In his early twenties, Hecht married a fellow-reporter, Marie Armstrong, but within a few years took up with the writer and actress Rose Caylor, moving back and forth between the two women, which led each to write a book denouncing the other. Barrel-chested, fumy from cigars, a non-stop talker, Hecht was nevertheless some sort of prize. By the age of thirty, he had exhausted Chicago journalism. In 1924, he and Caylor, soon to be married, moved to New York, where they lived happily, if well beyond their means. Hecht set up a playwriting partnership with Charles MacArthur, another escapee from Chicago’s newspapers, and, for a while, joined the journalistic and theatrical wits of the Algonquin Round Table, some of them contributors to the fledgling New Yorker. He parted with them, he says, as an act of self-preservation. He was a writer still in search of a medium.
In late 1926, broke and lying in bed reading “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” he received what Hoffman describes as “the most legendary telegram in American movie history.” The message was from his friend Herman Mankiewicz, the future writer of “Citizen Kane” and another member, briefly, of the Algonquin group, who had moved to Hollywood earlier that year and was lonely for New York company:
WILL YOU ACCEPT THREE HUNDRED PER WEEK TO WORK FOR PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL EXPENSES PAID. THE THREE HUNDRED IS PEANUTS. MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON’T LET THIS GET AROUND.
When Hecht arrived in Hollywood, Mankiewicz laid down some rules of composition: “The hero, as well as the heroine, has to be a virgin. The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end.” Not all of this was true. No one would have mistaken the silent-film vamp Theda Bara for a virgin; tough, sexually aggressive women flourished in the talkies until the Production Code took hold, in 1934. But Hecht’s response is significant. He decided to “skip the heroes and heroines, to write a movie containing only villains and bawds,” as he recalls in his memoir. “I would not have to tell any lies then.”
His first script was for Josef von Sternberg’s silent gangster movie “Underworld” (1927), which Hecht claimed to have based on tales he was told by a Chicago stoolie he met by chance in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He worked on the scenario for a week, creating two gangsters—one thuggish, one swank—and a flapper attracted to both, and von Sternberg turned the story into a darkly brooding composition of shadows and fleeting figures. Hecht, whose grasp of the visual nature of movies was never strong, dismissed von Sternberg’s distinctive directorial touches as “sentimental.” To his astonishment, the story of “Underworld” brought him an Academy Award. He initially refused the statue, and then promised to use it as a doorstop.
Howard Hawks’s “Scarface” (1932) has a different kind of poetry—the pell-mell fury of ceaseless gang war, with square-backed cars racing down dark, shiny streets, tommy guns blazing out of their open windows. Hecht knew from his reporting days that audiences loved flamboyant people who broke all the rules and then paid dearly for it, so he created, for Hawks, a story about the rise and fall of an unlettered thug, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), who whistles a tune from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” when killing his enemies. Tony commits violence so suddenly that he takes your breath away; he dies under an electric billboard that says “THE WORLD IS YOURS.”
The brutal and sardonic “Scarface” has served as the inspiration for many gangster movies, including, of course, Brian De Palma’s scabrous remake, from 1983, in which the same mocking epitaph shows up in lights borne aloft by a blimp. The pace of De Palma’s version, which stars Al Pacino as a Cuban-born drug dealer, is slow, the atmosphere either languorous or chainsaw-red violent. Hawks moved swiftly, and with malicious wit; so did Martin Scorsese, in another celebrated descendant, “Goodfellas” (1990), a gangster movie in the mode of vicious comedy, featuring the same kind of abrupt savagery as the Hawks film. In “The Departed,” from 2006, Scorsese saluted the old movie yet again, putting the same passage from “Lucia” on the soundtrack.
“Scarface” came out a year after the first movie adaptation of “The Front Page,” a satirical Broadway farce that Hecht and MacArthur had concocted in 1928. This hard-charging comedy—Tennessee Williams, Kenneth Tynan, and Tom Stoppard all viewed it as a milestone—is set in a courthouse pressroom, where a heartless group of reporters sit around waiting for an anarchist schnook to be hanged. The men are like tangled electric wires, sparking one another into insult, retort, slander; they talk over and through one another, shouting at city-desk anchorites on the other end of the phone line. (“Listen, Duffy—I want you to tear out the whole front page. . . . To hell with the Chinese earthquake!”) The plot is a tempestuous male love story: the star reporter, a fellow named Hildy Johnson, wants to decamp for marriage and respectability, and his unscrupulous editor, Walter Burns, does everything he can to keep him on the paper. The material works best in the hetero movie version that Hawks directed in 1940, “His Girl Friday,” in which Cary Grant plays Walter Burns as a brilliant heel, while Rosalind Russell, in a striped suit, is Hildy, Walter’s ex-wife and the best reporter in town. Much of the Hecht-MacArthur language remains intact—we hear the relentless rhythm that Neil Simon picked up for “The Odd Couple” and many other comedies, all much softer than this one, along with the wised-up and dressed-down style of verbal combat that Aaron Sorkin came to specialize in.
What Hecht and MacArthur created became one of the prime archetypes in the movies of the thirties and after—the newspaperman as hero, a man without illusions, contemptuous of society and authority. Clark Gable played the role to the hilt in “It Happened One Night”; Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Fredric March, and many other actors also played cocky reporters, while Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn, as well as Rosalind Russell, did the intrepid female versions. By the forties, violence and sexuality had been added to the plot, producing a new figure, the private eye, lonely but potent, intimate with criminal ways. Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe is an insolent free man.
Hecht sensed that the growing urban audience of the Depression wanted the fast life; it wanted high-octane banter and sex as warfare. In another Hawks-Hecht collaboration, “Twentieth Century” (1934), the warfare passed into sophisticated slapstick: John Barrymore’s egotistical theatre producer roars at Carole Lombard’s actress, and she fights back with insults and ridicule. “Twentieth Century” was one of the movies that set the template for a new genre, the screwball romantic comedy, with its sparring lovers issuing taunts and epigrams—verbal mayhem that brushed aside the sentimental tone of conventional entertainment. The picture makes fun of religious fanatics; “Nothing Sacred,” the hit comedy that Hecht wrote for the director William Wellman in 1937, spoofs the monosyllabic folk in a small Vermont town, and then turns on the verbose, self-admiring swells in New York. Again, a newspaper setting: a star reporter, Wally Cook, and an editor, Oliver Stone, both hungry for sensational copy, convince themselves that a beautiful young woman is dying of radium poisoning; they foist this swindle onto their tearful and fascinated readers. When the truth comes out (the girl is perfectly healthy), the editor wails and the reporter rails:
Oliver: It’ll be worse than the French Revolution!
Wally: I hope I’m here when it breaks. I’m gonna make one speech to our dear readers before they carry our heads off on a pike. I want to tell them that we’ve been their benefactors. We gave ’em a chance to pretend that their phony hearts were dripping with the milk of human kindness.
The satire is all-encompassing: journalists and their readers get scuffed, and so do hostile little children and high-principled women who refuse to admit that they’ve been taken in. “Nothing Sacred” is Hecht’s Sinclair Lewis novel on film.