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?”

Malvin Wald, a television writer I had interviewed at length for my oral history project, died on March 6 at age 90.  Malvin was a marvelous spieler.  Everything he said seemed to have a hook and a punchline, like he was pitching it to a story editor as a possible assignment.  You could tell immediately how he managed to amass all those hundreds of writing credits, and why he needed to take on a succession of junior writing partners just to keep up with them all. 

I’m not as certain why Malvin’s career remained firmly in the poverty row of schlock shows from Lock Up to Daktari – whether the quality of the writing never quite lived up to the enthusiasm of the pitch, or if the big break just never came – but as far as I could tell it didn’t bother him at all.  In his living room was a bookcase full of his Daktari scripts, bound in leather as if they had been The Defenders or Hill Street Blues.

Malvin, whose brother was the legendary producer Jerry Wald (the primary basis for Budd Schulberg’s character Sammy Glick), was a trove of Hollywood gossip and wasn’t at all hesitant about sharing it.  Even in his last years Malvin seemed to always have a byline in some obscure publication, usually some anecdote about the movie business or his days in the First Motion Picture Unit (the group of Hollywood types, including Ronald Reagan, who made training films at Hal Roach Studios during World War II). 

When I dropped by his Sherman Oaks house one sweltering day in 2004, Malvin’s coffee table was littered with these – magazines, books he’d written intros for, liner notes – piled up alongside the formidable tray of prescription pills he was taking.  And he proferred suggestions about how I might get into print very aggressively, calling me out of the blue with ideas for months afterward. 

Malvin had an odd, macabre sense of humor, too: He used to have an obituary for the jazz pianist Mal Waldron taped to his front door, with the “-ron” crossed out.  Now the “Mal Wald” obit is for real, but I’m glad that I was able to record a detailed Q&A about the former’s television career that will eventually be published.

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