Best L.A. Novel Ever: Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? vs. Michael Tolkin's The Player, Round 1
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading check out:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
There are quite a few similarities between these two contestants in the Hollywood regional section of our literary tournament. Both What Makes Sammy Run? and The Player are, incredibly, their authors' first novels. Both are written by sons of Hollywood -- classic cases of biting the hand that feeds you. Both feature protagonists that are by no one's description heroes. And both have incredibly cynical yet accurate views of Hollywood, both the industry and the place.
What Makes Sammy Run?, published in 1941, is narrated by Al Manheim, a New York newspaper columnist who eventually ends up in Hollywood trying to write movies. He first meets the titular Sammy -- the infamous Sammy Glick -- when the young man shows up at his newspaper as a copy boy. Al follows Sammy's meteoric rise, which is fueled by his unstoppable ambition as well as the kind of manipulative behavior that takes Al's breath away. Al is a nice guy, as even Sammy recognizes, and we all know what happens to them; Sammy, on the other hand, is always focused on knowing the right guy to schmooze, the right gossip columnist to tip and the right shoes to wear to get ahead.
Budd Schulberg followed the rule about writing what he knows: His father was B.P. Schulberg, who rose from publicity manager to chief of production at Paramount Pictures; his mother, Adeline, was a noted literary agent and her brother Sam Jaffe was a producer and talent agent. Schulberg's depiction of the business of making movies, and in particular of being a writer, is dead on, even 70 years later.
Michael Tolkin also grew up in a showbiz family. His mother, Edith, was senior vice president of legal affairs at Paramount. His father was Mel Tolkin, noted comedy writer for Your Show of Shows and others. "One of the things I learned from my father, and it did not serve me well at all, was that he was a successful writer, he earned a living," Tolkin told The New York Times in 1992. "And it was a shock for me to find out that it was actually hard to make a living as a writer."
Perhaps that's why The Player focuses on a studio executive, Griffin Mill, and his travails with writers. Mill is a successful executive, with a good chance of running the studio where he works when his current boss retires, until another executive is abruptly brought in above him. (The novel's first line brilliantly sums up Hollywood paranoia: "Just as Griffin suspected, there was a meeting in Levinson's office without him.") About the same time, he starts receiving anonymous postcards from a disgruntled writer: "You said you'd get back to me. I'm still waiting." He ignores them until they become threatening: "I'm going to kill you," says one.
Both Sammy Glick and Griffin Mill are amoral, especially when it comes to their jobs. Sammy Glick will trample anyone or steal anything if it helps him to get ahead; he gets his big break in Hollywood by stealing another writer's story and selling it as his own. Griffin Mill tries to track down the anonymous postcard sender and murders a writer, who turns out not to be "the writer" who is tormenting him. (Alert: spoilers start here.) But, in perhaps the ultimate Hollywood turn, he gets away with murder and lives happily ever after. (At least in The Player; a 2007 sequel, The Return of the Player, finds Griffin "broke" -- down to his last $6 million! -- and struggling in his personal life.)
Here's Al describing Sammy's lack of scruples, after he has has just sold an executive on a movie for which he has little more than a title:
Instead of listening I found myself sifting the qualities which made his kind of storytelling possible. First, no qualms. Not the thinnest sliver of misgiving about the value of his work. He was able to feel that the most important job in the world was putting over Monsoon. In the second place, he was as uninhibited as a performing seal. He never questioned his right to monopolize conversation or his ability to do it entertainingly. And then there was his colossal lack of perspective. This was one of his most valuable gifts, for perspective doesn't always pay. It can slow you down. I have sat in my office and said to myself, There are twelve million of your fellow Americans unemployed this morning. Who the hell are you? If that kept me from writing a line all morning it might mean I had perspective. Or thinking how the world was fifty million years ago and all the men who had their chance at living in it and what that had to do with the big pay-off scene in Nick Turner -- Boy Detective I was supposed to turn in by five o'clock. That's perspective too. Or just staring up into millions of stars at night till you become molecular. Perspective is a fine thing. It can make you very unhappy. I couldn't imagine Sammy ever unhappy. Or happy either. I wondered what emotions he did have. Perhaps only a burning impatience to be further, further on.
Of course, Griffin Mill is a little impressed with himself as well, although he also is self-aware enough to see the ridiculousness inherent in his job and his life. Tolkin tells his tale through Mill's eyes, so there are plenty of musings like this, about writers who come in to pitch him:
They'd pause before the moment which they were sure would force Griffin to his feet and his desk and a pen, where he would yank his checkbook from a drawer and write them that ticket to a legendary career, to the beginning of their real lives, the promised lives they contained within themselves, inscribed in their genetic code, lives of perfect harmony, where even the bad moments were epic, where tragedy replaced confusion, and ecstasy replaced the merely happy. Yes, Griffin Mill could anoint them, make them Gods, he could grant them everything, he could grant them Christmas in Aspen with Jack Nicholson. ...
Each idea represented a million adjustments to reconcile the difference between the writer's movie of his dreams, which would be the really immortal movie, that tour through the brilliant connections of his freely associating but always focused mind, and the studio's version of that dream, toward the production of which the writer conceded the banal necessity to tell a story. The writers leapt to all this accommodation in anticipation of the thirty-minute audience they'd have with Griffin Mill, that chance of a lifetime to impress their pure, almost unknowable genius on the mediating taste of someone who knew what America wanted to see.
One area in which both books excel is capturing the milieu -- Hollywood, the film industry, its people and places. It is clear both Tolkin and Schulberg spent plenty of time in this world.
Here's Tolkin's take on the denizens of the Polo Lounge:
The woman at the bar was not the Writer. She and her friends were great-looking and faceless at the same time, like ten thousand women in town who were great-looking and faceless. Maybe they'd come to Los Angeles to act, encouraged by a small-town photographer, but the movie camera did not love their faces, they were good to the eye, sort of, but in close-up the movie camera detected a numbing symmetry, something ordinary, the fear of revealing -- what? -- something small, something cheap, an overweening avarice and a fear of the poverty for which they were destined. The women at the bar vibrated with a feeling of complicity for a crime whose silence they were dying to protect in exchange for a big house, a German convertible, facials three times a week. They were all too thin from too much exercise, they needed five pounds more to look human, their creeping anorexia long ago sucked away what might have been most appealing, something to hold on to, something to pinch.
Schulberg does a riff on the people dancing at the Trocadero at a party to celebrate Sammy Glick's latest hit:
We watched the people together, being very catty of course about the little ingenue with gold stars pasted on her bare shoulders. And the beautiful young juvenile singing into her ear the words of the popular song they were dancing to. And the look of aloof superiority that came over the dancers' faces for the rhumba, flashing their heads expertly from side to side, so conscious of the figure they were cutting on the floor. And the ex-hatcheck girl on her way to stardom with her magnificent (but dead) pan, swirling around the floor with a dashing and toothy screen villain whose face seemed to be set in a permanent sneer.
Both The Player and What Makes Sammy Run? are fun reads, and both catch the sense of the Hollywood of their day. Griffin Mill could almost be Sammy Glick's son.
However, what tips What Makes Sammy Run? into the winner's column is Schulberg's understanding of what does, in the end, make Sammy run. For that is the literal question narrator Al asks himself, all the time, and he eventually digs into Sammy's past to find the answer. This takes the story away from Hollywood, back to New York's Lower East Side, and into the poverty and psychological hardships that created Sammy Glick.
Schulberg and Sammy were criticized for being anti-Semitic, a charge the author strenuously denied. There are a few sections where today's reader can see why that charge was made, but in the end it seems Schulberg is almost sympathetic to Sammy Glick, whom he saw as a striver who could have been of any origin, and whose offspring populate showbiz to this day.
The winner: What Makes Sammy Run?