Fantazius Mallare by Ben Hecht
100th Anniversary of Decadent Novel by America’s Greatest Screenwriter
Hard-boiled Chicago journalist Ben Hecht and dirty doodler Wallace Smith went to a great deal of trouble to have themselves convicted of obscenity for producing the inflammatory decadent novel Fantazius Mallare. They wanted to challenge federal obscenity laws and have a grand show trial in order to sway public opinion. Hecht also intended to enter a million-dollar civil suit for defamation of character against John Sumner and his infamous Society for the Suppression of Vice if Sumner attacked his book. The famous Clarence Darrow was to have been their attorney. The plan was to send review copies of Mallare to all of the literary stars of the time, and then have Darrow call these people as expert witnesses at the trial. The co-conspirators were arrested and indicted for sending obscene material through the U.S. mail. Their plot fell apart. Sumner was silent. Friends and colleagues didn’t want to be bothered. Only H. L. Mencken agreed to appear as a witness. In the end there was no trial because Hecht and Smith entered a plea of nolo contendere. They were fined $1,000 each ($16,600 today). Books were confiscated. Hecht lost his journalist gig. They did however generate a lot of publicity and became a 1922 U.S. version of Wilde and Beardsley–decadent prophets of languor.
The Decadence Movement in America with its self-conscious artifice, stylistic ornamentation, cosmopolitan sophistication, carefree irreverence and erotic innuendo was articulated first by the Saltus brothers, Francis and Edgar in the 1880s and 90s. They were America’s chief enthusiasts of European Decadence; dastardly dandies hell bent on educating their fellow countrymen about European high culture, Schopenhauer, and the avant-garde. In America this movement wouldn’t reach its height until the late 1910s and early 1920s with figures like James Gibbons Huneker, Carl Van Vechten, Aldous Huxley and Ben Hecht, writers who were described as the “exquisites” and “the sophisticated school.” Decadence 2.0 included elements of the emerging modernist movement which included more self-aware, introspective reactions to industrialization, urbanization and new technologies. Unreliable narrators, interior monologues and stream of consciousness rantings were working their way into literary works. Femmes fatales and wicked dandy-aesthetes wallowing in corruption, perversion, and sin in high society, were common themes but characters outside of the cultural elite were also being chronicled… people seeking sensual pleasure but without the money of the leisure class.
While working his beat as a crime reporter for the Chicago Daily News, Hecht, “haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, madhouses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls, and bookshops.” It was during this time that he wrote novels Erik Dorn, Gargoyles, and Fantazius Mallare and the play The Wonder Hat. He also published 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, a compilation of more than 60 columns written for the Chicago Daily News, stories “from the glittering opulence of Michigan Avenue to the darkest ruminations of an escaped convict, from captains of industry to immigrant day laborers.”
Fantazius Mallare chronicles a genius sculptor’s descent into madness. No novel could be more easily placed in the decadent tradition than Mallare, which Hecht aptly described as “ornamental disenchantment.” In his early years, Ben Hecht waved the Épater la bourgeoisie (shock the middle class) flag with glee. He railed against salt of the earth America raised on “decent, Santa Claus literature.” He wrote:
Novels are written as a reaction to the stupidity of 90 percent of humanity…We write novels as a protest. These lies and distortions about us inspires us with a desire to correct… There is nothing between artists and people who are not artists. Novelists write out of a contempt for life, out of a revulsion toward people.
The character Fantazius Mallare became a sort of Hecht alter-ego. He appears again in the sequel, The Kingdom of Evil, and in 1935 Hecht wrote and directed a film, The Scoundrel, in which Noel Coward plays Mallare.
Edgar Saltus claimed in an 1889 essay “The Future of Fiction” that America would one day develop its own literature that would emerge from the wreckage of European culture. It would be Ben Hecht who would herald not only America’s own literature, but an altogether new form of literature–screenwriting. America’s decadence style and values would in the 20s and 30s dissipate into Hollywood cinema and pulp fiction. No one took up the mantel, no one invented the format more than Ben Hecht. For his first screenplay, the silent film Underworld he received the first Academy Award for Best Story. Hecht successfully and easily made the transition from silent film plot “scenarios” to writing screenplays for talkies with deft descriptions of the the scenery and action along with elaborate plots, story arcs, camera positions, music, sound effects and dialogue. For over forty years Ben Hecht was the most prolific of all screenwriters receiving screen credits alone or in collaboration for the writing of some 70 films including Scarface, Gunga Din, based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling, Wuthering Heights, The Front Page which was originally a stage play and which has been produced as a film four times, and Spellbound for director Alfred Hitchcock. Hecht was script doctor for another 70 films including the ever-popular Gone With the Wind. In total, six of his movie screenplays were nominated for Academy Awards, with two winning.
Fantazius Mallare has been reprinted many times in its century of existence with a stylish paperback version coming out in 2001 by Frugoli & Taylor. The most pungent and eviscerating writing in the novel can be found in the introduction which Hecht dedicates to his enemies. It inspired Ginsberg’s masterpiece “Howl.”