In 1939, a 24-year-old Budd Schulberg was writing a film called Winter Carnival, set at his alma mater, Dartmouth College. The producer Walter Wanger informed him that the screenplay needed work, and they were bringing in Scott Fitzgerald to improve it.
“I thought it was a joke,” recalled Schulberg, “like saying, ‘Leo Tolstoy.’ And I said, ‘Scott Fitzgerald—isn’t he dead?’ ”
Not formally. But he was doing his best. And a legendary bender of a weekend in New Hampshire while “researching” the film ended Fitzgerald’s participation and, to all intents and purposes, his career.
Budd Schulberg—isn’t he dead? I never met the guy but, as the years rolled by, I found myself using some variation of the line with remarkable frequency: not long ago, I happened to be in Mexico at the same time as the columnist Clifford May, who mentioned en passant that he used to rent Budd Schulberg’s apartment in Mexico City. Wow! Budd Schulberg is still around? Before that, it was the singer Steve Lawrence, who was discussing the 1960s adaptation of Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run? into a Broadway musical written by Ervin Drake, composer of (When I Was Seventeen) It Was A Very Good Year. When I was 21, it was a very good year. When I was 35, it was a very good year. And in the song that’s pretty much where the good years stopped.
But for Schulberg they continued: when he was 48, when he was 63, when he was 89 . . . Last summer, at the age of 94, he took a bow at the Edinburgh Festival. Nine and a half decades of good years that came to an end this month. If they weren’t as good as they might have been, that’s because of a decision he made in 1951 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and name eight of his former comrades among the Hollywood Communists. Budd Schulberg—isn’t he dead? No, but he might just as well have been, as the decades passed, and the “McCarthy Era” became for the new Hollywood the last good war, the only one in which the “artists” themselves were on the front line.
A few years back, I was at Paramount taking part in some panel discussion, and at one point the subject of “artistic persecution” arose. “When,” I scoffed, “was the last time anyone in Hollywood was persecuted?” “The 1950s,” snapped the otherwise delightful Lynda Obst, the producer of Sleepless In Seattle, who was sitting next to me. I forbore to suggest to Lynda that the Hollywood blacklist was not what most societies would recognize as “persecution”—or, indeed, that the guys doing the persecuting were not the government but the studio suits at Warner Brothers, Universal, et al. No matter. Execs can be forgiven: it’s strictly business, right? For the Sean Penn/George Clooney generation, what Schulberg and his director Elia Kazan did was an affront to their sense of their own artistic heroism. As the Boston Globe’s Thomas Oliphant wrote, Kazan was “a pathetically prototypical rat-fink of the anti-Communist hysteria.”
In an ideal world—or if you were making the umpteenth movie on the subject—it would be helpful if the blacklist’s “victims” had been a little more accomplished. By contrast, Schulberg, as a writer, and Kazan, as a director, are too talented to be written off as mere snitches and toadies to state power. For one thing, their experience as “rat-finks” produced a true cinematic masterpiece, and a better film than any on their detractors’ CVs, post- or pre-blacklist. Schulberg’s script for On The Waterfront (1954) reads like transcripts from the Congressional hearings: “I just want to ask you some questions about some people you may know”; “Stooling is when you rat on your friends,” etc. Yet it’s not about Communist penetration of the movie business, but organized-crime penetration of the longshoremen’s union.
Schulberg and Kazan had hit upon the perfect analogy—for, until Hollywood leftists began demanding that personal loyalty trumps all other considerations, the notion that “ratting” was the ultimate sin was confined mostly to the mob. In Schulberg’s screenplay, the union men are “D & D”—deaf and dumb to the evils committed in the name of a bogus working-class solidarity. You couldn’t find a better parallel to all those “well-intentioned liberals” in the arts who stayed true to the theoretical ideals of Communism no matter how large the mountain of corpses grew. To elevate personal friendship above all is an absurdity, nicely caught in an exchange between Marlon Brando’s washed-up prizefighter Terry Malloy and Karl Malden’s outraged Catholic priest:
“Johnny Friendly used to take me to ball games when I was a kid.”
“Ball games?” says Malden, contemptuously. “Don’t make me cry.” It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for baseball seats?
They were pretty good seats, too. As a 20-year-old Dartmouth student, Schulberg visited the Soviet Union and was shown its artistic glories. He fell in love with the theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Stanislavski’s wayward disciple. Meyerhold loved the older stylized dramatic forms—commedia dell’arte, pantomime—and refused to confine himself to Socialist Realism. So in 1939 Stalin had him arrested, tortured and his wife murdered. He was shot by firing squad in February 1940.
How about that? Executed over a difference of opinion about a directing style. As “persecution” goes, isn’t that a little more thorough than, say, being denied a writing credit on Hellcats of the Navy, as happened to Bernard Gordon? More to the point, if it’s all about “personal loyalty,” then what about the loyalty owed to Meyerhold by all those young American artistic lefties he befriended and inspired? Or is the “personal loyalty” owed not to persons but to the noble cause, in service of which any individual is dispensable? Even today, we continue to draw a distinction between Nazism and Communism—between the bad evil and the good evil, the evil that’s philosophically sound, admirably progressive and just ran into one or two problems on the ground, like a great movie idea that went off course in development.
In 1937, Schulberg wrote a short story about an ambitious kid on the make in Hollywood, and then decided to expand it into a novel. Demonstrating the same hands-on approach as Comrade Stalin with Meyerhold, the Communist Party told him to ease up on the Jewishness of the central character, and portray the striking screenwriters more appealingly. Happily, the American Commies lacked the enforcement regime of Uncle Joe. So Schulberg refused, and published What Makes Sammy Run? as written. In essence, he broke with the Reds for artistic reasons.
But he learned a broader lesson in the way they operate. The great speech in On The Waterfront comes in the back of a cab, as Terry Malloy (Brando) lays out the reasons for his failures, as a boxer and as a man.
“That skunk we got you for a manager,” says his mobster brother Charley (Rod Steiger). “He brought you along too fast.”
“It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you,” Terry replies. “You remember that night in the Garden, you came down to my dressing room and said, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ You remember that? ‘This ain’t your night!’ My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in the ballpark—and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville . . . I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am . . .”
It’s beautifully muscular prose that achieves a kind of blue-collar poetry. It’s Brando’s signature scene, and Schulberg’s surest claim to a place in the pantheon. It’s too good not to admire, and yet, even in their acknowledgement of its power, the cineastes can’t quite go all the way with Terry Malloy and acknowledge why it’s great—as if somehow the Schulberg who wrote one of the best screenplays of its era and the Schulberg who “rat-finked” on the Hollywood Reds are two hermetically sealed entities rather than entirely consistent, the one being the logical consequence of the other.
A few days after Schulberg died, a man called Kenneth Gladney went to congressman Russ Carnahan’s “town hall meeting” in St. Louis to protest plans for health-care “reform.” He was set upon by Democratic enforcers from the Service Employees International Union and so badly beaten that, at the time of writing, he’s in a wheelchair. He happens to be black, and the SEIU goons taunted him with racial epithets. But it doesn’t matter. He committed the same sin as Terry Malloy or Budd Schulberg. He broke with “his” gang, and must pay the price.
Budd Schulberg was a lifelong liberal, but, unlike most of his comrades, he understood the artist’s obligation to live in truth—and he found a terrific way to tell the story. If it’s any consolation to his detractors, the studio bosses who enforced the blacklist didn’t get it either. Kazan and Schulberg took On The Waterfront to Darryl Zanuck, head honcho at 20th Century Fox. Zanuck turned them down. “Who,” he said, “gives a shit about longshoremen?”