No Time for Schnorrers: Budd Schulberg on What Makes Sammy Run?

     Budd Schulberg was born in New York City in 1914 and literally grew up with the film industry. His paternal grandfather had fled Czarist Russia to escape the terrible pogroms that periodically swept that country--a land in which his grandson later wrote, even the surfs "looked down" on the Jews. (Budd Schulberg, Moving Pictures, New York, Stein and Day, 1981)

     Budd's father, Ben, grew up poor, on the Lower East Side, and received his education in the city's streets and at its college--CCNY--where he devoured the English classics. Later, in Hollywood when he was earning $11,000 a week as Paramount's West Coast chief of production, Ben--renamed B.P.--
stocked his impressive library with rare editions of Dickens and Tennyson which he read aloud to young Budd and his two siblings.

     Growing up, Budd heard stories of the early days when movies were shot in vacant lots in the Bronx or the wilds of New Jersey. These flicks, as they were known, sometimes ran a minute or less and were shown in penny arcades. A few years out of City College, Ben Schulberg went to work as a scenarist for Edwin S. Porter who had made one of the first movies, The Great Train Robbery.

     The bustling penny arcades soon attracted the attention of a number of Eastern European born businessmen looking for new investments. One such immigrant was Adolph Zukor who had been orphaned as a child in Hungary and had risen from poverty to become a prosperous furrier in his adopted land.

     After Zukor's first visit to an arcade, he remembered thinking: "A Jew could make a lot of money at this." (Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, New York, Crown Publishers, 1988)

     It was not long before Zukor realized there was more money in film production. He formed a company, Famous Players, based on the novel idea of using established Broadway actors in movies. Zukor hired Edwin S. Porter as his house director, and Ben Schulberg came along as press agent.

     Many of the patents relating to film-making were held by Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the electric light and the phonograph. The patents were controlled by the Thomas Edison Patents Trust whose directors zealously guarded them. Although the Trust had a token Jewish director or two, some of the top officials were anti-Semitic and refused to even meet with Jewish upstarts, like Zukor or Jesse Lasky,  to discuss their revolutionary plan to make long feature films.


     Adolph Zukor had learned to fight in settlement house boxing matches on the Lower East Side, and he quickly squared off against the Trust. To avoid process servers, the producer posted a scout outside the makeshift set where Porter was shooting The Prisoner of Zenda.

     Zukor also outfoxed the Trust in the courtroom. Hoping to save a few dollars, Edison had neglected to register his patents in Europe, and he lost the rights overseas. Zukor exploited this loophole by importing foreign films which added to his company's prestige.

     In 1916 the Supreme Court invalidated the Trust's patents. It was "our Yorktown," Budd Schulberg later wrote of the decision that threw out the Trust's monopoly and ushered in a new era of freedom.

     It was a heady time in filmmaking history. There were mergers--and raids; in-breeding--and back stabbing.

     Adolph Zukor lured Mary Pickford away from Biograph, a Trust studio, at the fabulous salary of $250,000 a year. Zukor's press agent wizard christened Mary "America's Sweetheart," and the young beauty with the blonde ringlets became the country's first movie star. Soon Mary was holding up Mr. Zukor for more money.

     The economic strength of the old Trust was not lost on Zukor--and others--and they consolidated their power. Zukor merged his operation with another production company, headed by Jesse Lasky, a congenial former California reporter, and Lasky's abrasive brother-in-law, a Russian born Jew named Goldfish.

     Zukor and Lasky then swallowed up a distributor, taking its name for their new company: Paramount.

A great Sammy?


     During the war against the Trust, Lasky and his director, Cecil B. DeMille, shot movies in Southern California to escape the Edison people's subpoenas. The year-round sunshine proved ideal for filmmaking. After the Zukor merger, Lasky remained in Los Angeles while Zukor headed up the East Coast operation with brother-in-law Goldfish.

     Zukor and Goldfish both had healthy egos, and they constantly were at loggerheads over the direction to take the company. Finally, Goldfish withdrew in a huff and left for the West Coast where, under the name Samuel Goldwyn, he became a powerful independent producer-- a studio unto himself.

     Later, when Budd Schulberg wrote his unflattering portrait of Hollywood, What Makes Sammy Run?, Goldwyn offered him several hundred thousand dollars not to publish the novel.

     An outraged Goldwyn told the young prince, to whom Hollywood had given so much, that he was "doublecrossing the Jews." (Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, London, Headline, 1986 ed.)

     As a child, Budd Schulberg considered Adolph Zukor a "surrogate grandfather," and father Ben remained the producer's "trusted lieutenant."

     But Ben was not satisfied knocking out press releases. He decided to form his own studio around the country's leading actors and came up with a name: United Artists.

     Along with a top Paramount official, Ben resigned to Zukor's great dismay and traveled to California to pitch his proposal to Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin.

     Adeline Schulberg urged her husband to "get it on paper," but Ben ignored his wife's warning.

     Out in L.A., Douglas Fairbanks, an otherwise nice goyische boy, took the idea and ran with it--shutting Ben out completely.

     Ben Schulberg was young--only 27. He bounced back. With a modest lawsuit settlement, Ben set up shop and was soon turning out silent movies from a studio on Mission Road in the old Spanish section of Los Angeles.

     To cut his overhead, Ben shared expenses with another producer, Louis Mayer, a former junk dealer from Canada who had come to boomtown Los Angeles to try his luck in the movies. They called their operation the Mayer-Schulberg Studio.

     Mayer was tough, a two-faced. For years, he would terrorize actors and studio employees alike. Budd Schulberg later referred to him as "a Jewish Himmler."

     One day Ben Schulberg arrived at the studio to discover that Mayer had decamped. The producer had disappeared overnight, taking his entire operation with him, including a young assistant named Irving Thalberg.

     It turned out that Mayer had been negotiating secretly with Marcus Loew, a theater magnate, to take over two foundering studios Loew controlled: Metro, and another operation Loew had inherited from Sam Goldwyn. 

     The new company--renamed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer-- was soon flying high while Ben Schulberg remained on Mission Road stuck with the entire rent for the Mayer- Schulberg Studio.

     "Never trust anybody in this business," Adeline Schulberg used to tell her husband--an admonition that her son, Budd, must have had in mind when he created Sammy Glick, the prototype Hollywood conman who was perpetually in motion (and usually scheming).

     Adolph Zukor was a rough customer; a relative referred to him as "a shark." Zukor once fired an employee for  exaggerating his skill at bridge. Yet, the old man hired Ben Schulberg back as Paramount's chief of West Coast production at a princely salary.

     Zukor's decision was practical. He knew he needed Ben if Paramount was to compete with MGM whose production chief, Irving Thalberg, the so-called "boy wonder," was turning out movies with clockwork precision. Thalberg was a Brooklyn-born momma's boy, but around the MGM studio they said he "could piss ice water."

     From 1925 to 1932 B.P. headed production at Paramount, and young Budd had a catbird's view of the workings of a major studio.

     As a teenager, notebook in hand, Budd sat in on story conferences and wandered around the lot, talking to directors and actors, as well as studio blowhards who  hung around the commissary, scooping up other people's ideas and passing them off as their own--just like Sammy Glick would do in Schulberg's novel.

     Paramount had its share of stars--Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert--but the studio could not catch MGM. Irving knew how to delegate, Adeline would complain to her husband, while Ben surrounded himself with "schmucks" and gambling cronies.

     Moreover, increasingly, Ben spent his time trying to make a star of his mistress, Sylvia Sidney, a pretty Jewish girl from New York, whom he put in City Streets, and other productions.

     The Depression hit Hollywood at an inauspicious time. Studios were already overextended from wiring their stages for sound and were caught in a crunch when attendance dropped.

     Paramount's stock plummeted to one dollar. Overnight, Jesse Lasky, Ben Schulberg's immediate boss, lost everything, including his oceanfront mansion.

     Backed by Chicago money, new investors deposed Zukor and removed Schulberg as production chief. No other major studio opened its doors for Ben. Louis B. Mayer saw to that.

     By the late 1940s Ben was picking up work as a publicity man for an independent company. He told writer Ezra Goodman that he planned to write a book on Hollywood that "could top What Makes Sammy Run? easily." Ben's novel was still unfinished at the time of his death in Miami, in exile, in 1957. (Ezra Goodman, The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1961)

     Budd Schulberg was in school in the East when the ax fell at Paramount, and he was spared some of his father's humiliation, though he never forgave Hollywood.

     After graduating from a local high school, the future author attended Deerfield Academy for a year, then enrolled at  Dartmouth College.

     At Deerfield, Budd experienced anti-Semitism for the first time. The Schulberg family had not been very religious, and, as a teenager, Budd did not think of himself as Jewish. At Deerfield, he sensed that some students "looked down their Aryan noses" at him and that even the headmaster was uncomfortable in his company.

     When the headmaster lectured Schulberg about, "You people in Hollywood," Budd knew he meant, "You Jews in Hollywood."

     At Dartmouth Budd wrote for the school paper and studied sociology. Later, What Makes Sammy Run? was adopted as a sociology textbook at the college.

     After graduation, Schulberg worked as a novice screenwriter for David Selznick and Walter Wanger, a Dartmouth alumnus who, in the labyrinthine ways of Hollywood, had once jousted for power with B.P. at Paramount.

     The film colony had not changed in Budd's absence. At a cocktail party, Schulberg casually told another young writer about a story he had for a movie. A few days later Budd read that his sympathetic listener had sold the idea to a studio.

     As a hobby, Budd began collecting anecdotes about the young pirates of Hollywood, circa 1936.

     The movie business was still in the grip of the Depression. Labor and management battled it out on every lot. It was a vintage year for someone who was young, ambitious, and cunning.

     In short order, Schulberg sketched out a character based upon several real life individuals: Sammy Glick, a poor boy from the Lower East Side, who had no time for schnorrers as he pushed his way to the top.

     "I'm catching the express now, baby," was the way Sammy put it to his chief nemesis, a rabbi's son with a bad case of morality.

     Sammy made his debut in a series of short stories Schulberg wrote for Liberty magazine. Bennett Cerf of Random House, and Saxe Commins, his top editor, encouraged Schulberg to expand the stories into a novel.

     When published in 1941, What Makes Sammy Run? was a best seller and was praised by Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, and Dorothy Parker who said the book captured the "shittiness" of the film business.

     Sammy hit Hollywood like a firestorm. Louis B. Mayer attacked the novel publically and privately and vowed to run Schulberg out of town. He almost succeeded. Budd was fired from the Samuel Goldwyn Studios where he was then working, and it was several years before he landed another screenwriting  job.

     Some critics feared that the book would contribute to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Hollywood mogul or provide ammo to those who were persecuting the Jews of Europe.

     Schulberg strongly objected to this criticism. To him, Sammy represented the dark side of the Horatio Alger legend: someone who was an "all- American heel," regardless of religion.

     Indeed, Sammy himself was areligious, as well as apolitical and amoral. When a company informed him that it was not hiring "Hebes," without missing a beat, Sammy passed himself off as an Italian- American.

     In the years since the publication of Sammy, Budd Schulberg has had a distinguished career as a novelist (The Disenchanted, The Harder They Fall) and screenwriter (On the Waterfront).

     This interview appeared on American Legends in October 2005. Budd Schulberg died in 2009. He was a generous man who also gave AL an interview on the making of On The Waterfront that appeared in March 2002. The present interview was conducted by Ron Martinetti, an AL co-founder with an interest in Jewish-American history.


AL: How did you come to write Sammy?



After college, I was working as a screenwriter for David Selznick and Walter Wanger who had sponsored me for Dartmouth. I wrote bits and pieces of films. One film I worked on was A Star Is Born (1937) which Selznick produced. I had the Sammy Glick idea in mind for sometime. But one evening in Malibu, I thought about it and started writing it as a short story.



Liberty magazine published your two Sammy Glick stories.



Bennett Cerf at Random House read them. I had actually met him when he lectured at Dartmouth, and he expressed interest in some articles I had done for the college paper. Bennett and his editor, Saxe Commins, encouraged me to turn the stories into a novel. I moved to a small town in Vermont to work on the book. Random House gave me an advance of $250. Even in the Depression that was not a lot of money.


AL: You've written that stylistically you were influenced by Saroyan in writing the first Sammy story. But the texture of the novel has a Scott Fitzgerald smoothness to it. Were you influenced by Fitzgerald?

BS: No, I wouldn't say that. My style is so different from his. Scott read the book in manuscript. He didn't really make any suggestions, but said he liked it very much.



You worked with Saxe Commins who was known as William Faulkner's editor. What was it like working with him?



We had an excellent rapport. It took me about a year to write the book. I worked pretty intensely on it from an outline. I didn't do much rewriting, but I cut and edited the manuscript.



When the novel came out, there was a lot of speculation about who Sammy Glick was based on. Jerry Wald was a favorite candidate. Like Sammy, Wald went from a New York radio columnist to a Hollywood writer and producer.



Jerry Wald was one of the candidates, yes. But not the only one.


AL: At Warner Brothers, Jerry Wald got a screen credit with Richard Macaulay for co-authoring the Cagney-Bogart movie, The Roaring Twenties. (1937) In The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood, Ezra Goodman claims that Wald would do "most of the talking," and take "most of the credit" from Macaulay and the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip. In What Makes Sammy Run? you have Sammy using a down and out writer named Julian Blumberg to ghost his material.


I never said that Sammy Glick was only one person. It really was a composite. Jerry Wald was part of it. 


AL: Did you have any other individuals in mind when you created Sammy Glick?



I was thinking of quite a few people I knew at the time I was out there. There was Milton Spurling who was Harry Warner's son-in-law and Norman Krasna.



Krasna was a playwright like Sammy and from New York. Later, he and Jerry Wald tried to resurrect RKO.



There was a story that Krasna once sold Joe Mankiewicz a movie idea about a lynching in California. After Mankiewicz paid him thousands of dollars for the idea, Krasna said he couldn't remember the plot.


AL: What Makes Sammy Run? aroused a lot of controversy in Hollywood.



Sam Goldwyn didn't read the book, but was very hostile toward it. Louie Mayer tried to run me out of town. He hated the book. Mayer told my father he would ruin him for not stopping me from writing the novel.


AL: Was there any reaction from the people who had been identified as models for Sammy?


Milton Spurling was a nice guy. He was smoother than Sammy. He thought Sammy's wedding scene in the book seemed very much like his own. He was right. I didn't attend his wedding but heard about it from people who had gone and read about it in the papers.



How about Jerry Wald?



Wald's reaction was very interesting. After he left Warner's for Columbia, he tried to hire me to adapt my novel, The Harder They Fall. But I wasn't anxious to work for Harry Cohn. Wald always went out of his way to be friendly. The gossip columns had identified him as Sammy Glick. I think that was his way of saying, "That's not really me."



You and Maurice Rapf were active in organizing the Screen Writer's Guild. The late film historian, Nancy Lynn Schwartz, has written that Irving Thalberg promised to make a writer a  producer if he undermined the Guild, then reneged. You allude to a similar incident in the novel.



I knew Thalberg quite well, but I didn't have him in mind as a model for Sammy. He was quite different. He was more like Monroe Starr in Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. (1941) By the time Sammy was published, Thalberg was gone. All the moguls were opposed to the book. It would have been interesting to see if Thalberg agreed with them and stood behind Mayer.


AL: A few of the minor characters, like Dan Young and Sheik Dugan, Sammy's confidant, could have stepped off the old MGM lot.


The Sheik was a familiar type in Hollywood. Frank Orsatti and someone named Killer Gray fit the mold. Orsatti ran a successful talent agency with his brothers. On the side, he provided Louis Mayer with liquor and starlets. All of these people were sort of floating around Hollywood and gave me the idea of a character like Sheik, Sammy's boyhood rival from the Lower East Side.


AL: There have been reports that Ben Stiller is working on a movie of Sammy. Why wasn't one made earlier?


BS: The book was on the Hollywood index, you might say. The bosses regarded it as an attack on Hollywood and weren't going to encourage a film, even though there was always interest.


AL: Was there anyone you wanted to play Sammy?


BS: Way back they talked about Mickey Rooney. In fact, they talked about Frank Sinatra when he was very young playing Sammy. He would have been great. He really would have.


AL: Do you think Sammy Glick was typical of the cutthroat side of Hollywood?


BS: I certainly do. I think it has always been there.


   (Additional background information was found in: Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?, New York, Vintage Books, 1993 ed.)


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