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What Makes Sammy Run?

Budd Schulberg's (b.1914) novel What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) is a rags to riches story chronicling the rise and fall of Shmelka Glickstein, a Jewish boy born into New York's Lower East Side who very early in his life makes up his mind to escape the ghetto and climb the ladder of success. Disgusted by his father's principles, which are the reason why the family have to live in poverty, with Shmelka having to play barefoot in the streets, he calls him a son-of-a-bitch. Due to Shmelka's lack of learning and ambition, their rabbi refuses to bar mitzvah him, and Shmelka readily discards his Jewish identity altogether when he finds out that this is the only way of getting the job of a paper boy. When the novel opens he is about 16, has already changed his name to Sammy Glick and is working as an office boy for a New York-based newspaper. This is where he gets to know drama critic Al Manheim, the first person narrator who is almost old enough to be his father and who, after their first meeting, describes him as a "smart little yid". For the decade or so to come, Manheim becomes Sammy's closest observer and, it is claimed time and again, Sammy's closest (or even only) friend.

Sammy, who openly proclaims that he would consider himself a failure if he were still working as an office boy one year from now, starts his career by unscrupuously using people. One day he corrects, or rather rewrites, Manheim's column, which he was only supposed to carry down to the printing room. The managing editor, however, is quite impressed by Sammy's alleged talent and soon gives him his own column to write. While all this is happening, Sammy just switches from "Mr Manheim" to "Al" when addressing the narrator.

Then one day an aspiring young writer by the name of Julian Blumberg, who works for the same newspaper, asks Sammy for his critical opinion on a piece of writing of his. This gives Sammy a whole lot of new ideas. He actually has a long distance call put through to Myron Selznick, one of the Hollywood tycoons, and can make him interested in the story entitled Girl Steals Boy, which he now claims to have written himself. Weeks later, World-Wide Studios actually buy his (i e Blumberg's) story for $10,000, and Sammy goes to Hollywood.

As it happens, Manheim himself can realize one of his oldest dreams when he is unexpectedly called to Hollywood himself. By now he has quite a clear picture of Sammy Glick in his mind -- a person who does not stick at anything, an egotist leaving behind his girlfriend, Rosalie Goldbaum, without ever asking her to join him in Hollywood, but also an example of the rags to riches myth come true. When "his" first film Girl Steals Boy opens, Blumberg is not even mentioned as Sammy's collaborator ("original screenplay by Samuel Glick"). Over the following years -- this is the mid-1930s -- , Sammy Glick bluffs his way to the top without ever stopping running, using Blumberg as his occasional ghost writer but never writing a single line of text himself. That way, he even manages to have "his" stage play Live Wire performed at the Hollywood Playhouse -- actually a case of plagiarism because it is just The Front Page in flimsy disguise (but, strangely enough, no one except the narrator seems to notice). Sammy's bluffing also includes talking about books he has never read.

Manheim, whose ambitions are much more modest, is both fascinated and disgusted by the figure of Sammy Glick, and carefully chronicles his rise. Manheim himself gets romantically involved first with Billie Rand, a young woman who openly admits that she likes sex (and who in the end becomes a prostitute), and then with Catherine Sargent, one of the other screen writers. Time and again the reader gets some insight into what Hollywood is ("half a dozen studios, half a dozen restaurants and six hundred writers") and how it works: the studio system -- a handful of big studios crushing all independent film-makers -- , well-established novelists, playwrights and poets succumbing to the lure of money and becoming cheap hacks for the big Hollywood bosses, the hiring and firing of personnel (including the production chiefs) remote controlled by Wall Street money, the bribe money and the "canned reviews", and the attempts at establishing a powerful Screen Writers Guild , with Catherine Sargent as an important functionary, an organization strongly opposed by the big bosses, who prefer to have carte blanche to deal with their writers -- ranging from having them work on a week-to-week basis to giving them a seven-year contract. In the film industry, Manheim remarks at one point in the novel, it is the rule rather than the exception that "convictions are for sale", with people double-crossing each other whenever the slightest chance presents itself to them. Hollywood, he notices, regularly and efficiently turns out three products: moving pictures, ambition, and fear.

After one of the periodical reshufflings Manheim finds himself out of work and goes back to New York. There, still preoccupied with Sammy Glick's rise to stardom, he investigates Sammy's past by retrieving Sammy's card from the personnel filing system of their former newspaper and then visiting his mother and his brother Israel, who still live in a squalid apartment on the Lower East Side, and also by talking to Sammy's former teacher. In the process he learns quite a lot as to "what makes Sammy run". He comes to understand, at least to some degree, "the machinery that turns out Sammy Glicks" and "the anarchy of the poor", and realizes that what Sammy grew up in is a "dog-eat-dog world". It is also a dog-eat-dog world in Hollywood, only on a slightly more sophisticated level. The one connexion between Sammy's childhood days and his present position seems to be Sheik, someone who went to school with him and regularly beat him up. Now Sheik is working as Glick's personal servant (or almost slave) -- possibly some kind of belated act of revenge on Sammy's part, or the "victim's triumph".

When Manheim returns to Hollywood he becomes one of Glick's writers. At his work he realizes that there is also a small minority of honourable men working in pictures, especially producer Sidney Fineman, Glick's boss. Manheim starts writing a film for Glick, who no longer has to pretend being a writer but has successfully switched over to the production side and is now in charge of the hiring and firing of employees. With his ever increasing salary, he can now afford to move into a gigantic manor in Beverly Hills.

The final act of Sammy Glick's "American tragedy" starts when Fineman needs Sammy's help "saving his lousy job". He is to negotiate with Harrington, a Wall Street banker and a representative of the financiers of the film company, and to convince him that Fineman is still the right man for the job, in spite of some losses and flops that have happened in the recent past. This is the moment when Glick sees his chance to get rid of Fineman altogether and take his place. What is more, at a reception given at his house, Glick meets Laurette, the banker's daughter, the girl with class that opens up new horizons for him, the "golden girl" he immediately and genuinely falls in love with. For her, he readily discards Ruth Mintz, a rather simple Jewish girl whom he has originally selected to give him an heir. Consequently, his mind is set to kill two birds with one stone. At first the whole thing works out. Now Sammy has reached the zenith of his life; now he "has everything", and he feels "patriotic" about it.

Fineman, only 56, dies soon after his deposition -- of a broken heart, it is rumoured. Sammy's wedding is described by Manheim as a "a marriage-to-end-all-marriages" staged in the beautiful setting of Sammy's estate. Manheim and Catherine Sargent, who have finally decided to get married themselves, slip away early to be by themselves, while Sammy cannot find Laurette anywhere and goes looking for her. He finds her making love in the guest room to Carter Judd, someone Sammy has just hired. Laurette is not repentant: She considers their marriage as purely a business affair ("'Don't stand there gasping like a fish out of water,' she said. 'What have you got to gasp about? You've got what you want. And Dad's got what he wants. And Little Laurie's going to get what she wants.'").

During the same night -- the couple's wedding night -- , with Laurette gone, Sammy calls Manheim and asks him to come over to his place immediately. Once there, Manheim for the first time witnesses a self-conscious, desperate and suffering Sammy Glick who cannot stand being alone in his big house (just like Jay Gatsby, who has also got everything money can buy but not Daisy Buchanan). In the end he orders Sheik to get him a prostitute, while Manheim drives home to Kit.

The undisputed leitmotif of the novel, which is also expressed in the title, is Sammy's running. Sammy Glick is "running people down", he is running "with death as the only finish line", "without a single principle to slow him down", "always thinking satisfaction is just around the bend". On the other hand, Manheim realizes that everybody is running, but that Sammy Glick is just running faster than the rest. Sammy's running is highly symbolical: He runs both literally and metaphorically. At one point Manheim talks about Sammy's "undeclared war against the world", at another about Sammy Glick's Mein Kampf. Convinced that Jews should help each other, Manheim himself continuously tries to "revive the victims he left behind him as he kept hitting-and-running his way to the top". For example, he intervenes on Blumberg's behalf so that eventually his name appears in the credits. --

According to the Internet Movie Database, What Makes Sammy Run? is currently (2002) being filmed under the direction of Ben Stiller.

Other rags to riches stories:

See also: Fiction about Hollywood