Hollywood has had an insatiable appetite for books, whether classics, popular novels or downright trash, since the beginning of the narrative film. For every Gone With the Wind (1937 Pulitzer Prize winner as Best Novel; 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture) or even Peyton Place (Grace Metallious’ 1956 potboiler was a huge bestseller and turned into a successful 1957 movie that spawned a sequel and two TV series), there have been travesties, like the John Barrymore adventure flick The Sea Beast, which was loosely based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Made for the Warner Bros. studio (whose sole assets before the advent of sound were this great Shakespearean actor and the German shepherd Rin Tin Tin), The Sea Beast (1926) has The Great Profile playing the able bodied seaman Ahab Ceeley. A mean man with a harpoon, the amorous Ahab, who has been romancing a minister’s daughter in the South Seas, looses his leg when his jealous half-brother throws him overboard from the whaling skiff in which they are pursuing the Great White Whale, Moby Dick. (And now you know. But wait a minute! Wait a minute! In the words of Warner Bros.’ other non-canine superstar, Al Jolson, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!”)
It seems the half-brother and Ahab were in love with the same woman. In this version, there’s a happy ending, as Ahab — now the cantankerous Captain of the Pequod — finds out about his half-brother’s treachery after all hell has broken loose asea in the pursuit of that recalcitrant cetacean. The treacherous half-brother is killed, Ahab single-handedly harpoons the albino Moby Dick to death, and then hobbles back to New Bedford or Bora Bora or whereabouts to be reunited with his estranged gal (played by his real-life wife, Dolores Costello).
The Sea Beast was the very first picture made from a Herman Melville book. How could they get away with the wholesale slaughter of an American masterpiece as if it were a pride of Canadian harp seals? Moby Dick had been out of print for years, and wouldn’t be back between covers until 1927. It’s sobering to think that The Sea Beast might have had a hand in resurrecting what was then a forgotten book.
(The poster for The Sea Beast informs interested parties that it is “From the story ‘ Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville.” but sports a green whale rather than the white one that graces both novel and this motion picture. Before the novel made it onto college and high school reading lists, one could imagine the Warner Bros. marketing people thinking aloud, “Bah! A whale’s a whale.” Let’s be thankful that it wasn’t advertised as a “Whale of Tale.”)
The movie was remade as a sound picture, this time under the title Moby Dick. After suffering through the original silent movie, I stopped watching the sound remake after the very first scene. In this version, the seasoned salt Ahab Ceely (the third “e” in the surname has inexplicably been lost at sea in this second commitment of Melville’s classic tale to celluloid) is not a common seaman who works his way up the ropes to captain, but already is the master of the Pequod. As the whaling ship sails into New Bedford, a virile, two-legged John Barrymore does handstands in the crow’s nest.
We cut to a crowd of women decked out in 19th century finery, awaiting wharfside for the ship to dock.
“That Captain Ahab,” says one of the admiring New Bedford dollies, “ain’t he a caution!”
That was the time to hit the STOP button.
On the Road
There has been talk of turning Jack Kerouac’s classic picaresque novel On the Road into a motion picture since it hit the best-seller lists and the national consciousness in 1957. After more than half-a-century, it has remained just talk.
Early conjecture was a film starring Marlon Brando and possibly Montgomery Clift in the roles of Dean Moriarity and Sal Paradise, the two questing souls who go on the road shortly after World War II. Nothing came of it. On the small screen, On the Road was the genesis of the hit TV series Route 66. Kerouac even tried to sue the producers for ripping him off, but failed, as he generally did in the 1960s after his one unqualified success.
There has been talk for years that Francis Ford Coppola finally would bring On the Road to the screen. Johnny Depp, a Kerouac fan, was once attached to the project, but it still remains in limbo.
What Makes Sammy Run?
Budd Schulberg, the son of Paramount production chief B.P. Schulberg, grew up at the studio, a “Hollywood Prince.” He also was a part of the industry as a screenwriter, eventually winning an Oscar for his screenplay for On the Waterfront.
Schulberg’s 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? is considered the classic “insider” novel of Hollywood. The classic “outsider” Hollywood novel is Nathanel West’s The Day of the Locust, which was made into a mediocre film by Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger in 1974. The other great Hollywood novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, a half-finished novel inspired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production chief Irving Thalberg, was made into a disappointing 1976 film by the man who helmed Schulberg’s On the Waterfront screenplay, Elia Kazan.
(Schulberg worked on the screenplay for the 1939 Dartmouth College-themed movie Winter Carnival with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who — unlike the Hollywood Prince and his co-writers Lester Cole and Maruice Rapf — was uncredited. Both Cole, who became one of the Hollywood Ten, and Rapf, Schulberg’s friend since childhood, eventually were blacklisted in Hollywood. Schulberg and Rapf were both Dartmouth alumni, while Fitzgerald, famously, had matriculated at Princeton. Cole was a high school drop-out. Maybe he should have been assigned On the Road, though Kerouac, the Sal Paradise character, was a Columbia man, though he never graduated. Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarity, was a product of the reformatory.)
Other than sentimental potboilers like A Star is Born (the original 1937 version that Budd Schulberg worked on as a staff writer for fellow Hollywood Prince David O. Selznick and the 1954 and ’76 remakes), Hollywood films have not been that successful at the box office. This has been particularly true of works that take a serious look at Lotus Land, like The Day of the Locust and The Last Tycoon.
Budd Schulberg himself adapted the two-part TV version of What Makes Sammy Run? that aired on NBC in 1959, in which Broadway actor and TV performer Larry Blyden starred as Sammy Glick. For the past several years, Ben Stiller has been attached to a movie version of What Makes Sammy Run? but so far, he has failed to bring it to the screen.
Why hasn’t Sammy Glick, the super aggressive Hollywood producer, made it to the Big Screen? After all, wasn’t he to the Big Screen born? It might be for the reason that the novel was criticized by John Howard Lawson (future Hollywood Ten member) and the U.S. Communist Party that Budd Schulberg belonged to in the 1930s. The official party line was that the novel was anti-Semitic. After reading the manuscript, Lawson — the party’s apparatchik in Hollywood — ordered Schulberg to abandon the novel. He refused and quit The Party instead.
Budd Schulberg’s bitterness over the CPUSA’s attempt to censor him was one of the reasons he volunteered to testify as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, though he hadn’t been subpoenaed. (He had been named as a former member of the Communist Party by another HUAC witness.) Once he was hailed before HUAC, he “named names.”
In 1956, singer Eddie Fisher, who was married to Debbie Reynolds, told his agent Lew Wasserman that he wanted to play Sammy Glick on screen. According to Fisher, Schulberg’s character was “the ultimate Jewish hustler. I knew a lot of real Sammy Glicks and I felt confident that was a character I could play.”
Fisher, Wasserman and Schulberg were Jewish. Wasserman, who also headed the studio Universal through his Music Corporation of America (MCA) talent agency, thought it would be a bad move on Fisher’s part, as Glick embodied a Jewish stereotype.
Three years later, the novel finally made it to the small screen, as part of NBC’s Sunday Showcase, directed by Oscar-winner Delbert Mann. (Larry Blyden himself was Jewish.) It has yet to make it to the Big Screen, despite offering an actor a tremendous role.
According to Wikipedia, “Budd Schulberg, who died in 2009, told the Jewish Daily Forward in 2006 that he doubted that a film would ever be made, saying ‘I still think there’s a sense that it’s too anti-industry.’ In a 2009 newspaper interview, Schulberg quoted Steven Spielberg as saying that the book was ‘anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed.'”
Should never be filmed. Reading between the lines, one is tempted to substitute “anti-Semitic” for “anti-industry.” That would be a good reason why the movie has never been green-lighted, despite reports that Spielberg’s Dreamworks bought the rights to the novel for $2.6 million in 2001 for Ben Stiller.
Charles Bukowski is considered a colossus of 20th Century American fiction, everywhere but in America. A best-selling writer in Europe, Bukowski generally was ignored by the U.S. literary establishment, seeing as “The Poet Laureate of Skid Row” wrote about drunken bums, whores, and assorted losers. He also wrote about work, a subject that American letters has never been comfortable with.
Bukowski’s 1975 novel Factotum, which was based on the long series of dead end jobs he had before he became a writer, was filmed in 2005 with Matt Dillon as Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski (called by his nickname “Hank” in the film).
Henry Chinaski had been on screen played by similar “B-List” actors twice before: Ben Gazzara starred in the disappointing Tales of Ordinary Madness, the first of 23 movies made from Bukowski’s novels, short stories and poems. (For some reason, the Italian director of the movie renamed the character “Charles Serking.”) Bukowski himself thought the movie was rather poor, and though he liked the slightly mad look in Gazzara’s eyes, he thought that he seemed too well-off and satisfied, too much the Hollywood actor, to convincingly play a denizen of L.A.’s skid row. (Ernest Hemingway thought the same thing of Spencer Tracy in the 1958 movie version of his The Old Man and the Sea. Yet, the legendary Tracy got an Oscar nomination playing the old Cuban fisherman envisioned by the legendary Nobel Prize-winning novelist.)
Charles Bukowski was much more satisfied with the portrayal of Henry Chinaski (under “his” own name) by Mickey Rourke in the 1987 cult masterpiece Barfly, for which Bukowski wrote an original screenplay for Swiss director Barbet Schoeder. That film featured a superb performance by Faye Dunaway as a skid-row alchoholic that should have garnered her an Oscar nomination.
Mickey Rourke inherited the role from Sean Penn, whom had become a friend of Bukowski’s, and was the writer’s first choice for the role. However, Penn insisted that the movie be helmed by Dennis Hopper, who had recently directed him in the police action picture Colors. Bukowski personally was repulsed by Hopper (the whole Barfly scene is covered in Buk’s roman a clef Hollywood), but more importantly, he felt loyalty to Schroeder, who had originated the project.
Sean Penn didn’t make Barfly, but he and Bukowski remained friends. After the writer’s death, he dedicated the 1995 movie that he directed, The Crossing Guard, to “My friend, Charles Bukowski. I miss you, S.P.”
Charles Bukowski was a great poet (one of the most influential of the second half of the 20th Century) and short story writer. He was less successful as a novelist, but his masterpiece in that genre was Women (1978). The book details the 50-something Hnery Chinaski’s struggles to make it as a writer after quitting his job at the post office, and the incredible amount of women he became involved with once he became famous in the underground and on the poetry reading circuit.
Sean Penn reportedly owns the rights to Women, but has yet to make the film. The role of the Chinaski would have been great for Penn’s friend Jack Nicholson, or perhaps Albert Finney, before they both got too old for the part. Perhaps he is saving it for himself.
The double Oscar-winner will be 50 years old in August 2010, just about the age that Henry Chinaski is when Women begins. If Penn had been waiting to mature to tackle the role, the time is nigh for his adaptation.
Internet Movie Database, What Makes Sammy Run? Part 1