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There's Something About 'Sammy.'

Hollywood May Finally Be Ready for 'What Makes Sammy Run?', Author Budd Schulberg's Scathing Indictment of the Film Industry. It's About Time.

September 06, 1998|MARY MELTON | Mary Melton is the magazine's research editor

What have you done? Samuel Goldwyn, his face flushed with rage, had just ordered the young screenwriter into his office. What have you done? For a brief, naive moment, Budd Schulberg shrugged it off. Sure, most of the folks in Hollywood couldn't stand the gruff producer: Goldwyn was outrageous, tantrums were de rigueur. But Schulberg liked him just fine. At least Goldwyn seemed happy with his work. In fact, he'd sent Schulberg to Ensenada the month before to take a load off and tinker with the sequel to "Stagecoach."

But on this afternoon, Goldwyn was hot--much hotter than Schulberg had ever seen him before. What have you done?

Schulberg's equilibrium was upset by a creeping sense of terror. What in the world provoked the old man?

"I'm talking about that horrible book you wrote!" Goldwyn shouted. The book. That scathing Hollywood diatribe about the fictional Samuel Glickstein, a Jewish ragamuffin from New York who Americanizes his name and claws his way up to studio mogul. That savage saga that Schulberg wrote on the side while under contract to Goldwyn--no longer a studio head but still a producing force to be reckoned with. That just-published novel titled--uh oh--"What Makes Sammy Run?"

Schulberg thought fast. Goldwyn couldn't have read the book--that's what underlings are paid to do--so someone must have told him, wrongly, that "Sammy" was based solely on Samuel Goldwyn, the former Samuel Goldfish. Schulberg launched a weak defense: "Sammy" was a mere composite, "Sammy" was a work of fiction, "Sammy" wasn't Samuel. Goldwyn, his face now purple with anger, was unimpressed. The screenwriter was quickly unemployed.

Schulberg, 27 and fired, skulked off the Warner Hollywood lot that afternoon in 1941 and headed to Chasen's for a scotch and soda. Though he downed a few drinks, he still could see through the alcohol haze. Patrons showed him the backs of their heads.

The Goldfishes who'd reinvented themselves as the Goldwyns still reigned over the studios. The transformation of Samuel Glickstein to Sammy Glick--from overeager copy boy to none-too-bright newspaper columnist, plagiarizing screenwriter, conniving producer and inevitably, thanks to a well-plotted marriage to the boss's daughter, studio head--wasn't taken metaphorically. A short time after the Goldwyn episode, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper bumped into Schulberg at Lucy's, the Paramount hangout, and stormed out with a "Humph!" Lifelong friends stopped talking to him. Then--as now--there's no sound more deafening than silence in Hollywood.

B.P. Schulberg, Budd's producer-father, had urged his son not to publish "Sammy." He admired the book, thought it was good stuff, professional, solidly written. But he worried that it would hurt his own career--and Budd's. This particular book, the elder Schulberg insisted, would be too scandalous. Bury that manuscript in a desk drawer, Buddy. Take a shot at another first novel.

"It might have been good practical advice," the 84-year-old son muses today, as he finds himself still struggling to turn "What Makes Sammy Run?", arguably the best novel ever written about the film industry, into a feature film.

From "Sunset Boulevard" to "Wag the Dog," Hollywood has held a cracked mirror up to itself with critical and financial success. Other books that skewered the studio system--F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon," Michael Tolkin's "The Player"--have been made into films by the likes of Elia Kazan and Robert Altman. Even Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust," possibly the most disturbing of the lot, made it to the screen, directed by John "Midnight Cowboy" Schlesinger.

So what's the hold-up on this one? It can't be a taste issue. This is the industry that can make art of splattered brain matter, sinking ships and severed horse heads, the same industry that gets sentimental over '70s porn. And yet Hollywood has still found little Sammy Glick from the Lower East Side too vile to stomach.

Until now.

Fifty-seven years after its publication, "Sammy" may finally emerge from turnaround.


"I get up in the morning and look out at those palm trees and the other big houses and I say to myself, Sammy, how did it all happen?"

--"What Makes Sammy Run?"


For the first time in four decades, Budd Schulberg's got a bestseller. Its name is "What Makes Sammy Run?", a title that suddenly re-materialized last month for one week on The Los Angeles Times' bestseller list. How does this happen to a book written before Pearl Harbor? By the same strange mechanisms that jettison a sorter from the William Morris mail room into the studio's stratosphere: Sammy's got buzz.

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