Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: What Makes Sammy Run?, by Budd Schulberg

The notorious novel of a Hollywood heel!

What Makes Sammy Run?

Bantam, 1941, 288 pages

Every one of us knows someone who runs. He is one of the symptoms of our times-from the little man who shoves you out of the way on the street to the go-getter who shoves you out of a job in the office to the Fuehrer who shoves you out of the world. And all of us have stopped to wonder, at some time or another, what it is that makes these people tick. What makes them run?

This is the question Schulberg has asked himself, and the answer is the first novel written with the indignation that only a young writer with talent and ideals could concentrate into a manuscript. It is the story of Sammy Glick, the man with a positive genius for being a heel, who runs through New York's East Side, through newspaper ranks and finally through Hollywood, leaving in his wake the wrecked careers of his associates; for this is his tragedy and his chief characteristic-his congenital incapacity for friendship.

An older and more experienced novelist might have tempered his story and, in so doing, destroyed one of its outstanding qualities. Compromise would mar the portrait of Sammy Glick. Schulberg has etched it in pure vitriol, and dissected his victim with a precision that is almost frightening.

When a fragment of this book appeared as a short story in a national magazine, Schulberg was surprised at the number of letters he received from people convinced they knew Sammy Glick's real name. But speculation as to his real identity would be utterly fruitless, for Sammy is a composite picture of a loud and spectacular minority bitterly resented by the many decent and sincere artists who are trying honestly to realize the measureless potentialities of motion pictures. To this group belongs Schulberg himself, who has not only worked as a screen writer since his graduation from Dartmouth College in 1936, but has spent his life, literally, in the heart of the motion-picture colony. In the course of finding out what makes Sammy run (an operation in which the reader is spared none of the gruesome details) Schulberg has poured out everything he has felt about that place. The result is a book which the publishers not only believe to be the most honest ever written about Hollywood, but a penetrating study of one kind of twentieth-century success that is peculiar to no single race of people or walk of life.

What Makes Sammy Run? was one of the earliest "Hollywood" novels, and the story behind its author and its publication is almost as interesting as the novel itself. Hollywood in all its shameless, greedy, whoring, narcissistic, pandering, hypocritical, venal glory is condensed into the figure of a single man, and over 70 years after its publication, Hollywood still will not film this book.

Budd Schulberg grew up surrounded by the biggest names in Hollywood. His father, B.P. Schulberg, was the head of Paramount Studios, with colleagues like Louis B. Mayer, of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, and Randolph Hearst. Budd Schulberg, like his old man, was a liberal at a time when Hollywood was a very conservative town. This caused trouble when What Makes Sammy Run? became a surprise best-seller. With its sympathetic treatment of the Writers' Guild (Hollywood still regarded unions as a communist front — and at that time considered this a bad thing...), and its title character who had half the town convinced they knew who the "real" Sammy Glick was, Schulberg made enemies with long memories. His own father uttered those immortal words "You'll never work in this town again," and years later, John Wayne still wanted to challenge Schulberg to a fight.

But if you think What Makes Sammy Run? is too dated to be of interest to anyone except those with an interest in Hollywood history, you're very wrong. This was a fantastic book, funny, brilliant, and profound, with deep and fascinating characters, and an anti-hero who's one of the most entertainingly sleazy snakes you'll ever read about.

"I'll keep my ear to the ground for you, kid. Maybe in a couple of years I'll have a chance to slip you in as a cub reporter."

That was the first time he ever scared me. Here I was going out of my way to be nice to him and he answered me with a look that was almost contemptuous.

"Thanks, Mr. Manheim," he said, "but don't do me any favors. I know this newspaper racket. Couple of years at cub reporter? Twenty bucks. Then another stretch as district man. Thirty-five. And finally you're a great big reporter and get forty-five for the rest of your life. No, thanks."

I just stood there looking at him, staggered. Then...

"Hey, boy!" And he's off again, breaking the indoor record for the hundred-yard dash.

Al Manheim is the narrator, introducing us to young Sammy Glick, a copy boy with ambition. At the start of the novel, Manheim is a reporter at a New York City paper, and he's trying to figure out what makes this kid Sammy so eager. Sammy runs and runs and runs, and Manheim describes Sammy's capers as he shamelessly lies, cheats, and plagiarizes, promoting himself with the amoral genius of the truly narcissistic. He stabs his "patron," Al, to get a newspaper column of his own, and when a young writer comes to him with a story idea, Sammy calls up a big-name Hollywood agent, having no idea just how ridiculous his temerity is. His sheer chutzpah prevails, and soon he is saying goodbye to the Big Apple and hello to Hollywood, leaving behind his friends, his family, his abandoned fiancee, and the guy who wrote the story he's now launching his career with.

There was a lull. Sammy was staring across the room at George Opdyke, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. I was about to say he was lost in thought, but Sammy was never really lost, and he never actually thought, for that implied deep reflection. He was figuring. Miss Goldblum edged her undernourished white hand into his. Sammy played with it absent-mindedly, like a piece of silverware.”

Al manages to snag a Hollywood writing gig himself a little later, and soon he's also making more money than he ever did as a reporter, but watching Sammy outstrip everyone. When Sammy becomes a $500-a-week writer (big money in the 30s!), he's seething with dissatisfaction because he knows some writers are making $2500 a week. When he becomes a $2500/week writer, he wants to join the inner circle of $5000/week writers. And when he joins them... well, who the hell wants to be a mere writer, bottom of the Hollywood totem pole, when the big money and power comes from being a supervisor, a producer, a studio head...

Sammy keeps running, and Al is there to witness it. Sammy Glick never writes a word himself or has a single original idea, yet he manages to keep rocketing up into the big time while Al trails behind him, modestly successful, held back by his own basic decency, a trait for which Sammy mocks him contemptuously and yet makes him his confidant, since whenever Sammy does something lowdown and dirty, it's only Al he can confide in.

Sammy's rise is the epic quest of an anti-hero. He's a louse, a creep, he is... in the immortal words of Daffy Duck:

Sammy Glick is a shameless monster who can only ever imagine trying to get more than he has, by any means necessary. Al Manheim will never admit that his appalled fascination is also an obsession. Sure, Sammy is a consciousless backstabbing weasel, but it's not just moral indignation that has Al trying to figure out what makes Sammy run. Even after he sleuths around and finds the Jewish ghetto where Shemuel Glickstein grew up, he continues to regard Sammy with a mixture of disgust and pity, and he continues to be the closest thing Sammy has to a friend.

I thought of Sammy Glick rocking in his cradle of hate, malnutrition, prejudice, suspicions, amorality, the anarchy of the poor; I thought of him as a mangy puppy in a dog-eat-dog world. I was modulating my hate for Sammy Glick from the personal to the societal. I no longer even hated Rivington Street but the idea of Rivington Street, all Rivington Streets of all nationalities allowed to pile up in cities like gigantic dung heaps smelling up the world, ambitions growing out of filth and crawling away like worms. I saw Sammy Glick on a battlefield where every soldier was his own cause, his own army and his own flag, and I realized that I had singled him out not because he had been born into the world anymore selfish, ruthless and cruel than anybody else, even though he had become all three, but because in the midst of a war that was selfish, ruthless and cruel Sammy was proving himself the fittest and the fiercest and the fastest.

Besides the darkly comic character of Sammy, and the glimpses of Hollywood culture in the 1930s, What Makes Sammy Run? is just a pleasure to read for its study of characters — Sammy of course is the star, but Al, his girlfriend Kit, and all the other characters who come into their orbits, mostly as victims of Sammy, each become fully realized, sometimes with only a few lines. Schulberg is an outstanding writer with a true screenwriter's eye for dialog.

“Never talk to waiters like that," Kit said.

"Can I help it," he said, "if I only went one year to finishing school?"

"It isn't manners," she said like a sensible schoolteacher quietly disciplining a small boy, "it just isn't smart."

I thought of the time I first told him not to say ain't. He took this the same way, a little peeved but making mental notes. I noticed he was never too much of an egotist to take criticism when he knew it would help. It was part of his genius for self-propulsion. I was beginning to see what Kit had for Sammy. Of course she stood for something never within his reach before. But it was more than that. Sammy seemed to know that his career was entering a new cycle where polish paid off. You could almost see him filing off the rough edges against the sharp blade of her mind.

By the end of the book, Sammy has climbed almost as high as he can imagine (and it certainly won't be high enough), he's become a major Hollywood player with a beautiful trophy wife, and Al Manheim has, perhaps, figured out what makes Sammy run.

I thought of all the things I might have told him. You never had the first idea of give-and-take, the social intercourse. It had to be you, all the way. You had to make individualism the most frightening ism of all. You act as if the world is just a blindfold free-for-all. Only the first time you get it in the belly you holler brotherhood. But you can't have your brothers and eat them too. You're all alone, pal, all alone. That's the way you wanted it, that's the way you learned it. Sing it, Sammy, sing it deep and sad, all alone and feeling blue, all alone in crowded theaters, company conventions, all alone with twenty of Gladys's girls tying themselves into lewd knots for you. All alone in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, with power and with Harringtons till death parts you from your only friend, your worst enemy, yourself.

In an author's postscript, Schulberg relates that for the first few decades after his novel was published, Sammy Glick was regarded with fear and loathing, a sleazy anti-hero who was the personification of Hollywood's id. But in the 1980s, young film students and aspiring screenwriters started coming up to him and thanking him for creating Sammy as an inspiration for their careers! Schulberg, still a liberal after all those years, was appalled. One wonders if he'd still want this book to be made into a movie.

The book that Hollywood still won't film.

What Makes Sammy Run? is made for a film treatment (Schulberg's other credits include On the Waterfront), and after 70 years, Hollywood still doesn't want to touch it. Despite several attempts to make a movie, so far it has only ever appeared as TV and theater productions. One version, NBC Showcase's 1959 broadcast, is available on Netflix.

NBC's "Sunday Showcase": What Makes Sammy Run? (1959)

What Makes Sammy Run?

Although some of the bite was taken out of this TV production, it kept enough of Schulberg's original dialog to make it a good treatment. While a number of plot points were omitted and there's little of the novel's subtlety when it comes to characterization, it's a faithful adaptation, and the character of Sammy is brash and shameless and fun to watch chewing up the screen. But it still doesn't really do Sammy justice. Hollywood needs to find a producer with the balls to get What Makes Sammy Run? filmed in all its Hollywood-bashing glory.

Verdict: An outstanding, funny, tragic, and entertaining novel about a despicable main character who epitomizes every venal Hollywood stereotype, and an excellent read for the prose and dialog as well as the characters. What Makes Sammy Run? is still appalling and entertaining; it may be about Hollywood in the 30s, but Hollywood is still full of Sammy Glicks. 10/10 and highly recommended!

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, highly recommended, movies, netflix, reviews

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