Budd Schulberg — writer, novelist, playwright, screenwriter — died this past Wednesday at the age of 95. Schulberg’s life cut through an almost unbelievable slice of American history, more than enough for two memoirs. In Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince, Schulberg covered his growing up as the privileged son of Hollywood producer B.P. Schulberg. Schulberg divided the book into four sections: Genesis, Exodus, The Promised Land and Kings, and ended the narrative at age 18. Having left a lot of ground to cover, he had reportedly completed a second volume of memoirs bringing the story up to date.
Schulberg grew up on Hollywood backlots, surrounded by producers, stars and starlets in the years during which Hollywood became Hollywood. A recent interviewer recalled: “Rudolph Valentino attended Budd’s fifth birthday party. Silent movie star Clara Bow, the original ‘It’ girl, flirted with him. He once obliged the Marx Brothers to retake a scene after he burst out laughing on the set.”
Schulberg pursued his literary and theatrical interests as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College. In 1934 he made a fateful trip to the Soviet Union with his Hollywood friend and fellow Dartmouth student Maurice Rapf. As Ronald and Allis Radosh relate in Red Star Over Hollywood, in Moscow Schulberg met “leading figures in the world of drama, film and literature” and attended the First Congress of Soviet Writers. Among those in attendance were Gide, Malraux and Gorky: “By the time they returned to the United States,” the Radoshes recount, “Schulberg and Rapf were converts whose paths had been set.” Schulberg later recalled that Stalin liquidated every one of the prominent Soviet artists he met on his trip to the Soviet Union.
Back in Hollywood after college, Schulberg became a screenwriter. He drew on his Dartmouth experience for Winter Carnival. When he was told that Scott Fitzgerald had been assigned by the studio to improve the screenplay, “I thought it was just a joke, like saying ‘Leo Tolstoy,'” Schulberg recalled. “And I said, ‘Scott Fitzgerald — isn’t he dead?'”
Fitzgerald wasn’t dead yet, but his work on the script certainly didn’t prolong his life. Traveling with Schulberg to work on the screenplay in New York and Hanover, Fitzgerald went on an alcoholic bender that became a lost weekend. The experience was not lost on Schulberg. He drew on it for his novel The Disenchanted.
Schulberg was an enthusiastic and successful Party recruiter. Once he set to work on What Makes Sammy Run?, however, his Party days were numbered. He quit the Party rather than tailor the book to fit orders. He did not receive Party approval for the book and suffered the Party’s opprobrium after its publication in 1941.
Schulberg drew on his Hollywood experience during his service in World War II. He served with John Ford’s filmmaking unit and gathered evidence for use by the Allied prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials. He was assigned to arrest Leni Riefenstahl to testify at one of the trials.
In 1951 Schulberg testified about his experience with the Communist Party in Hollywood before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A lifelong liberal except for his three years in the Party, Schulberg never repented his testimony or his naming the names of Hollywood Party members. Victor Navasky quotes Schulberg: “These people, if they had it in them, could have written books and plays. There was not a blacklist in publishing. There was not a blacklist in the theater. They could have written about the forces that drove them into the Communist Party….They’re interested in their own problems and in the protection of the Party.”
Schulberg spent two years researching and writing On the Waterfront, his study in the conflict between personal loyalty and moral duty. One of the finest American films ever made, the film drew inestimable benefit from the collaboration among Schulberg, director Elia Kazan and a great cast including Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger and Lee J. Cobb.
As the preproduction for the film dragged on — only producer Sam Spiegel had any interest in the project — the pressure took its toll on Schulberg. Finding Spiegel and Kazan whispering between themselves at a meeting in New York, Schulberg exploded: “I’ve been on this project for two years. I’ve taken practically nothing up front…It’s beginning to break me. I’ve actually had to mortgage my farm….I’ve written my heart out on this. So what can you two bastards be whispering about?”
Although On the Waterfront is in a class by itself, it isn’t the only great film Schulberg wrote. Schulberg also wrote the screenplay for the less well known 1957 film A Face in the Crowd based on his story “Your Arkansas Traveler.” According to Richard Schickel, Schulberg’s story was inspired by Will Rogers. It featured Lonesome Rhodes, “a good-natured hillbilly with the common touch, who, like Rogers. starts working sly political commentary into his corn-pone monologues, and when his wealth and influence grows, becomes a menace to liberal-minded society.”
Starting with a Rogers-like character, Schulberg contemplated “the then hot career of Arthur Godfrey, a ukelele-strumming hick with a popular music and talk radio show in Washington who had come to a larger public’s attention with his tearful coverage of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral on CBS.” Godfrey became the host of a popular national radio show. When he moved to television variety programs, Godfrey grew “increasingly tyrannical with his supporting cast” and “increasingly forward with his political opinions.” His career flamed out a few years after the release of A Face in the Crowd.
Kazan also directed A Face in the Crowd. Playing Lonesome Rhodes, Andy Griffith turns in a performance of astonishing ferocity. The film reflects the concerns of Schulberg and Kazan over the uses to which television might be put by a glib demagogue. In the scene below, Rhodes gives the dauntingly square Senator Worthington Fuller a lesson in how to transform himself into a presidential candidate through the medium of television.
Rhodes is introduced by his sponsor General Haynesworth, manufacturer of the worthless Vitajex pick-me-up tablets. General Haynesworth advises Fuller that he needs a slogan like “Time for a change,” “The mess in Washington” or “More bang for a buck.” Rhodes takes it from there. It’s a hilarious scene that remains timely fifty years later.
Among Schulberg’s loves was the sport of boxing. He covered boxing for Sports Illustrated. He wrote the novel The Harder They Fall based on his experience with Primo Carnera. He sparred with Hemingway (and wrote about that too). He befriended Muhammad Ali.
After the 1965 Watts riots Schulberg founded the Watts Writers Workshop with Yaphet Kotto. In 1967 he edited and introduced From the Ashes: Voices of Watts, bringing the work of workshop participants to a national audience. A year later Schulberg was at the side of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.
In his politics, as I understand them, Schulberg was an old-fashioned anti-Communist liberal. A man of enormous gifts, Schulberg displayed personal integrity of a kind one can only hope to emulate. He refused to stifle his voice on the order of his fellow Communists or repent his testimony repudiating his past allegiance to please latter-day leftists. His death marks a loss to American letters and the passing of a living link to American history.
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