The (UK) Father’s Day Intertitle: Schulberg on Fitzgerald on Chaplin

I’m finally reading The Disenchanted, the 1950 novel by Budd Schulberg, a Penguin paperback I inherited from my old friend Lawrie Knight years ago. It’s falling to bits as I read it, adding a certain pathos to the already sad story.

The book has multiple cinematic-literary connections, both as a text and a crumbling physical object. Schulberg, the son of Paramount boss B.P. Schulberg, was a 25-year-old screenwriter working for Walter Wanger when he was assigned Scott Fitzgerald as writing partner. Their extremely unsuccessful attempts to collaborate form the subject of this book, which is stuffed with walk-ons by film biz personalities.

It also has a front cover illo by Len Deighton.

I’m enjoying it — though some have doubts, which I share, about whether Schulberg is entirely honest about the events he covers. Of course, he fictionalizes like crazy, as is his right: names are changed; Schulberg’s fictive avatar is described as “handsome,” which is hilarious when you see the author photo on the back where he looks like a bump on a tree; his mogul dad is eliminated to erase any hint of nepotism and make “Shep” seem like an independent success.

The more serious bit is about Budd/Shep’s failure to stop Fitzgerald/Halliday from drinking. Shep has apparently read everything by Halliday but doesn’t know he’s a struggling alcoholic — in this fictional reality there’s conveniently no equivalent of The Crack-Up.  The real Schulberg said he had no idea about Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and nobody warned him he was partly being paid to keep it under control. So practically the first thing he does is urge the author to have a drink. And he keeps doing so, all through the book. Schulberg has Halliday tell him this is necessary, now that he’s started back on the booze he can’t afford to dry out until the job is done. Retelling the story, as he did often, Schulberg would omit this vital exchange, so did it happen? Did he ply his hero with drink to get stories out of him? Because that’s the glowing subtext.

Schulberg seems like a bad choice for the role of nurse: he was a bit of a boozer himself, and he makes Shep one. Shep finds a drink useful to prepare him for all sorts of activities, like meeting his boss. Like a lot of mid-twentieth-century literature, it really gives you a sense of how socially omnipresent drink was.

Fitzgerald’s partner, Sheilah Graham, never forgave him for this book — and who can blame her? — but it’s actually very sympathetic — maybe it’s the real-life events she should have held the grudge over.

Anyway, here’s an extract — Halliday is a man who remains insightful and eloquent even when so sloshed he can barely speak coherently, and his thoughts on Chaplin, which I’d like to believe are really Fitzgerald’s, are wonderfully sharp.

“Know the secret of Charlie? Not a man at all. Sneaks up in attic, puts on father’s clothes, pants too big, shoes too big, wears all kinds of different clothes together, anything he happens to find lying around. Then he pretends he’s grown up. But it’s all a dream. Girl he falls in love with, ‘thereal, too beautiful, way little boys fall in love with grown-up women from a distance. Dances with ’em, makes love to ’em, gives ’em won’erful presents, all in a dream. ‘member City Lights. And that face on Charlie. From ridic’lous to sublime no cliché for Charlie. Real art, real tragedy, only tragedy I ever saw in movies. That face on Charlie. The pain. I c’n seen it right now. All his pictures, same idea, the dream’s a beautiful balloon, a kid’s balloon, and reality’s a sharp point on a fence. The balloon drifts over the forbidden garden, hits the point ‘n bursts — way all of us wake up right back where we were. Chaplin’s the only one saw the movie as the bes’ medium in the worl’ for dreams, the child being the father, the tramp being the millionaire, the homely little bum being the elegant Don Juan. […]

“‘member one picture little one-reeler, can’t even ‘member the name of it. Charlie’s a drink being dragged along, grabs a bush as he struggles, finds a daisy in his hand. Daisy changes mood entirely. Becomes a poet, a dreamer, an aesthete. So convincing it looks like impro – improvisation an’ when you think of Charlie as a child not even unrealistic, you know the way a little boy sees a toy boat an’ becomes a boat captain, picks up a gun an’ goes right into character as a soldier. See what I mean? Don’t think of Charlie as an adult acting like a child but as a child acting like a grown-up.

“Like The Gold Rush. […] If movies didn’t die so fast it’d be considered a permanent classic like Hamlet or Cyrano. Funny as hell on the surface and full of inner meanings an’ the idea, the Gold Rush, just when the whole country was rushing for gold. Money crazy. […]

“I’m no analyst, but I could analyse Chaplin from his comedies — that’s how true they are. […] Notice how there’s always a big brute of a man pushing Charlie around — prospector in Gold Rush, millionaire in City Lights, employer in Modern Times, always the same father image, switching suddenly from love to hatred of Charlie like the millionaire picks him up when he’s drunk takes him home lovingly tucks him in, then sobers up in the morning an’ throws him out. Conflict with the father, whether Charlie sees it or not. All Charlie’s pictures full of it. Psychiatrist c’d do a helluva book on Charlie’s movies. […] What’m I talking about?”

“The Chaplin movies.”

“…don’t switch from comedy to tragedy. No phony, mechanical change o’ pace. The funniest parts, the parts where you laugh the loudest, are tragic. That’s where the genius comes in…”

Good stuff, eh, even if Freudian interps always start to feel sterile and reductive after a while. Incidentally, if the one-reeler cited is genuine, I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who can identify it.

8 Responses to “The (UK) Father’s Day Intertitle: Schulberg on Fitzgerald on Chaplin”

  1. Simon Kane Says:

    That is brilliant.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The degree to which lesser mortals envied and loathed Chapin always gobsmacks me.

    Budd Schulberg is Quite a Piece of Work. “What Makes Sammy Run?” is one of the great Hollywood novels and is reportedly an a clef about Jerry Wald. Wald was one of THE great Hollywood producers. He loved the movies and understood audiences. He did such innovative things as consult libraries to find out what books have been checked out most frequently and got the rights to make movies of them. This is why he got Gavin Lambert to script “Sons and Lovers” — a not at all bad adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s masterpiece (though Gavin didn’t like Jack Cardiff’s direction at all.) Wald also seriously considered filming “Ulysses.”

    “On the Waterfront” is a right-wing anti-union screed, made palpable by Brando’s overwhelming sexiness. By contrast “A Face in the Crowd” is entirely left-wing. It’s climax, in which “Lonesome Rhodes” is in despair when no one shows up at his Big Dinner was reprised in “Real Life” this weekend as I point out HERE.

  3. Der President seems determined to mimic Lonesome Rhodes at every turn, having already had his hot-mic moment.

  4. June 20th was joyous, and needs its own portmanteau to follow “Juneteenth.” Schadensolstice?

  5. Drumpftieth?

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    It’ll be worth comemmorating if November follows the way it seems to augur right now. What matters is *the* defeat.

    Schulberg also produced/wrote Wind Across the Everglades by Nicholas Ray, and while Ray was definitely erratic during production, Schulberg deserves some blame for the reshoots and stuff that hollowed out what could have been a Ray masterpiece.

    Spike Lee spoke recently that he and Schulberg discussing making a movie about the Max Schmelling-Joe Louis bout near the end of his life, and Lee says that he wishes to make that movie someday, so we might get a posthumous Schulberg collaboration in a few years or so, Post-COVID wreckage of the movie industry notwithstanding.

  7. Everglades: Gypsy Rose Lee reported that Ray called for champagne after the first successful take, and the drinking went on all day. She tried to track down Schulberg as she objected to boozing at work, and found him in the bar. So, yes, some of the problems were his fault for sure. And he had a history of not looking after alcoholics…

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Christopher Plummer, who liked Ray a lot, told me the biggest problem during the shoot was Ray’s drug-dealer girlfriend who one day tried to drive over Ray with her car in front of the whole cast and crew

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