To my surprise and delight, Michael Blowhard exhumes one of my favorite novels, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, describing its protagonist, one Samuel Glick, nÃ©e Shmelka Glickstein, as an “unprincipled, asslicking, domineering, will-do-anything-to-succeed Hollywood hustler.” All that and more: Sammy is a force of nature. The book opens with seventeen-year-old Sammy at the newspaper office running copy, and when Sammy runs copy, he runs copy:
The boss told me Sammy was getting a three-week tryout. But Sammy did more running around that office in those three weeks than Paavo Nurmi did in his whole career. Every time I handed him a page of copy, he ran off with it as if his life depended on it. I can still see Sammy racing between the desks, his tie flying, wild-eyed, desperate…
“Hey, kid, take it easy.”
This was like cautioning Niagara to fall more slowly.
“You said rush, Mr. Manheim.”
“I didn’t ask you to drop dead on us.”
“I don’t drop dead very easy, Mr. Manheim.”
“Like your job, Sammy?”
“It’s a damn good job — this year.”
“What do you mean — this year?”
“If I still have it next year, it’ll stink.”
He looked so tense and serious I almost laughed in his face. I liked him. Maybe he was a little too fresh, but he was quite a boy.
“I’ll keep my ear to the ground for you, kid. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll have a chance to slip you in as a cub reporter.”
That was the first time he ever scared me. Here I was going out of my way to be nice to him and he answered me with a look that was almost contemptuous.
“Thanks, Mr. Manheim,” he said, “but don’t do me any favors. I know this newspaper racket. Couple of years as a cub reporter? Twenty bucks. Then another stretch as district man. Thirty-five. And finally you’re a great big reporter and get forty-five for the rest of your life. No, thanks.”
Football scouts have a term, “high motor,” for people like Sammy. (Other characters compare him to an engine, a motor, and a dynamo.) He runs from first page to last. And with every despicable act, as Sammy bullies, plagiarizes, lies, and cheats his way to Hollywood success, you watch, like the narrator, Al Manheim, with horror and fascination, and finally a sneaking admiration, the way you might admire a tornado, provided you’re not caught in it. First shock, then awe.
The novel dates in some ways. Its very title — “a slum childhood” turns out to be the answer to its question — smacks of a sociological determinism that was fashionable in 1941 but now just seems tired. There are plugs for the communists in the Spanish Civil War and Upton Sinclair’s campaign for Governor of California. But the Hollywood dope could have been written yesterday. Schulberg, whose father was a big-shot Hollywood producer, was 27 when Sammy was published. He was a publicist for Paramount when he was 17, a screenwriter at 19, and he knows. Here is Sammy, mid-career, making stone soup in the commissary:
Sammy would walk up to a director and say, “Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in Titanic. Do I have to say any more?”
Then he would just walk away from the guy, significantly, and leave it in his lap. The director has been desperate for a socko story all year. Tracy and Dietrich in Titanic. Jesus, it sounds like something. Natural suspense. And two great characters. Maybe Spence is a good two-fisted minister who tries to straighten Marlene out. Marlene is a tramp, of course. He’s real. She’s anything for a laugh. Then, even though the boat is going down you bring the audience up with a hell of a lift because Marlene suddenly sees the light.
Meanwhile Sammy bumps into a supervisor. “I was just telling Chick Tyler my new story,” he says. “He went off his nut about it. Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in Titanic. Do I have to say any more?”
And he drops the hot potato in the supervisor’s lap and runs again. The supervisor knows Sammy hasn’t missed yet. And he’s been trying to get a cast like that ever since he’s been made a supervisor. So he drops by Tyler’s table.
“Sammy Glick tells me you’re hot for his Titanic story,” he says.
“Yeah,” Tyler says, “I think the kid’s got something. And it’s right down my alley.”
By this time Tyler is practically thinking up the acceptance speech he’ll make on receiving the Academy Award. “I could get a great picture out of that,” he says. “Remember what I did with Strange Voyage? That’s for me!”
All this time Sammy is hopping from table to table, pollinating his story like a bumblebee, catching them as they go in and out, asking everybody who can possibly help him if he has to say anything more and running off before they can answer. Everybody is now asking everybody else if they have heard Sammy’s Titanic story. And by this time, through unconscious generosity, they have contributed to the story two characters, a beginning, middle and a climax. Now Sammy manages to cross the path of the General Manager in Charge of Production. Sammy has heard that he’s been a little burned lately because people are saying he is losing touch with studio activities.
“How do you do, sir,” Sammy says. “I suppose Tyler and Hoyt have told you my story for Dietrich and Tracy. Titanic? Everybody who’s heard it seems very excited about it.”
He has heard about Glick, of course, and he never likes to appear ignorant of anything. “Yes, I have, Glick,” he says. “Sounds very interesting. I’m going to call you all in for a conference on it some time this week.”
There is real skill in this performance. It’s no mean feat to arrange a conference, on air, with the General Manager in Charge of Production. Push, of Sammy’s superhuman caliber, is as much a talent as talent; ask any salesman. Julian Blumberg, a ghostwriter for Sammy with talent but no push — his reward is to write the nonexistent Titanic script — narrates this tale with “no bitterness or anger,” but “mild wonder and deep resignation.” Without Julian there is no Titanic, but without Sammy there is no Titanic either.
Reading Sammy reminds me that my own Glick-deficiency is a character flaw no less real than Sammy’s Glick-excess. “A little bit of Glick would help us all,” the character who understands Sammy best remarks. “A very little bit.”