L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
The category in this bracket of our Great L.A. Novel challenge is “Hollywood novel.” And that category is practically defined by these second-round contenders, What Makes Sammy Run? and Day of the Locust.
While Day of the Locust is set in Hollywood, and does comment on the horrors and absurdities of showbiz — especially in its final, terrifying scene — it's really not about Hollywood. It's about the “great mass of inland Americans,” as the back-cover copy of my edition calls them, who went West in search of the good life. Author Nathanael West touches on Hollywood, but these people are his true subject.
What Makes Sammy Run?, on the other hand, is the ur Hollywood novel. Author Budd Schulberg's keen observations of the studio business came at first-hand: He was the son of motion picture executive B.P. Schulberg and he grew up in and around the industry. The titular Sammy Glick rises from lowly New York City newspaper copy boy to midlevel Hollywood studio exec by schmoozing and backstabbing, stealing ideas and passing them off as his own, and setting the template for showbiz climbers to this day.
Then there are the differences between the book's protagonists. In the case of Sammy, the young man's rise is narrated by his putative superior at the newspaper, columnist Al Manheim. Like so many writers of his day, Al's also lured to Hollywood with promises of fame and fortune, as well as the opportunity to watch Sammy run and run. He's a reader surrogate who is both amused and horrified by what Sammy will do to get ahead.
The main voice in Locust is that of Tod Hackett, a serious artist who has come to Hollywood to work at a studio, sketching historical costumes and sets. Tod doesn't narrate the tale, but we are privy to his internal musings and monologues. Tod lusts after his neighbor, Faye Greener, a wannabe actress characterized mainly in terms of her beauty and her vapidity. She fends off Tod's advances because he's not rich, famous or attractive enough for her; West is clear and brutal in his distillation of Faye to her shallow essence.
Faye's lack of interest doesn't especially deter Tod, however; he spends quite a lot of time engaging in rape fantasies centered on her. He dogs her relentlessly, even accompanying her on dates with other men.
It's hard to say exactly who is the locust of West's title: the Midwestern emigres who came West to feed on the fat of the land in Southern California, or the working-class men and women who swarm a Hollywood premiere in hopes of catching a glimpse of their favorite star and relieving their own intense boredom.
But West skimps on dialogue, leaving many conversations and interactions to be described rather than experienced. Here's where “Sammy” and Schulberg jump to the fore.
Schulberg has a great ear for dialogue and dialect. His speakers come alive in their conversations, whether they're using the rich, distinctive argot of Hollywood or the tough-guy speech of Sammy's childhood Lower East Side Jewish neighborhood.
Here's screenwriter Kit Sargent, having recently met narrator Al, comparing notes with him on Sammy Glick, talking as they dance.
My dancing wasn't too good because I was conscious of not being able to think of anything to say.
Finally, she had to start it. “How long have you been out here?”
“Not so very long,” I said. “I don't know, maybe a month.”
“Suppose it isn't fair to ask whether you like it or not?”
“I'm making twice what I was in New York, and the climate's a whole lot better. Why shouldn't I like it?”
She smiled at me with so much understanding it was humiliating. “Don't worry, hardly anybody does at first.”
“How about the eminent author of Monsoon?” I said.
“They're different,” she said.
I told her I could only see one Sammy Glick at that table, unless the last couple of drinks had caught up with me.
“I meant all the Sammy Glicks,” she said.
“There is only one Sammy Glick,” I insisted. “I know, I met him when he couldn't have been much over seventeen. Why, I've practically seen him grow up and…
“I doubt that,” she cut in. “I don't think Sammy Glick was an adult at birth, but he must have become one very soon afterwards.”
“I hope you aren't right,” I said.. “For his parents' sake. But I had Sammy working out on me every day for years. And I'm willing to swear on my option that he's a unique contribution to the human race.”
“I hate to disillusion you,” she said, “but he has plenty of soul mates running in the same race.”
“I won't believe it till I see it, God forbid,” I said. “One Sammy Glick in my life is all my constitution will stand.”
“I've known Glicks before,” she said. “My first producer out here was a Glick. And so was the agent I just got rid of, Barney Burke.”
“God rest their souls,” I said.
“Of course, I will admit Sammy is an unusual model.” she said. “With a special hopped-up motor. But he's put out by the same people.”
Snappy, sharp, like the screwball comedies of the era.
Or here's Sammy Glick himself, telling off Al Manheim:
He paced around me impatiently. “Let me tell you something for your own good,” he said. “Wanna know why you're a flop out here? Because you pay too goddamn much attention to other people's business. When I was a kid I felt kind of gypped because I couldn't go to college and make the basketball team. I was a helluva basketball player once. But when I look at you I think maybe it's a good thing I didn't get my mind all cluttered up with crap at that. I may not know a lot of cushy words, but, by Jesus, I know about life. Take Darwin for instance. I didn't have to read any books to know all about the survival of the fittest.”
This next passage in Sammy bears similarities to West's final scene, in which a film premiere turns into a frightening, violent mob scene. But Schulberg's take is more benign:
Kit and I stopped in at one of the little bars on Vine Street, just south of Hollywood Boulevard. All along the sidewalk were little knots of poolroom characters who always seemed to be there, holding mysterious conferences. Down the street the playboys were getting out of red Cadillac phaetons or monogrammed town cars at La Conga. There was something savage and tense about that street. Autograph hunters prowled it, and ambitious young ladies in fancy hair-dos and slacks.
“God, this is a tough town,” Kit said.
“Why is it tougher than anywhere else?” I said.
“Because it still has the gold-rush feeling,” she said. “The gold rush was probably the only other set-up where so many people could hit the jackpot and the skids this close together. It's become a major industry without losing the crazy fever of a gold-boom town.”
Here, on the other hand, is an example of West's more mocking tone, in his description (via Tod Hackett) of L.A.'s motley architectural styles, near the start of his tale:
He reached the end of Vine Street and began the climb into Pinyon Canyon. Night had started to fall.
The edges of the trees burned with a pale violet light and their centers gradually turned from deep purple to black. The same violet piping, like a Neon tube, outlined the tops of the ugly, hump-backed hills, and they were almost beautiful.
But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.
When he noticed that they were all of plaster, lath and paper, he was charitable and blamed their shape on the materials used. Steel, stone and brick curb a builder's fancy a little, forcing him to distribute his stresses and weights and to keep his corners plumb, but plaster and paper know no law, not even that of gravity.
On the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers. Next to it was a highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the Arabian Nights. Again he was charitable. Both houses were comic, but he didn't laugh. Their desire to startle was so eager and guileless.
It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.
West's descriptions are colorful, carefully observed, scathing litanies of everything that's wrong with Los Angeles. On that score, he may have the upper hand on Schulberg.
But What Makes Sammy Run? is just a fun read, thanks largely to Schulberg's dialogue, especially for one familiar with the picture business. Schulberg captures the ridiculousness of the power structure, the acting people do to convince themselves they're succeeding when they're not, the utter randomness of who gets ahead and who doesn't.
Day of the Locust also is quite misogynistic, unlike Sammy, which has some well-drawn female characters, such as the screenwriter Kit Sargent. Even those less fortunate women, like Sammy's abandoned girlfriend, Rosalie Goldbaum, are fully realized people. In Locust, however, West depicts women as objects — target of a man's rape fantasy, prostitutes, shrieking harpy wives. The most sympathetic female character is the madam of the whorehouse favored by Hollywood's elite, and she makes only a brief appearance.
In the end, Locust may appeal more to those with a fatalistic, apocalyptic view of Hollywood and, by extension, Los Angeles. But for a page-turner that offers insight into the Hollywood machine along the way — for a Hollywood novel — What Makes Sammy Run? wins in a walk.
Winner: What Makes Sammy Run?