Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Forgotten Books: What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

Ed here: I was fourteen when I read What Makes Sammy Run. I bought it off the same wire rack where I bought some of my science fiction and mysteries. The back cover copy interested me enough to open the book. I liked the smooth realistic style of the book so much I finished it by the time I went to bed that night.

Budd Schulberg's take on American Success stories is more relevant than ever.


"Told in first person narrative by Al Manheim, drama critic of The New York Record, this is the tale of Sammy Glick, a young uneducated boy who rises from copy boy to the top of the screenwriting profession in 1930s Hollywood by backstabbing others.

Manheim recalls how he first met the 16-year-old Sammy Glick when Sammy was working as a copy boy at Manheim's newspaper. Both awed and disturbed by Sammy's aggressive personality, Manheim becomes Sammy's primary observer, mentor and, as Sammy asserts numerous times, his best friend.

Tasked with taking Manheim's column down to the printing room, one day Glick rewrites Manheim's column, impressing the managing editor and gaining a column of his own. Later he steals a piece by an aspiring young writer, Julian Blumberg, sending it under his own name to the famous Hollywood talent agent Myron Selznick. Glick sells the piece, "Girl Steals Boy", for $10,000 and leaves the paper to go to work in Hollywood, leaving behind his girlfriend, Rosalie Goldbaum. When the film of Girl Steals Boy opens, Sammy is credited for "original screenplay" and Blumberg is not acknowledged.

Glick rises to the top in Hollywood over the succeeding years, paying Blumberg a small salary under the table to be his ghost writer. "

Ed here: Glick reminds me of so many CEOs on Wall Street. They ride a rigged system that allows them to preen and pose and steal. They produce nothing. And what Glick does to poor Julian Bloomberg is exactly what Wall Street has done to us.

Budd Schulberg is above all a great reporter as well as a great storyteller. Mannheim shows us the Hollywood of that era from the from offices that are run like war rooms to the constant attempts by the studio magnates to break writers every way they can to the ridiculously glitzy parties. The people we like in Sammy--and there are a lot of them; generally the people who do the actual work--are rarely invited to the splashy parties of course.

Just as Billy Wilder was attacked by studio heads for writing producing Sunset Boulevard, so was Schulberg attacked for Sammy.

From American Legends:

"When published in 1941, What Makes Sammy Run? was a best seller and was praised by Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, and Dorothy Parker who said the book captured the "shittiness" of the film business.

Sammy hit Hollywood like a firestorm. Louis B. Mayer attacked the novel publically and privately and vowed to run Schulberg out of town. He almost succeeded. Budd was fired from the Samuel Goldwyn Studios where he was then working, and it was several years before he landed another screenwriting job.

Some critics feared that the book would contribute to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Hollywood mogul or provide ammo to those who were persecuting the Jews of Europe.

Schulberg strongly objected to this criticism. To him, Sammy represented the dark side of the Horatio Alger legend: someone who was an "all- American heel," regardless of religion.

Indeed, Sammy himself was areligious, as well as apolitical and amoral. When a company informed him that it was not hiring "Hebes," without missing a beat, Sammy passed himself off as an Italian- American."

Ed here: Schulberg is especially good writing about women and the book boasts at least three fascinating females who offer interesting takes on all the would-be macho business games the men play.

To me this is one of the most vital novels of its era. It certainly spawned hundreds of imitators; none ever as good. And it shows how eloquent the American tongue was when used skillfully. As Mark Twain said write the way you talk and Schulberg certainly does that here.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Got it.

JJ Stickney said...

I recently read Schulberg's nonfiction collection on Boxing, was so taken I went out bought everything I could find by him. Sammy is on my TBR pile.

Terrill Lee Lankford said...

I just finished watching the DVD of the live TV version of SAMMY from 1959. There's also an interesting interview with Shulberg that was taped just about a year before he died and a commentary track by Dina Merrill and Barbara Rush. (Barbara dominates the track and barely lets Dina talk, which is a shame because Dina is the one who really knows all the dirt about everything from those day.)

The only flaw I see in this material is the idea that Sammy Glick is an unusual character. He seems to be the rule in Hollywood (and much of corporate America), not the exception.

Ed Gorman said...

In the novel the only people we like are the creative ones, Terrill. The suits are assholes. I see these guys interviewed on cable shows and they're as swollen with megalomania as Trump.

Anonymous said...

Later Shulberg got into a fracas with Ernest Hemingway, and I wish I could remember what that was about. It had to do with boxing. Maybe someone will help me recollect.

Terrill Lee Lankford said...

A lot of the creative types in this town are Sammys too, Ed. But yeah, the suits are the worst.