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Ben Hecht (last name pronounced Hekt; February 28, 1894 – April 18, 1964), was an American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, and novelist. Called “the Shakespeare of Hollywood”, he received screen credits, alone or in collaboration, for the stories or screenplays of some 70 films and as a prolific storyteller, authored 35 books and created some of the most entertaining screenplays or plays in America. According to film historian Richard Corliss, he was “the” Hollywood screenwriter, someone who “personified Hollywood itself.” The Dictionary of Literary Biography – American Screenwriters, calls him “one of the most successful screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.”
He was the first screenwriter to receive an Academy Award for Original Screenplay, for the movie Underworld (1927). The number of screenplays he wrote or worked on that are now considered classics is, according to Chicago’s Newberry Library, “astounding,” and included films such as, Scarface (1932), The Front Page, Twentieth Century (1934), Barbary Coast (1935), Stagecoach, Some Like It Hot, Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, (all 1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Monkey Business, A Farewell to Arms (1957), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and Casino Royale (posthumously, in 1967). In 1940, he wrote, produced, and directed, Angels Over Broadway, which was nominated for Best Screenplay. In total, six of his movie screenplays were nominated for Academy Awards, with two winning.
He became an active Zionist shortly before the Holocaust began in Germany, and as a result wrote articles and plays about the plight of Europe’s Jews, such as We Will Never Die in 1943 and A Flag is Born in 1946. Of his seventy to ninety screenplays, he wrote many anonymously to avoid the British boycott of his work in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The boycott was a response to Hecht’s active support of the Zionist movement in Palestine, during which time a supply ship to Palestine was named the S.S. Ben Hecht.
He could produce a screenplay in two weeks and, according to his autobiography, never spent more than eight weeks on a script. Yet he was still able to produce mostly rich, well-plotted, and witty screenplays. His scripts included virtually every movie genre: adventures, musicals, and impassioned romances. But ultimately, he was best known for two specific types of film: crime thrillers and screwball comedies. Despite his success, however, he disliked the effect that movies were having on the theater, American cultural standards, and on his own creativity.