What Makes Sammy Run?

September 30, 2009

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The best vintage TV artifact I’ve seen lately is “What Makes Sammy Run,” a two-part adaptation of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel.  Shot on videotape for the prestige anthology Sunday Showcase in 1959, this version of “Sammy” was considered partially lost for decades, until the recent discovery of the second half at the Library of Congress.  The complete show has now been released on DVD by Koch (which produced last year’s historic Studio One set), along with substantive extras detailing its production and rediscovery.

I’ve always thought that Schulberg’s novel has been somewhat overpraised.  Schulberg was only twenty-seven when he published What Makes Sammy Run?, and his blunt prose style is sometimes grating.  His characters never take on any life beyond whatever symbolic purpose Schulberg has for them, and the debt owed to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a heavy one.  Still, in Sammy Glick, Schulberg created a pop-culture archetype.  Was Sammy’s unapologetic avarice and boundless self-regard something new in 1941?  I can’t answer that, but the name of Sammy Glick has been an all-too-useful shorthand for a certain aspect of our common character ever since.

Sunday Showcase cast a relative unknown, Larry Blyden, as Sammy.  But the director, Delbert Mann, and the top-billed star, John Forsythe (two seasons into his run on the successful sitcom Bachelor Father), were big names.  Blyden and Forsythe are both terrific, and their performances emphasize what I think is the most complex element of Schulberg’s novel.  Forsythe’s character, Al Manheim, is a New York theater columnist-slash-playwright, and a flattering surrogate for the reader in his reactions to Sammy.  Manheim is sophisticated, talented, introspective, and in every way Sammy’s moral and intellectual superior.  But Glick surpasses or co-opts Al at every turn.  That’s why Manheim becomes obsessed with the question that the novel’s title poses.  Sammy, for his part, feels safe around Al because he poses no threat, and exempts him, to an extent, from his Machiavellian maneuvering.  When Sammy more than once calls Al his “best friend,” he’s sincere – Al is the closest thing to a friend that a Sammy Glick can have – but for Manheim the phrase carries a bitter irony, because Sammy represents everything he despises.  Centrally, Schulberg’s manifesto is that philistinism will always trump refinement.  The message and the messenger may be elitist, but in a culture that gives us Fox News and reality shows, how can one not rally around Manheim’s point of view?

The TV “Sammy” opens and closes with an on-the-nose framing sequence, structured to make it clear that despite his own eventual success Al remains forever obsessed with Sammy.  Apart from that, the teleplay, by Budd Schulberg and his brother Stuart, stays remarkably faithful to the source.  Even elements of the novel that would have had to be excised for a feature film adaptation somehow escaped NBC’s censors.  “Sammy” displays a sexual frankness far beyond anything I’ve seen in fifties television.  Laurette Harrington, Sammy’s trophy bride, retains the sexual perversity that proves critical at the climax.  There are a couple of shocking throwaway lines – one in which a starlet casually explains how she whored her way to the top, and another in which Sammy arranges a threesome – that add to the deliciously seamy atmosphere.  The Sunday Showcase casting – Blyden, Norman Fell, Milton Selzer, David Opatoshu – also leaves little doubt as to the Jewishness of Schulberg’s characters, a touchy subject among critics (Sammy Glick has been called an anti-semitic caricature) and one that a film version would certainly have played down.

The only area where the TV “Sammy” goes soft is in its depiction of unionization.  Schulberg’s book includes a thinly veiled chronicle of the formation of the Screen Writers Guild (now the Writers Guild of America), a bitter struggle that’s also the subject of Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s excellent non-fiction account The Hollywood Writers Wars.  In the novel, the Guild story vies with Sammy’s rise to power as the most significant storyline.  The Schulbergs’ teleplay drops the matter entirely apart from briefly identifying Kit Sargent (the all-purpose leading lady, a Dorothy Parker-ish writer and love object for both Al and Sammy played by Barbara Rush) as one of the Guild’s founders.

I’ve never seen anyone else advance this idea, but it seems obvious to me that Kit Sargent is in part a version of Virginia “Jigee” Ray, Schulberg’s wife during the period when he wrote What Makes Sammy Run?  Jigee, otherwise a forgotten figure, emerges as the heart and soul of Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s book.  A beautiful, confident, and sexually free-spirited young dancer and intellectual, Jigee led a Communist Party study group among the Hollywood movie crowd in the late thirties.  Before (and perhaps after) she settled down with Schulberg, Jigee was courted actively by Milton Sperling and Ring Lardner, Jr., and less successfully by other notable writers.  No less than seventeen of the men Schwartz interviewed for her book confessed to having been in love with Jigee, who appears as a character not only in Sammy but in Lardner’s The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, Arthur Laurents’s A Clearing in the Woods, and Irwin Shaw’s Two Weeks in Another Town.  She may also have been partly the basis for the Barbara Streisand character in The Way We Were, written by Laurents.

Understandably, Schwartz became fascinated with Jigee, whose tragic (and all too literal) flameout can be seen as a perverse metaphor for the demise of the Hollywood progressive movement during the McCarthy period.  After a marriage to another screenwriter, Peter Viertel, and an affair with Ernest Hemingway, Jigee became a desperate alcoholic and, like Schulberg, a fink for the House Un-American Activities Committee.  She burned to death in 1960, after setting her nightgown on fire with a cigarette while drunk.  It was only four months after Sunday Showcase broadcast its version of “Sammy,” and I wonder if Jigee tuned in.

In an interview for the DVD, Schulberg claims that he dropped the Guild story from his teleplay because it was less dramatic than Sammy’s scheming.  That may be true.  But I wonder if NBC, even as it turned a blind eye to the other adult elements of the show, balked at dramatizing the formation of a union that had been fingered (wrongly, of course) as a source of Soviet infiltration at a time when the blacklist was still in force.  In the same interview, Schulberg finally confirms a rumor about which he had often been coy: that the producer Jerry Wald was his primary model for Glick.  The other half of that legend, which Schulberg does not discuss, is that the relationship between Glick and his long-suffering ghostwriter Julian Blumberg derived from an incident of credit-stealing involving Wald and Julius Epstein (sometime before Epstein and his brother Philip wrote Casablanca and became top Hollywood writers).  I mention this as a way of pointing out that, in Schulberg’s book, Sammy is not just a force of all-consuming evil.  He represents a type of unfettered capitalism for which Schulberg offers organized labor as a solution.  Dropping the Guild angle removes “Sammy” from its political context and, I think, weakens its impact.

One other curious flaw in the TV “Sammy” may derive from its union-phobia; at least, I can’t conceive of any other explanation for it.  For television, the Schulbergs opted to update the novel to the then-present day – but only partially.  The fashions are pure fifties, Tennessee Williams gets name-checked as the hot ticket on Broadway, and Monique Van Vooren’s trampy starlet character Zizi Molnari (not in the book, as I recall) is a rather cheap and ungentlemanly burlesque of Zsa Zsa Gabor.  But the plot retains elements that only make sense in the thirties: Sammy’s journalistic success as a radio columnist (hardly a beat for an up-and-comer by the fifties, although making Sammy a TV reviewer would have made a lovely irony); the importing by the bushel of reporters and playwrights to write for the talkies; the Golden Age backdrop of movie studios led by all-powerful moguls, as yet unchecked by the threat of television; and of course the lowly status of pre-unionized writers.  The agent Sammy cold-calls to launch his Hollywood career is still Myron Selznick, who died in 1944, just before Williams’ first stage success.  So the TV “Sammy” plays out in a weird and factually impossible netherworld of both pre- and post-war Hollywood.

My favorite moment in Larry Blyden’s career-making performance – even in his game-show host phase, he played variations on Sammy for the rest of his life – occurs when Sammy eavesdrops on Al and Kit during a phone call he has set up to bring the estranged lovers back together.  “They’re puttin’ the knock on me,” he coos.  “I love it!”  Blyden understands Sammy’s absence of shame; he’s as uninhibited as the character.  The irony is that by today’s standards Schulberg’s “Sammy,” like Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, doesn’t go far enough.  Sammy experiences a downfall, of sorts, at the end, when his shiksa bride betrays him sexually.  But Sammy’s vulnerability at the hands of this cruel blonde goddess seems characteristeric of a mid-century type of assimilation fantasy that’s now passé.  A modern Sammy would be more likely to shrug off Laurette’s promiscuity, or else join in.  Nothing would phase him.

“Sammy Glick kind of won the debate,” Schulberg admits in the DVD interview, which was recorded ten months before his death in August.  Schulberg’s most potent line occurs in the epilogue to “Sammy,” and appropriately, it’s Sammy who says it: “Sure, Al,  . . . but what about the other question?  The real question?  What makes you, and you, and all the rest of you, run after me?”

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The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of television writer Mort Thaw on May 3.  He was 87.

Thaw sold his first script at the age of thirty-four, to the television anthology Cameo Theater.  It was a prototypical example of a live television drama: intimate, earnest, and personal.  Entitled “Company,” it was the story of a young aspiring writer who resists his mother’s efforts to fix him up with a nice girl from the neighborhood.  More autobiographical scripts followed.  “The Amateur” (for Matinee Theater) extrapolated from Thaw’s own experiences as a contestant on a radio amateur hour program, and “Honest in the Rain” (for the U.S. Steel Hour), about a middle-aged woman with a gambling problem, may also have taken inspiration from real life.  For a time prior to his initial success as a writer, Thaw supported himself at the racetrack and at the craps table in Reno.

What fascinated me about Thaw’s career when I interviewed him in 2003 was how self-consciously he plotted entry into television.  After startling his friends and family with an abrupt move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Thaw enrolled in a night class on TV writing at Hollywood High.  He could not afford a television set himself, so Thaw would stand in front of shop windows in the evenings and watch the plays by Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling as they were staged live on Studio One or the Philco Playhouse.  Thaw told me that he emulated these plays deliberately, and that’s probably why “Company,” though it draws upon Thaw’s own life, also sounds conspicuously like “Marty.”

Unfortunately for Thaw, he sold “Company” in 1955.  By that time, even though it was only six or seven years after the beginning of the modern television industry, the doors that had let in unknowns like Serling and Chayefsky were beginning to close.  That was one of a second and somewhat forgotten wave of live television writers.  For the most part, as the dramatic anthologies folded, the members of this group either adapted to a more commercial type of writing (as Richard DeRoy did), or they got out of the business. 

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Ed Asner and Michael McGreevey in “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad.”

Thaw fell somewhere in the middle.  He continued to sell scripts to popular shows, and became typed slightly in the crime and mystery genre; he wrote for The Untouchables, The Detectives, and CHiPs, as well as The Waltons and Emergency!  Occasionally, Thaw could slip in something characteristic of his own sensitive touch into one of these mainstream shows.  One of his finest works is “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad,” a Route 66 about a Jewish boy’s crisis of faith after his father’s sudden, senseless death.  But an Ironside with a Jewish theme, featuring David Opatoshu as a rabbi distraught over the theft of some Torah scrolls, came across as overwrought and somewhat silly.  There were some genre shows into which character-driven writing would not go.

(Thaw never discussed his Judaism with me, and downplayed its significance in an interview with author Elliot B. Gertel.  But Del Reisman, story editor of Matinee Theater, recalled an intriguing pitch of Thaw’s which never came to fruition, a story in which an old-world immigrant father was driven literally crazy by his son’s alteration of a single letter in the family name.  That, too, came from Thaw’s own life; he had changed his surname from Thau.)

In our conversation, Thaw seemed resigned to the modesty of his career, proud of his favorite scripts and bitter about the disappointments.  His film career was a succession of missed opportunities.  Paramount optioned the film rights to “Honest in the Rain” and assigned fledgling producer Alan Pakula to the project, but Pakula dropped Thaw’s screenplay in favor of another one derived from a live teleplay, Fear Strikes Out.  Thaw was the original writer on High Jungle, the MGM adventure picture that shut down after its star, Rawhide’s Eric Fleming, drowned on location in the Amazon.  In the end Thaw wrote only one produced feature, the forgettable Harrad Summer, and remained angry about the results of a Guild arbitration over the screen credit (which he shared with Steve Zacharias).  In the nineties, Thaw and his best friend for more than fifty years, Ed Robak, collaborated on a play about Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill called Together.  A Lincoln Center staging almost came together with Anthony Perkins and Thaw’s close friend Lois Nettleton as the stars, but Perkins’s final illness thwarted the production.

Thaw’s contemporaries probably remember him less for his work as a writer than for his prolific service to the Writers Guild; many of his Guild acquaintances would, I’ll wager, be pleasantly surprised to learn that Thaw was a writer of some talent.  Reisman, a past president of the Guild, told me that Thaw’s most important work was on the Tellers Committee, which monitored the tabulation of votes in Guild election.  It was a thankless task, subject to frequent accusations of incompetence or chicanery, and may explain why Thaw was somewhat press-shy when I approached him for an interview.  I am slightly surprised that the WGA, which issued a lengthy press release enumerating Thaw’s accomplishments when it awarded him the Morgan Cox Award for distinguished service in 1996, has not run an obituary on its website.

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Raymond Burr and David Opatoshu in “L’Chayim.”

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