***½/**** Image C Sound C Extras B-
starring Larry Blyden, John Forsythe, Barbara Rush, Dina Merrill
teleplay by Budd & Stuart Schulberg, based on Budd's novel
directed by Delbert Mann
by Jefferson Robbins In adapting his hit 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? for a planned live TV broadcast, writer Budd Schulberg dropped two elements: driven Hollywood producer Sammy Glick as union-buster; and Glick as self-hating Jew. In an interview with Schulberg featured on the telecast's DVD release, he cops to scrubbing the former but not the latter. "I didn't think I would have enough time and space to adequately describe what the Writers Guild was and what the whole problem was," he says. Though Schulberg's not queried on Sammy's Judaism, it's safe to assume that throughline was a non-starter for a network (NBC) trying to capture Middle-American living rooms in 1959.
Cunningly, under director Delbert Mann (Marty, That Touch of Mink), Broadway and TV actor Larry Blyden carries all sorts of unspoken rage across. Described in dialogue as the son of an immigrant, his character decodes as Jewish, but, more crucially, he's a striver who despises himself even as he battles to improve his lot. Blyden's Sammy is running away from--yet he runs in service to--his own worst qualities. It's a performance of surprising heat, and when it's time for Sammy to make a play, that heat gains laser focus. In Blyden's hands, Sammy's raw ambition manages to surprise even himself.1
The novel probably became a filmland touchstone because it plays to Hollywood's identity as a town without pity, built and run by bullheaded Jewish entrepreneurs. Insiders no doubt saw themselves in its pages, whether as the conquistador Sammy or his disenfranchised foes. Yet the book's structure, with columnist-turned-screenwriter Al Manheim serving as Sammy's Boswell, doesn't immediately lend itself to stage or screen narrative. Schulberg (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd), a screenwriter to the marrow, broke it down with aplomb, building a present-day prologue and epilogue to bookend the core of Sammy's strivings. (Brother Stuart was his co-writer on the teleplay.)
John Forsythe plays Sammy's confidante Manheim--a further WASP'ing-down of Jewish themes, as the novel's Manheim is the son of a cantor. But Forsythe is just straight-arrow enough to get believably sucked into the wash of Blyden's jets. And as a competitor for the love of fellow screenwriter Kit Sargent (Barbara Rush, lovely), he's the perfect antithesis: smooth, charming, and earnest where Sammy is rough, unlettered, and sexually threatening. Watch the scene where Blyden pitches woo with one hand wrapped in Rush's hair and the other clutching her throat. It's frankly disturbing, and it ends with Sammy on the phone shouting at a hooker to arrange a three-way.2 (This is Eisenhower TV?)
While Sammy may desire Kit and engineer a plan to get Manheim out of the picture, his ambition is greater than his lust, and financier's daughter Laurette Harrington (Dina Merrill, sharp and patrician) can grant him better leverage. To place himself on the studio throne, he'll go so far as to turn aside the pleas of his abandoned brother (Norman Fell, in a finely-tuned cameo with heartbreaking dialogue). Of course, fittingly for a drama about the movies, he's gunning for a Citizen Kane moment of truth--and soon enough, he has one.
What Makes Sammy Run? is what you might call an almost-live production. Structured, workshopped, and blocked for a live performance, the show was instead put to videotape after the Brooklyn studio NBC used for such broadcasts proved unavailable. But the live aesthetic serves the project well, with only a few points where pre-taped footage--mostly in the framing segments, in which Forsythe's hair is frosted to Blake Carrington grey--has obviously been interpolated. It grants a sense of how alive TV must have felt, what with its tearaway layers of costuming and the fleeting shadows of actors finding their marks just outside the camera's field. Schulberg's recast dialogue, which can seem like noir parody when reading the novel today, feels right in the mouths of these actors.
The original broadcast aired in two one-hour episodes, the second of these considered lost until co-star Merrill asked the staff at the Museum of Television and Radio to hunt it down. Nicely packaged in a single-disc set for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the show's background and history is summed up in an enclosed reference guide. The image is fullscreen, natch, and the audio, configured for Dolby 2.0 playback, is that brassy but comforting '50s monaural. An optional subtitle track flubs some of the Schulberg brothers' dialogue--Sammy and Al's friendly mutual nickname "keed" is rendered as "Keith," for instance. The black-and-white picture quality is what you'd expect, although the original broadcast was in colour; the rediscovered footage was made on kinescope, filming the feed from the TV monitor in 16mm as the show ran. Too bad, but better than the nothing we almost had.
Schulberg, 94 at the time he was interviewed for this platter, was the son of a newspaperman-turned-Paramount production chief. He fought with the studio bosses, the Communist element of the Writers Guild (he was a union man and a Party member at the time), and his own father to get What Makes Sammy Run? written and published. Subtitles cue up automatically in the interview segment, since Schulberg struggles with what appears to be a health-related speech impediment. Still, his recollections are vivid. Louis B. Mayer was horrified at the book, he recalls, and threatened to have Schulberg deported--a neat trick, given that Schulberg was a native-born New Yorker. Growing up at the studios, he says, "Sammy Glick was this kind of character that was really around me all the time. There wasn't one Sammy. There were dozens and scores of Sammys."
Actors Rush and Merrill team up for a commentary track that's chatty, discursive, and seldom quiet. Rush dominates and Merrill mostly listens politely as anecdotes from the live TV industry spin out into tidbits about Bob Fosse, Janet Leigh, Shirley MacLaine, and John Frankenheimer. Rush, trucked in from Santa Barbara to play in the New York production, had never seen a skyscraper and passed out on her first visit to the upper stories of Rockefeller Center. Merrill watched va-va-voom Belgian co-star Monique Van Vooren punch out a makeup man who misunderstood her request to "feex my leeps." They occasionally lose their place in the story they're watching, and both of them wonder why Sammy hasn't been made into a proper movie yet. In 2005, Ben Stiller told THE NEW YORK TIMES he'd done a screenplay adaptation of his own. With this classic version in hand, I start to hope Tropic Thunder got all his Hollywood-insider ya-yas out for good. Originally published: July 21, 2009.
1. Known mostly as a comic actor, the Texas-born Blyden died in an auto accident in Morocco in 1975, at age 49. Despite that he had only three film roles and is largely forgotten now, by the time of his death he'd won a Tony and become the host of "What's My Line?". return
2. Sammy's whore-quest is triggered after Kit not only rejects him, but also compares him to Hitler and throws him a Nazi salute--one of a handful she'll dispense throughout the show. It's broad, but taken in light of Sammy's unspoken ethnicity, what better spark for a frenzy? Schulberg wrote George Stevens' documentary The Nazi Plan and Pare Lorentz's Nuremberg; he had to know what he was doing. return