Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Scranton, Lackawanna County
Playwright and screenwriter, Scranton native Charles MacArthur shared an Academy Award for the script to The Scoundrel.
Awards: Academy Award
Charles Gordon MacArthur was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1895 and was raised in New York. When he moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1915 his literary career began to blossom. He started as a successful journalist at the Herald and Examiner. In the 1920s, he returned to New York and spent the next decade writing plays for Broadway. He evolved again in the 1930s and found an interest writing screenplays for Hollywood, often collaborating with other talented writers. He won one Academy Award and was nominated for two others. After years of failing health due to alcoholism, MacArthur died in 1956 in New York.
Journalist, playwright, screenwriter, film director, and author Charles Gordon MacArthur was born on November 5, 1895, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was the son of William Telfer MacArthur, an evangelical preacher, and Georgeanna Welstead. His father was very firm with him and his seven siblings while growing up. He reminisced about his father in an interview, “He was constantly uncovering some new streak of wickedness in us. He would line us up at night, all still hungry as wolves, and beseech God in a firm voice to forgive us, uncover our backs, and whale the hell out of us.” Already as a child, MacArthur was beginning to find his talent for writing. While the family was living in Nyack, New York, he attended Wilson Memorial Academy, a school that was to prepare him for the ministry. Here, a teacher encouraged MacArthur to enter a literary contest, which really made him aware of his desire to become a writer. In 1915, upon the death of his mother, he got the opportunity to chase his dream to Chicago, where he became a journalist. He worked very briefly for Oak Leaves in the suburb of Oak Park and for City Press in Chicago. In 1916, MacArthur put his career on hold to serve as a cavalry trooper with the Mexican border patrol in search of Pancho Villa. After a failed mission, the Illinois militia was sent home and MacArthur was sent to France to fight in World War I. During the war, he became very cynical, and this attitude was reflected in his accounts of battles and also in many of his future writings. During this time he said, “I don’t think God is interested in us after puberty. He is interested only in our births, for this requires His magic. Our dying requires only His indifference.” When MacArthur returned to Chicago after the war, he landed a job at the Herald and Examiner. His love-hate relationship with his editor, Walter Howey, was later reflected in The Front Page. Due to Howey’s blackmailing of a very high Illinois official, MacArthur was able to report many stories with the help of this very credible and cooperative source. He became the first reporter in Chicago to receive a salary of $100 per week. Ben Hecht, a fellow journalist and friend, commented, “Of all the young journalists drinking and slugging their way to fame in that day, Charlie was one of the most popular and attractive. Curly black hair, smoky eyes, a pointed nose, sledgehammer fists, a capacity for alcohol that won a nod from old-timers—these were Charlie MacArthur. Plus a firecracker mind and a vocabulary sired by the poets.” His good looks and wit, along with tales of his adventures and pranks, made him one of the most popular journalists of the day. In 1920, when MacArthur was 22-years-old, he married Carol Frink, a fellow journalist at the Herald and Examiner. Following his own ambitious dreams, he moved to New York in 1924 without his wife. Their relationship ended in 1926 with divorce. MacArthur’s move to New York brought about two significant life changes. First, he met his second wife, the future Academy Award-winning and Tony Award-winning actress Helen Hayes, whom he married on August 17, 1928. Secondly, he began to write for the stage. Before 1930, he came out with three theatrical hits: Lulu Belle, which he wrote with established dramatist Edward Sheldon, Salvation, which he wrote with also popular dramatist Sidney Howard, and The Front Page, which he wrote with Ben Hecht. The Front Page, MacArthur’s most popular work, is a farce about the life of an urban journalist, Hildy Johnson, and his struggles to undermine his competitors and maintain a relationship at the same time. It reflected MacArthur’s own real-life journalism experiences in Chicago with his own editor. In the story, Hildy quits his job and plans to run away and get married. The combination of his overbearing editor, Walter Burns, and his love for journalism and being the best almost sabotaged his chances at a happy relationship. The play was filmed three times and revived many more on stage. After The Front Page, MacArthur and Hecht realized their compatibility in writing and editing. Together they wrote Broadway plays, such as Twentieth Century (1932), Jumbo (1935), Ladies and Gentlemen (1939), and Swan Song (1946). They also wrote a patriotic pageant to promote the war effort in 1942, Fun to Be Free. In 1930, MacArthur’s life changed once again. On February 15, he and Hayes had a daughter named Mary. The two also later adopted a son, who grew up to become actor James MacArthur, who co-starred on the television series Hawaii Five-O and the movie Swiss Family Robinson. During this time MacArthur decided to turn once again to a new genre, screenwriting. Although he could make up to $50,000 for a screenplay (a lot more money and a lot less risk than with books and plays), he often had to rewrite scenes several times to please a director. Throughout the decade, he worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to write The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) and Rasputin and the Empress (1932). The latter was nominated for an Academy Award. In Hollywood, Ben Hecht reemerged with MacArthur to create some of their most successful screenplays, such as Crime Without Passion (1934), The Scoundrel (1935), Gunga Din (1939), and Wuthering Heights (1939). The two writers won an Academy Award for The Scoundrel and were also nominated for Wuthering Heights. MacArthur and Hecht also found new ways of making more cost-effective films by cutting down on retakes and camera setups. They also used musical recordings as opposed to hiring and recording a live orchestra for each film. After his final film, The Senator Was Indiscreet in 1947, MacArthur returned to journalism as the editor of a monthly theatrical magazine, Theater Arts. Before resigning in 1950, he reorganized the magazine and brought it out of financial trouble. In 1949, MacArthur’s daughter, Mary, grew ill and died of polio. Already a heavy drinker, he developed an even greater dependence on alcohol because of this loss. On April 21, 1956, he checked into New York Hospital for treatment of ulcers, nephritis, and anemia. The same day, at age 60, MacArthur died of an internal hemorrhage with his wife faithfully sitting at his side. At his funeral, friend and collaborator Ben Hecht delivered the eulogy. Hecht emphasized MacArthur’s compassion, wit, lust for life, and dislike of sham. He continued to praise MacArthur’s ability to perceive people in such a manner that people were drawn to him, although he never purposely attracted a crowd. Finally, Hecht declared that his friend had many more stories, which will remain unwritten. He said of his friend, “They were stories that added laughter and a sense of wonder to our time. From his youthful days to his last ones, Charlie was a man of adventure. He loved life and threw his wit at people and evens like a man scattering inexhaustible treasure. His mind grinned at sham. He played tricks on everything pompous and his heart stayed full of compassion for anyone in pain or misfortune.”
The Front Page. (with Ben Hecht) Times Square Theatre, New York. 14 Aug. 1928.
Twentieth Century. (with Ben Hecht) Broadhurst Theatre, New York. 29 Dec. 1932.
Lulu Belle. (with Edward Sheldon) Belasco Theatre, New York. 9 Feb. 1926.
Salvation. (with Howard Sidney) Empire Theatre, New York. 31 Jan. 1928.
The Scoundrel. (with Ben Hecht) Paramount, 1935.
Wuthering Heights.(with Ben Hecht) United Artists, 1939.
Gunga Din. (with Ben Hecht) RKO, 1939.
The Senator Was Indiscreet. United Artists, 1948.
The Front Page. (with Ben Hecht) New York: Covici Friede, 1928.
Ladies and Gentlemen. (with Ben Hecht) New York: French, 1941.
Fun to Be Free. Patriotic Pageant. (with Ben Hecht) New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1941.
DeMers, John. “Charles MacArthur.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 25: American Newspaper Journalists, 1901-1925. Ed. Perry J. Ashley. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1984.