What qualities make a great screenwriter? Starting tonight, the UCLA Film and Television Archive will offer some of the best evidence available: a nine-week retrospective of the films of scenarist Ben Hecht.
The retrospective includes 59 films--all written, co-written or directed by Hecht. The screenings will take place Thursday evenings, beginning today, at 5:30 p.m., and alternate Sundays, beginning Oct. 11, until Dec. 3.
Thirty-seven years of Hecht's career are covered, bounded by the 1927 "Underworld" (shown as part of tonight's triple-feature) and the 1964 "Circus World" (on Nov. 22)--an unintentionally ironic juxtaposition at which Hecht might have smiled.
Hecht was once described by Jean-Luc Godard as the cinema's strongest screenwriter. Pauline Kael suggested that he wrote about half of Hollywood's most entertaining movies. And, though Hecht won Oscars on only two occasions--for original stories for "Underworld" and "The Scoundrel" (Oct. 8)--his colleagues have always been prodigal in both their praise of, and borrowings from, his work.
Hecht's specialties were salty dialogue, whiplash pace, clockwork construction and an invariably urbane viewpoint. Yet, though he was always considered a prodigy, his attitudes sometimes suggested a highly priced cynic. He professed to write only for money, held the studios in contempt and was so staggeringly proficient that his average working time for a complete script--start to finish--was two weeks.
As a young man, he was both a crack reporter and a literary aesthete and experimentalist--with a taste for the 19th-Century French decadents. That dichotomy--cynic and aesthete, hack and genius--gives Hecht's scripts their special savor. It was, finally, in 1928, with a play that both celebrated and debunked all the myths of popular journalism, that Hecht gained his first major fame. He co-wrote, with Charles MacArthur, that great, roaring, much-filmed newspaper comedy "The Front Page" (also shown tonight).
Howard Hawks insisted that "The Front Page" had the best modern comedy dialogue ever written; largely because of it, Hecht--with MacArthur or without--was sought out by the best directors, most frequently Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. And, while writing or co-writing more than 70 of his own scripts--including such classics (all on UCLA's series), as "Scarface" (tonight), "20th Century," "Design for Living," "Barbary Coast" "Nothing Sacred" "Gunga Din" "Wuthering Heights," "Spellbound," "Notorious," "Kiss of Death" "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and the 1952 "Monkey Business," his anonymous contributions rescued many a screenplay credited to others. The most memorable, according to numerous sources: "Gone With the Wind."
Hecht also directed or co-directed seven films; all included in the retrospective. Sometimes dismissed as overly literary, these films stand up well today. Two are unsung gems. The lacerating 1934 melodrama, "Crime Without Passion" (Oct. 8) shows us the harrowing comeuppance of an egomaniacal defense attorney (Claude Rains), in a style that almost suggests Fritz Lang directing a team of Noel Coward and Dostoevsky. The mad, hilarious "Woman of Sin"--from the 1952 omnibus film "Actors and Sin" (Dec. 3)--gives us the dilemma of a fatuous studio h1700881452tantrum-tossing 10-year-old girl (played by Hecht's daughter, Jenny.)
Perhaps the ultimate Hollywood satire--with a brilliant lead performance as the tot's conniving agent by Eddie Albert--"Woman of Sin" has only one hitch for modern audiences. Jenny's second544433010instantly revealed her as a child--is a swashbuckler, with a hero who annihilates hundreds of foes single-handedly. Today, that premise sounds ripe for the next Stallone or Schwarzenegger.
Though he disparaged the movies, it's as a writer of them that Ben Hecht will be longest remembered. He may have shot off his screenplays with the furious skill of a man feigning noninvolvement, he may have despised what the system did to his work--but he was the kind of writer without whom the movies could never have attained their loftiest peaks. Information: (213) 825-2345.