Review of "Rediscovering Ben Hecht, Volume I: Selling the Celluloid Serpent"
With this issue of CLASSIC IMAGES, I conclude ten years of writing this column. In those past ten years, I thought I had come across every conceivable type of book on every conceivable film-related topic. How nice it is, therefore, at this time, to welcome a totally unique volume in Florice Whyte Kovan’s "Rediscovering Ben Hecht: Selling the Celluloid Serpent."
To describe "Rediscovering Ben Hecht: Selling the Celluloid Serpent" as a book is like describing the Mona Lisa as just another painting. This is far more than a book. It is a work of art. As one turns the pages of this spiral bound volume, one is reminded not of an art book from Harry Abrams or Abbeville Press but rather a collage by Joseph Cornell or Marcel Duchamp. The text is varied in style—at one point typed—with the pages varying in color and the illustrations ranging from simple sketches through color postcards attached to the page. All is set off in a magnificent binder with a 1922 caricature of Ben Hecht by Erik Johan Smith on the cover.
Editor/designer Florice Whyte Kovan has gathered together a unique collection of essays by Ben Hecht, all relating to silent film and none of which I have previously read. Hecht writes of the movie double, of Moon Quan (who was a consultant on Broken Blossoms), or Kid McCoy (who is also associated with the D. W. Griffith film), of Mack Sennett, of Charlie Chaplin, of Harrison Ford, of Olga Petrova, and much more. There is even a not-too-kind tribute to Balaban and Katz, to be sung to the tune of "Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean." The parody and wit, for which Ben Hecht is rightly praised, is apparent throughout. The piece on Madame Petrova is, simply put, brilliant.
Interspersed between the original Ben Hecht writings is commentary by Florice Whyte Kovan. She notes that Hecht’s credited screen career began with Underworld in 1928, but, as these stories indicate, the writer had long held a fascination with the motion picture. She reveals (I believe for the first time) that Hecht provided the original screen treatment for the 1915 Triangle release, Double Trouble, starring Douglas Fairbanks, and that Hecht collaborated, uncredited, with Anita Loos on a number of other film projects, including Fairbanks’ The Americano. The book contains much more, including a poem written by Moon Kwan upon seeing D. W. Griffith’s The Greatest Thing in Life.
"Rediscovering Ben Hecht: Selling the Celluloid Serpent" is published in a limited collector’s edition of 200. I cannot guarantee, as of this month, that any copies are still available. But I do urge readers to rush their orders to the Snickersnee Press, 325 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington, D.C. 20003, together with a check for $59.95. The book can also be ordered by mail (202) 547-0132 or E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Do it!
CONTACT & PRICING NOTE: See new pricing and street address at Buy Books Now
Classic Images, December 1998
Art & Architecture on 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. Ben Hecht and Florice Whyte Kovan. Snickersnee Press 2003.
"Ben Hecht: New works about the great American novelist," George Fetherling, Hecht's first biographer (The Five Lives of Ben Hecht)
Vancouver Sun, August 10, 2003
"A beautiful book...keep rediscovering Ben Hecht."
Florice Whyte Kovan appeared on his radio show in 2002 to talk about Hecht and the book.
Rick Kogan, WGN Radio Chicago, August 18, 2002
"A most unusual book is one by Florice Whyte Kovan, Rediscovering Ben Hecht; Selling the Celluloid Serpent (Washington DC: Snickersnee Albuma, 1998), 100 pp., $59.95; ISBN 9667709-0-0; Snickersnee Press, 325 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Washington DC 20003; (202) 547-4964. Fourteen of Hecht's short stories are compiled here with an introduction to each. Kovan enhances the book immeasurably by explaining the stories' characters and situations from her research, facts that would otherwise escape the reader, so that the stories are richer. These are parodies of Hollywood life and people which, in essence, convey a slight contempt for goings-on in the industry.
The book is of unusual production: text, photographs, and line art on colored paper; two pages are even ruled accounting paper, on which, in "The New Market," Hecht lists the movie types casting directors can use, and how much they are worth (e.g., "Type 12--One-armed man. Holds still at $8 a day. This is reliable type. With one eye, $2.50 extra.") Another unusual element of the book is the use of postcards pasted onto a page (Norma Talmadge, p. 63); Mack Sennett "looking pensive" (p. 44); a folded "consulting contract" for Broken Blossoms (p. 25); etc.
The parody at times reaches hilarious heights. In "The Movie Double," two men discuss a woman (Nettie Walker) they are waiting for who works in silents as a double. A Mr. Lewis describes her doubling for Mrs. Leslie Carter in The Heart of Maryland when she "gripped the tongue of the bronze bell in the steeple and swung back and forth out from the belfry, her heels hitting the pigeons, her skirts cracking at the rooster weather vanes, her eyes catching glimpses of the Maryland corn field far below." Kovan puts details in perspective when she informs us that Walker was the surname of an actress who appeared nude in a play, while "Nettie" was a one-act play of two men waiting for a woman who never shows up. In "Tears, Tears, Tears," Hecht satirizes emotional actresses who could cry on cue through his character Myrtle Platz (with an ironic ending).
There is even a photograph of Castello's octagonal barn, which sat across from Hecht's boyhood home in Racine WI.
Kovan's research has made accessible Hecht's work other than his screenplays, and the stories are good enough to induce further reading of his writings.
Hecht won the first Academy Award for Underworld (1928), another Oscar for The Scoundrel (1935), and worked on Nothing Sacred, Gone with the Wind, and other films. That he was a serious, proficient writer is without doubt; he was also able to characterize Hollywood's foibles into amusing tales that conjure up the press-agentry of a time gone by.
Readers of the time would have recognized the names and situations of the stories; Florice Whyte Kovan had made sure that we understand what the details of the parody actually were. This is a delightful book.
--Gene Vazzana (editor of The Silent Film Monthly).
Reviewer: the late Gene Vazzana. ed., Silent Film Monthly. Pittsburgh, PA., later at Amazon.com