Budd Schulberg, the morally-enraged writer who died Wednesday, knew fame and fortune and serious respect during his 95 years on the planet. But the praise that came his way tonight in numerous obituaries was primarily a tribute to three movies and one televised drama that were seen and praised during a five-year streak in the mid to late 1950s.
All four works were basically about social inequity and the unfairness of things in the rough and tumble of big-city commerce. They were each about powerful and ruthless people screwing over less powerful, more decent-minded colleagues or employees, and about the necessity of these lesser types taking a stand against evil and exploitation.
First was On The Waterfront (’54), the Oscar-winning feature that we all know about. Then came The Harder They Fall (’56), a Humphrey Bogart-Rod Steiger drama about the corruption of boxing that was allegedly based on the rise and fall of Primo Carnera. And then A Face in the Crowd (’57), about the rise and fall of a part folksy, part malicious and power-mad Will Rogers figure named Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith). And finally the 1959 NBC Sunday Showcase presentation of What Makes Sammy Run?, which Schulberg had originally written in 1941 or thereabouts. The ’59 telecast starred Larry Blyden, John Forsythe and Barbara Rush.
Schulberg did a lot and wrote a lot but these four works were the core. They were all toughly and believably written, and focused on desperate, morally vague, sometimes conniving people up against the wall and facing hard ethical situations and decisions.
I’ll always have a soft spot for Waterfront, but that’s primarily about Marlon Brando‘s legendary performance as Terry Malloy. I’m not sure if my second favorite is A Face in a Crowd or What Makes Sammy Run? Come to think of it, who gives a shit what my second favorite Schulberg work is? Even I don’t care. I do know I’ve watched them all on DVD (I recently bought a DVD of an old Sammy kinescope), and that none to this day sound or feel rickety.
Here’s to a tough guy who had a brief but great run, and who — let’s face it — basically coasted on the reputation of those four works for the rest of his life.