- On Hoffman's Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures
Adina Hoffman's new biography, Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, paints the self-proclaimed "child of the century" as a complex and contradictory Jewish American man whose six-decade writing career brought him simultaneous success and controversy. Hecht was among classical Hollywood cinema's best-known and most sought-after screenwriters, but as Hoffman contends, his "name has [today] slipped from common memory" (4). He won two Academy Awards for penning the lesser-known gems Underworld (1927) and The Scoundrel (1935), one of four films he co-wrote and co-directed with frequent collaborator Charles MacArthur. However, Hecht's fame rests primarily on having scripted some of the most admired films from legendary directors Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, and William Wyler, as well as the influential screwball comedy The Front Page (1931). Originally co-written with MacArthur for the Broadway stage in 1928, The Front Page was subsequently remade three times, most famously by Hawks as His Girl Friday (1940). The stylized realism that Hecht brought to the fast-talking, cynical banter between tabloid reporters Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson in this precode Hollywood classic enriched the vernacular of the early sound era. [End Page 122]
In her succinct entry in Yale University Press's Jewish Lives series, Hoffman divides Hecht's raucous life and multifaceted career into ten chapters, flanked by a prologue and epilogue. The biography begins with a strong preface that convincingly argues how Hecht has remained largely in the shadows of the film directors with whom he collaborated—particularly Hawks and Hitchcock—due to lingering tendencies of film scholars and cinephiles to exalt the director as preeminent auteur (6). This is followed by a series of engaging and well-written chapters that chronologically move through the various phases of his career with generally equal weight given to his tenures as a journalist, literary author/dramatist, screenwriter, and political activist.
Readers invested in Jewish issues will be pleased to see that a continuing thread throughout the biography is Hecht's evolving sense of his religious/ ethnic identity. The author takes some level of exception to Hecht's declaration that he "became a Jew in 1939" because of the dark developments in Europe, only then starting to "look on the world with Jewish eyes" (3). Although Hoffman contends that an increased level of political activism about Jewish concerns arose during the war years—largely due to the influence of his second wife, writer Rose Caylor, and his involvement with Zionist activist Peter H. Bergson and the political organization Irgun—she argues that Jewish cultural attitudes shaped a significant portion of Hecht's life and work. Moreover, as Hecht began to foreground his Jewish identity during World War II, Hoffman insists that his outspoken, radical views did not always endear him to his Jewish American contemporaries. He was especially resented for "his accusations of gross wartime dereliction by America's most powerful Jews—and by the sainted FDR himself " (7) for not doing more as news was beginning to emerge about the Holocaust.
The chapters begin by tracing Hecht's journey from his birth in 1893 to the garment districts of Manhattan's Lower East Side to his subsequent rise to prominence as a newspaperman at the Chicago Daily News, with the widely read column "One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago" in the 1910s and 1920s. Chapter 2's coverage of Hecht's formative years in Chicago is among the most fascinating in the book, particularly for how he moved effortlessly between the newsroom and literary salons, where he formed friendships with authors Maxwell Bodenheim and Sherwood Anderson—the latter serving as the inspiration for fictional novelist Warren Lockwood in Hecht's 1921 debut novel Erik Dorn. During this time, Hecht found an early champion in editor [End Page 123] Margaret Anderson, who published his literary work in her esteemed magazine the Little Review alongside pieces by James Joyce and Ezra Pound. In terms of his development as a writer, this...