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A Salute to Charles Gordon MacArthur


“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers out there are starving!”

When Patrick Dennis’s fictional Auntie Mame uttered this pithy observation, she could have been speaking of Charles MacArthur. Charlie never shied away from the feast, and he certainly never went hungry.

Arriving in November 1895 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Charlie was the second youngest of seven children born to stern evangelist William Telfer MacArthur and Georgiana Welsted MacArthur. His early life was dominated by his father’s ministry, leading the family to travel cross country wherever the elder MacArthur’s calling took them. Charlie spent much of his time during those years hiding in the bathroom — the only place offering even a modicum of privacy for a member of such a large family — reading virtually anything he could get his hands on. He developed a passion for the written word that would last him to his dying day.

Resisting Reverend MacArthur’s insistent urging that his son follow him into the ministry, young Charlie left the family’s rural New York home soon after finishing high school. Heading off to the Midwest, he took a reporter’s job at The Oak Leaves, a suburban Chicago newspaper owned by two of his older brothers and run by his older sister. His first professional taste of crafting something for others to read whetted his appetite for even more.

Intently determined to pursue a calling which for him was as strong as the calling his father had heard, Charlie went to the City News Bureau of Chicago as the first step in his journey toward life as a journalist. Though only 19, the irreverent sense of humor and dislike for mindless authoritarianism for which he would later be so well known was already quite evident in the application he filled out for the job. In the space entitled “Tell us in exactly seventy-five words why you wish to become a reporter,” Charlie wrote: “I want to become a reporter more because I like the work than for any other reason. I feel that even if I should branch off in another profession, the experience obtained in getting up on your toes after news would be valuable. These are my reasons. More words would be useless.”

The excitement of working in brash and brawling pre-1920s Chicago didn’t quite satisfy Charlie’s hunger for something more, however, and he soon hooked up with General “Black Jack” Pershing, galloping off to Mexico to join in the hunt for the infamous Pancho Villa. When World War I broke out, Charlie joined the Army’s 149th Field Artillery, part of the Rainbow Division. During his time in France, he and his battery mate shot down a German plane with nothing more than a machine gun. Later in the war, Charlie sustained a mild shrapnel wound. In 1919 he penned his only book, A Bug’s Eye View of the War (later republished in 1929 by Harper Collins as War Bugs) about his unit’s adventures and misadventures during some of the most brutal and bloodiest fighting in history.

Returning to Chicago just in time for Prohibition, the Roaring 20s, and Al Capone, Charlie became one of Chicago’s most well-known and widely read reporters. He authored some of the most enduring pieces ever printed in the pages of the Chicago Tribune and Daily News. His style was inventive, charming, and witty. Readers couldn’t get enough. Once, when writing about a dentist accused of sexually molesting his female patients, Charlie chose the headline “Dentist Fills Wrong Cavity.” He also wrote several short stories, two of which, Hang It All (1921) and Rope (1923), were published in H.L. Mencken’s The Smart Set magazine. His star continued to rise, and he eventually headed off to the greener pastures of New York City.

Once settled in the Big Apple, he began to shift his efforts toward playwrighting. His first true Broadway success was in 1926 with the play Lulu Belle, written in collaboration with Edward Sheldon. It would later be remade into a 1948 movie starring Dorothy Lamour and George Montgomery. His next play, Salvation, written in collaboration with Sidney Howard, enjoyed a moderate Broadway run.

During the summer of 1927, Charlie and long-time friend and collaborator, Ben Hecht, rented the premises of the Nyack Girl’s Academy as a haven from which they could create their own special brand of playwrighting. Helen Hayes (the future Mrs. Charles MacArthur) would tell friends of times when she or Rose Hecht would visit to bring in food or other supplies for their men, and the building would be positively filled with shouts of laughter and merriment. The result of this seclusion was the 1928 Broadway debut of The Front Page.

The phenomenal stage success of The Front Page prompted Charlie to head to Hollywood and screenplay work. Having already developed such works as The Girl Said No, Billy the Kid, and The Unholy Garden, he hit the jackpot in 1931, first with the movie version of The Front Page (again collaborating with Ben Hecht), which won Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Lewis Milestone), and Best Actor (Adolphe Menjou), and then with the release of The Sin of Madelon Claudet, which netted a 1932 Best Actress Oscar for its star, Helen Hayes. The film also won awards at that year’s Venice Film Festival for both its leading lady and its director, Edgar Selwyn. Charlie’s screenplay for Rasputin and the Empress, the only movie ever to feature siblings John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore together in the same film, gained him his own first Academy Award nomination (in 1934, for Best Original Story).

Even though their efforts had turned mostly to filmmaking by this point, it was also during this period that Hecht and MacArthur produced their second smash theatrical effort, Twentieth Century, which debuted on Broadway in December 1932, and was later made into the well-received 1934 movie starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard.

Unhappy with the machinations of Hollywood’s fledgling film industry, however, MacArthur and Hecht decided to set up their own shop in Astoria, New York, producing, writing, directing, and even making uncredited onscreen appearances in a series of films such as The Scoundrel (poking fun at themselves by playing downtrodden patrons of a charity flop house) and Crime Without Passion (in which they portrayed — what else? — newspaper reporters). Their work earned much critical acclaim, culminating in the 1936 Best Writing (Original Story) Academy Award for The Scoundrel.

Their 1939 collaboration to turn Rudyard Kipling’s epic poem into the movie Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was recognized in 1999 by the National Film Registry, and their adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights garnered the two yet another Academy Award Best Writing (Screenplay) nomination in 1940. That year also saw the remake of The Front Page into the popular movie, His Girl Friday, starring Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant.

The advent of World War II prompted Charlie to interrupt his writing career and sign on in his country’s service once again. He began his second stint of service years as a Major in the Chemical Division, returning home at the war’s conclusion a Lt. Colonel.

By now the father of two children, Mary and James, and husband to The First Lady of the American Theatre, Charlie had amassed a considerable amount of fame in his own right, yet was still looking for something different. Resuming his theatrical and film work, he also took on the duties of editing and publishing the foundering Theatre World magazine, but left after little more than a year, dissatisfied with the politics and constraints of working in a corporate atmosphere.

The tragic loss of his 19-year-old daughter to polio in 1949 was a blow from which Charlie would never quite recover. Though he continued to work on screenplays and movie scripts up until his death in 1956, some of which enjoyed a modicum of success, he would never again completely recapture the freewheeling enthusiasm of his earlier days. When his son grew old enough to begin considering a career of his own, his father advised, “Do anything you like, son, but never become a playwright. It’s a death worse than fate!”

Charles MacArthur left behind a lasting imprint upon both those who knew him personally and those who knew him only through his published works. Supremely disdainful of anything even remotely false or affected, Charlie nevertheless did follow the path his father wished him to take, albeit in his own inimical fashion. His words carried a truth and sincerity few writers have been able to achieve. His unique mix of subtle irony, gentle sarcasm, and poignant pathos reached as deeply into his audience at least as well as any fiery sermon from a pulpit ever could.

As Ben Hecht said in the eulogy he delivered at his friend’s memorial service (and later expanded upon in his 1957 book, Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur), “Charlie was more than a man of talent. He was himself a great piece of writing. His gaiety, wildness and kindness, his love for his bride Helen, and his two children, and for his clan of brothers and sisters — his wit and his adventures will live a long, long while.”

©2003-04 curator@jamesmacarthur.com. All rights reserved. Please email for reprint permission.

Selected Writings:

Elegie: Ch. I, Ch. II, Ch. III, Ch. IV, Ch. V, Ch. VI, Ch. VII

Rope: Ch. I, Ch. II, Ch. III, Ch. IV, Ch. V, Ch. VI

The Chosen Vessel

The Ragged Stranger: Ch. I, Ch. II, Ch. III, Ch. IV, Ch. V, Ch. VI, Ch. VII, Ch. VIII

A Bug's Eye View of the War (republished in 1929 as War Bugs): Ch. I, Ch. II

Further Information:

The Internet Movie Database

Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur by Ben Hecht

The Stage Works of Charles MacArthur edited by Arthur Dorlag and John Irvine

A Gift of Joy by Helen Hayes

On Reflection by Helen Hayes

My Life in Three Acts by Helen Hayes

Our Best Years by Helen Hayes

Loving Life by Helen Hayes with Marion Glasserow Gladney

Helen Hayes: First Lady of the American Theatre by Kenneth Barrow

Front Page Marriage by Jhan Robbins

Plays currently in production:

Twentieth Century at The Diamond Head Theatre, Honolulu, Hawaii

Charles MacArthur

Charles MacArthur, James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

Charles MacArthur, Helen Hayes, Mary MacArthur, James MacArthur

Charles MacArthur, Mary MacArthur, James MacArthur

Charles MacArthur, Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

Charles MacArthur, James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

Charles MacArthur, James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

Charles MacArthur, Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

Charles MacArthur, Beatrice Lillie, Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

Charles MacArthur, Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

Charles MacArthur, Helen Hayes

Charles MacArthur, Helen Hayes

Charles MacArthur, Helen Hayes

Charles MacArthur

James MacArthur, Charles MacArthur, Helen Hayes

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