Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Child of the Century (1954), Ben Hecht.

"I intend to write an autobiography of my mind," is how Hecht begins his massive, 600+ page autobiography.  As though stunned by this concept, and hoping to avoid the readers' expectations of an autobiographer to "be a chronologically-minded fellow, to get himself born, baptized and surrounded by relatives in orderly sequence," Hecht immediately spins off in all directions, devoting small chunks of writing to such thoughts about the inspirational qualities of the Pacific Ocean and whether there is a God.

I had sought out this book because Hecht is the writer of so many wonderful films, starting with the first gangster film Underworld and ending with His Girl Friday.  Hecht is true to his word; this is not a book pitched to movie lovers.  Despite his long involvement writing for movies, he leaves the discussion of his scriptwriting career to the penultimate section of the book, and starts it by declaring that "the movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century."  The clash between Hollywood's hyper sexualized society and hypocritically moralistic strictures for its films were repugnant to Hecht.  His close friend Herman Mankiewicz, who got him into Hollywood in the first place, summarized the Production Code for him this way: "in a novel a hero can lay ten girls and marry a virgin for a finish.  In a movie this is not allowed...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."  After a moment of contemplation, Hecht decided: "The thing to do was to skip the heroes and heroines, to write a movie containing only villains and bawds.  I would not have to tell any lies."

His remarkable career began as a sixteen year old gofer for the Chicago Daily News;  next desk over was  Carl Sandburg.  It seems that as well as hiring contemplative lefty poets, early journalism practices included just making stories up, like the one about runaway streetcars (which appeared on the front page)!  When the complaints rolled in, Hecht's superior simply huffed back at the streetcar people: "Your organization, sir, is already in sufficiently bad odor with its grafted franchises and boodle politics.  I advise you not to add to your crimes that of libel against the press.  And in conclusion I can tell you, I would rather take the word of any of my reporters than the sworn testimony of all the millionaires of Chicago."  Hecht's newspaper days were a strange education for a wild teenager.  Hecht migrated to New York and eventually to Hollywood.  Never a particularly religious man, Hecht later became a strong Zionist later in life and devoted much of his time promoting postwar Jewish interests.  While I found the book weighed down by dross here and there (he tends to rely on aphorisms and make pronouncements), Hecht certainly can write and A Child of the Century is a vivid portrayal of life in the very exciting first half the twentieth century.  I was glad he loved John Barrymore so much; Twentieth Century fit the world-weary boozehound perfectly.  

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