Ben Hecht: Fighting words, moving pictures
Yale University Press (Footprint), $37.99 hb, 249 pp, 9780300180428
In his long poem The Bridge (1930), Hart Crane balances the breadth of his epic vision against a compressive energy, a ballistic sort of expression: ‘So the 20th Century – so / whizzed the Limited – roared by and left.’ Since Crane worked in an American tradition of poet–prophets that includes Walt Whitman and the undersung H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), it is tempting to grant him that. The twentieth century did roar by and go. And the 20th Century Limited, the luxurious passenger train connecting New York to Chicago, furnished it (and him) with an expression of the century’s quarrelsome momentum, its loud, emblematic modernity. That iconic, bullet-shaped train also provides the title and setting for one of Ben Hecht’s most successful comedies, Twentieth Century (1934). A buzzing farce directed by Howard Hawks, it was adapted from a Broadway show of the same name, which Hecht wrote alongside his utmost scrivener-in-arms, Charles MacArthur. For those interested in the screwy art of the insult, get aboard. A delirious tour de force awaits, in which John Barrymore, playing the pompous theatre director Oscar Jaffe, gets to call his stage manager an amoeba!