Thursday, August 27, 2009

Budd Schulberg: “What Makes Sammy Run?”

Budd Schulberg died a few weeks ago at age 94. His was an eventful life: son of B.P. Schulberg, the head of Paramount Pictures in the 1930s, screenwriter (“On The Waterfront,” “A Face In The Crowd”), novelist (“What Makes Sammy Run?”, “The Disenchanted,” based on Schulberg’s friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald), communist when young, then a cooperative witness before HUAC, boxing writer, founder of the Watts Writers Workshop after the riots in Los Angeles in 1965.
As a novelist, “What Makes Sammy Run?” remains his most famous book. Written in 1941, the novel draws a scathing profile of a character of limitless ambition and limited ethics—a character as pertinent today as when first written. Describe someone as a Sammy Glick and you need say no more (assuming that your listener has some literary knowledge and is of a certain age).
The novel has never been filmed, although the rights were optioned a few years ago for Ben Stiller. But an excellent two-part TV version aired on NBC’s Sunday Showcase in 1959 with Larry Blyden as Sammy, supported by John Forsthye, Barbara Rush, Dina Merrill and the great David Opatoshu. Directed by Delbert Mann (“Marty”).
Appearing at the end of the Golden Age of television and produced in New York, the adaptation appears to have been videotaped, a technology then new to the medium (I may be wrong on this—perhaps it was shot live, but a few swift scene shifts indicate otherwise). To deal with time constraints, the novel has been compressed (gone is a sub-plot involving the formation of a writers’ union), but little is lost in the way of Sammy’s take-no-prisoners approach to life. Blyden is quite good, convincingly playing Sammy first as a young copyboy with boundless ambitions, then a man who over the years scrambles and cheats and connives to ultimately head a movie studio.
Schulberg took much grief for his friendly witnessing before HUAC, and “On The Waterfront” clearly can be interpreted as a defense for what he—and director Elia Kazan-- did. Marlon Brando’s Terry Molloy testifies against dock boss Johnny Friendly and his cronies, receives a savage beating but struggles up to the loading dock to report for work. Interestingly, Terry is less lucky in Schulberg’s novel, “Waterfront,” published in 1955, the year after the movie debuted. Shortly after testifying, Terry disappears, and Schulberg writes: “ . . . the remains of a human being were found in a barrel of lime that had been tossed on one of the multi-acre junk heaps in the Jersey swamps. The coroner’s report after the inquest attributed death to twenty-seven stab wounds apparently inflicted by an ice pick. No next of kin came forward. The lime-mutilated corpse was never identified. But the boys along River Street, pro mob and anti, knew they had seen the last of a pretty tough kid.”
But not, perhaps, as tough as Sammy Glick.


Blogger Ron said...

Delighted to stumble across your story and your wonderful blog, Vince. Especially lucky to hit you on this post. Assuming you've seen Schulberg's video Last Word among the NYTimes obits? I've been curating my own home film festival since 1999. More to the point, I blog about hyperbaric medicine and would like to interview you or (better yet) invite you to contribute a post about your experience. Healing as a path to self-betterment: I like that. Please get in touch if you're interested. Thank you. R

Ron Mills

12:58 PM  

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