Budd Schulberg: Saint or Sinner?

Budd Schulberg

We’ve all seen the movie, and we’re all familiar with the iconic scene – when failed boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brandon) confronts his slick gangster brother, Charley (Rod Steiger) in the back of the cab on its way to delivering Terry to his death for deciding to cooperate with an investigation into racketeering on the waterfront. The line – ‘I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender!’ – remains one of the most celebrated and recognisable in movie history, as indeed does the movie itself.

On The Waterfront was written by Budd Schulberg, who died on August 5 at the age of 95. It was directed by Elia Kazan and garnered eight Academy Awards, including an Oscar for best screenplay. The screenplay, the acting, the directing, the score all broke new ground in the art of cinema – in a movie devised and made as an apologia and justification for ‘snitching’ by two men who’d testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) against former associates, friends and comrades during the era of McCarthyism.

Schulberg grew up in a world of wealth and privilege in Hollywood as the son studio mogul, B.P. Schulberg, a New Deal liberal. As a young man he claimed to have been so ashamed of his father’s wealth and status that he said of the luxury car in which he was transported to school each morning: “I hated that car so much that when I had to be driven to school in it I would lie on the floor and crawl out a block away so my school mates wouldn’t see my shame.”

He left Hollywood to attend college in New York, and in 1934 he visited Moscow, where he attended the first Soviet Writers’ Congress and met Maxim Gorky and Isaac Babel.

Upon graduating from college, Schulberg returned to Hollywood to embark on a career in movies as an entry level writer at a time when screenwriters were treated little better than factotums and most were paid accordingly. His preference and talent for writing prose soon met with success, however, with his first short stories being picked up and published in leading national magazines. One of those stories – What Makes Sammy Run? – he went on to expand into his first novel.

Published in 1941, it tells the rags to riches story of a Jewish boy, Sammy Glick, who grows up in poverty in New York’s Lower East Side and determines early on to escape and make it big in Hollywood as a screenwriter. This he does by cheating and stepping on the toes of others, including friends.

Considered an accurate portrayal of the movie industry, blowing the lid on a business that had always seen itself and been portrayed as the ultimate expression of the American Dream, the novel caused no small amount of controversy upon its publication. It also earned its 27-year old writer international acclaim.

As a novelist, Schulberg was part of the Hemingway generation, that group of post WWII American novelists who were heavily influenced by Hemingway’s muscular and tightly written prose. Like Hemingway, Schulberg also took much of his inspiration as a writer from the Depression era of the 1930s and life on the hard side of the streets.

In 1942 he enlisted in the navy, where he served in John Ford’s documentary film unit. In 1945 he was assigned to gather photographic evidence that was later used at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

After his success with What Makes Sammy Run?, Schulberg went on to write another classic novel; this time exploring corruption at the heart of boxing. Like the movie industry, the sport of boxing was another American obsession during the 1930s and 1940s, identified with providing the possibility of escape from poverty during the Depression for young men with nothing to offer except heart and courage. Published in 1947 The Harder They Fall is a classic morality tale, and the 1956 movie adaptation starred Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger.

The sport of boxing was Budd Schulberg’s one abiding passion throughout his life, and it inspired some of his best writing. Here is a man who witnessed all of the classic fights of the 20th century, describing them and the fighters involved with the reverence of the most dedicated fan and the epic sweep of a Greek dramatist. His essays on Joe Louis and racism in America, and Muhammed Ali and his journey from young braggadocio to Black Muslim to American folk hero and living legend are without peer and still resonate to this day. His coverage of world championship fights over the decades appeared in major publications such as Esquire, Playboy, and Sports Illustrated, and he was a regular fixture as a spectator at fights at Madison Square Garden in New York all the way into his 90s.

Most fittingly, his writing on boxing was recognised in 2003, when he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame for his services to the sport.

Be that as it may, it will be for his collaboration with Elia Kazan on that classic movie of the 20th century, On The Waterfront, that Budd Schulberg will best be remembered.

Or will it?

Waterfront was produced in 1954, three years after Schulberg testified in front of HUAC and named names. He tesitifed that he was a member of the Communist Party from 1936 to 1939, when he left as a result of the Stalin-Hitler Pact. He claimed that the Party tried to influence his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, and he went on to name fifteen former friends and colleagues as having been former members of the Communist Party and other left wing groups, among them fellow writers like Ring Lardner Jnr, who was blacklisted as a result.

Unlike Kazan, Schulberg was not subpoenaed to testify, nor did he take the Fifth Amendment in order to avoid naming names and incriminating himself. Instead he appeared and testified voluntarily, after being named himself by a fellow screenwriter as a former member of the Communist Party. Schulberg’s decision to appear and testify earned him the enmity and disdain of many, such as Dalton Trumbo, one of the famed Hollywood Ten who refused to testify. Trumbo spent almost a year in prison for refusing to cooperate with HUAC and later went on to write the movie, Spartacus.

Schulberg maintained that he testified as a patriotic American, a view which Trumbo attacked: “. . . show me the man who informs on his friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have before,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country itself. I do not know of one Hollywood informer who acted except out of duress and for money. . . .”

Many of those who were blacklisted shared this view, and to this day the scars remain, even among some of the children of those involved. Elia Kazan’s son, Nicholas Kazan, a screenwriter himself, has spent his life putting distance between himself and his father’s actions, and donated to a memorial to the victims of the blacklist in later years.

As for Schulberg, throughout his life he remained unrepentant about his decision to testify, claiming that he’d only named those who’d already been named and that his testimony was moot because government moles within the Party had already secured the names of its members.

Judy Chaikin, director of an Emmy-nominated documentary about the blacklist, had this to say: “Both Kazan and Schulberg had tremendous guilt feelings that they continuously rationalized in order to live with themselves. Schulberg’s testimony was a vain attempt to cleanse himself before the Committee and save his career.”

Budd Schulberg died of natural causes at his home in Long Island, New York. He is survived by his wife, Betsy, and four children.

John Wight