Picks and Pans Review: Ben Hecht: a Biography

updated 04/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by William MacAdams

In the first half of this century, Ben Hecht was one of America's best known novelists, journalists, playwrights and film writers. Today, Hecht, who died in 1964 at age 70, is remembered—barely—for co-writing with Charles MacArthur that matchless comedy about fast-talking, hard-boiled reporters, The Front Page, and for either writing or polishing screenplays for such films as Scarface (the 1930 version), Notorious and Gone with the Wind.

This disappointing new biography of Hecht will do little to revive his fame or reputation. MacAdams, a magazine writer, has included all the obligatory facts and anecdotes, but Hecht, one of the most colorful characters ever to close a saloon, never really comes alive, and the supporting cast, including Hecht's put-upon wives, Marie and Rose, are sketched in only cursorily. As a man, Hecht was swaggering and promiscuous. As a writer, he was prolific and magniloquent. His novels seem dated today, while the plays and screenplays hold up better. With just a touch of overstatement, MacAdams writes that Hecht was "the most influential writer in the history of American movies, creating a new and exciting language for the screen at the same time that such writers as Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway were busy revitalizing the novel."

What holds up best, however, are the larger-than-life Hecht stories, stories Hecht himself happily expanded upon in interviews and in his own 1954 autobiographical volume, A Child of the Century.

For example, after running into producer Sam Goldwyn in New York, Hecht and MacArthur sold him on a movie idea. When the two writers arrived in Los Angeles, they couldn't remember what it was they'd cooked up for Goldwyn back in New York, so they made up an entirely new story. It turned out to be The Unholy Garden with Ronald Colman and Fay Wray, which Hecht called "one of the worst flops ever turned out by a studio." Another time, Hecht was assigned a newspaper story about a woman who claimed she was raped in a canoe. Hecht wrote that it was impossible to be raped in a canoe, but that "canoe-lingus" was possible. The story, which Hecht had typed up only to amuse his editor, was printed and he had to pay the woman $7,500 in damages.

MacAdams diligently sorts out the fact from the hyperbole, but given Hecht's enormous productivity, too much of this book reads like "And then he wrote...." In managing to jam in the names and dates of the 100-plus screenplays Hecht either wrote himself or contributed to, MacAdams loses sight of the man. (Scribner's, $22.50)

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