Hollywood has a long, tortured relationship with What Makes Sammy Run?,Budd Schulberg’s seminal show-biz novel about a ruthlessly ambitious Jewish striver and his desperate bid for power and fame. According to a biography of Samuel Goldwyn by Arthur Marx, the legendary mogul offered to pay Schulberg not to publish the novel, out of fear that it would exacerbate anti-Semitism with its dark portrait of an unscrupulous schemer out to make it any costs. Schulberg, whose father was a prominent studio executive in his own right, refused. Making a movie of Sammy has long been Ben Stiller’s dream project. In 2001, DreamWorks paid more than $2.5 million to buy the rights to the book as a vehicle for Stiller, but the film never got off the ground.
So it’s possible that the existing versions—a 1949 television production of the book starring José Ferrer, and the two-part 1959 “Sunday Showcase” adaptation directed by Oscar-winning Marty director Delbert Mann, and just released on DVD—are as close as we’re going to get to a definitive adaptation of Schulberg’s classic tome. Mann’s adaptation casts John Forsythe as the book’s narrator and conscience, an old-school, principled newspaperman who watches with equal parts disgust and admiration as a 16-year-old copy boy (Broadway actor Larry Blyden) with an insane surplus of moxie, hustle, and get-up-and-go rises rapidly up the show-business food chain through a combination of calculation, backstabbing, creative theft, and utter shamelessness.
As the ancient Schulberg acknowledges in an interview taped for the DVD, the book and the 1959 adaptation are rife with echoes of The Great Gatsby,with Forsythe playing Nick Carraway to Blyden’s self-made show-biz Gatsby. What Makes Sammy Run? is very much a product of its time: stagy, mannered, and tamed to conform to the standards of late-‘50s television. But the script, which Schulberg adapted for television with his brother Stuart, captures the novel’s tart, moral cynicism and punchy dialogue, and Mann’s long takes and elegant camera movement put the emphasis on Schulberg’s words and the uniformly fine performances. At its best, Mann and Schulberg’s juicy, exquisitely jaundiced show-biz melodrama is—to quote Sweet Smell Of Success, another landmark cautionary tale about the shark-infested waters of show business and the parasites who thrive there—a cookie full of arsenic: delicious on the outside, wicked just under the surface.
Key features: An interesting, painful interview with a clearly ill Schulberg, an audio commentary from costars Barbara Rush and Dina Merrill, and a 16-page booklet.