Nothing makes Judge Daryl Loomis run. His knees hurt too bad.
Sure, I can sound like a dynamo! Sammy Glick, Sammy Glick, Sammy Glick, Sammy Glick!
Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, was a polarizing piece of invective against Hollywood upon its release. Schulberg grew up in Hollywood; his father, B.P. Schulberg, was studio chief at Paramount during the 1930s, and Budd saw the best and worst of the machinating figures of the film industry so, when he published the book (which his father begged him not to release), there were clear truths in his setting and especially in the titular character, Sammy Glick. The book has never successfully made it to the silver screen; attempt after attempt has failed, all the way up to a supposed version produced by Ben Stiller and starring Jim Carrey, though the character has appeared many times under different names. Tim Robbins's Griffin Mill in The Player, Kevin Spacey's Buddy Ackerman in Swimming with Sharks, or Michael Lerner's Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink; these are all permutations on the character. Glick is a brilliant character and this version of What Makes Sammy Run? is a brilliant interpretation of the novel.
Facts of the Case
Sammy Glick (Larry Blyden, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) is young, but he's already dissatisfied with his job as a newspaper copy boy. There's a lot more to Glick, and he's going to prove it to everybody. By stepping on toes and stabbing his friends in the back, he moves from the paper to Hollywood as a script writer, but he still needs more. Scheming his way up the ladder to studio chief has made Glick rich and powerful but, once there, does he have any humanity left?
Broadcast over two Sundays on NBC in 1959, and brought to us by Crest toothpaste, What Makes Sammy Run? has everything one could want for great television drama. Great writing and stellar performances coupled with the spontaneity of a live feed, this is simply one of the fines pieces of television I've ever seen.
Larry Blyden, in the title role, may not have movie star looks or effusive charisma, but he's a spot-on Sammy Glick. From moment one when, as the newspaper copy boy, he takes the pages from Al Manheim (John Forsythe, Scrooged), it is clear that this is a truly unlikable character. If, on his way up the ladder, Blyden played the role as a one-note jerk, the performance might still have been good based on the sheer realism of the character. Blyden, however, gives Glick a great sense of humanity. He grew up on the mean streets, fighting for every scrap of respect, and he can hardly help the feeling that the world owes him something. This humanity doesn't mean forgiveness, however, Glick is scum, but he is understandable scum.
Blyden's supporting cast is equally fine. Forsythe's Manheim, as Glick's mentor and sometimes best friend, narrates and contextualizes the story. He is a reluctant success, one that stays near Glick only to stay near Kit Sargent (Barbara Rush, The Young Lions), a top flight screenwriter who is strangely in love with Glick but who, eventually, can't get over Glick's backstabbing and runs into Mannheim's arms for cover. Glick finally finds a kind of love in Laurette Harrington (Dina Merrill, Butterfield 8), the high society daughter of the studio's financier who marries him but is very much a feminine counterpart to Glick in personality, who looks at the marriage as little more than a business deal and, through her mockery of him and her own behind-the-scenes machinations, is the only one who can make Glick (though she doesn't care about his feelings one way or another) begin to understand the error of his ways.
As a live television recording, there are certainly imperfections in the filming. Cameras jerk occasionally and the picture comes in and out of focus once in a while but, shot on the fly, it is generally quite good. The filmmaking is very direct, with little in the way of background action or music, but the performances are so engrossing, it's hard to notice that these pieces are missing at all.
The DVD release of What Makes Sammy Run? from Koch Vision is far from perfect, but we are lucky to have the entire piece at all. The image is dramatically different between the first part and the second, and it's no wonder. While the first half had been preserved, the second was lost until only a few years ago. Its retrieval is thanks to Dina Merrill, whose outside-the-box searching recovered a can of unlabelled film that contained the lost half. As a result, however, this part looks far worse than the first, and neither really looks spectacular. Heavy on grain and dirt, the print is quite damaged, though not unwatchable. The mono sound is clear, though there is some ever-present noise that makes some of the dialog difficult to understand but, again, it is far from a deal breaker. The extras are scant but valuable. An audio commentary with Dina Merrill and Barbara Rush doesn't have much relevance to the action onscreen, but it is an absolute riot to listen to. Two elderly actresses catching up and reminiscing on this production and their careers in general, this is essential Hollywood history. A half-hour interview with Budd Schulberg, conducted at the end of 2008, is just as good. Schulberg is about to turn 95 and he is so difficult to understand that the interview is subtitled and, even then, some of the subtitling reads "unintelligible." Nonetheless, Schulberg discusses everything under the sun about his novel and the subsequent adaptations and is truly a great piece.
What Makes Sammy Run? is a fantastic, chilling portrayal of a character that is all too present today, yesterday, and likely for a long time in the future. Sammy Glicks exist in Hollywood, the music industry, and finance, any industry where drive is directly proportional to a paycheck. This was neither the first nor the last adaptation of Schulberg's novel, but it's hard to imagine one better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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