Movies, Music and Memories
looks at Ben Hecht

David Novek continues the series with the legendary film scriptwriter

By Byron Toben

Legendary film publicist David Novek continued his five-part series on Movies, Music and Memories at the Cummings Centre on October 24 with an illustrated lecture on legendary film scriptwriter Ben Hecht.

Mr. Hecht was also a journalist, director, producer, novelist as well as a credited film scriptwriter of 62 movies. In addition, he was the unaccredited film script doctor improving or rewriting dozens of other famous movies. You may have perhaps heard of one of those… something called Gone With The Wind. That rewrite effort was made into a play entitled Moonlight and Magnolias, which was performed out at Lac Brome in July 2016, directed by Ellen David and including Howard Rosenstein in the cast. I was keen to see it but unable to secure transit out to Knowlton. Hopefully, it can be restaged here in the future.

However, its choice as Novek’s lead example triggered a revelation in my mind. A few years ago, I had written from memory, a Canadianized adaptation of a short story I had read over 40 years ago. It was about an effort to make a Hollywood bible epic which succeeded for the wrong reasons.

Ben Hecht during filming of The Goldwyn Follies -

Ben Hecht (first from left) during filming of The Goldwyn Follies – Image: IMDB

I could not for the life of me remember who had written the story and an Internet search revealed no clues. Dubbing it Jesus of Arizona I did sponsor a private reading of it, casting many of my theatre friends. Some suggested that it may have been from a Woody Allen story. I can see the connection, but was absolutely sure it was not him.

Suddenly, during Novek’s lecture, it came to me! OMG, it was Ben Hecht! I am now inspired to arrange for a formal presentation thereof.

Sorry to digress. Back to Ben.

Born In New York City in 1894, he moved with his parents to Racine, Wisconsin, where he attended high school, from which he graduated at 16.

Mr Hecht was also a journalist, director, producer, novelist as well as a credited film scriptwriter of 62 movies. In addition, he was the unaccredited film script doctor improving or rewriting dozens of other famous movies.

He then ran away to Chicago, where he became a reporter covering the seamy side of life for several newspapers and was sent to Berlin in 1920 to cover the aftermath of WW I. This resulted in the first of his eventually 35 novels, Eric Dorn.

His autobiography, Child of the Century, drew many accolades. He also wrote, with fellow reporter, Charles MacArthur, the famous stage play, The Front Page, later adapted to film, winning three Oscars.

The list of his film scripts is much too long to list here but involved dealing with many big stars and directors or producers. A random sampling of titles includes Underworld, Scarface, Twentieth Century, Viva Villa, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, Spellbound, Notorious, The Sun Also Rises, Mutiny On The Bounty and Casino Royale.

His script for the 1927 Underworld won the prize for best original screenplay at the First Academy Awards initiated in 1929.

The SS Ben Hecht -

The SS Ben Hecht – Image: Brigadier General Nir Maor, Immigration Museum and the Navy, Israel

Birth of Israel

In the late 1040s, Hecht, a fairly secular Jew, became immersed with the need, post-Holocaust, for the new state of Israel.

Besides writing a cantata We Will Never Die (with music by Kurt Weil), he organized a boat (dubbed the Ben Hecht) to carry survivors to the new state. Intercepted by British patrols, it prevented many from offloading. Anger at this led him to publicize support for violent activist groups such as Irgun and the Stern Gang.

Read a review about David Novek’s first presentation, in September, about Doris Day.
His second, on November 7, was about dancers Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, the top two legendary “hoofers”. Watch for that review soon.

His next 1:30 pm Thursday presentations are:
November 21: And Let’s Not Forget The Other Hoofers
December 5: Running With The Ratpack

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Feature image: IMDB

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Read more articles from Byron Toben

Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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