Book Review: A Lively Biography of Legendary Screenwriter Ben Hecht


Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures
Jewish Lives Series
Adina Hoffman
Yale University Press, 2019

Hollywood movies would have been very different without the brilliance of screenwriter Ben Hecht. He not only wrote enduring classics, but in the early days of the talkies gave shape to major film genres. In a new book, which is part of the extensive Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, Adina Hoffman explores the life of this volatile personality and devoted craftsman.

Hecht got his start as a newsman and the life experience he got from big city reporting would have a big influence on the street smart, lightning fast dialogue he would later pen for the movies. He gave the gangster genre prominence with early entries like Underworld (1927) and Scarface(1932), which drew heavily from reporting life. The same could be said of screwball comedy, which truly began to emerge after he adapted his stage play for Twentieth Century (1934).

There are so many other good films he wrote beyond these genre builders. It’s almost overwhelming to take into account all the classics that Hecht created, whether credited or behind the scenes. Among them: Nothing Sacred (1937), Gunga Din (1939), Wuthering Heights (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946).

Hecht was always a bit scornful of Hollywood, but was happy to draw large paychecks over many decades doing work that came easily to him. Hoffman reveals a man who may have been skeptical of his film work, but who approached screenwriting seriously, with a careful eye to what would delight an audience. Part of that life included his frequent writing partner and close friend Charles MacArthur, an underrated talent with much of the same inborn skill for lively dialogue.

The Hollywood stories are bookended with tales of Hecht’s raucous early life and his later devotion to projects that would promote his Jewish activism. That activism would be the source of controversy for years and eventually threaten his career, but with a talent that big, he found a way to keep working. It seems his life was never dull, with wives, lovers, hard drinking writer friends, and political and artistic drama to fill all the corners of his existence.

Hoffman’s writing is lively and wry, with a fidelity to revealing detail and great storytelling. It’s rare to see the personality and work of a biographical subject so expertly intertwined. As a result, the tone of the book is as acutely mischievous as Hecht himself.

I found this to be an especially entertaining and informative biography. It cuts right to the action and moves with crisp, invigorating efficiency through a remarkable life.

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