A Child of the Century (1954)

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Dave Pitts

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A Child of the Century (1954)

PostTue Apr 17, 2018 8:47 am

This is Ben Hecht's memoir, a one-of-a-kind book, now out of print and commanding rare book prices. It is set up as a compendium of short pieces, each one with a headline and most of them running a page or a page and a half. So you could dip into the book leisurely, but it is best read in full, because Hecht will likely draw you in with his style and his contemplative look at the past. It is 633 pages, making it the kind of book for which you set aside other reading to immerse yourself in its world.
The book is like a steamer trunk of his memories, but it's more than that. He takes frequent detours to opine on all sorts of topics: marriage, economics, political leaders (he excoriates FDR), the arts, the seduction of memory. He writes at great length on his reporting days in Chicago, his trip to Germany as a correspondent (1918-1920), and, decades later, his work to support Jewish statehood.
Here's the sore point for film and theater buffs: we probably constitute the largest share of his readers, but he writes few and scattershot accounts of his work in these areas. First of all, he scorns the commercial films of the studio era, and says that the production code and the syrupy plots of most movies lowered the bar in taste and sophistication in the American audience.
There is a 13-page story of a party he threw for John Barrymore when JB was a doddering, foul-mouthed wreck. There is a short section on his friendship with John Gilbert. Here he comments on Gilbert watching His Glorious Night with an audience that laughed at his voice. That part may be true, but Hecht says Gilbert's voice was a "squeaky boy's voice" that "turned him into a clown." Anyone who's seen Glorious Night or any of Gilbert's talkies knows that squeaky isn't the word. Gilbert's voice was thin and precise, a stereotypical pedant's voice, not a romantic lead's voice. (And of course, the voice was perfectly adequate for his role as a cad in Downstairs or his superb character acting in Captain Hates the Sea.) Hecht also claims that, in '33, Gilbert "entered Walter Wanger's office, fell on his knees and pleaded for the male lead in Queen Christina", an account that is contradicted by everyone else who's written about this film.
Hecht barely mentions the plays and films he's best known for -- Notorious is not mentioned at all; Hitchcock is referenced twice, for a total of 20 words. There is a little bit on the Red Scare in Hollywood, and tributes to Fanny Brice and Constance Collier. All of it is well-written, but the film buff especially will hunger for more.
Hecht also gets away with surprisingly salty language for Simon & Schuster publication in '54. They allowed an F-bomb in here (he's quoting John Barrymore.) With all its omissions, I recommend this book as a classic memoir. I wish he had crafted a second book that was devoted to his life in theater and film -- and I don't know if he wrote at length on those subjects elsewhere.
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Brooksie

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Re: A Child of the Century (1954)

PostTue Apr 17, 2018 2:59 pm

The great irony in Hecht's persistent criticisms of the films of his era is that virtually every time he set his hand to fixing the problem, he came up short. Columbia gave him carte blanche on Angels Over Broadway (1940) and yet it shows everything that made Hecht a great writer but an ordinary filmmaker - it's clever-clever, too allegorical for the screen, and it laid an egg commercially, despite critical plaudits.

The same is true of something like Upperworld (1934). It's just a little too arch. Hecht felt he was above the medium, and the contempt shows on the screen.
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Dave Pitts

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Re: A Child of the Century (1954)

PostWed Apr 18, 2018 7:45 am

Agreed. He makes it clear in the book that he thinks writing for Hollywood was whoring. He complains, validly, I think, that he would sometimes work in distinctive touches or unconventional endings only to be told by the producer that nothing but a conventional story line could be used.
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Frederica

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Re: A Child of the Century (1954)

PostWed Apr 18, 2018 10:31 am

Dave Pitts wrote:Agreed. He makes it clear in the book that he thinks writing for Hollywood was whoring. He complains, validly, I think, that he would sometimes work in distinctive touches or unconventional endings only to be told by the producer that nothing but a conventional story line could be used.


He wasn't alone in that dismissive attitude at the time ("the theatah!") but it is tiresome. There's a residue of that type of snobbery left in current film criticism (that's a "genre" film!) but it's low on oxygen. It's been kicked to the curb in book criticism, thank heavens.
Fred
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JFK

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A Child of the Century

PostThu Apr 19, 2018 3:32 pm

This is Ben Hecht's memoir, a one-of-a-kind book, now out of print and commanding rare book prices. .

It used to be, even signed copies were cheap. The fact that it had a paperback edition as recently as the 1980s, yet is still dearly sought, suggests there isn’t much catch and release occurring. Some of his 1920s/30s book djs are spectacular. The scarcest Hecht first printings in dust jacket from those decades are 1. The Front Page (as fiercely hunted as the era’s Topper, Guys and Dolls, and My Man Godfrey) and 2. The Florentine Dagger (later filmed by Florey).
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SOME HECHT COLLECTIONS OF THIS CENTURY


Florice Whyte Kovan's web site devoted to Ben Hecht Biography & Works

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SOME NON-FICTION HECHT
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HECHT GHOSTED THIS
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BEN INTERVIEWS JACK

HECHT AND WEILL "WE WILL NEVER DIE (1943)" PRODUCED BY BILLY ROSE AND ERNST LUBITSCH. STAGED BY MOSS HART


MIKE WALLACE INTERVIEWS HECHT
THE OTHER WALLACE INTERVIEWS AT THIS SITE FEATURE FILMED INTERVIEWS.
WALLACE WAS INVOLVED IN THE PRODUCTION OF HECHT'S OWN TV SHOW-
THE TRANSCRIPTS OF WHICH WERE PUBLISHED BY MCFARLAND WITH A WALLACE FORWARD

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Last edited by JFK on Fri Apr 20, 2018 5:45 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Brooksie

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Re: A Child of the Century (1954)

PostThu Apr 19, 2018 10:12 pm

Hecht's biography is available at the Internet Archive (if you're a member, you can 'borrow' it for 14 days). Interestingly, it was written in direct response to the omissions of A Child of the Century:

https://archive.org/details/benhechtmanbehin00maca

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