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August 13, 2009

What Makes Sammy Run?

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Delbert Mann - 1959
Koch Lorber Region 1 DVD

The DVD has been around for a couple of months. The recent death of Budd Schulberg hastened my viewing this version of What Makes Sammy Run? sooner. There hasn't been much writing about the teleplay since its release, perhaps because most of what needs to be said has been in reference to the novel. Still, a few thoughts . . .

It's Budd Schulberg's script from his novel, cowritten with brother Stuart, that makes the television version of What Makes Sammy Run? worth watching fifty years after the original broadcast. The kinescope version on DVD is at times crude in quality. What is presented is a black and white version of a show that was seen in color for those households that owned those large wooden boxes with the oddly rounded screens. As one who grew up acquainted with Julian Beck and Judith Malina, I winced at the words by the off-screen announcer, "Living theater in living color". I have read the book, quite a few years ago, when there were rumors of a remake with Tom Cruise that perhaps fortunately was never made. The novel was published in 1941. The television play produced in 1959. Schulberg's novel and teleplay may have been meant as a cautionary tale about the price of success, but a glance at the current state of Hollywood would indicate that Sammy Glick is alive and well. Even though the story takes place from the 1930s to the then present day, there is a vagueness about the settings and costumes that makes the story seem to take place in a constant current moment.

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Though religion isn't stated, it is also about being Jewish in America. A young Sammy Glick states he doesn't want to be dumb like his father who eked out a living in New York City's Lower East Side. A later Sammy Glick states he doesn't want to be dumb like his brother, making a modest living, enjoying his work teaching art. What drives Sammy is a success that cannot be doubted, that is so enormous, that it eradicates any of the barriers regarding class, education or ethnicity. The two women in Sammy's life are shiksa ideals, the educated, literary Kit Sargent, and the blonde, wealthy Laurette Harrington. Sammy's idea of success may be seen as conforming to stereotypes, but it is a stereotype that persists to this day. Apparently Samuel Goldwyn had trouble seeing beyond the title, and assumed that he was the real Sammy of Schulberg's novel. Goldwyn seems also to have been the source for pegging the novel as anti-Semitic. While Sammy Glick may be interpreted as personifying the most obvious negative example of the Jewish go-getter, he is counterbalanced by Al Manheim, the drama critic who is Sammy's reluctant best friend and Schulberg proxy, and Sidney Fineman, the paternal studio chief, a warm-hearted soul unlike the real life Louis Mayer or Harry Cohn. It is also notable that nominally Jewish Sammy Glick and Al Manheim are played by two non-Jewish actors, Larry Blyden and John Forsythe.

What really struck me was a line by Glick, about the movie business, "We sell products, not personalities". The films produced by Sammy Glick seem to be reworkings of other movies, either some kind of change of character or plot that is derived from an older movie, or a movie that is made to cash in on the publicity of a rival studio's film by covering a similar subject but getting to the theaters first. An example of the first kind of film is described by The Siren with an excerpt from the novel. An example of the second kind of film is when Glick discussed making a "submarine picture" with his two favorite writers, Manheim and Sargent, because another studio has a film about to go into production. Not unlike stories relayed about current studio executives, Glick is unaware of past productions, having to have Manheim and Sargent describe Rain. Were Sammy Glick alive today, he would chuckle at two studios with competing films about a giant earthbound asteroid, and might even describe even one film about Truman Capote as mashugana.

The big change in Hollywood productions where real life goes beyond what even Sammy Glick imagined is how marketing dictates what films are being produced. The actual film is almost an afterthought. One might be hard pressed to describe exactly what makes a film directed by Shawn Levy different from one directed by Adam Shankman, but they are the type of filmmakers that are successful in present day Hollywood. The financial stakes have become so absurdly high that some recent films would have to earn back at least half a billion dollars to reach the break even point. Mainstream films literally can not afford anything as idiosyncratic as a director's point of view. While Hollywood studios always had to answer to New York City bankers, when Schulberg wrote his novel, the studios were essentially independent entities. With the studios all now subsidiaries of much larger corporations, the wheeling and dealing by Sammy Glick seems almost genteel.

The teleplay ends with Sammy Glick running off to be honored for his humanitarian efforts. Back in 1959, this may have seemed like rib poking irony. Fifty years, the most shocking thing about What Makes Sammy Run? is how the worst aspects of Hollywood that Budd Schulberg attacked are also the most deeply ingrained.

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Posted by peter at August 13, 2009 12:32 AM

Comments

It was always rumored that 'What Makes Sammy Run?' was a 'roman a clef' on the career of Screenwriter/Producer Jerry Wald. Since Schulberg's other novels have some analog in the real world, I tend to believe it; though I don't believe he ever admitted it as such (some names, it seems, cannot be named).

Posted by: Tom Sutpen at August 13, 2009 04:50 AM