Making Modernism

Ben Hecht’s Oscar, 1928

Ben Hecht can be called the most successful American screenwriter of the early twentieth century. He was highly paid, amazingly prolific, and well respected within the Hollywood film community. During his career Hecht would be nominated for six Academy Awards and win two of them, including this one, the first ever given for Original Story. Yet he was also an accomplished novelist, playwright, journalist, and autobiographer, and he often complained that writing for the movies had zapped his creative energy for these other genres. Such ambivalence was reflected in Hecht’s attitude towards this statuette. It was awarded in 1929 at a ceremony he did not attend and for a film he had disowned.

Hecht’s story for Underworld drew upon his experiences as a Chicago newspaperman on the crime beat. But he believed that his realistic narrative, based on the exploits of gangsters Al Capone and Tommy O’Connor, had been turned into a melodramatic mess onscreen. He thought the film would flop and had to be talked out of removing his name from the credits. However, Underworld was a hit, and it also set the stage and the style for the expressionistic films noirs of the coming decades. These movies shared literary modernism’s fascination with ominous cityscapes, along with its pessimism and hints of misogyny, but they added audience-friendly plots and strands of morality amid a web of sin.

In the end, Hecht was glad he had kept his screen credit. More credits meant higher asking prices for his services. He received his Academy Award for Underworld -- in absentia -- at the first ever ceremony, held on May 29 at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles to honor films made in 1927 and 1928. The figurine – he wouldn’t be called Oscar until the 1930s – is a nude knight with a sword in his hands. He stands on a five-spoked movie reel, representing the five original groups in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: actors, directors, producers, technicians, and writers. Today’s Oscars are made of an alloy plated in gold, but Hecht’s award is gold-plated bronze. When it was mailed to his home in New York he used it as a doorstop.

-Tom Cerasulo, Elms College

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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