Ben Hecht’s Funny Valentine

I.        My heart performed a minuet in an ashcan.
–   Lionel Gans, Specter of the Rose

The line seems to keep uneasy company with “Here’s looking at you, kid”, or “Nobody’s perfect”; yet a memorable – possibly classic – line it is. It, and numerous others like it, were flung at the 1946 audiences of Ben Hecht’s Specter of the Rose, a scruffy-looking, garrulous, down-at-the-heels-looking valentine to the ballet world, and almost certainly the most nonslick production the old maestro of lean, limber storytelling ever committed to the screen. [1] A valentine, it would appear, that Hecht carried in his pocket for too long. Yet the antic, sour-sweet flavour of its mood tweaks the memory, now more than ever. Hecht, a screenwriter with and without credit, and script masseur for most of the major studios, contracted with a respectably poor relation – gaunt, grey Republic Studios – for (for him) a near-poverty-level $20,000 and 50 percent of the profits. Edgar G. Ulmer comes to mind, with his labours of love on the run among humble cultures: Green Fields (1937), Moon Over Harlem (1939), etc.

Hecht, though a mere visitor on Poverty Row, had his purpose well in view, I expect: a heimish, modest-scale underside view of the arts. Lower floor, rather than lower depths. The film opens with an epigraph, framed on a curtain:

Here’s to the Seven Arts
That dance and sing
And keep our troubled planet
Green with Spring.

The suggestion of a wall sampler is surely not coincidental. The curtain rises on a helicopter view of Manhattan; thence to a man (Michael Chekhov as Max Polikoff, out-of-pocket impresario) as he mounts shabby lodging house stairs, past a flaring wall inscription that points out the ballet studio of Madame La Sylph (Judith Anderson). Piano music sounds; the visitor, smiling, gestures to himself.

The film’s plot was a once-more-around-the-block airing for the often curtain-called shade of Nijinsky, whose image survives as logo for both neoromantic and philistine myths of Art as cradle for crazies. The poor devil must have performed non-stop pirouettes in his grave during a segment of the ‘40s. On June 6, 1946, three months before Specter’s New York debut of September 1, George Abbott launched one of his rare theatrical debacles: a drama entitled The Dancer, about the grief- and violence-prone career of, yes, a ballet dancer whose fatal indulgences included his Muse and his booze, in varying order. The authors were two long-weathered radio artisans: Julian Funt, chief author of the venerable soap opera Big Sister, and Milton Lewis, a voluminous contributor to various mystery radio shows, notably Inner Sanctum. Add curiosa: Inner Sanctum sometime later presented a half-hour adaptation of Specter, with Hecht as narrator.

Two years later the buoyant rococo largesse of The Red Shoes offers a similar vision of the arts (even to the climactic defenestration); seen as through a telescope’s opposite lens. The sunlit tragedy of Red Shoes neither cancels out nor even depreciates Specter’s mixture of small-time, ashen frustrations and jaunty defiance.

As in Hecht’s more acclaimed chronicle of show business turbulence Twentieth Century (1934, written in partnership with Charles MacArthur), the overall tone of Specter is one of very worldly distress, expedition and grappling (verbal only in Specter) with a maverick holdout. The latter, the ballet dancer Andre Sanine, offers a glum contrast with the tempestuous Lily Garland aka Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) of the older film. As played by first-time actor Ivan Kirov, Sanine at first view is steeped in melancholia, under self-imposed separation from his Muse, the dance. The sanction applies in force to the dance he is now requested to perform: “The Specter of the Rose”. His wife and former dancing partner, it seems, died after savage battery by Sanine, who still finds himself beset by the Specter’s mysterious toxic influence. As Sanine, a self-declared Hoosier by birth, Kirov’s delivery of his lines might have been dubbed by Henry Fonda in full prairie flower. Yet, in today’s memory, his disconsolate drawling reprise of his dormant, violent self echoes one-on-one television interviews.

He is flanked by one of the very few appealing ingénues Hecht ever presented in his female gallery: repressed professional women, fallen women (both portrayed by Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound [1945] and Notorious [1946], respectively), an occasional vapid Fair maiden, and various lovably spankable young mischief-makers and frauds: Hazel Flagg (the imaginary invalid of Nothing Sacred [1937]) and Daisy Marcher, eight-year-old author of an erotic blockbuster in Actors and Sin (1952). The vividness of Haidi the youthful ballerina reflects more credit, I expect, to Hecht’s casting instinct than to his writing. Viola Essen, a newcomer, galvanises her role, which offers little difference from Julie Haydon’s in Hecht’s The Scoundrel (1935): a love-smitten foil for a self-smitten borderline schizophrenic. I can hardly remember a line spoken by her; but her big, peering eyes and a smile at once gentle and rapturous (with an endearing hint of overbite) depict an innocent carnality that might well serve a Juliet. Her dancing mingles professional aplomb with a cultish delight that recalls the performances of Caterina Valente.

Remembering spoken lines is no problem where other cast members are concerned. The two reticent lovers wade through a tidal wave of voices. The story is founded on a second-degree murder and a suicide; but the tortured Sanine’s volcanic Muse doesn’t turn into Fury until the film’s final half-hour. Meanwhile, we are witnessing the colliding personalities of three elderly, rather unsuccessful people: Madame La Sylph the ballet mistress; Polikoff; and, prowling at the edge of their circle, the shaggy, black presence of homeless poet Lionel Gans, aka Maxwell Bodenheim (Lionel Stander).

The movie at times seems like a tragedy in which the chorus has seized stage centre with enduring grip. Indeed – as per Hecht’s intention, I’m sure – it is a chorale. The theme is an ancient one: the hapless pursuit of artistic dreams. One of Hecht’s favourite (literary) poses was that of a debonair romantic; but Specter looms in his work as a full-hearted and open-throated voicing of that sentiment.

His backup team, cast and technicians, gave major support to him here. Madame La Sylph sounds like a name from Leonard Starr’s old comic strip On Stage. Anderson, however, eschews camp with flinty authority. Hecht bestowed on her the sceptre (cane) and robe (knitted shawl) of Maria Ouspenskaya, who laid down the law of ballet to Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge (1940). La Belle Sylph’s voice is that of rumour and scandal; when Polikoff names a prospective backer for his show – a wealthy widow – La Sylph confides that she rescued Sanine’s wife from his assault though the victim succumbed afterward.

If Anderson rejected camp, Chekhov – in one of the great seldom-acknowledged performances of the decade – banqueted on it. Chekhov and Hecht had already demonstrated the delicate art of extracting humanity from a potential caricature in Spellbound; where Chekhov embodied the frenetic, white-goateed psychoanalyst to whom Ingrid Bergman brings her bespelled and beloved patient, Gregory Peck. Here, his appearance suggested his great-uncle Anton at an unattained old age. Polikoff, in his hectic animation and rollercoaster mood shifts, resembles one of the elder Chekhov’s comic leads.

Today he is, if anything, more noteworthy – with his fluting hands, his trilling exclamations (“The lovely smell of art”, he crows, entering the studio full of sweating, nascent ballerinas), and feather-footed gait. With no direct reference to his sexuality (of course), this elderly morning-coated and boutonniered enthusiast is one of the most forthright, unapologetic and sympathetic homosexuals ever seen in a Hollywood film. Neither a swanking priss like Franklin Pangborn nor a baffled wimp like Grady Sutton, Chekhov’s Polikoff is neither foil nor stooge; free from that booth of ‘otherwise’ humanity in which comic actors of minorities repeatedly found themselves. Polikoff is at large in Hecht’s world: a fervent and determined suitor of art, whose humour enlarges rather than deflects or diminishes our sympathies. His exclamation to the camera at one point: “Max Polikoff presents – what?” is the voice of comic heroism, worthy of Dickens; at once despairing and defiant. In him, Hecht’s ever ambiguous attitude toward art – quizzical, smiling, skeptical yet, at worst, tolerant – has hatched a minor miracle.

II.        The morning is an old laundryman who has forgotten my address.
–    Ibid.

To his cello (La Sylph/Anderson) and flute (Polikoff/Chekhov), Hecht, completing his chamber music trio, added a trombone: earthy, blatant, seemingly discordant – yet required. In life, Maxwell Bodenheim [2] was lean, wiry, with an aquiline handsomeness that became impressively hawklike in old age. Before his first representation by Stander (a walk-on in The Scoundrel), Bodenheim was reincarnated by Hecht in the character of Count Bruga, a not-unaffectionate lampoon of Bodenheim as a remittance man, Punchinello, and inveterate party-crasher. Count Bruga is the nom de société for Jules Gans (his surname in Specter, with Lionel replacing Jules). True to form, the character last appears in Hecht’s novel Count Bruga (1926), after a merry round of scurrilities and affronts, being forcibly ejected from his own testimonial dinner.

If anything, Hecht’s literary portrait of Bodenheim fell short of accuracy in its rosiness: a lovable if frisky Dionysian of tender spirit. By all accounts, Bodenheim, a genuine poetic talent influenced by haiku and French Symbolists, was a ferociously self-lacerating and ultimately self-annihilating man. In Stander’s personification for Specter, both the faunish mischief of the novel and the acrid grimness of real life have receded. This Bodenheim, however, remains a dark presence: a fifth wheel, interloper, and slouching rough beast in La Sylph’s ballet studio salon. He is also, however, an observant and perceptive bystander and occasional commentator. He adds, moreover, a strain of Beauty and the Beast to the fantasy cauldron of the others, in his unrequited devotion to the young ballerina.

But, beyond these aspects, Bodenheim/Gans is a special surrogate of Hecht. To understand his importance, one must recall that Hecht’s original short story “Specter of the Rose” ran something like ten pages. Sans dialogue, it was an elaborated anecdote told with the sardonic efficiency of Hecht’s journalism; an apt inclusion for his column in the ‘20s tabloid PM, titled 1001 Afternoons in New York. [3] Yet, in the concluding passage, where he describes Sanine’s suicidal leap through the window, a reverence enters his tone which the overall style of tough savoir-faire cannot hide. I believe that the story represents Hecht acknowledging the possibility of art as enormity; as something potentially overbearing and overreaching, beyond the tiny borders of craft or contract to which he, Hecht, was accustomed. By the same token, he must also have recognised his on-again, off-again friend Bodenheim as a genuinely committed artist, notwithstanding his frequent youthful buffooneries, or the sad trek of his final years as a Greenwich Village apparition. Stander, I think, is Hecht’s acting emissary to the world of Muses that exist beyond art-to-order.

The character was an outstanding bristle in the briar patch that the movie presented to numerous critics. The British critics of The Times, Spectator and Observer were at daggers drawn. A major obstacle to their swallowing, according to numerous quotes, were aphorisms by Bodenbruga, including those cited above. They were delivered, probably needless to say, in Stander’s patented pickled-brine voice. It was a tough-guy growl combined with the mocking precision of the churlish louts with whom Stander had become identified. Indeed, Gans was probably his last straight role before Roman Polanski’s use of him in Cul de Sac (1966) twenty years later. His voice exacerbated the challenge offered by his epigrams: slightly swaggering, even flashy, yet apt as they emerge. They contribute to a reminiscent, deep-Manhattan voice which was not confined to Stander. They are both fantastical and self-mocking and, as such, recall an ancient genre which had survived to that day: the Yiddish poetry of Jacob Glatstein, Moshe Leib Halpern, I.L. Peretz. But the tone of raffish elegance had left its imprint on Manhattan culture through the work of many of Hecht’s contemporaries: the lyrics of Larry Hart, Cole Porter and innumerable Tin Pan Alley minstrels; Hecht’s onetime supporter and latter-day detractor George Jean Nathan; e.e. cummings; across the Atlantic, Gerald Kersh; also Henry Miller; whoever produced the daily columns signed by Billy Rose in PM; and God knows how many more – James Agee in the ‘40s probably wound up that parade. When Specter of the Rose made its debut, that remarkable stylistic tide was already receding. By 1950 we would be left with the stodgy Coward-Maugham reheatings of that hot air feast All About Eve.

I remember sharing the more negative responses as a teenager at Brooklyn College; yet my frank embarrassment at the then-unfamiliar or rather unfamiliarly situated poetics never overcame my lingering curiosity and teasing recollections. Seeing it again some years later, and reviewing it in memory, subsequently have brought forth one (to me, at least) important result. I’m referring to the realisation that some films are best appreciated in memory. I am not referring to the distortion or misrepresentation that memory performs like a busy cosmetician. I am rather speaking of memory as a wise old bartender; one that blends and stirs the seemingly inharmonious into a recognisable and pleasurable focus.

III.        Your body … is an exclamation point after the word beauty.
–     Ibid.

George Antheil’s musical score belongs among the finest in sound films. Unlike so very many movie scores, it resembles neither a vigilantly barking dog, nor yet an obtrusive, hectoring voiceover. An all but ubiquitous accompaniment to the unceasing dialogue, it evokes the murmur – the varied tones, the business – of Specter’s cultural microcosm as effectively as an operatic score. Then – as the menace of Sanine’s reviving psychosis bulks between the lovers – the score marches forth in fine, black bravura.

Any appreciation of Specter must include a salute to Hecht’s invaluable and longtime collaborator (and, here as elsewhere, co-director), cameraman Lee Garmes. Hecht himself has done so, in his autobiographical reverie A Child of the Century (1954). To echo and enlarge on him is a welcome task. Garmes is one of the screen’s visual masters. His special, multiple function here is to convey a sense of place in terms of light, varying shades of grey, and above all textures: wood, plaster, fabric, skin. But beyond such strokes, Garmes realises a more exacting, more searching task, the ambience of the world which encompasses the world before us: the world of the city itself. This is a film consisting almost exclusively of interior views, and without flashbacks (as proscribed by Hecht’s elected budget). Garmes proceeds with a mixture of delicacy and alertness that recalls for me certain subsequently ignored and slighted films of the 1930s and ‘40s. I refer particularly to the films of Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert; not their critic-stopper Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), but others: Les Portes de la nuit (1946), Le jour se lève (1939). Item: an early morning scene veiled in grey light, on a lodginghouse stair between Gansheimer and an evangelistic little scenery painter, Kropotkin (George Shdanoff). The painter recommends Tolstoy as balm for the spirit; the poet replies with a Brugaesque epigram about the eagle retiring to a hencoop. Like Antheil, Garmes is ready for any summons to bravura; see the unabashed brilliance of his German Expressionist usages, as Sanine’s madness crescendos. One shot, as his black-pajamaed form glides through a door, cunningly evokes Conrad Veidt’s murderous sleepwalker Cesar in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919).

An earlier scene was cited by James Agee, in a generally unrapturous but judiciously approving review. [4] At the ballet couple’s wedding reception, Forebodingheim starts off the revels with an apostrophe to the wedding cake: “Your whiteness is like the silk lining of a coffin …”. His John Webster-like riff is followed by a rare example of Hecht’s low-voiced realism: a hitherto unnoted Broadway angel, a small garment centre businessman named Mr Lyons (Lew Hearn), delivers with luminous dignity and nonsmarmy humility his thanks and good wishes for this opportunity to support the arts. Throughout, Garmes’ camera permits itself no excess latitude: no floor shots, no looming, laughing close-ups; a tight, single angle focus on a small, crowded table in an Italian downstairs restaurant. After the backer’s speech the couple performs a celebration dance; the camera tilts very gently, along with the heads of the guests, as their shimmering blacks, whites and greys dance up the steps through the open door; into the haunting sliver of lamplit street glimpsed beyond them. Fade. Garmes has worked hand in glove with memory as I have tried to describe it: not cosmeticising, but focusing and tuning, this quirky but loving film of aspiration, fear, love and regret.

[1] The best introductory guide to Ben Hecht’s life and career is to be found at the website of Snickersnee Press, a company (run by Florice Whyte Kovan) exclusively devoted to publishing work by and about Hecht:

[2] Maxwell Bodenheim (1892-1954) was a once-celebrated, now rather forgotten American poet and novelist associated with the Greenwich Village Bohemians of the 1920s. With Hecht, he co-edited The Chicago Literary Times in 1923-4. His poetry collections include Against This Age (1923) and his novels include Naked on Roller Skates (1930). Bodenheim and his third wife, Ruth Fagin, were murdered in a flophouse, concluding their latter years of poverty, panhandling and prostitution. Hecht paid for the funeral; his 1958 play Winkelberg is also based on Bodenheim’s life. A extensive collection of Bodenheim’s poems can be found here:

[3] This collection of Hecht’s journalistic pieces, first published in 1922 and continued in 1926 in Broken Necks (1926), was reprinted by University of Chicago Press in 2009. See also the supplementary volumes published by Snickersnee Press, which emphasise Hecht’s writings on modern art, architecture and the movie business in this period.

[4] James Agee, Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies (New York: Modern Library, 2000), pp. 195-6.

© Donald Phelps December 2001

About the Author

Donald Phelps

About the Author

Donald Phelps

Donald Phelps is a prolific writer on art, film and popular culture. His books include Covering Ground (Croton Press, 1969) and Reading the Funnies (Fantagraphics, 2001), and he has written for Film Comment and Nemo.View all posts by Donald Phelps →