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Budd Schulberg: Blinded by his gift

August 6, 2009 |  9:48 am


Author and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who died yesterday at age 95, was a successful writer when he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951. It had been about 12 years since he'd parted ways with Communists in Hollywood and 10 since he'd published his iconic Hollywood novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?"

In "What Makes Sammy Run?," theater critic turned screenwriter Al Manheim observes Sammy Glick climb from the slums of New York to the highest heights of Hollywood, stepping on everyone he can in the process. Glick is a soulless and venal movie producer, perhaps less caricature than an amalgam of many of the era's Hollywood moguls.

Schulberg had been around studio heads since childhood -- his father was B.P. Schulberg, who was partners with Louis B. Mayer and later ran Paramount. Budd went to work in Hollywood at 17, observing the industry from the inside. So when his boss Sam Goldwyn saw some similarity between the name "Sammy Glick" and his own, he might have been a tad oversensitive -- Glick could have been anybody, or everybody. Goldwyn fired Schulberg anyway.

By then, Schulberg had taken two breaks from Hollywood -- first, to attend Dartmouth in the mid-1930s, later returning to New England to write his novel. In between, he'd been working in Hollywood and a member of the Communist Party, mostly in its connection with screenwriters. When he told the party he was going to expand a published short story into what became "What Makes Sammy Run?," it wanted to see drafts to make sure it would be a "proletarian novel," he told the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

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.

Schulberg went on to name people he had known in the Communist Party, including members of the Hollywood 10 (who, by that point, had already taken the 5th before the committee). While Victor Navasky's landmark book, "Naming Names," says he fingered 15 former colleagues, obituaries have upped the total to 17.

Could Schulberg's action -- seen, by many, as a betrayal -- have been motivated less by politics than an aesthetic dispute? Twenty years later, after the New York Times ran an obituary for Herbert Biberman, one of the men he'd named, Schulberg's wife penned a "correction" letter, explaining:

[Schulberg] became disenchanted with official Party pressure to censor and even to question his right to write his first novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?" Schulberg was subsequently expelled (at the same time resigning) from the Communist Party for his refusal to accept Party discipline of artistic work.

Despite loaded political language like "Party discipline" and Schulberg's distaste, as he made clear to Navasky, for what had happened in the Soviet Union, there is significant tension here about the writing itself. Schulberg didn't want to be told what to write or how to write.

Schulberg knew he was a gifted writer, but his success may have made him arrogant. In the mid-1970s, he told Navasky:

Dalton [Trumbo] wrote one good novel and that's it. Most of these people never tried to write any social realism. I think maybe [they had some] guilt about making two thousand dollars a week and doing nothing. You could make it up by paying ten percent dues [to the Party], and maybe that made you feel better about being a hack. Most of them settled for being hacks.

These people, if they had it in them, could have written books and plays. There was not a blacklist in publishing. There was not a blacklist in the theater. They could have written about the forces that drove them into the Communist Party. There was practically nothing written.

Although Schulberg was wrong about Trumbo (who wrote "Gun Crazy," "Roman Holiday," "The Brave One," "Spartacus" and more while blacklisted, winning two Oscars for his fronts), he was right about something else: There wasn't a blacklist in these other fields. But wouldn't Trumbo and the others have written novels and plays if they could have done so? Just because someone is a good screenwriter doesn't mean he'll be good at writing everything else.

Schulberg's extraordinary career included script doctoring (he was once partnered with F. Scott Fitzgerald), sportswriting (he was a boxing correspondent for Sports Illustrated), novels and successful screenplays. Few writers move as seamlessly between formats as Schulberg did. For him to expect others to have equal skill and opportunity seems almost as obliviously self-serving as Sammy Glick.

What is noted, in obituaries, as Schulberg's greatest success is the Oscar-winning screenplay for "On the Waterfront," which garnered a total of eight Academy Awards. In the film, Marlon Brando, as dockworker Terry Malloy, heroically testifies before an anticorruption commission. While director Elia Kazan plainly said that the film was an answer to critics about his own testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Schulberg always maintained that it was about dockworkers and nothing else.

Schulberg's other achievements included the novel "The Harder They Fall" and the screenplay "A Face in the Crowd." After the first Watts riots, he opened a literary center in South L.A. His work was broader than his original Hollywood novel, and his life was about more than his testimony before the HUAC.

But writing "What Makes Sammy Run?" and the testimony in which Schulberg named names are inextricably tied, and they remain the most significant aspects of his biography. His confidence -- perhaps arrogance -- as a writer led him to shun the editorial input of his screenwriting Communist Party colleagues. And that same arrogance -- or confidence -- that writers should be able to switch careers as he did, regardless of how he damned them, allowed him to name them without guilt.

And no matter what he said, that complexity made it into his work, as anyone who watches "On the Waterfront" will see.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Budd Schulberg, before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Credit: Associated Press