The Editor's Spin: The Last Tycoons
Posted Mar 1, 2003

Consider this unlikely starting point for a great DVD: a behind-the-scenes documentary of a studio-commissioned, half-baked boola-boola college musical, circa 1939, called Love On Ice. Nearly all the principals are dead; reviewing the remaining b-rolls doesn't give you much to go on. Deleted scenes disposed of, disintegrated, or both. Among the early stock footage, you almost pass over a half-hilarious, half-horrible scene the camera fixates on like it's rubbernecking a multi-fatality car wreck. A triumphant Winter Carnival moment, the presentation of the carnival king and queen, is interrupted by the approach of a rumpled rummy on a three-day binge. He nearly makes it to the ski-jump dais before tripping in the snow and is ushered away, grumbling incoherently, as the crowd erupts in laughter and catcalls. Despite his appearance, he seems to be a figure of some renown, but without much else to go on, you write off this intriguing back-story as just another casualty of time—like that used-up drunk himself—and you let it go.

But what if you don't? What if you somehow manage to follow thread upon thread to discover that the stumbling drunk is nothing less than the most gifted writer of his age? And that his presence there is in fact the key to a story a hundred times more interesting than the dreary film at hand, at once a picture of talent at twilight, the corrosive intermingling of commerce and art, the food-chain toadyism of Hollywood and academia, and the self-laceration of a nation suffering the bitter consequences of excess, and relishing the opportunity to lay blame on its profligate past's most poetic partaker?

Therein you might have stumbled on the greatest behind-the-scenes documentary of all time, one-tenth making-of (the movie) and nine fascinating tenths unmaking-of (the vainglorious 1920s and its weather-beaten bard, F. Scott Fitzgerald). Of course, you'd also be making a documentary already made in Budd Schulberg's thinly veiled fiction, The Disenchanted, which told the true story of Schulberg's collaboration with a burned-out, overqualified rewrite man—Fitzgerald himself—on a long-forgotten trifle called Winter Carnival.

Schulberg, remembered in DVD-era America vicariously through the oft-quoted line, "I coulda been a contender" (memorably delivered by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, which Schulberg wrote), made his name by creating one of the great iconic figures of American fiction in his 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run? In the book, Sammy Glick, the archetypal cutthroat go-getter whose greatest talent is exploitation, rises through the ranks of Hollywood screenwriters and small-time producers to become the head of a major studio in his mid-20s. (Naturally, he gains the world and loses what's left of his soul.)

The book caused all manner of uproar at publication; everyone in Hollywood either claimed to know who Sammy Glick was, or ruefully suspected he was Sammy Glick. Schulberg was accused of everything from slander to selling out the Screenwriters Guild to anti-Semitism. The book was called doctrinaire by Hollywood bigwigs and not doctrinaire enough by Communist Party USA, with whom Schulberg had recently broken rank. Criticisms aside, the book sold better than anyone ever imagined a "Hollywood" novel would, and made Sammy Glick an American icon on the level of George Babbitt, Uncle Tom, or (more recently) Archie Bunker.

It's fair testimony to the American preference for titillation over self-reflection that the psycho-sociological question "What makes Sammy run?" proved not nearly so compelling—at least for the Hollywood set—as "Who is Sammy Glick?" The most popular and reasonable answer was "Boy Wonder" Irving Thalberg, who became VP of MGM at 24 and died at 37. Thalberg fascinated Fitzgerald, too; he based his last (unfinished) book, The Last Tycoon, on Thalberg's short, dramatic, no-second-act life. Schulberg invokes Thalberg's name in The Disenchanted, in a conversation between Fitzgerald stand-in Manley Halliday and his friend and caretaker Ann Loeb. Halliday wonders aloud if Thalberg was really "the great genius Hollywood believed." Loeb replies, "Genius has its practical side too. The man who gets there first when it's most needed. A man who manages to dig a well in the driest part of the Sahara is a genius even though there may be a hundred who dig much bigger wells in town. Irving is that kind of genius. He's come to the desert and he's struck water. It may not be a very deep well but it'll do for a start."

Much of what Schulberg achieves in The Disenchanted's own deep well is theoretically within the reach of "DVD extras" that penetrate the story behind the story. The behind-the-scenes revelations of The Disenchanted not only go well beyond the usual DVD filigree, but hold up a mirror to our own time and place that you'd never find in the main storyline. Think of the parallels with our post Internet-boom economy, and our concurrent sense of living and doing business under siege. There are extremists among us who consider the current crisis (economic and political) some karmic comeuppance for past profligacy, just as Depression-era Americans held Flapper-philosophers of Fitzgerald's heyday symbolically responsible for their spiraling woes. By contrast, as we sift the ashes of our tanked economy, we recall from the boom times not so much drunken excess as a light that failed in the high-profit play of dot-com entrepreneurs. And instead of the deathless art of the '20s, we're left with the indelible image of unshowered Sammy Geeks in Speed Racer t-shirts who could buy and sell suits twice their age.

Which is a strong image in and of itself, even in the absence of art that lasts. Still, my money's on DVD to capture the images that will make our time stick, even if for now we're at the struck-water-in-the-desert stage, with a DVD for every movie, a player in every living room, and soon a DVD recorder in every PC. None of which is very deep by Disenchanted standards, but as any spent (and debt-ridden) talent—or DVD licensor—will tell you, standards ain't what they used to be.