leagues are to baseball. The glamorous Hollywood figures perform in a sort of World Series sex myth." If that's the case, Hecht wrote plenty of Hollywood home runs.

For more on this remarkable writer, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Hecht.

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