A rare bonafide superstar in the screenwriting world, Ben Hecht was, as film historians have asserted, the embodiment of Hollywood. His perserverance, sharp wit and cynicism was the stuff showbiz was made of and his enviable flair for plot and dialogue – just TRY to keep up with His Girl Friday (1940, dir. Howard Hawks) – made him one of the most successful writers of his time.
Born in 1893 in New York City, he and his family moved to Wisconsin when he was a child and in 1919 he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a reporter and war correspondent for the Daily Journal and later the Chicago Daily News. In 1921, he wrote his first novel, Erik Dorn, followed by his first full-length play, The Egotist, and in 1923, he started his own newspaper, the Chicago Literary Times. Around this time, he met Charles MacArthur, then also a reporter, and the two moved to New York where they wrote the hugely successful play The Front Page, later adapted several times, to both film and radio. In 1926, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz invited Hecht to go to Hollywood, which he did, and in 1927 he won the very first Oscar for Screenplay at the first Academy Awards, for Underworld (dir. Josef von Sternberg) and in 1935, he won his second one with The Scoundrel, which he also co-directed with Charles MacArthur. Throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, he wrote a number of screenplays, including Scarface (1932, dir. Howard Hawks), Design for Living (1933, dir. Ernst Lubitsch), Twentieth Century (1934, dir. Howard Hawks), adapted from his and MacArthur’s play, Nothing Sacred (1937, dir. William A. Wellman), Wuthering Heights (1939, dir. William Wyler), Gunga Din (1939, dir. George Stevens), His Girl Friday, Notorious (1946, dir. Alfred Hitchcock), Kiss of Death (1947. dir. Henry Hathaway), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, dir. Otto Preminger), among many others, some of them uncredited.
One of the greatest wits and most prolific storycrafters of the 20th Century, Ben Hecht died in 1964 at the age of 71. Nineteen years later, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.