Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Ben Hecht

Novelist, playwright, and noted Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht talks to Wallace about working in Hollywood, selling out, growing old, religion, and politics.

Guest: Ben Hecht

WALLACE: Good evening. Tonight a special live telecast from Hollywood, our guest is Ben Hecht, a flamboyant social critic, novelist, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter who calls motion pictures a barrage of trash. If you’re curious to know why Ben Hecht writes for Hollywood just the same, what he thinks of people who live and work here, and why Ben Hecht has become a legendary figure for his attacks on American politics, education and other sacred cows, we’ll go after those stories in just a minute. My name is Mike Wallace, the cigarette is Parliament, another fine product of the Philip Morris Company.


WALLACE: And now to our story. Ben Hecht is a man of words. They’re his weapons and few men in our time wield them with such carefree courage. In his time, he’s been a swashbuckling crime reporter in Chicago, an amateur Bohemian, a disciple of H.L. Mencken, and the author of books, novels and plays, including one stage classic, “The Front Page.” Between times, ironically, he makes a reported one hundred thousand dollars at a clip for writing major Hollywood screenplays, his latest being the adaptation of “A Farewell to Arms.” His latest stage play now running in New York’s Greenwich Village at the Renata Theater, is “Winkleberg,” the story of an alcoholic poet. Ben, here in Hollywood I think that it’s common knowledge that you’ve made an awful lot of money writing for films. Yet, in your autobiography, “A Child of a Century,” you wrote this, you said, “The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century, an eruption of trash that has lamed the American minds and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.” Now, quite seriously, why, why do you regard movies as such trash?

HECHT: First, it wasn’t I made the money, it was Uncle Sam and my bosses. They made all the money. I wound up broke, mortgaged my house last week. Uh –

WALLACE: This may have something to do with your habits in spending money but you….

HECHT: No, the government makes – we see – we movie people who are not bosses, work as hired hands – cooks, janitors, clerks, we get paid a salary, we get paid a large sum – we pay most of it all – we have no corporations to protect us, all the money we make is regarded as hired hand income.

WALLACE: You’re not suggesting that we hold a “tag day” for Ben Hecht?

HECHT: I wouldn’t mind – it might help. The – my reason for disliking the movies is a little odd. I really don’t dislike them, I have no interest in them, anymore than a plumber has any vital interest in his product. He has to know how to make his stuff, do it well, collect his money – he doesn’t have to admire what he makes.

WALLACE: Well now, I think that’s unseeming modesty. You say you have no interest in them – you have sufficient interest to call them trash, to say that they have lamed the American mind – retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.

HECHT: The rest of that quote was “the reason they’ve lamed the American mind” and when I speak of the American mind in the book you’ve quoted from….


HECHT: I was talking of what used to be called the “Intelligencia,” high class thinkers – uh – people haven’t been lamed by the movies, they’ve been helped by them. They’re helped by all mass entertainment, it diverts them, but in my day a man would rather be caught dead than be seen reading a dime novel or a Western classic about “Stormy’s Horse” and this superiority snobbery which made the “Itelligencia” was – washed away by the movies. People started going to the movies that were made out of dime novels, written from the same point of view they’d had for their objective mass success and I think the reason their literate – literacy – literary side collapsed considerably, was that the snobbery left us – the superior intellectual attitude, left us.

WALLACE: Oh, Ben, but you’re suggesting that all movies are trash and that’s not so. Take a look at movies like “Marty,” or “On the Waterfront,” or “Hatful of Rain,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Now these are all Hollywood or Hollywood oriented products.

HECHT: I’ve written some that weren’t trash myself. Maybe out of seventy, I’ve written about eight or nine movies that I could tolerate if I were a member of the audience.

WALLACE: Like for instance, which ones?

HECHT: I wrote a movie called “Wuthering Heights,” “The Scoundrel,” “Viva Villa.”

WALLACE: You also wrote – you also wrote “The Iron Pettycoat” and the New York Times said about this….

HECHT: How do you know I wrote “The Iron Pettycoat”? I took my name off it.

WALLACE: I know you did. For reasons best known to Ben Hecht, the New York Times said, “He declined to have his name mentioned in the credits. A witness to the finished picture may readily figure out why.” Uh – why – why do you get involved in such trash?

HECHT: Well, uh, it wasn’t trash when I started. You see a movie begins like most things with an idea and then it turns out that the inventor of the idea who was usually the writer is a stowaway. He has the privileges of a stowaway. He has no powers to assert himself and about ten or fifteen villains including his own incompetence usually corrupts that he – the reason he thought of – in this particular case, “The Iron Pettycoat,” the corruption came through the recutting of the movie and the movie was written for a lady, Miss Katherine Hepburn, and ended up instead as a role for the hero, Mr. Bob Hope, Miss Hepburn was removed from in by fifty percent. I got irritated and took my name off it – it had nothing to do with the movie I wrote.

WALLACE: But the fact of the matter is that you’ve said time and again, Ben, that you’ve sold out – you sold out to make a buck, isn’t that true?

HECHT: Well, what do we all do – you’re making a buck, I’m making a buck, I don’t sell out anything. I’ve written three hundred short stories and kept alive by working in the movies. You cannot have two homes – one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast …

WALLACE: Well wait, wait, wait, Ben. Now in one breath you say Hollywood puts together trash and the next breath you say, “Give me a hundred thousand dollars and I’ll grind out whatever you tell me and who cares what it does to the American mind.” Isn’t that about what you say?

HECHT: No, well I – I leave that guilt up to the movie makers. I just do what I’m told. I take assignments, I used to work on newspapers. I took assignments. I take assignments from movie people and there’s very little a writer can do to improve a movie. The writer’s usually paid not to assert himself, not to intrude and one of the reasons that Hollywood has – come a cropper.

WALLACE: Well, now wait….

HECHT: The writer has had nothing to do with the situation.

WALLACE: The writer has nothing to do?

HECHT: Nothing to do.

WALLACE: We’ve talked about this – this week with another top screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, who admires you very much, by the way. He’s the fellow who wrote “Marty” and “The Bachelor Party” and he said this, he said, “It’ all up to the individual writer.” Chayefsky said, “I’ve never written just for the money in my life, I’d rather hand the money back than write something just because somebody else tells me to.”

HECHT: He sounds like little Goldilocks. (Laughs) He’ll change his mind after he’s been out here a while. He has one success and one success usually gives a fellow feverish ideas about who he is and what he can do and how important he is, but after you’ve had four or five successes and about fifty failures, you change your mind.

WALLACE: Ben your latest play, “Winkleberg,” is about the Bohemian poet, Maxwell Bodenheim who starved because he refused to compromise and sell out his talents. Now is it possible that’s you’re fascinated by Bodenheim simply because he kept his integrity while you haven’t been particularly zealous regarding your own?

HECHT: Well, I think I was more zealous then Bodenheim because I kept my character intact. Bodenheim didn’t regard his talents, he was like all poets, remarkably incompetent socially, couldn’t move in any circles where liquor want’ the passport and he protected nothing. I don’t know what his record is, I haven’t read all his books, he wrote several good books of poetry, we all wrote several good books when we were young. Bodenheim interested me only as a spring board in a play…..


HECHT: I didn’t know him for many years before his death.

WALLACE: But this smiling – this smiling cynicism of yours, Ben, our society thinks very ill of people who sell their bodies for money and yet we don’t seem to think as ill of people who sell their minds and their other talents for money.

HECHT: You’d be in grave trouble if you thought ill of those kind of people because they represent about ninety-nine tenths percent of the Americans.


HECHT: Every oil man, every radio commentator, everybody who works sells out, usually sell out more than their minds – they sell out their souls, their character, their point of view and they sell out in other different forms – what their neighbors are thinking. They usually throw in the sponge when they’re about twenty-two or twenty-three and they quit, they become echoes, they echo each other. They’re terrified of making any odd remark, even at the dinner table. The American has become in my time, one of the most ironed out human beings I’ve ever seen. Sort of an imitation Russian today. They can’t think for themselves, speak for themselves – terrified of saying he doesn’t like “My Fair Lady” – terrified at making any crack against anything successful or popular.

WALLACE: Ben, we hear so much about Hollywood, as an American Institution – to some people it’s kind of a Sodom and Gomorrah with swimming pools – what is it to Ben Hecht?

HECHT: A place where I’ve earned a living for thirty years, done some fairly good work – off and on. I don’t know how bad my work is. I’ve not seen any of the movies I’ve done, except if I were told they were terribly good, I would go see them, because to repeat the writer has as much to do with the movie as an usher has to do with the general running of the theater. I remember talking about this once. The producer you see, sunk this talent – sunk it after coming into the ascendancy about twenty-five years ago – there was a movie once called “Stormy’s Horse,” – it was a wonderful picture of the producer that made it. Stormy’s horse ran down a gully and Stormy fell off his horse and was shot and the horse trotted up the gully – came back and came into the saloon, which Stormy’s pals were standing at the bar and nudged them with his wet nose. And one of his pals said, “That’s Stormy’s horse. He’s trying tell us something.” And this was my version of producers for thirty years, they were always feeling their wet nose, nudging me, trying to explain what I should write and tell me what to do.

WALLACE: Well, I think in reading “A Child of the Century” – I read it on the plane coming out here again or parts of it again.

HECHT: Better than a sleeping pill….

WALLACE: You were – as a matter of fact, it kept me up. You seem to have more contempt however – you have a kind of a pleasant feeling almost for the producers and certainly for the actors and actresses, you reserve your contempt for the owners of the motion picture studios.

HECHT: Yes, they – they did something that cannot be done. You cannot take entertainment only for the monetary point of view. The movies, from its very first beginning turned into a business, sausage factory and the writer and director who is also a pretty smart fellow – were both shoved out of the picture and the man with the money, the man with the biggest easy chair and the biggest desk, and the biggest office in the man who know what to do, and most movies about ninety percent of them were made in conference by producers, and the studio owners and they were representatives of the people who actually had the money control of the studios. Their whole objective as far as I was concerned, to make a movie that would make money. It wasn’t a wrong objective for people – it isn’t wrong with oil people or steel people – nothing wrong with the movie people to try to make money – but entertainment can’t be made that way – and it ended up, just as Hollywood ended up. There are no more big studios, producers are trying to get other forms of employment and the movies are dying because they killed off the people who could make them, the writer and the director. They took away their identity. I never knew when I was writing a movie, whether my heroine would end up being called Joe or Mabel or whether the locale would be Peking of Akron.

WALLACE: Ben, do you regard Hollywood as a rather sad town now?

HECHT: Well, it’s sad compared to the gay, charming, wondrous town it once was. When you got off the train in the old days – it was told you – pockets filled with gold before you got to the hotel. Everybody was young, everybody had the world by the tail, everybody was going to be a wizard, a success, and oddly enough, everybody turned out to be that. We had nothing but geniuses in this town. If you weren’t a genius, you hardly could eat out. Geniuses dominated the whole city from stem to stern. This is gone. We have nothing but people running out of a burning building today in Hollywood.

WALLACE: Is it possible that you’re just looking back on your youth through rose colored glasses, Ben? You wrote in the book, you said, “Many habits were formed by those days.” You were talking about your early days – ’20, ’30, ’35 – you said, “Many habits were formed by those days and points of view which I have never outgrown or improved upon came to roost in my head.” That’s a continuing theme in everything you write. Now is it possible – well, do you think it’s becoming fro a man of 62 to have the same attitude towards life as a man of let’s say 20 or 25 had?

HECHT: Rather than becoming, I regard it as heroic. I think if you can keep your young ideas – it’s almost as good as keeping your young body.

WALLACE: When you say – you talk about almost as good as keeping you young body – do you mind very much growing old Ben?

HECHT: It’s – uh – horrid – sorry to say everybody grows old and you’ll answer that question yourself some day. But we already experienced….

WALLACE: We – we’ve interviewed other older people….

HECHT: No…..

WALLACE: Older than you … Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright…. They don’t seem to mind the passage of the years because all of their adult lives, they have been engaged in meaningful work – work which they still do. It … could it be that you engaged in mostly carefree, adolescent work … like writing for Hollywood still … and therefore old age comes as something of a menace to you?

HECHT: No … I haven’t engaged in meaningless work… I’ve written about eight books in the last eight years which I personally like very much … and people who say they don’t mind growing old are just telling sad little lies to you… everybody minds growing old … and when I look back, I don’t only see my youth, as better, my bankbook was better, everything about me was better, and work was easier … you ask any prizefighter whether he minds growing old, … everybody loses the punch sort of, and the people who thin they’re doing important work … Mrs. Roosevelt has been repeating herself like some parrot with three clichés – for the past fifteen years. I don’t’ regard anything she’s been doing as important. I don’t know who else you mentioned, but …..

WALLACE: Frank Lloyd Wright.

HECHT: Frank Lloyd Wright.

WALLACE: No parrot he.

HECHT: No Frank Lloyd Wright stopped working about twenty years ago. I don’t think he’s drawn a picture in twenty years. He’s been exercising charm and civilization.

WALLACE: If I may switch the subject … abruptly Ben … do you get any consolation at all from religion?

HECHT: Uh, no. I regard religion as a part of a rather odd mythomania which has persisted in the world … I think that anybody that gets consolation from religion is much the same as scientists who might get consolation from the delusion that the world was flat. Religion is changed … God has different coloration, different meaning today…

WALLACE: You’re a Jew?


WALLACE: …. Means nothing to you?

HECHT: … no more other than I was a Kentuckian.

WALLACE: Last year, Ben, a group of Jewish scholars attended a meeting at the Synagogue Council of America. They charged that the observance of Judaism in America was declining… that religious observances were disappearing among American Jews. Now, obviously, as a Jew, this gives you no particular cause for concern?

HECHT: I’m very pleased to hear it. I think observance of religious … formalized religion … I think its disappearance is a sign of the increased intelligence of the human race. I think people are more able to feel God and think of Him … if they get out of their churches … and think in terms of their own poetical feelings rather than terms of myths that have sort of grown a little stale.

WALLACE: What do you mean by their own po …. Poet ….uh….

HECHT: Poetical…

WALLACE: Poetical feelings?

HECHT: Well…..

WALLACE: What …..

HECHT: Well, when you look us at a sky, at the sun, at the night, at the morning … when you think of the various monstrous things that are in the universes …. The enormity of everything … you get a … quite impressed … much more impressed than if you read some very bad hymn … with a bad tune … or some chalk talk that goes as revelation…. Uh …. You can’t get nearly as impressed by the writings of second rate people …. Usually poets …. As you can by looking at the subject matter which they wrote ….

WALLACE: So much for religion. Want to talk a little politics?

HECHT: I wouldn’t mind, I don’t know much about politics.

WALLACE: Well, you have opinions.

HECHT: Yes, opinions I have.

WALLACE: Recently you have been complaining that newspapermen – you were a newspaperman for a good many years – you’ve been complaining that they no longer criticize as sufficiently on political figures. You said thirty years ago we quoted them accurately to get them into trouble. We howled with laughter at them, but that’s not done enough anymore. So in a moment I’d like to give you your chance. You can take any leading political figure in the United States and evaluate him pro or con as you see fit to your heart’s desire, and we’ll get Ben Hecht’s reaction to that in just sixty seconds.


WALLACE: All right, Ben. Let’s have at ‘em. And we’ll start at the top – President Eisenhower.

HECHT: Well, if I were a young reporter – and were asked to write about Mr. Eisenhower, in Mencken’s old Smart Set or the Mercury … I would have written that politicians should be not seen and not heard, and that Mr. Eisenhower is perhaps as inaudible and invisible an executive as this country has ever had. He is trying to save the world by boring in to the point of inanity – all right he has a good running mate – Mr. Nixon who is possibly the best – most well-dressed boy Washington has seen in a long time – I would be pleased with Mr. Eisenhower because I am displeased with the politicians and he is so vague and amorphous a figure that I think he’s ideal for representing us he – I think politicians are public servants and like a good domestic staff they should function, keep the house running and that’s without throwing fits in the living room, I think Mr. Eisenhower neither throws fits nor speaks so that he distracts me in any way.

WALLACE: Well, let’s get on the other side of the fence.


WALLACE: There are various people who are mentioned as potential presidential candidates for the Democratic party. Start with Adlai Stevenson.

HECHT: I liked Mr. Stevenson when he was himself. I thought he became pretty dull when he started being a non-Mr. Stevenson in trying to be a politician – I thought he was as dull as Eisenhower in the last run.

WALLACE: How about young Jack Kennedy?

HECHT: I don’t know. I read his book – forgot its name.

WALLACE: Profiles in Courage.

HECHT: Profiles in Courage. I thought it was a fair book, and I thought it was dangerous to have a man of intelligence and intellect in the White House, think we ought to have a man with a good heart, who has no ambitions, and sleeps a lot, which makes the best kind president.

WALLACE: What do you think about Harry Truman? He is neither – He doesn’t sleep a good deal – he’s an early riser….

HECHT: Well, I don’t …. As much about Harry Truman – he once attacked me.

WALLACE: For what?

HECHT: Oh, for some work that I was doing about Palestine, and I remember his telling one of your boys that he was in America and had as much a right to shoot off his mouth as I had, which he did to a considerable extent. He was possibly the most articulate noisy president we had since Teddy Roosevelt, who was an idol of mine, and which was before I disliked politicians.

WALLACE: Tell me this – who do you really like?

HECHT: I like all people – I like all people who are doing right, all people – we ah – live happily – all people have good kind hearts – as for whom I like our front is hard to say – I’ve had – they’re mostly dead – I’ve I’ve had – in the ground …..

WALLACE: What do you get passionate about? What excites you? What do you like?

HECHT: Well, it’s hard to get passionate about anything these days. You’re liable to get arrested. Our censorship in this country is no exercised by police or police dates, but is exercised by some mysterious thing that keeps your mouth with a clothes pin on it. I don’t know what it is.

WALLACE: Well, let’s try to find out. We have two minutes left.

HECHT: Two minutes left, I don’t know. I think it’s just a general terror of what’s going to happen. Everybody is so afraid of the disaster that has been advertised that they fall to mumbling and muttering and all talking alike – like the herd that is about to be slaughtered.

WALLACE: Well, and what would you suggest that we do instead?

HECHT: Well, Mike, go to see “Winkleberg,” my play which celebrates the excitement of being an individual and defying all things of that matter. I have no solutions for anything. I just know how to keep going.

WALLACE: Ben, you’re on television tonight, what do you think of television?

HECHT: Well, television excites me because it seems to be the last stamping ground of poetry – the last place where I hear women’s hair rhapsodically described – women’s faces told in odic language – the commercials are for me the most thrilling and exuberant poetry that is left in the United States.

WALLACE: Well, you’ll have a chance to hear one in just about a minute, Ben, but you’ve said that it’s a babysitting industry cooing at the crowds, it threatens to turn us all into furniture.

HECHT: It will when it gets matured. When you get your screen eight by ten feet picture on the wall and color and three dimensions, I’m afraid America will lose the use of its legs.

WALLACE: Yet here you are in Hollywood, working on a new television project that’s going to earn you another tidy sum of money.

HECHT: Some people try to make money by going to the moon, a more dangerous and odd enterprise than I’m doing.

WALLACE: Ben, we’ll be looking forward to what you have to say and do on television. I thank you for talking this half hour to talk to us in Hollywood, and I wish you good luck when you join us in television.

HECHT: Thank you sir.

WALLACE: Ben Hecht once wrote, “… were I able to put down a fraction of the thinking I have done, the truths I have held fleetingly by their tails – I would emerge as one of the geniuses of my time. By his own admission, Ben Hecht, has fallen short of that mark, but he has emerged as one of the most disturbing and colorful characters of his time, and in an age of so much drab conformity that’s a kind of genius all by itself. In a moment a run down on next week’s guest. America’s first great crooner.


WALLACE: Next week we’ll go after the story of a one time national idol, a man who captured the country’s imagination like an Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby all rolled in one. You see him behind me now – his is the first of the great crooners, Rudy Vallee. If you’re curious to hear Rudy Vallee, his present and the fickleness of fame – if you want to hear his opinions of his crooning successes and their swooning fans, and if you’d like to find out what being a popular cultured hero does to a man – we’ll go after those stories with Rudy Vallee next week. ‘Till then, for Parliament – Mike Wallace – goodnight.