Horace Liveright/Noel Coward/Ben Hecht

THE SCOUNDREL, written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with Noel Coward (1935, 76 min.)

Interesting to discover from Alfred Kazin’s AN AMERICAN PROCESSION -–specifically, from the beginning of his chapter about AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY and THE SOUND OF THE FURY -– that Horace Liveright, the onetime publisher of Dreiser, was “the model for Ben Hecht’s maliciously engaging film THE SCOUNDREL“. Having recently reseen and again hugely enjoyed the second feature codirected as well as cowritten by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, starring Noel Coward in the title role as Anthony Mallare (apparently his first film part, unless one counts his uncredited cameo in Griffith’s 1918 HEARTS OF THE WORLD), I’d been wondering how much of this memorable antihero was attributable to the imaginations of the writer- directors and how much came from life.

Hecht directed or codirected seven features in all, starting with the equally mannerist CRIME WITHOUT PASSION (with its deliriously campy avant-garde prologue) in 1934 and concluding with the rather awful ACTORS AND SIN (codirected by Lee Garmes) in 1952. All of them are difficult to find nowadays, though I’ve managed to track down a few from various Mom and Pop operations on the Internet. If memory serves, I’ve seen all or almost all of them in prints at one time or another -– I’m less sure about ONCE IN A BLUE MOON (1935) -– and it’s hard to think of many other American movies that are quite as eccentric in their fancy rococo dialogue and sometimes tortured artistic pretensions. (Less pretentious than most of the others but also less fun is his and MacArthur’s 1936 anti-Marxist comedy SOAK THE RICH.) The best known is probably his only solo effort, SPECTER OF THE ROSE (1946), thanks in part to Pauline Kael’s enthusiasm, but THE SCOUNDREL remains my favorite, with CRIME WITHOUT PASSION and ANGELS OVER BROADWAY close runners-up. Among THE SCOUNDREL’s incidental delights are wonderful bits by Lionel Stander and Alexander Woollcott, the latter playing a character known as Vanderveer Veyden. [6/5/08]

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