Thursday, October 31, 2019

I Remember Budd Schulberg

There I was last week watching the classic boxing movie The Harder They Fall starring Humphrey Bogart and written by Budd Schulberg --it was on Turner Classic Movies salute to Film Noir.
And then I sat upright --I remembered I'd interviewed Budd Schulberg at a fancy dinner party in Los Angeles in 1986.
It was the PBS portion of a 15-day tour by visiting TV critics and late on the last night.
I'd been out on sets all day so when I got back to the hotel it was after 8 p.m, and there was only one empty seat left in the vast ballroom.
I looked up and found myself seated next to Budd Schulberg andI instantly discovered why he rarely went on TV talk shows --he had a terrible stammer.
Here are highlights of our conversation.
JB: I remember watching you guest on the Merv Griffin talk show one late night and you told the other guest --Gloria Swanson-- that she'd been the inspiration for one of the main characters in your great novel The Disenchanted.
BS (chuckling): We taped in an old Hollywood movie theatre and afterwards Gloria jumped up, ran out the door and ordered her chauffeur to find a book store open so she could buy the book.
Well, there are lots of used bookstores on Hollywood Boulevard but were they open late nights? I was dubious.
JB:Your memoir of growing up in Hollywood, Moving Pictures, is one of the best books about "the  biz!..
BS: My father B.P. Schulberg ran Paramount Pictures after merging his own studio Preferred Pictures. He had one b ig asset Clara Bow who wasn't much of an actress but boy could she shimmy. I'd play jacks on the landing with her when she came over for a swim but if she lost she'd scream up a storm --a real sore loser. But Clara couldn't stand still --when talkies came in she had to stand still and speak into a big vase where the mike was located and she just couldn't do that.
JB: Then you say your happy family life blew up in 1931.
BS: When papa ran off with Sylvia Sidney who had replaced Clara as Paramount's hottest star. He was 60, she was 21 and, pf course, it didn't last.
JB: And then your papa was tossed out of Paramount by his body Adolph Zukor.
BS:Mean, nasty, and always triumphant over his enemies. He got rid of Jesse Lasky around the same time. For some reason the Great Depression affected Paramount more than any other studio. And Zukor made sure he was the winner in a very nasty power struggle. Papa went on to Columbia which was a Poverty Row studio and things were never the same again.
BS: You write about how B.P. would go one all night  benders of playing poker and almost always loose.
BS: One night he lost $20,000 which is around  a million dollars in today's money. He finally gambled away everything.
BS: You've written feelingly about working with F. Scott Fitzgerald on the 1939picture *(*(*(.
BS: I told the boss Walter Wanger that it needed a quick rewrite and he said "Oh, I've got Scott Fitzgerald working on dialogue in the next room. I'd thought Scott had died, it was years ago that he had a new book. So we went up to Dartmouth together and he got progressively more smashed and finally I did all the rewriting. He'd been one of my heroes but here was a tragic, broken man who just couldn't write the kind of snappy movie dialogue that any third rate writer could have delivered.
JB: Did you know what you were doing when writing your magnificent 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run?
BS: I thought I was telling a great story but it rocked Hollywood. MGM head Louis Mayer demanded I be deported as if Hollywood was a separate country. I was toiling for Sam Goldwyn at the time and he ran down the stairs where he saw me and shrieked "Sammy how could you?" Exactly. How dare I tell the truth. I was fired on the spot.
JB: Many producers wondered if they provided the character of Sammy Glick?
BS: Jerry Wald swore it was him and he was mighty proud. But it was a compendium, I had so many bastards to chose from.
JB: I saw the 1959 live TV movie version. It had John Forsythe, Dina Merrill, Barbara Rush and Larry Blydeb as Sammy,
BS: There was also a 1949  TV version. More recently Steven Spielberg had an option on it to do a version with Ben Stiller, But I'm not sure. Steven makes blockbusters, safe, earnest productions but on the bland side.
JB: I recently watched The Harder They Fall, the terrific 1956 movie on boxing and Humphrey Bogart's last movie.
BS: He looked haggard. Coughed incessantly. Was very prickly. It has the wonderful actress Jan Sterling in a rare sympathetic role. Rod Steiger's histrionics could get out of place and I remember Bogey rolling his eyes as Rod ranted on and on. I've always loved boxing. But I don't think our wonderful director Mark Robson did. So there were some clashes over interpretation.  But as Bogey's last film it is an oddity and it did bigger business than On The Waterfront.
JB: Critics say On The Waterfront dramatizes the awful act of naming names.
BS: There was nothing awful about it. I named names, yes, but only people who had already been named. I'd joined the Communist party in the depth of the Great Depression ... then it was overtaken by the Stalinists and everything changed and I left the party.
JB: I'm surprised by what you just told me --Marlon Brando refused to do the Scene "I coulda been a contender"in On The Waterfront (1954).
BS: He told Elia Kazan it didn't ring true and he'd walk if forced to do it. Then it turned out the scene had Steiger pointing a gun at him and Gadge  knocks the gun away and Marlon did it on the first take and it's his signature thing. I saw the story as more an indictment of corruption on the waterfront. we tried selling the story to Darryl Zanuck at Fox and he yelled "Who the talk wants to see a bunch of longshoremen brawling?" So we took it to cagey  Harry Cohn and it won all kinds of awards.
JB: Describe your association with Kazan
BS: He's the rare director who likes and admires fine writing. As long as he staged and also edited Tennessee Williams those plays shone. When Tennesse went it along he had a chain of big flops.
JB: You were just telling me of an attempt to do a new version of A Face In The Crowd.
BS: I watched the rise of such TV icons as Arthur Godfrey who one day turned on his star singer Julius LaRosa and fired him, live on TV. From that I thought of a story of a country and western cowpoke who could indeed manipulate the medium of TV. We had a low budget so Gadge hired Pat Neal who needed the work and used an unknown Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes and he was terrific and so was an unknown from Broadway, Walter Matthau. And it remains my favourite picture.
JB: What about a proposed new version:
BS: I was told Warners wanted a remake with Tom Cruise so they arranged a screening with many directors and screenwriters and at the end everybody just drifted out. I was told Tom Cruise's team said "This is a masterpiece, It can't be bettered or even matched."
JB: After that you seemed to drop out of movie making.
BS: I had a terrible experience with Wind Across The everglades and I even had to direct a few scenes when our director Nick Ray disappeared for a time. So I went back to memoir writing and writing about fighters.  They've even done On The Waterfront on stage. I'm not written out at all, I fully intend to go on and on.

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