The Great Conundrum of Hollywood Hubris: Delbert Mann’s Scathing Adaptation of WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? (’59)

Originally published on FilmStruck

“What Makes Sammy Run?” The question is asked and insisted upon so often throughout the 1959 NBC television production of Budd Schulberg’s excoriating novel that it becomes a defeated mantra, borderline unanswerable, as elusive as the skeleton key to Charles Foster Kane’s childhood. The answer to Schulberg’s question, however, has an answer with perhaps greater resonance than a half-remembered sled sinking forlornly in the snow. Of course, Sammy Glick (a canny abbreviation of Glickstein) is, as the novel puts it, the “id of our whole society,” the young upstart who never stopped accelerating in his upward ascent up the Hollywood food-chain. He is the precocious copyboy who cheats and bluffs and backstabs his way to big studio success, whose maniacal self-interest is “a blueprint of a way of life that was paying dividends in America in the first half of the twentieth century.”

So what makes Sammy run? Al Manheim asks the question, Al who started out with Sammy in a New York press office before making the great voyage West, where the streets of America’s movie mecca are paved with gold. But he only gradually comes to realize the malice and betrayal by which that lustrous sheen is burnished.  Al knows right from wrong and mixes a healthy conscientiousness in with his personal ambitions; he will never double-cross a soul but is just complacent enough to be Sammy’s pawn and hanger-on – his best friend, even. Al has a sober understanding of Sammy’s unfettered avarice, makes study of his stratagems, and always spots the scheming twinkle in Sammy’s eye. He loathes Sammy’s predilection – nay, full-throttled propulsion – toward getting ahead at the expense of others, and yet he is begrudgingly impressed by it, too. As Schulberg suggests in his novel but indicates more bluntly on-screen, the mystery of what makes Sammy run is also the mystery of what makes Al run after him. At one point in the story, Al avers, “Once we know what makes Sammy run it will be a great thing for the world. Like discovering the cause of cancer.” In a way, he is absolutely right.

I took the occasion of writing about this neglected TV curio – a much-welcome inclusion by FilmStruck in its ‘Directed by Delbert Mann’ programming block – to read the novel, which continues to astound with its disillusioned insight into the American success ethic, and its profound understanding that we are all passive and willing participants in the system that allows the Sammy Glicks of the world to thrive. Published after the 30s had come to a close, and Hollywood’s misadventures in labor unionism were still fresh, the book was met with the disgust of the film industry, but also with the delight of such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara, both dispirited chroniclers of the zeitgeist who knew the rottenness of Hollywood from the ground-up. Schulberg was interested in that rottenness as a byproduct of internalized anti-Semitism – the great lesson of Sammy’s Lower East Side childhood was to sever all ties with his persecuted ethnicity and plunge self-interestedly into the future – but he also contextualized Sammy’s ideology within the framework of the Hollywood Writer’s Guild. Sammy is shown to outpace the trade-wide enthusiasm for unionization by a hair’s breadth, cleaning up big for himself in the meanwhile.

Delbert Mann’s adaptation of WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? for NBC’s ‘Sunday Showcase’ is fascinating for how it contends with Schulberg’s politically abrasive material. Schulberg wrote the teleplay and his brother Stuart Schulberg produced the drama, and they were clearly concerned with retaining the hurtling momentum of the story and the fully-formed egotism of the character of Sammy, while also shrewdly hinting at more hard-hitting implications. The story is loosely updated for the 50s (but with the likes of producer Myron Selznick anachronistically name-dropped), and the unionization angle is jettisoned almost entirely, save some fleeting allusions to the Writer’s Guild. The anti-Semitism is whittled down too, with the Jewishness of the characters only faintly suggested. But Schulberg is cagey enough in his screenwriting to give the game away, as when Kit Sargent (played by Barbara Rush, less icily guarded and professionally all-knowing that her counterpart in the novel) lobs a bitterly ironic “Sieg Heil!” in Sammy’s direction – Sammy will sell his own people down the river to get ahead.

For all of these elisions and reconfigurations, the quintessence of the novel – Al Manheim’s troubled processing of the Sammy Glick phenomenon – is very much intact. In fact, it’s almost supercharged. Larry Blyden plays Sammy in with the aggressive, fidgety chumminess of a James Cagney or Joe Pesci. He chortles, he declaims, he barrels through conversations – he cannot stop to take a breath lest he misses an opening. Most crucially, Blyden perfectly captures the sense that he is everybody’s ostentatious best pal and backbiting worst enemy all in one. Al Manheim is played by John Forsythe (then the star of the sitcom Bachelor Father), who imparts to the role a sober conscientiousness bedeviled by the infernal mystery of Sammy Glick. Al has been changed from the narrator of the story to a character in his own right, and Forsythe does well to suggest the tortured obsession milling about beneath his placid exterior.

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