Monday, September 19, 2011

What Makes Sammy Run?

As I've written about before in this space, when I was a young graduate student at Columbia, I had a relationship with Budd Schulberg, the Hollywood screenwriter who wrote "On the Waterfront," "The Harder they Fall," and "A Face in the Crowd."

Schulberg also wrote a great American novel, "What Makes Sammy Run," which followed the rise and rise and rise and rise of Sammy Glick, an amoral conniver who would do anything to get to the top of the Hollywood heap.

(Schulberg knew whereof he wrote. His father, B.P. Schulberg was head of production at Paramount Pictures after Irving Thalberg died at 38. Budd was writing alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald while he was still in his early 20s.)

All this was rattling through the recesses of my head when the 1959 NBC television broadcast of "What Makes Sammy Run" arrived at my apartment the other day. The novel was one of my favorites when I was young, and though I haven't read it in 30 years, it holds a nostalgic place in my heart. What's more, I often think of a line from the novel, "going through life with a conscience is like driving with your brake on." A line that seems so relevant so often, whether you're in Hollywood, advertising, politics or in love.

In any event, I just watched the movie. And one moment hit me as being a genuine bit of genius. It involves Sammy stabbing his mentor in the back. Burying Sidney Fineman, casting him as old, obsolete, washed up. The way Sammy kills him is an art form. It is murder by Rembrandt.

STUDIO MONEY MAN: Mr. Glick, there's no point in hiding the fact that we're contemplating some changes in our organization here. And we feel that your record entitles you to a voice in that reorganization.

GLICK: That's very kind of you sir. I feel it's only fair to tell you how much I've learned from assisting Sidney. He's been like a father to me. In fact, he's taught me everything he knows.

STUDIO MONEY MAN: Perhaps he's given you all he has to give. He's certainly let too many expensive flops slip into the program this past year.

GLICK: Mr. Harrington, only a genius could produce 40 pictures a year without coming up with some turkeys. Sidney Fineman has done some great pictures.

STUDIO MONEY MAN: I appreciate your sentiments, of course. But frankly the real purpose of my visit is to determine if his recent record is good enough.

GLICK: Mr. Harrington, you put me in a very difficult position. I don't like to speak about my superiors especially a man like Sidney Fineman, a man who was such a pioneer in this business. I mean, he goes way back to the nickelodeons.

Maybe the scene acts better than it reads. But if you've got a spare 1:47 hanging around, I highly recommend "What Makes Sammy Run" from "The Archive of American Television."

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