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Born on this day 125 years ago, Ben Hecht is one of American history’s most complicated and compelling figures. Here’s what you need to know to become familiar with the prolific screenwriter and activist.

 


 

Hecht is one of the most prolific screenwriters in history.

 

In 1967 The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael credited Hecht with writing half of the entertaining movies that Hollywood had ever produced. To this date, he has sixty-five screen credits and more than 140 other film contributions. Some of the most iconic films on his resume include Scarface (1932), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946).

Due to his abilities to quickly and effectively produce excellent work, Hecht was the writer that studios looked to when they were in a jam. He was known to do many of these jobs under the table and with no credit, making it difficult to understand the comprehensive impact that Hecht had on Hollywood. 

 

Hecht started his career as a crime reporter in Chicago.

 

“He was certainly influenced by the hard-boiled attitude of other newshounds in his early days chasing stories” notes Julien Gorbach, author of The Notorious Ben Hecht, “Like many others who lived through the carnage of those years, Hecht developed a grim view of human nature and he looked back at the liberal Enlightenment-era optimism about mankind as naive.”

 

Hecht is viewed by many as the inventor of the gangster movie genre.

 

Hecht was very intrigued by gangsters. His 1927 movie Underworld launched the gangster movie craze, and by the time his legendary thriller Scarface (1932) was released, he was the king of the genre.

In many of these stories, especially Scarface, Hecht’s affinity for these gangsters showed up in his writing. Gorbach notes that the censors at the time were wary of the way it could make people feel about these unlawful figures.

“Hecht creates this horrifying figure and makes him sexy to us. If you see the remake with Al Pacino, it really hits home the way we can be fascinated by someone who is bad, repulsive or even evil. We like him anyway. The movie studios, on the other hand, wanted a “crime does not pay” message to pass to the censors.”

 

Ben Hecht won the first ever Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story.

 

Hecht won this award, now referred to as Best Original Screenplay, for the 1927 movie Underworld, and went on to win the same award for the 1935 film The Scoundrel, which he shared with Charles MacArthur.

Hecht also received nominations for Viva Villa! (1934), Wuthering Heights (1939), Angels Over Broadway (1940), and Notorious (1946).

 

Later in his career, Hecht’s activism became the central part of his life.

 

As Kristallnacht erupted in 1938 Nazi-controlled Germany, Hecht wrote a short story titled The Little Candle, which turned out to be a horrifyingly prescient account of the horrors that would follow in the years to come.

Hecht wrote late in his career that he “turned into a Jew” in 1939. The Holocaust and the rise of Adolf Hitler prompted Hecht to action. He called out his Jewish movie studio bosses for not fighting the American censorship and for their keeping criticism of the Nazis off-screen in the 1930s. He also launched a massive publicity campaign, including newspaper campaigns and theatrical spectaculars, to bring awareness to the horrors being committed overseas. He viewed the Roosevelt administration as complicit in the horrors of the Holocaust and leveraged his talent and celebrity connections to build pressure on the US government.

Hecht did not care if this would hurt his career as a screenwriter or if it would affect his image. He earned admiration as a humanitarian and vilification as an extremist. He became notorious.

 


 

The information in this post has come from The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist (March 15. 2019, Purdue University Press) and an interview with the book’s author, Julien Gorbach.