Prior to becoming a classic tale of a producer’s avaricious hunger to succeed in Hollywood, Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? proved to be a bombshell that ostracized the young writer (then 27) from many powerful players, and had him leave Tinseltown until the book’s success tempered the rage of studio bigwigs, and he was able to return wholeheartedly again to screenwriting.
Schulberg was practically born in the Hollywood power stream. Father B.P. Schulberg was head of production at Paramount, but even with dad’s influence, some of the studio brass – including Samuel L. Goldwyn – were convinced the young Schulberg had patterned the novel’s monstrous producer, Sammy Glick, after themselves.
In truth, Schulberg had been writing ‘behavioural notes’ on some of the weird but powerful people he encountered as a young man, shaping the character of Sammy Glick from those details, as well as his familiarity with producer Jerry Wald, who reportedly took the credit of other writers in order to further his own career as a writer/producer.
There were plans to film Schulberg’s novel for the big screen – a 1957 venture with Mickey Rooney replacing an interested by unavailable Frank Sinatra was the first effort – but TV seemed to offer the best hope of dramatizing the story for the masses.
The first production was a 1949 episode of The Philco Television Playhouse with a young Paddy Chayesfsky adapting the novel for the hour-long show, but it was NBC’s short-lived anthology series Sunday Showcase (1959-1960) that gave second life to the novel, telecast in the new RCA colour TV system.
More unusual was the production's decision to distill the novel into a two-part teleplay, creating a feature-length version of the story that was later rebroadcast in 1960 – an easy move, since the teleplay was shot on videotape. A kinescope was made of the 2-part broadcast, but for 46 years no one could find Part 2, until it was eventually discovered in a batch of recordings, labeled “Sunday Showcase.”
It’s a moment of great fortune, because factions of Hollywood have been trying to make a film version of Schulberg’s novel for years, and yet something always managed to muck up the proposals.
Co-stars of the 1959 teleplay, Barbara Rush and Dina Merrill, though, seem to feel Glick is nowhere as controversial as before because contemporary Glickian behaviour have made him an acceptable component of Hollywood, be it as an actor, agent, or studio executive.
One could cite the 1952 production of The Bad and the Beautiful as a variation of the novel’s theme, but Glick has no desire to be a hands-on filmmaker; the character loves being a power broker, and controlling a film, let alone a meager few, just aren’t as satisfying as running an entire studio, which Glick eventually manages to achieve.
Budd Schulberg, aided by brother Stuart, decided to trim down the novel’s subplot involving a young writer, Julian Blumberg (Milton Selzer), who tries to get credit for writing Glick’s first big success, as well as the intricacies of their quarrel that includes issues with the Writer’s Guild. The ’59 teleplay has a flashback structure that begins with Glick’s old mentor, writer Al Manheim (John Forsythe), reluctantly getting ready to attend an awards dinner with wife Kit Sargent (Barbara Rush).
Al keeps fixating on one question: What exactly makes Sammy Glick keep running so hard?
It’s a question that burns within Al because in order to justify his association with Glick – begun when Glick worked under him as a copy boy in New York – he must write a play built around a Glickian character, and Al needs to know the Why in order to complete the play, as well as understand his attraction to a man he finds despicable.
Wife Kit is more of a realist: Glick has made it possible for the small town girl to be successful so if and when she returns home to her family, she can do so with dignity and not be regarded as a sellout or failure, even though she knows her association with Glick is toxic. That’s probably why she bonds with Al, whom she respects for speaking out against Glick, as well as supporting her when she feels dirty from Glick’s behaviour.
The irony is that without Glick, Al would never have met Kit, and one suspects that’s one of the reasons the two remain civil with the monster: Glick pushed them together when he became bored with Kit and moved on to another woman – Laurette Harrington (Dina Merrill), daughter of studio owner H.L. Harrington (Sidney Blackmer).
The awards dinner essentially bookends the full teleplay, and the remaining scenes are unfold chronologically, with some periodic time leaps. Part of the teleplay’s success comes from the superb supporting cast that includes veteran character actor David Opatishu as studio production head Sidney Fineman, prolific character actor Selzer as the long-suffering scribe Blumberg, Jay Lawrence as Sammy’s loyal right-hand machete Sheik Romero, and Norman Fell (Three’s Company) as Sammy’s ‘secret brother’ Seymour Glick.
Delbert Mann’s direction is rock solid, packing dinner scenes with several extras, and coming up with dramatic angles that bring extra intensity to the story’s most important scenes, such as Glick discovering Laurette’s act of betrayal, and small moments where Al and Kit observe Glick working other power brokers in the distance. There are also some very potent scenes of anguish, notably a phone call between a lovesick Al and Kit, and Kit’s tearful confession of why she can’t leave Hollywood and take a gamble with Al in New York.
Irwin Bazelon’s score is part modern, part orchestral jazz, and suits the drama’s overall tone of good characters like Al and Kit slowly being tarnished by Hollywood most amoral elite.
The DVD transfer is probably as good as the teleplay will ever look, given kinescopes are literally filmed 16mm copies done off a TV screen – then the only way to preserve a live broadcast before videotape enabled shows to be archived for future use.
Why the original colour elements were never saved is moot, since a good chunk of live TV form the fifties and sixties no longer exist (video stock was reused, if not junked), and we’re lucky to have any copy of the original broadcast. That said, a lot of digital cleaning was used to keep the image stable from shot to shot, and the details vary from soft to fairly sharp. A small back dot remains constant through most of the teleplay’s final third, and some wide shots also reveal slight blurring at the edges, and the transitions from program to ad break bumpers are abrupt.
Also missing – maybe intentionally edited out of this copy – are the original ads by show sponsor Crest, which opens the teleplay with a note about a ‘startling’ featurette on kids and good dental hygiene that’s never seen in the DVD edit.
Koch Vision’s DVD is a beautifully produced release, though, and includes a full-length audio commentary by co-stars Rush and Merrill, who reminisce about the era of live TV drama, and reflections on their co-stars. It’s a lovely, very personable track that isn’t hard on historical details, but provides a glimpse into the routines of acting in a live show.
Rush points out a ‘curvy scene,’ where she, like the other actors, wore layers of clothes to be ready for fast wardrobe change for later scenes, and both ladies (now in their eighties) reflect on some of the talent of the era, including writers Reginald Rose (Twelve Angry Men), Rod Serling (The Comedian), and Paddy Chayefsky (Marty). Each also offers a few amusing anecdotes, and Merrill tells of her own difficult working relationship with another live TV director who moved into feature films, John Frankenheimer, with whom she worked in The Young Savages in 1961.
The DVD also includes a lengthy interview with Budd Schulberg, who covers key points of the book’s development, reception, adaptation for TV, and his brief association with the Communist Party that turned sour when bigwig and fellow screenwriter John Howard Lawson behaved quite imperialistic. (Schulberg’s replies in the taped Q&A are subtitled due to a speech issue.)
The 16-page booklet comes with good essays on the novel and teleplay, as well as an interesting chronology of various efforts to film what’s unintentionally become an unfilmable novel.
This DVD is part of KOCH / E1’s Archive of American Television series, the first real determined effort to liberate archived teleplays from the vaults and present them as historical documents of a great moment in television when live drama was a weekly event, and featured some of the best talent in front and behind the camera.
Schulberg’s best-known scripts are On the Waterfront (made in 1954, and also based on his novel), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and the underrated, nascent environmentislm film Wind Across the Everglades (1958). What Makes Sammy Run? was also made into a 1964 Broadway musical (!) starring Steve Lawrence.
Delbert Mann had already directed several popular teleplays as well as a few theatrical film counterparts (Marty), and would move deeper into film before returning almost exclusively to TV during the seventies and eighties.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan