Screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg died Wednesday. He was among the first generation to be born Hollywood royalty, and he wrote what is probably the only classic movie business novel to have never been adapted for the screen.
Schulberg was born in New York in 1914, but his father was powerful producer B.P. Schulberg, so Budd grew up in Hollywood, surrounded by silent film starlets. After college, he became a screenwriter and a communist (his parents were among the very few in the Hollywood executive class to hold left-wing sympathies). In 1939, he was assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald as a collaborator on a light campus b-movie romp. Instead of writing, Fitzgerald and Schulberg got drunk in New Hampshire.
In 1941, he wrote What Makes Sammy Run, his brilliant depiction of "the spirit of Horatio Alger gone mad." Lower East Side kid Sammy Glick goes from copy boy to powerful screenwriter/producer on the strength of his relentless ambition and conniving. It's the story of America's habit of rewarding the most sociopathic tendencies the country breeds into those unfortunate enough to be born without shit. It's Atlas Shrugged in reverse—Glick steals everything he "produces," and takes the money, and recognition for himself. It's never been filmed. That it came from the son of a Paramount executive was also something of a shock:
The novel did not endear Schulberg to [Louis B.] Mayer, who told B.P. that Budd should be deported. "He's a U.S. citizen," B.P. supposedly answered. "Where the hell are you gonna deport him? Catalina Island?"
(Of course, like so many other chronicles of the dark side of the American dream, it's become something of a how-to guide for real-life Glick types.)
When the US entered World War II, Schulberg ended up in the OSS, the intelligence-gathering precursor to the CIA. With John Ford's film unit, he documented the atrocities of the concentration camps, then personally arrested Leni Riefenstahl at her Austrian chalet.
After the war, Schulberg published The Disenchanted, his autobiographical novel about the Fitzgerald screenplay. Then, in 1951, he named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Richard Collins named Schulberg as a former party member first. Schulberg telegrammed the committee acknowledging his former membership and offering his full cooperation. In his self-serving testimony before the Committee, Schulberg said he left the party because it refused to break with the Soviet dictatorship, but, more damningly, he said the party had tried to influence his work.
I decided I would have to get away from this if I was ever to be a writer. I decided to leave the group, cut myself off, pay no more dues, listen to no more advice, indulge in no more literary discussions, and to go away from the Party, from Hollywood, and try to write a book, which is what I did.
It reads like Schulberg's decision to testify was borne as much out of his utter disillusionment with the Hollywood establishment as any sense of either patriotic duty or even self-preservation. But Schulberg named fifteen former Party members, including Ring Lardner, Jr. and Waldo Salt. He continued justifying his testimony for the rest of his life. The blacklisted writers "could have written books and plays," he said in 1982. The communists he named weren't truly concerned with the nation's social problems. They hadn't stood with him when he "was fighting the party." Schulberg eventually came around to the rather self-evident (in retrospect) idea that a congressional committee drafting a list of people no longer allowed to work in films was more of a threat to free speech than the party had ever been.
It was shortly after that that Shulberg collaborated with fellow name-namer Elia Kazan on his most enduring work: On The Waterfront, that brilliant paean to snitching. The story of how a chump ex-boxer and a crusading priest deal with corruption and mob control of the longshoreman is one of the greatest films ever made, and it cements Schulberg's place as an great American artists.
But it was his next collaboration with Kazan that we, personally, have always loved just a bit more, if only for its criminal underexposure: A Face In the Crowd is one of the best explorations of Popular American Demagoguery ever produced. Andy Griffith, playing the anti-Andy Taylor, is Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, another relentlessly ambitious type, though this one hides his reactionary abusive streak behind a down-home country aw shucks persona. Rhodes goes from Will Rogers to Father Coughlin, becoming a hugely popular radio star until his contempt for his audience is revealed on-air.
Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president - and you'll be the power behind me!
Rent it. It's great.
Schulberg was reportedly writing another boxing screenplay as recently as 2006. Tantalizingly, it was the Joe Louis story, and he was writing it for Spike Lee. We have no idea what the status of the project is, but we would absolutely love to see it.