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).
Before Hollywood Hecht had been a Serious Author who wrote novels meant to be decadent on the European pattern, and before that he had been a newspaperman. His reporter’s cynicism was equal to Mencken’s, and all in all 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.
Movies are all about storylines. What are Hecht’s own storylines? I can find five — three of them movie cliches, two of them not.
1. Immigrants come to the US, struggle, do pretty well, and their American-born son fights his way to the top. Hecht’s is in the Jewish category of this story, with parents in the garment trade and so on.
2. Young guy goes to the big city to make his fortune, the boss likes his looks, he has tough mentors but proves himself, and he fights his way to the top in a dirty business. (Can be merged with #1 or run freestanding).
3. Tough, cynical writer sells out, goes to Hollywood, big success, living large, wild and crazy, easy come, easy go. But in his heart he doesn’t feel good about it.(Combined with one or both of the others or run freestanding).
4. Chicago (and the whole Midwest) used to be the armpit of the universe and a cultural desert, but suddenly it’s a literary center. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, The Little Review, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, young Ernest Hemingway, young Kenneth Rexroth. (Not yet a movie cliche.)
5. Ten or twenty years late, American bumpkins decide they want be decadent: Ben Hecht, James Gibbons Huneker, James Branch Cabell . They publish novels no one reads, with H. L. Mencken cheering them on, and then mostly go on to other things. (Not yet a movie cliche).
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).
William MacAdams, Ben Hecht: A Biography, Barricade Books reprint, 1990.