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Watch enough Old Hollywood movies and read enough stories about that era and sooner or later you'll come across the name Ben Hecht. He was a screenwriter, as well as a playwright and novelist, among the other hats he wore, whose career covered almost the entire studio era and a little bit of the silent era as well. He was one of the first Academy Award winners, and would gather five more nominations and another win before his career was through. And although his name wasn't always in the screen credits, he had a hand in writing some of the greatest films of all time, including the original Scarface, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din, His Girl Friday, Spellbound, Notorious, and many more, often in rapid fashion.
Born in New York in 1894, he ran away to Chicago at 16 where he became a reporter, during a period when the competition in this field was intense. In 1926, he moved to Hollywood at the invitation of screenwriter and friend Herman J. Mankiewicz, lured by the promise of easy money. His first credited screenplay, the 1927 gangster picture Underworld, went on to win the first "technical" original screenplay Oscar in 1929. The exact category was Best Writing, Original Story, and Hecht was the sole recipient, though the adaptation was credited on-screen to Charles Furthman and Robert N. Lee.
From there, he went on to split his time between Hollywood and New York, writing original scripts and doctoring others, alone or in collaboration with others, such as his longtime partner Charles MacArthur, while continuing to write plays and books. Hecht saw writing movies as simply a way to pay the bills, in part because he resented working under Hollywood's production code, which limited what movies could explicitly say and do. Throughout his life, Hecht was also a civil rights supporter and a pro-Israel activist who worked tirelessly to save Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. In 1969, five years after Hecht's death, Norman Jewison made a movie inspired by Hecht's early days in Chicago called Gaily, Gaily, starring Beau Bridges.
Journalism was a common theme throughout Hecht's work, and his comedy Nothing Sacred, like his famous play The Front Page (which was made and re-made into movies several times), takes a cockeyed look at the industry and the scruples, or lack of same, which guide its progress. Carole Lombard, stunningly beautiful in Technicolor, plays a small-town New England girl mistakenly believed to be dying of radium poisoning by big city reporter Fredric March, who tries to make her a cause celebre in order to save his own career, unaware of the fact that she's actually not in danger of premature death.
Hecht has the sole on-screen credit for the screenplay, "suggested by a story by" one James H. Street, but a number of others did uncredited polishing on the script and the original treatment, including uber-producer David O. Selznick, director William Wellman, Budd Schulberg, Moss Hart and Ring Lardner Jr., among others.
Sacred spares no expense to skewer newspaper reporters and their morals. March's character is the type who never let facts get in the way of a good story, and as a result his editor (named Oliver Stone! Speaking of people who have been known to exaggerate the truth) puts him in the doghouse. He's just as eager to exploit her as everyone else in New York, however, once March breaks the Lombard story - which leads, naturally, to March having a change of heart over the whole thing because he's fallen in love with her.
The means by which Lombard is feted are hilarious. One example: March and Lombard go to a nightclub that salutes her in a presentation in which extravagantly costumed showgirls depicted, more or less, as famous women throughout history parade on stage... on horseback.
Sacred is a lot of fun, and Hecht, who bounced back and forth throughout a variety of genres throughout his film career, has rarely been better - and though he had no love for the medium ("I concede the movies alone did not undo the American mind. A number of forces worked away at that project. But always, well up in front and never faltering at their frowzy task, were the movies."), he provided it with some of its greatest memories.
|Ultra-coolness! The opening credits featured |
cartoonish mannequins of Lombard and March, along with
co-stars Charles Winninger and Walter Connolly.
Click image to enlarge.