Movies are a visual medium, we repeat in unison, yet when old-movie buffs get together to discuss the objects of their affection what they do, as often as not, is quote dialogue. When the Siren sees a recent movie, what she often misses is the verve and crackle of glorious midcentury American speech.
When it came to using that speech for film, Budd Schulberg, who died this week age 95, was one of the best. In On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, his characters speak in a way that is always recognizably and believably American, yet what power of observation and expression he gives them.
Their dialogue is heavily peppered with slang, they describe themselves as bums or indeed, they really are bums. But even the most hateful or least educated characters in a Schulberg screenplay have an uncommon ability to speak their minds. From On the Waterfront we remember tender, heroic Terry Malloy and Father Barry, but Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly, as unregenerate a villain as 1950s cinema gave us, has his reasons:
When I was sixteen, I had to beg for work in the hold. I didn't work my way up out of there for nuthin'. You know, takin' over this local took a little doin'. There's some pretty rough fellas in the way. They gave me this [he displays an ugly scar on his neck] to remember them by. I got two thousand dues-payin' members in this local. That's $72,000 a year legitimate and when each one of 'em puts in a couple of bucks a day just to make sure they work steady--well, you figure it out. And that's just for openers. We got the fattest piers in the fattest harbor in the world. Everything moves in and out. We take our cut. You don't suppose I can afford to be boxed out of a deal like this, do ya? A deal I sweated and bled for, on account of one lousy little cheese-eater, that Doyle bum, who thinks he can go squealin' to the Crime Commission? Do ya? [pause] Well, DO YA?
Here's Walter Matthau, with Patricia Neal the conscience of in A Face in the Crowd, describing the role of writers in television, a subject that often brings out the bitter best in a screenwriter: "Here you see the lepers of the great television industry. Men without faces. Why, they even slide our paychecks under the door so they can pretend we're not here." But here also is Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhoades, rotten to the marrow, but bearing a poison-tipped truth:
Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers, everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be Fighters for Fuller. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president--and you'll be the power behind me!
"Write what you know," goes the advice to writers. Where does that leave us with Schulberg? His life as the son of Paramount head B.P. Schulberg was covered in gold-leaf. At the height of the Depression his father was earning about $11,000 a week. Certainly Schulberg used what he knew for What Makes Sammy Run?, the little bottle of cyanide he uncorked for his Hollywood paisanos. Long before Robert Altman gave us the jaw-dropping story meeting in The Player, here was Sammy Glick, yelling, "Wait a minute! I got an angle!" And boy did he.
All you gotta do to that story is give it the switcheroo. Instead of the minister you got a young dame missionary, see, Dorothy Lamour. Her old man kicked off with tropical fever and she's carrying on the good work. You know, a Nice Girl. Then instead of Sadie Thompson you got a louse racketeer who comes to the Island to hide out. Dorothy Lamour and George Raft in Monsoon! Does that sound terrific? So, Dotty goes out to save George's soul and he starts feeding her the old oil. Of course, all he's out for is a good lay, but before long he finds himself watching the sun rise without even thinking of making a pass at her. The soul crap is beginning to get to him, see? He tells her she's the first dame he ever met he didnt' think about that way. Now give me a second to dope this out...
As this splendid little glossary of "Glickisms" shows, Schulberg was a human Babelfish when it came to Hollywood double-talk.
For Waterfront, Schulberg spent three years doing research alongside a priest who ministered to the workers, as this lovely tribute from writer and professor James T. Fisher describes. (Hat tip: Glenn Kenny.) But did Schulberg load and unload ships day after backbreaking day, with that as his sole means of survival? Had he ever strummed a guitar and plotted his way out of poverty and the drunk tank? Only in imagination. That, and Schulberg knew how to listen, as Fisher notes: "Budd was an amazingly gifted listener; perhaps the result of a lifelong if highly manageable speech impediment, but more likely because listening was simply his supreme gift."
And if you are going to have one supreme gift as a writer, that's the one to have. RIP, Mr. Schulberg.
Spare some good thoughts for the Siren today. She is leaving for Paris for two weeks, with three kids in tow. Posting will continue at her usual snail's pace.