Ben Hecht and the Art of the Takedown Biopic
“Viva Villa! Cost high, due to the gods, and Mexico. Result fine, I think.” –producer David O. Selznick.
Seeing Adam McKay’s Vice reminded me how rare it is to get a truly scathing, satirical biopic. Most have a reverential tone, to sell them as a serious look at a serious person, like you’re taking an honest-to-God history class but with Twizzlers and a large Mr. Pibb, but also to sell us the filmmakers as very serious people, to be remembered on Oscar night. Most of these movies reassure us that history’s great men and women were far-sighted visionaries, making the tough calls, indispensable, and not to be doubted. How else would we know they’re great?
Sure, Churchill movies are full of his champagne wit, but then he delivers his Our Finest Hour speech as he leads Brits through the Blitz. Where are the gags about the bombing of Dresden or how he hated Ghandi almost as much as Hitler? Abraham Lincoln movies love showing cracker-barrel Abe putting his Ivy League cabinet and West Point generals in their place. But what about Abe the corn-fed hick, in over his head, mismanaging the Civil War, extending it by years, and losing hundreds of thousands of lives?
All that clueless ego, all that death, the ship of state crashing on the rocks, it takes a rare sensibility to find the joke in that. There’s The Great Dictator (ok, technically not Hitler, but technically, yeah it is), The Madness of King George, The Death of Stalin, and Blackadder. And kudos to the Bush Administration, which has generated two Grand Old Party guignols, Vice and Oliver Stone’s W. It’s not a long list.
The Great Ben Hecht
Such a sensibility infuses every frame of Ben Hecht’s Viva Villa!(1934). David O. Selznick bought Pinchon and Stade’s 1933 Pancho Villa biography, Viva Villa! amidst a glut of Oscar-bait biopics appearing that year: The Private Life of Henry VIII, Queen Christina, Voltaire, and with Cleopatra, The House of Rothschild, and The Barretts of Wimpole Stree ton the way. To avoid that stodgy path, Selznick hired Ben Hecht and Howard Hawks, the writer-director team behind the comically-violent, thinly veiled portrait of Al Capone, Scarface (1932).
Ben Hecht could find the joke in anything. Born in 1894, he learned to write as a Chicago crime reporter and made his name with Charles MacArthur on The Front Page. “It’s the story of a poor little guy, an escaped murderer, and his girl commits suicide,” Hawks said of their play, “It has no relation to a comedy except for the way Hecht and MacArthur treated the thing.”That’s what Selznick wanted; Villa, as Hawks once described him, as a “strange man, humorous but vicious, as he was in real life.”
The shoot was a legendary disaster. Hawks got fired after one of his stars, Lee Tracy, reportedly got drunk and peed off his hotel balcony onto Mexican army officers and got the whole production kicked out of the country. Too bad, the exteriors Hawks shot with James Wong Howe are beautiful, a lush outdoor style Hawks later returned to in Red River (1948). Hawks was also a lot funnier than the directors who finished it. This is Hecht’s movie. His foreword tells us that Viva Villa! “does not come out of the archives of history. It is fiction woven out of truth, and inspired by a love of the half-legendary Pancho.” He matched Selznick’s book up with Charles MacArthur’s own crazy stories about hunting Villa with the Illinois Militia in 1916.
A Brutal, Violent Satire
Viva Villa! opens in the 1880s as the dictator Diaz steals the land of the peones and has Villa’s father publicly whipped to death for protesting it–after which the young Villa stabs and kills his father’s murderer. Jump ahead twenty years (at least), as six peones go on trial in La Concepción. Viva Villa!’s characters repeatedly tell us there is no difference between rich and poor, and Hecht opens the scene with a joke to sum it up. We see a peone on trial picking his nose, and the camera drifts up to a Spanish magistrate, who delicately puts snuff in his own nose, picking his like an aristocrat, before sentencing them to death.
The adult Villa (Wallace Beery) raids La Concepción and orders the bodies of the six hanged peones taken down and returned to the courtroom. There, Villa and his gleefully psychotic lieutenant, Sierra (Leo Carrillo), put the magistrate on trial before their jury of dead men. When the magistrate demands real justice, Sierra gets bored and shoots him and all the other aristos.
Beery’s casting says everything. If Selznick wanted a heroic or authentic Villa, he had MGM star Ramón Navarro on the lot, a native of Villa’s own Durango. Beery specialized in lummoxes, big slow men, at turns surprisingly funny and poignant. His range won him an Oscar for his boxing tearjerker, The Champ, and put him in everything from tuxedo comedies like Dinner at Eight to playing Long John Silver in Treasure Island. If Hecht and co. wanted “humorous but vicious,” a la Scarface, Beery was it.
After the trial, we meet a fictional New York World reporter, Jonny Sykes (Stu Erwin), a wise guy a lot like MacArthur. When Villa sees him writing a dispatch, Sykes thinks he’s a dead man. It reads: “Pancho Villa and desert murderers plundered this peaceful village today indulging bestial orgy of destruction and rapine.” Then Sykes learns Villa can’t read, and tells him, “It’s an account of your heroic victory over the federal army, with some sidelights on your personal genius.” Villa takes Sykes along to publicize him to his six million readers, and Sykes happily reinvents Villa from bandit king to freedom fighter. Villa reinvents Sykes, too. When Sykes mistakenly files a story that Villa took Juarez, Villa raids Juarez to make it true.
Villa Owns The Libs
Hecht’s take on Mexico’s elite liberals, like future president Francisco Madero (nicknamed “the Christ-Fool”), and aristocratic Spaniards, Don Felipe de Castillo and his sister, Theresa (Fay Wray), is equally cynical. They recruit Villa for their revolution, but they can’t civilize him. His bloody, no-prisoners guerilla war, appalls them, but they can’t win without him. “I don’t think you know much about war,” Villa tells Madero. “You know about loving people. But you can’t win a revolution with love, you’ve got to have hate. You are the good side. I am the bad side.”
Villa is right. A scheming general assassinates Madero before he can enact his Land Restoration Act. Without Madero to temper him, Villa takes Mexico himself, war crime by war crime. Sierra shows young recruits how to kill prisoners three at a time with one shot. When Villa captures the general who killed Madero, he has him tied to the ground to let the ants eat him alive, as Villa eats breakfast and Sierra steals his boots. The liberals loathe Villa now and Theresa shoots him. Villa, in a scene only pre-code Hollywood could give us, whips her, as his father once was whipped, ironically proving her right. There is no difference between rich and poor.
Finally, Hecht gives us the low comedy of an oaf like Villa as president. To help the poor, he prints up one hundred millions pesos, and is infuriated when the printers won’t accept their own worthless paper as payment. After enacting the Land Restoration Act, Spanish elites assassinate Villa, fittingly, outside a butcher shop. Hecht’s final joke comes as Villa bleeds to death and Sykes rushes to his side. “I hear about big men, what they say when they die. You write something pretty big about me,” gasps Villa. “Hurry, Jonny. Jonny, what were my last words?” Sykes writes Villa a perfect, flowery, biopic farewell: “Goodbye, my Mexico. Forgive me for my crimes. Remember if I sinned against you, it was because I loved you too much.” “Forgive me?” says Villa, “Jonny, what I done wrong?”
Much like Hecht himself, Viva Villa! lacks reverence for anything. It mocks history’s ennobling depictions of the deeply-flawed figures that invented our deeply-flawed world. Viva Villa’s three directors give it a sometimes awkward pace and tone. Yes, Stu Erwin makes you wish for Roscoe Karns or a young Gable in his place. But Viva Villa! is a groundbreaking rethink of how to put history on screen, and it deservedly won Hecht an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.
(All Viva Villa! screen grabs courtesy of Pre-Code.)