The introduction of sound into film in 1927 made people who could write naturalistic dialogue Hollywood desiderata. Newspaper reporters, accustomed to hitting the pavement in pursuit of a story and parsing an array of social, cultural, and professional argot, followed the lure west to try their hands at screenwriting. Ben Hecht received encouragement from Herman Mankiewicz, who had just left the New York Times for what was billed as a new gold rush. Mankiewicz wired Hecht that “millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” As a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and a budding novelist, Hecht had established his literary aspirations, which his friend and colleague presumed could be fulfilled after obtaining a well-paying sinecure in La La Land.
It might be no surprise that the first-ever gangster movie, Underworld, was written by a Chicago newspaperman. What is perhaps more surprising is that the screenplay won Hecht the first-ever Academy Award for best writing, original story (now best screenplay), presented in 1929.
Hecht would become one of the most prolific and enduring screenwriters in Hollywood, contributing—whether credited or not—to more than 70 films in almost 35 years. Hecht in 1935 won a second best screenplay Oscar for The Scoundrel, which he wrote with good friend Charles MacArthur, and was nominated an additional four times for Academy Awards. In 1939 another Hecht-MacArthur collaboration, the screenplay for Wuthering Heights, was nominated but bested by the screenplay for Gone with the Wind—which Hecht had been called in to “doctor” for a $10,000 fee.
But Hecht came to somewhat resent the Hollywood penumbra obscuring his other pursuits, feeling his success in films was primarily measured in money. “It is difficult to praise a novelist or a thinker who keeps popping up as the author of innumerable melodramas,” he wrote in his autobiography.
However, as film criticism matured throughout the twentieth century—and gained acceptance within English Departments across the country—screenwriters were taken up more regularly as subjects for analysis and appreciation. In this light, Ben Hecht’s Academy Award represents the beginning of a new era for cinema and the inception of a new breed of artist.