The Prince of Paramount

A Hollywood legend’s vivid and honest portrait of the studio era

Budd Schulberg, who died last summer, was a Hollywood prince in Hollywood’s golden age. The son of B. P. Schulberg, the head of Paramount Pictures, and Adeline Schulberg, who would emerge as one of Tinseltown’s most powerful agents, Budd had the run of the town. His playground was the back lots of Paramount and MGM, where he’d pelt Greta Garbo with ripe figs; his after-school entertainment was to sit in on story conferences and watch the daily rushes. Movie stars coddled him. He grew up to write screenplays (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd), boxing reportage, some first-rate short stories (such as “A Table at Ciro’s,” in which a doomed studio chief, obviously drawn from B.P., is chronically beset by the town’s desperately striving hat-check girls, telephone operators, and waiters), and a clutch of novels, including that brilliant, hard portrait of Hollywood chutzpah, What Makes Sammy Run?

In 1981 he wrote Moving Pictures, a finely wrought 500-page memoir of his childhood (the book has been reissued; coincidentally, I read it the week before Schulberg’s death). It’s a dryly elegiac chronicle of a privileged youth in the California sunshine, when the moguls’ kids attended the public high school, half of Hancock Park was empty lots, and Malibu was really a colony. It’s also a discerning and cold-eyed history of the emergence of the picture industry (B.P. was a macher at Famous Players, in New York, before the creative side of the industry moved to the West Coast, leaving the money boys in Manhattan) and the flowering of the studio system—B.P.’s command of Paramount, the most artistically sophisticated of the dream factories, bridged the silent and sound eras. And, not least, it’s a collective portrait of horribly flawed but not unsympathetic people: the monstrous but heroically ambitious Louis B. Mayer; the broken, vulgar, and vulnerable Clara Bow, the It Girl (she was drawn to Budd, a shy and stammering boy, and his memories of that sad sex symbol achingly balance affection and pity); and above all, Budd’s parents.

Writing as an old man of his emotional state as a boy, Schulberg likes and even admires—but is never taken in by—his father. A charming, literate man whose competitors and cohorts were almost exclusively louts, one of the half dozen or so geniuses capable of “keeping the whole equation of pictures in his head” (to quote Fitzgerald), B.P. was also a chronic philanderer (in reaction, Budd developed into an extreme prude, eschewing the phalanx of starlets the father’s position put at the son’s disposal), a caring though neglectful father (a recipe for his son’s tortured ambivalence toward him), a compulsive gambler (then again, all the studio chiefs had to be, to triumph in such a colossally expensive and chancy business), and a man all but pathologically driven to professional suicide. As for Budd’s emotionally remote, culture-vulture mother, Adeline was intensely—even extremely—loyal to her son, as he was to her. But in his consistent stance of wry fondness toward her, there’s little resembling love. In this and many ways, Moving Pictures is a plangent and honest book, rendered all the more affecting by its modulation and detachment.